Maass on Baer, 'Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War'
Friederike Baer. Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. viii + 520 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-024963-2.
Reviewed by John R. Maass (National Museum of the United States Army) Published on H-TGS (March, 2023) Commissioned by Alison C. Efford (Marquette University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58172
What type of soldier was the “Hessian” in the American Revolutionary War? Were Hessians mercenaries from 1776 to 1783? Hapless German hirelings sent far from home to fight a war of which they knew very little? Or bloodthirsty, merciless soldiers on the battlefield, who looted and pillaged the local civilians afterwards? Some readers may recall that the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a Hessian, but do they know what that means? Fortunately for students and scholars alike, Professor Friederike Baer of Penn State University, Abington College has written an excellent study of these German-speaking soldiers in what her publisher aptly describes as “the first comprehensive study of the German auxiliary forces from all six territories over the course of the entire war published in more than a century.” Her scope goes beyond the state of Hesse-Kassel to include six German territories in the Holy Roman Empire. Although the subject of German hirelings has to a degree been previously explored, notably by David Hackett Fischer in his 2004 book Washington’s Crossing, Baer’s new study is a superbly written, well-organized look at a class of (to Americans) enemy soldiers that made up a significant part of King George III’s regiments sent to put down the rebellious colonists.
Baer intermingles thematic sections and chapters with an overall account of the Revolutionary War’s chronology of battles and campaigns. Regarding the latter, the author provides a succinct but engaging narrative of the key engagements involving German troops. These soldiers were involved in many of the Revolutionary War’s most important battles and campaigns, such as Saratoga, Long Island, Brandywine, Guilford Courthouse, Pensacola, and Yorktown. And of course, in legend and in fact, General George Washington’s first major victory of the war was at Trenton, where he annihilated a force of Hessians on December 26, 1776—a turning point of the entire conflict. Thousands of Hessian auxiliaries were also deployed as garrison troops at New York and other cities as well.
Baer’s most significant contribution to the war’s historiography is her depiction of the Hessians as common soldiers. At least thirty thousand German troops were used by Britain in America to put down the rebellion. She notes that by the early 1780s more than a third of the British regular army strength in North America consisted of German auxiliaries, hired out by their princes and rulers. The deployment of thousands of German soldiers probably prevented the defeat of the British by the American rebels in the war’s early stages. “In fact, the steady supply of Germans kept the war going for seven more years,” Baer finds (p. 2). Most—but not all—of the German troops came from Hessen. Baer laments that “lumping all German troops together as Hessians reinforces a simplistic and one-dimensional image of what in reality was a complex of diverse group of people” (p. 2).
Baer’s study uses a wide variety of Hessian accounts to make sense of these soldiers’ experiences. “This study utilizes a substantial portion of a rich body of material much of which has not previously been examined in studies of the American Revolutionary War,” she notes, including official records, regimental journals, soldier diaries, and letters from Hessian soldiers to families at home (p. 3). What emerges from the beginning is a portrait of soldiers raised, trained, and transported to a war in America they barely understood, at least among the rankers. The American world was confusing. Many German musketeers and grenadiers did not distinguish between Patriots and Loyalists, and so they plundered both. The blue-coated Hessians often did not understand why the Americans would rebel against the British king when they were so prosperous. Additionally, “the Germans were universally appalled by … slavery” and were shocked at the institution’s prevalence and barbarity (p. 5). It was a world unfamiliar to the European troops.
The author also asks the fundamental question regarding the British hiring of auxiliary battalions in 1776 from central Europe in order to crush the American revolt: Why? It came down to numbers. “Britain believed it did not have enough troops to put down the rebellion,” Baer writes, “while the German states had plenty of soldiers available for hire. The German rulers offered a reliable, well-regarded military force that could be assembled, outfitted, and dispatched to America in a relatively short time” (p. 6). German rulers “rented out their armies in order to fill their coffers, preserve their dynastic interests, and enhance their political power within Europe” (p. 7).
British military leaders had a history of hiring troops prior to the American Revolution. Negotiations with the German states and principalities began in November 1775. While some German rulers were reluctant to send their troops so far away, many princes were eager to cooperate with King George III. The German soldiers were to be raised in their provinces, shipped to America, and remain with their units during service. The British king’s decision to hire troops from Germany in “a war against his own subjects on another continent provoked unprecedented criticism in Britain” (p. 18). Despite protests, the German troops were “needed, the terms under which they had been procured were advantageous, and they would allow Britain to force the colonies into submission quickly” (p. 21).
The author devotes an enlightening chapter to the captivity experiences of the Hessians, particularly those who had surrendered at Yorktown, based on their own descriptions. These peripatetic troops were sent to several prisoner of war camps in Virginia and Maryland. Many of them worked for local employers while awaiting their release and voyage home. This common practice led to some desertions from the camps, especially those near German-speaking areas such as the lower Shenandoah Valley. Also, American military recruiters targeted German soldiers for service in Continental Army units starting in 1782. This was largely unsuccessful because of penalties levied on the soldiers and also their families back in Europe. The author points out that while many German captives stayed behind in America once hostilities ended, “the vast majority returned to Germany in the summer and fall of 1783” (p. 370). By then about seventeen thousand Hessians had already returned to their homes over the course of the war.
Professor Baer has written a lucid and engaging history of the Hessians’ experience in a war far from their native lands, using a remarkable number of primary sources in German to do so. Only the unusually hefty price tag for the book will limit its impact in several historical fields.
Citation: John R. Maass. Review of Baer, Friederike, Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58172This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.