When I was in elementary school, my father who worked for the Department of Defense was tasked with a job in Wiesbaden, Germany. Located in the central part of the country, the town was located in the German province of Hesse. Never thought much of the connection between this province and the founding of the country whose government my father was actively employed with at the time. To cut myself some slack I was nine years old when we moved to Deutschland.
Fast-forward to graduate school and my studies focused on the social and military world of the Maryland Line and the American Revolutionary War in general. One does not have to do too much research to find “Hessian” in a publication about battles and campaigns from the conflict. Furthermore, one always hears a line similar to the following…
“Although known generally as Hessians, soldiers under this label actually hailed from multiple German principalities”
“Grouped together as ‘Hessians’ the mercenaries hailed from other German states besides Hesse-Kassel”
To be honest, never thought more of it, then a trip in December to Mount Vernon where a display in their museum showing the various German states brought the idea back to the forefront where the question lingered. With a few other projects, interruptions that 2020 brought, and my curiosity was subdued for the last nine months.
Until the term “Hessians” popped up again, fortunately, on a weekend, when I had time to go down the proverbial research rabbit hole.
Approximately 34,000 German soldiers were hired by King George III to augment the British army in their subduing of the rebellious colonies. Numbers range from 12,000 on the low-end to 18,000 on the high-end of that number consisting of soldiers from the Landgraviate (or Principality) of Hesse-Kassel. Chief among the reasons that this principality furnished 35% to 53% of the total soldiery could be attributed to the fact that Frederick II, ruler of Hesse-Kassel was an uncle to the British monarch. Secondly, 7% of the adult male population this small principality was already under arms and was ready for deployment; being well-supplied and equipped for foreign service.
Sharing a name with the larger landgraviate, was Hesse-Hanau, a semi-autonomous principality that did not wait for the British government to come calling for troops. After news reached the German state of the bloody engagement at Bunker Hill, the rule of Hesse-Hanau Landgrave William offered King George III a regiment of infantry. Volunteers also flocked to the chance of service in America, with many relocating permanently at the end of hostilities, rather than returning. Numbers from Hanau list 2,422 men who served the British in the American Revolution.
Continuing the familial connection, Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, with King George III’s sister, Augusta married to the heir of Duke Charles I, the use of soldiers from this German principality was another guarantee. As early as 1775, the duke sent an offer of troops to King George III and 4,000 sons of Wolfenbuttel would cross the Atlantic.
In a controversial clause, the British government agreed to pay a certain fee for every soldier of Duke Charles’s killed in battle, with three wounded Wolfenbuttel soldiers equaling one killed. In return, King George III and his forces would be repaid for any soldier that deserted or fell ill outside what was listed as an “uncommon malady.”
When he heard news of this stipulation, Frederick the Great of Prussia, supposedly snickered that “cattle tax” on all the soldiers passing through Prussia en-route to British service “because though human beings they had been sold as beasts.”
Ansbach-Bayreuth under Margrave Charles Alexander, deeply in debt, gave the British cause 2,361 soldiers to subdue the rebellion in North America to help rescue his finances. This proved unsuccessful in the long run as he would eventually sell his dual margraviates to Prussia in 1791 and life off the sale in England.
Waldeck, under Prince Frederich Karl August had three standing regiments ready for foreign service as part of their governing structure. One of these regiments helped in the defense of Pensacola, along with companies being stationed in Mobile and Baton Rouge, probably the move diverse, geographically, of any of the German regiments in the American war. Waldeckers, numbering 1,225, served in the various theaters of the American Revolution.
Five battalions from Hanover, the ancestral lands of King George III’s family saw service in Minorca and Gibraltar which freed British troops in those duty stations for service in North America.
Anhalt-Zerbst, in 1777, agreed to send 1,160 men to buttress British forces in North America, including garrisoning New York City in 1780.
From Saratoga to Yorktown, from Quebec to New York City, these German mercenaries aided the cause of the British, providing much-needed manpower in an attempt to recover the rebellious American colonies. However, the cause of freedom from King George III that prompted the rebellion resonated with thousands of these German soldiers, who decided to stay after the war or after exchange when captured, or walked away in service. In fact, slightly over 50%, around 17,300 actually returned to their German home principalities upon the conclusion of the war in 1783.
An introduction to another aspect of how the American Revolution had far reaching international complications and commitments.