The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Hessians of the American Revolution

Washington Irving's headless horseman of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was a Hessian.

Washington Irving’s headless horseman of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was a Hessian.

“Wrongly maligned, the only Hessian monster may be the fictional headless one of Sleepy Hollow.”

The dominant spirit… that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander in chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk, hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. Such is the general purport of his legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known, at all the country firesides by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 1820.

By George Yagi Jr.

SINCE THEIR arrival in the colonies during the American Revolution, the Hessians have endured a sinister reputation, so much so that the writer Washington Irving was able to immortalize them in his timeless classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

To the Americans in 1776, Hessians were among the most hated of all the King’s forces. Even the Declaration of Independence condemned them and their “mercenary” ilk as instruments of “death, desolation and tyranny.”

Hessian troops in the New World.

Hessian troops in the New World.

Upon their appearance in New York, even British general Sir William Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, called them “a dirty, cowardly set of contemptible miscreants.”

The Hessians understood how they were being perceived. One of their own, a lieutenant named Andreas Wiederhold, seemed dismayed.

“[The] Americans had funny ideas about us Hessians, believing that we were not made like other men, that we had a strange language and generally were a raw, wild, and barbaric people,” he wrote.

The Mercenary Myth

Hessian grenadiers as they would have appeared in the American Revolutionary War.

Hessian grenadiers as they would have appeared in the American Revolutionary War.

With such a poor general opinion of them, it is easy to see how Irving would later conceive his story about a vengeful ghost partaking in nightly wanderings in search of his head. In reality, the Hessians were not the monsters which they have been portrayed. They weren’t soldiers of fortune lured by the promise of gold and plunder, and they did not delight in cruel and barbarous treatment. The myth surrounding them is far from the reality.

Upon their arrival in the colonies, Hessians were erroneously labeled as mercenaries. In truth, the troops were auxiliaries hired out by their own prince for service in North America. Even the name “Hessian” is misleading. While some of the nearly 30,000 German troops sent by Britain to the New World were from the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, soldiers also came from Anhalt-Zerbst, Anspach-Bayreuth, Brunswick-Lüneburg, Hesse-Hanau, and Waldeck. History, however, remembers them collectively as Hessians.

The soldiers received no extra payment apart from their regular wages, while their rulers received all the profit, which included for some a ‘blood money’ clause that paid a bonus for each dead soldier. On the value of these transactions, Landgrave William VIII of Hesse-Kassel summarized, “These troops are our Peru.” – a reference to Spain’s treasure-rich South American colony.

A resident of Hesse-Kassel is forcibly conscripted. (Image source: US History Images)

A resident of Hesse-Kassel is forcibly conscripted. (Image source: US History Images)

Unwilling Recruits

While the trade in soldiers was a boon to the state that supplied them, rulers needed to gather sufficient numbers of men for military service. In order to do this, many unscrupulous recruiting practices were commonplace. One unfortunate Hessian, Johann Gottfried Seume, was a student who ran afoul of his superiors at the University of Leipzig. After leaving the college following a disagreement with the faculty he was arrested under false pretenses and taken to the Fortress of Ziegenhain as an inductee.

“No one was safe from the minions of this seller of human souls. Persuasion, cunning, deception, force, everything was justifiable,” he wrote. “No one asked about the means by which this cursed business was carried on. Strangers of all sorts were stopped, imprisoned, then sent off.”

Clearly, many of the Hessians were not soldiers by choice.

Hessian cavalry in America. German auxiliaries are remembered for being ruthless opponents in the War of Independence. (Image source: WikiCommons)

German auxiliaries are remembered for being ruthless opponents in the War of Independence. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In Defence of Hessians

Arguments were also made that the Hessians enjoyed plunder. While looting did occur during the Revolution, the Hessians were no more guilty of it than others. However, soon after arriving in New York in 1776, Lieutenant General Leopold Philip von Heister immediately issued orders instructing his men to respect the private property of the colonials. On learning that his instructions were violated, von Heister had the guilty parties arrested and forced to ‘run the gauntlet’, a form of punishment in which the condemned were lashed by the soldiers of their own company.

Concerning the treatment of American soldiers, the Hessians were far less brutal than they have been portrayed. It’s true that during the early stages of the war, some German auxiliaries showed no mercy to the rebels, yet much of the violence was the result of the troops being told by British officers that they’d receive no quarter from the colonials. However, as the war progressed, the Hessians discovered that such warnings were not the case and soon great care was taken of any surrendering Americans.

Even George Washington noted the humanity of the captors.

“One thing I must remark in favor of the Hessians, and that is, that our people who have been prisoners generally agree that they received much kinder treatment from them, than from British officers and soldiers,” he wrote.

Major Carl Leopold von Baurmeister further added on the situation of the Americans, “They have no complaints about their treatment and even less about lack of food.”  The Continentals returned the favour, and captured Hessians generally enjoyed better accommodations than their British counterparts.

Hessians lay down their arms before the Continental Army at Trenton, N.J. (Image source: HistoryPlace.com)

Rethinking History

The Hessians were not villains, as they have been popularly portrayed. Many were unwilling soldiers who profited little from their services on the battlefield. They were not merciless plunderers obsessed with gold, and they were not a cruel and inhumane enemy. In fact, before the war was over many German auxiliaries saw a future for themselves in the New World — hundreds deserted their colours to become some of the first immigrants of the United States. Wrongly maligned, the only Hessian monster may be the fictional headless one of Sleepy Hollow.

Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His upcoming book explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War. Follow him on Twitter  @gyagi_jr

1 comment for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Hessians of the American Revolution

  1. 4 December, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    What a fantastic article. Thank you!

Leave a Reply