The German Allies in the American Revolution

IN giving us a translation of Von Eelking’s Die Deutschen Hülfstruppen im Nord - Amerikanischen Befreuingskriege,1 Mr. Rosengarten has rendered good service to historical literature bearing upon the American Revolution. His selection of a subject is apt, and his task has been admirably performed. We now have a narration affording a comprehensive view of a subject which is by no means attractive, but which is exceedingly important.

Not until 1863 did Eelking give his work to the world ; yet down to this period there had been no history of the German allied or subsidiary troops in the British service in America which aimed at giving more than a partial and incomplete view of the subject. A few diaries or journals, the chronicles of a campaign or the history of a contingent, a scrap of paper from some war office, a howl from outraged Whigs on the floor of the House of Commons, with its faltering rejoinder from shamefaced Tories, — such were the scant materials from which one could form a conception of the part performed by the Germans in the British army, and its relations to the tout ensemble of the war. There had been nothing from which a general view could be obtained, and little from which the sentiment or spirit that animated the allies could he derived. The moral force of the alliance lay buried in the diaries and journals which existed in plenty, but which their owners were loath to exhibit. Moreover, it was not until recently that governmental sensitiveness, at last alive to the malodorous traffic in mercenaries, permitted the inspection of records which set forth the naked and offensive truth. Even German investigation, not always nice in the selection of its subjects, shrank from inquiring too closely into things which Klopstock and Lessing had condemned, which provoked Kant into crying aloud his sympathy with the Americans, and which Schiller had stigmatized in his Kabale und Liebe; and the inference is that the subject was so persistently shunned because investigation and publication would not reflect credit upon the German name. The Americans could not reveal the whole truth, and the Germans dared not do so.

In 1863 the silence was broken by the appearance of Eelking’s work, and it attracted attention at once. There was universal desire to see whether or no these mercenaries were as black as the Americans, and even their employers, had painted them. They had been despised by ally and damned by foe so long and to such an extent that the world had grown tired of objurgation; it betrayed signs of reaction, and began to think that it was high time to relax the frown which greeted the name “ Hessians,” and to set about making an apology for these men.

The event, however, does not justify this humane anticipation. With the best intentions in the world to lift the mercenaries upon their feet and to stand them in the most favorable light, Eelking’s charitable efforts are thwarted by the weakness in the knees of the patients, who collapse during the operation. He always puts the best face on a matter, but, this done, he considers his duty to his countrymen completed, and he leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions. Conspicuous illustrations of this characteristic are to be found in the descriptions of the affairs of Trenton and Bennington, and of the march of the prisoners southward. The result of the author’s conscientious painstaking is a readable narrative, and one that inspires such confidence in the writer that we are conscious of few distortions, and are rarely suspicions of suppressions of the truth. There is no question that the historian owes much to the crisp and vigorous English of his translator; nevertheless, he deserves credit for subordinating his zeal to the truth, for a lively sense of historical veracity is the strength of this work.

Eelking has gathered a mass of materials which is creditable to his diligence and capacity for investigation. The nature of the topic forbids great variety of authorities, and the writer upon military subjects cannot be exacting in his demands, but generally must take what comes. In the composition of this work, Eelking has drawn from twenty-three manuscript authorities that were Hessian, eleven that were of Brunswick, and four of Waldeek, Ansbach-Bayreuth, and Anhalt-Zerbst. These are the private sources of information ; the public ones, such as the treaties and official correspondence, being the records of the war and state departments and of the administration offices in the different principalities.

“ The Germans,” says Eelking with simple-minded frankness, “ were used to being sent outside their own country to serve under foreign flags.” And well they might be, for this was the tenth treaty of the kind that Hesse alone had made within three quarters of a century. Recruits for such distant service could be procured by bounties and pay, and twenty dollars and one hundred acres of wild land were the price for which certain Germans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century were willing to sell themselves. The treaty money went to the sovereigns, who appear to have pocketed the whole of it; but it would be unfair to pass over in silence the solitary exception to this selfishness, particularly as it manifests a touching regard for the spiritual welfare of the vassal : “ The Waldeckers received from their prince each a hymn book, in addition to the prayer book given him as part of his regular outfit.”

Those who have deluded themselves with the charitable notion that the men went upon this service reluctantly will be surprised to learn that there were many volunteers, especially in the Hesses, and that the outbreaks which occasionally occurred among the contingents on their way to the ports of embarkation had no reference to any moral objections to their task, but to the fact that the commissariat proved inefficient, or that the performance of the supply contractors fell short of their promises. Nothing equals in repulsiveness the eagerness of the English to buy except the readiness of the Germans to be bought. Neither officers nor men balked at such a trifle as the nature of the business they were on, for we have the word of no less an authority than the adjutant of Donop and Knyphausen that “ no one found fault with our going into the British service for pay ; ” and thus sustained by public sentiment, they went off gayly and with light hearts, indifferent to everything except short commons, close quarters, and raging seas.

Nevertheless, before they left their country, the subsidiary troops were made to feel (if such a thing as sensitiveness were possible with them) the contempt of their fellow-Germans, the Prussians, and that of their neighbors, the Dutch, and upon their arrival in England they were speedily taught their proper place by their faithful friends and allies. These impressed upon the hapless mercenaries the propriety of keeping at a respectful distance, and every infraction of this rule was inexorably punished by the cold shoulder ; moreover, they were fleeced at every step, the very shoes which were issued to them being found, when the packages were opened at sea, where redress was impossible, to be ladies’ shoes. Eelking does not mention this, but the indignant diaries and journals of the sufferers do so. At last, followed by the scorn of their neighbors and accompanied by the contempt of their allies, they were crowded into transports, and were buffeted by the gales of the North Atlantic towards an enemy who made ready to welcome them with something more effective than imprecations, as the very first order they received on landing goes to show. This order enjoined the removal of all silver, gilt, and conspicuous ornaments and trimmings from their uniforms, so as to lessen the risk incurred in attracting the attention of the American riflemen ; an order imbued with salutary prevision, and one which doubtless caused the pious Waldeckers to transfer as speedily as possible their hymn books from knapsack to left breast pocket, to serve as corporeal breastworks, Thus were these awe-inspiring warriors stripped of their feathers and deprived of the consolations of religion at the outset.

It is ludicrous, in the light of events, to look back at the sensation among the Americans which was caused by “ the Hessians; ” for under this name all the six contingents were lumped. The case was a genuine one of omne ignotum promagnifico. Their approach caused consternation, and long before the fleet had reached “ the raging forties ” the mothers of the republic were putting them to use in quelling the rebellions of their nurseries. The dread of these troops arose from an assumption that men of their stamp would give no quarter; a belief illustrated by the refusal of captured Americans to surrender to Germans in the first encounter, which occurred on Long Island. Yet within one hundred days thereafter public opinion had undergone a change, as is shown by the following extract from Corporal Reuber’s diary: “Big and little, young and old, looked at us sharply. The old women cried out that we ought to be hanged for coming to America to rob them of their freedom ; others brought us bread and wine. Washington had ordered our American guard to march us through the whole city, but the mob was so rough and threatening that the commander said, ‘Dear Hessians, we’ll go to the barracks,’ and then drove the mob off,” The explanation of this revulsion of sentiment on the part of our old women is to be found in the affair of Trenton, which had occurred only ten days before, and which was a very inglorious one on the part of the Hessians. Rall, a brave and soldierly man, but a great blusterer, headstrong and unfitted for his position, lay at this place with his brigade, a company of Yägers, or riflemen, a small body of light dragoons, and a battery of six fieldpieces. These forces were divided by the Assanpink, a large stream. The troops were in houses, with their arms piled outside. The guns were parked in the middle of the village, and though the Americans occupied the country on the opposite bank of the Delaware, no outworks were thrown up, the flanks and rear remained unprotected, no reconnaissances were pushed, nor was constant communication with Donop at Bordentown maintained ; and, worst feature of all, the cautions of the old and experienced Von Dechow were brusquely rejected. “ Let them come. What, outworks ! We ’ll meet them with the bayonet. ... I hope that Washington himself will come over, that he may be taken prisoner.” For several days the rumor had run that this was the very thing Washington then had in mind, and the Americans themselves had conveyed a strong hint to that effect by a sharp reconnoitring attack. Yet Rall’s disdain of his enemy remained unruffled, and, in spite of positive information of the American preparations and of reiterated warnings, he weakened his right wing at the Pennington Hills, and thus walked into the pitfall which Washington had dug for him. The disaster so richly merited was complete and irretrievable ; in two hours all was over. Rall paid with his life for his self-will; and well it was that he did so, for Münchhausen, Howe’s adjutant-general, asserted that had he not lost his life, he would have lost his head. The Hessian loss was 963 out of 1361 men and the Yägers. The American loss was two killed, four or five wounded, and two frozen. This frightful disparity tells the story.

If the Hessian fiasco at Trenton was serious, that of the Brunswickers at Bennington was ludicrous. Burgoyne ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Baum to make a hurried march to Bennington, partly to gather supplies, and partly to make a diversion in favor of Colonel St. Leger’s movement on Fort Stanwix by preventing Arnold from reinforcing the garrison. Baum was to seize at least 1300 horses, and the Brunswick dragoons were to go with him on foot, in order to ride back the horses that he was to capture. They were utterly unsuited for the rapid march necessary for success. They were equipped with long, heavy riding-boots with big spurs, thick leathern breeches, heavy gauntlets, a hat with a tall feather, at the side of each a strong sabretasche and a short, heavy carbine, while a big pigtail was an important part of this extraordinary costume. The poor dragoons had already been the laughingstock of the army, and now they were to carry their supplies along with them. Instead of getting 1300 horses they met 1800 men, who were not troubled by the compunctions that paralyzed Macduff’s weapon when he exclaimed,

“ I cannot strike at wretched kerns, whose arras
Are hir’d to bear their staves,”

but who, upon recovering from their astonishment, and regaining the gravity which for a moment had been upset by the apparition of “these warlike men,” set upon the intruders, and made short work with them.

When the surrender of Burgoyne occurred, a few weeks after, the Hessians and those of the Brunswickers that were left were marched off, as prisoners of war, to join their brethren who had preceded them from Trenton, and to be joined, still later, by those captured at Red Bank and other places. Thus, within a year a large part of the subsidiary troops of 1776, north and south of the St. Lawrence, had been united, and were safe and sound in American prisons, or were serving as peaceful hinds upon the farms they were brought over to devastate ; and whatever the illusions which had once lent terror to the Hessian name, these were now dissipated forever in America.

The depleted ranks of the contingents were more or less supplied, yearly, by fresh levies from home. Eelking repeatedly speaks favorably of their discipline, by which he seems to mean merely the submission of the men to their superiors ; and their conduct in pitched battle does not appear to be censurable. They were employed, whenever practicable, in relieving English garrisons, by which substitution better men were enabled to take the field. In looting and bootygathering they were unsurpassed, as Döhla sets forth with great particularity, while in wanton burning of villages they nearly attained the bad eminence of the English ; the burning and plundering of Springfield, New Jersey, being almost as wanton as were the firing and devastation of Kingston, New York. The officers of the two races composing the British army were continually complimenting each other, but rank and file indulged in more emphatic and more direct expression. The Germans, on their side, hated and feared the English, who met these feelings with supreme contempt, and who, when not making the Hessians their laughing - stocks, made them their scapegoats.

Taking the work of Eelking as a faithful reflection of the spirit and sentiment of the subsidiary troops, we cannot but be glad that this contribution to the literature bearing upon the Revolution has been made, and assuredly we are indebted to the author for supplying what was greatly needed, an exposition of the whole subject by which a comprehensive view is obtained, and the relations of this subordinate element to the principal one become certain and defined. Eelking sets at rest, too, any misgivings we may have had respecting the opinion of these mercenaries entertained by our forefathers. It is quite natural that they should have been feared when unknown, and unfeared when known: in the former case they were regarded with the terror which the imagination always bestows upon the invader, and in the latter with the contemptuous indifference which the victor bears toward the vanquished. How many remained in this country after the war is still undetermined. Eelking does not fail to record the instances of those who, rejecting Yankee temptation, rejoined their colors, but he is silent concerning those who bowed in the house of Rimmon. One thing is certain, — that we took the lion’s share of the “ missing.” The influence these men exerted upon the art of war in Europe must not be overlooked : they took back with them, and they impressed upon the Continental armies, the conviction that greater attention should be given henceforth to dispersed formations. The revolution in tactics, stimulated by the invention of the iron ramrod, is going on under the same cause, namely, the improvement of gunnery, and still in the same direction, the dispersion of lines.

The great benefit of the Hessian service in America was that which it bestowed, not upon the art of war or the science of human destruction, but upon humanity at large. It was the conviction among the European peoples that mercenaries are dear at any price, and that, be their effectiveness as soldiers what it may, it is more than counterbalanced by the adverse moral effect of so sordid an alliance. Mercenaries have fallen into disrepute, and civilization has gained thereby, and this base traffic may be said to have got its deathblow upon American soil.

  1. The German Allied Troops in the North American War of Independence, 1776-1783. Translated and Abridged from the German of MAX VON EELKING by J. G. ROSENGARTEN. Albany : Joel Munsell’s Sons. 1893.