“Although the Hessians are probably best remembered for their role in the American Revolution, they had actually been fighting in wars for the better part of a century.”
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S LEGENDARY Dec. 26, 1776 surprise attack on enemy troops lodged at Trenton, New Jersey came as a welcome Christmas gift to the 13 rebellious American colonies.
While the storied pre-dawn raid by 2,400 Continental troops represented a major reversal in a war that had up until that moment been going badly for the Patriots, the triumph was especially sweet because of the loathsome adversary that was defeated that morning – the Hessians.
Although the colonists had little love for the British redcoats they fought, they reserved their most bitter enmity for King George’s German “mercenaries”.
Britain sent more than 30,000 of the soldiers-for-hire to help suppress the rebellion. These contract troops eventually represented about a third of all of the Crown’s forces fighting in America and earned themselves a reputation for tenacity and ruthlessness on the battlefield.
And although the Hessians are probably best remembered for their infamous role in the American Revolution, they had actually been fighting in wars (other people’s wars that is) for the better part of a century and would continue to do so even after fighting in 13 rebellious colonies. Here are the highlights:
- Unlike typical mercenaries, Hessian soldiers and their officers were not actually in business for themselves. They were regular troops in the service of the tiny Germanic principality of Hesse-Kassel. As far back as the 17th Century, the small impoverished European state had been renting out whole companies of its soldiers to other monarchs in Europe in exchange for payment.
- One of the Hessians’ first contracts was with Venice in 1687. The landgrave or ruler of Hesse-Kassel, Charles I, furnished 1,000 of his soldiers to the Mediterranean power for about 50 silver pieces a head. The Venetians threw their Hessians into battle (along with other mercenary armies) against the Ottomans. While less than a fifth returned, their performance earned them a reputation for bravery. Soon other powers were hiring Hessians. The Dutch, Danish, Swedes and Austrians paid handsomely to have Hessians fight such foes as Spain, France, Russia and others. Hessians took part in the Scanian War, the War of Spanish Succession, and the War of Austrian Succession to name a few. They quickly gained notoriety for discipline, ferocity and steadiness under fire.
- During the 18th Century, Hesse-Kassel’s primary industry became military contracting. Eventually, all adult males not otherwise gainfully employed were pressed into service and rigorously trained for foreign wars. Conscripts typically served for more than 20 years. By mid-century, Hesse-Kassel had evolved into the most militarized society in all of Europe. Out of a total population of just over 350,000, more than 24,000 (about 7 percent) were in uniform. And under the direction of successive landgraves, even the region’s small industrial base was retooled to produce arms and equipment for its disproportionately large professional army.
- In 1715, England’s King George I hired 12,000 Hessians when war broke out with the Scots and French. It would be the start of a long and profitable relationship for Hesse-Kassel. By the 1720s, Britain was doling out the princely sum of £125,000 yearly to Hesse-Kassel, simply to keep 12,000 Hessian troops on standby. By the end of the decade, that figure had doubled to £250,000 a year.
- In both the 1740s and 1750s, Britain deployed Hessians when French invasions threatened its shores. Later, during the Seven Years War, the crown would draw on more than 24,000 Hessians. In fact England hired more Of the German troops than it had soldiers in its own army.
- When Britain went to war with its American colonies in 1775, the invading army brought along the trusty Hessians. To the rebels, they became the most hated of all the king’s forces. And even though Britain paid for more than 10,000 soldiers from other German states like Brunswick, Bavaria and Waldeck, the Patriots made no distinction between them — they were all considered Hessians.
- While the enduring image of the Hessian in the American Revolution is of the towering grenadier with the tall pointed cap known as a mitre, Hesse-Kassel furnished the British with regular line infantry, mounted hussars, artillery and even rangers or Jägers. These units fought in most major actions of the war from the Battle of Long Island in 1776 to the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
- The America Declaration of Independence itself references the Hessians (and their ilk) among the litany of “repeated injuries and usurpations” that prompted the colonies to announce their split with the mother country. “The present King of Great Britain … is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny,” wrote the document’s authors, describing the practice as something “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.”
- Despite their disdain of the Hessian soldier, the Continentals put a great deal of effort into luring individual German conscripts away from their units and the British cause with promises of money and land. Nearly 5,000 Hessians and other hired troops took up the offer and remained in America after war to settle.
- While the employment of “mercenary” armies had long been controversial among European rulers, by the late 18th Century, public opinion, particularly in Great Britain, began to turn against the use of hired troops. While Britain would field 12,000 Hessians in its war with France in 1793, and another 1,000 in its bloody campaign in Ireland in 1798, Hesse-Kassel was steadily losing its biggest customer. In 1803, the principality was amalgamated with the Holy Roman Empire and eventually fused to the Confederation of the Rhine. The days of the hired Hessians were over.