The Revolutionary Beginnings of the Headless Horseman

October of 1776 was a scary time during the Revolutionary War.  George Washington’s army had suffered major defeats in August and lost the city of New York to the British Army.  By October many of Washington’s men had fallen back towards White Plains, New York where they prepared to defend themselves.  Morale was plummeting among the Continental Army and it seemed the Americans would lose the entire war before the end of the year.

This painting portrays the Headless Horseman, a decapitated Hessian trooper, chasing Ichabod Crane, a scene from Washington Irving's short story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

This painting, by John Quidor (1858), portrays the Headless Horseman, a decapitated Hessian trooper, chasing Ichabod Crane, a scene from Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

It was around this time that some believe the story of the Headless Horseman had its origins.  The Headless Horseman is a legendary ghost who first made his appearance in Washington Irving’s classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which was originally published in 1820.  The story is set in the early years of the republic in a small town on the Hudson River.

While this is a fictional story, it has some basis in fact.  The village of Sleepy Hollow is a real place in Westchester County in New York, less than ten miles from White Plains, New York.  The ghost known as the Headless Horseman that haunted this village is referred to by Irving in the story as “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War.”

This is the cemetery around the Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, NY where the grave of the Headless Horseman was supposedly buried.

This is the cemetery around the Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, NY where the grave of the Headless Horseman was supposedly located. (Author’s photo)

A Hessian soldier made a natural choice for this fearsome ghost.  Hessians were greatly feared by Americans during the Revolutionary War.  These German soldiers were sent by the thousands to America to reinforce the British.  Hessians got their name as many of these soldiers were from Hesse-Kassel in Germany.  These foreign speaking mercenaries were viewed as bloodthirsty killers and easily vilified.  They were renowned as fearsome fighters and there were stories that they showed no quarter to retreating American troops at the Battle of Long Island, including nailing American riflemen to trees with their bayonets.  However, some of these Hessian soldiers were probably misunderstood.  Many of them had been pressed into service and were forced to fight for their princes.  Many Hessians even preferred life in America and thousands decided to desert and settle in America at the end of the war rather than return to Germany.

Hessian soldiers as they would have appeared in 1776.

Hessian soldiers as they would have appeared in 1776.

The Hessian that provided the inspiration for the Headless Horseman may have been killed during the Battle of White Plains on October 28, 1776.  Washington Irving even mentions this particular battle in his tale when he recounts a small anecdote of an “old gentleman . . .  who, in the battle of Whiteplains, being an excellent master of defence, parried a musket ball with a small sword.”  During this battle Hessian troops played a large role.

Some of these Hessian troops, commanded by Colonel Johann Rall, led a flanking assault on the American troops and pushed the entire American force back.  More than 400 British, Hessian, and American soldiers were dead or wounded at the end of the day and although the Americans fought bravely, Hessian and British troops commanded the battlefield.

white_plains_battle_plans

This 18th century map of the Battle of White Plains shows the disposition of British and American troops. On the British left flank you can make out “Col. Rall” and his Hessians.  On the left side of the map you see the North River (Hudson River) and can see Terry Town (modern day Tarrytown). Sleepy Hollow is located just north of this town.

Perhaps the ghost of the Headless Horseman was the spirit of one of the many Hessian soldiers killed during the Battle of White Plains.  Another possibility is one of the Hessians killed in the skirmishing that occurred in the days that followed.  Major General William Heath of the American army remembered a particular skirmish that occurred a few days later on November 1, 1776 when “a shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artilleryman. They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field.”

The grave of Washington Irving, most famous for his stories about Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, he was actually very much fascinated with the Revolutionary War and later wrote a large historic biography of George Washington. (Author's photo)

The grave of Washington Irving who became famous for his stories about Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.  Irving was actually very interested in Revolutionary War history and later wrote a large historic biography of George Washington. (Author’s photo)

Regardless of the true origins of this ghost, the Hessians’ victory at White Plains was short lived.  Colonel Rall and his brigade of Hessians would be surprised and captured by George Washington’s men at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, which would prove to be a major turning point in the Revolutionary War.

Christopher Walken famously played the Hessian who became the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow movie. In this retelling of the tale, the Hessian was killed in a skirmish in the winter of 1779.

Christopher Walken famously played the Hessian who became the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow movie. In this retelling of the tale, the Hessian was killed in a skirmish in the winter of 1779.  Although there is no historical evidence that supports his fanciful outfit, weaponry or filed down teeth.

While the Battle of White Plains has been all but forgotten, the story of the Headless Horseman has become a touchstone which still connects us with this battle and the Revolutionary War in general.  And just like we like to find where these battles took place and walk the hallowed ground, so too does the Headless Horseman.  Irving writes that while the body of the Hessian lies “buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head.”  I urge you to follow in his footsteps and check out Battle Hill Park next time you are in White Plains, New York and the historic environs of Sleepy Hollow nearby.

One of the many historic sites in Sleepy Hollow you can visit still today. (Author's photo)

One of the many historic sites in Sleepy Hollow you can visit still today. (Author’s photo)

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2 Responses to The Revolutionary Beginnings of the Headless Horseman

  1. Interesting connections and an anther example of 19 Century writers creating Revolutionary legends and myths. Although the German mercenaries were highly competent fighters, after Trenton they were less feared. In addition to Trenton, large numbers were clotures at the battles of Bennington, Saratoga and Yorktown.

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  2. Pingback: History Links! Get Yer History Links Here! – Hoxsie!

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