By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
20th [August 1777].
Our landlady had a child, 9 months old, that she was carefully hiding. I was curious to know the reason and asked Captain O’Connell [a captured English speaking Irishman serving with the German general staff] to question the woman as to the cause. I was very much humiliated by my curiosity, however, because the landlady said she had heard the Germans were cannibals, slaughtering children, etc. When we expressed our astonishment about that, she asked whether we had churches in our country and whether we also prayed! Whether we believed that God was our creator and Christ our Savior! She had been reliably assured that we were the Savages of Germany. This had been told to the inhabitants to inculcate hatred against us.
Journal of Surgeon Julius Wasmus, Prinz Ludwig Dragoon Regiment
Captured at Bennington
It would be difficult to find a more maligned group in American History than the German auxiliaries to the British army during the Revolutionary War. They are usually referred to as “mercenaries”, which has a bad savor to most civilized people. The troops from six different principalities have been also lumped together into one amorphous mass referred to as “Hessians”. As can be seen, during the war itself, Rebel American propaganda spread the rumor that these troops ate babies.
Whys should they have gotten such a bum rap?
Prior to the War for Independence, there seems to be little outcry against their employment by the British in various conflicts. German troops were used during the rising of the Highlands in 1745 and in the Seven Years’ War with little criticism of their use. There were objections to the employment of German troops by the British, but it was mostly centered on the expense involved. Some observers noted that using foreign troops was an inferior practice compared to using your own soldiers, an idea that goes back at least as far as Machiavelli’s The Prince. Troops raised in your own country are theoretically more loyal.
Some historians have implied, or outright accused these various princelings of being the real mercenaries. Certainly profit was a major motivation; often to be able to live in a style that aped the greater courts of Europe. For some of these little states, loaning out their troops was a way of rebuilding after the calamities of the Seven years War that came through their neighborhoods with full-tilt-boogie destruction and ruin.
Whatever their monetary motivation, these German princes do not quite fit the role of mercenaries, as they are loaning their troops to those powers with which they are aligned, not to the highest bidder. Charles, Duke of Brunswick, whose troops served at Saratoga, would not be likely to loan his army to Louis of France. Not only being of good Protestant stock, he was also father-in-law to Augusta, George III’s big sister.
It wasn’t as if the British were the only powers making use of German troops. France made use of troops from some of the princedoms whose rulers aligned with the Catholic faith. For example, the Duke of Württemberg had loaned some 6,000 troops during the Seven Years War to the French Crown.
If the practice of hiring out troops was fairly common, why was there such a fuss?
In Britain, there was considerable popular support for the Rebel American cause, at least until France entered the conflict. Many people regarded the folks on the west side of the Atlantic as Fellow Englishmen, driven to extremity by the fumbling of the Parliament and North Ministry. As such, the colonists were entitled to the chimerical “rights of an Englishman” and therefore were family.
The cartoons of the day showed Mother (and occasionally, Father) Britain dealing with unruly children. Generally, the British seemed to feel it was okay to unleash the German auxiliaries on the Jacobite Rebels or the Catholic French, but not against “Fellow Englishmen”.
In America, it appears that no one gave much thought as to whom the British employed, nor against whom they were deployed. That is, until the British dared to use German troops on us. How dare they use them against God’s Chosen People fighting God’s Chosen Cause!
Accordingly the Rebel American propaganda machine swung into high gear. The Declaration of Independence noted: “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.” (And you know that if Thomas Jefferson wrote it and the Continental Congress approved it, well, it all has to be true.)
So the Declaration of Independence set the tone for dealing with these “monsters”. But it is interesting and instructive to note that propaganda of any age often has contradictions to it. Take for example the following passage from The Remembrancer, or Impartial Repository of Public Events for 1777, prior to the American’s alignment with France (published in London 1778):
Extract of a letter from Rotterdam,
March 30, 1777
“Yesterday the prince of Anspach arrived here with a regiment of chasseurs to guard the recruits going to America, and prevent mutiny and desertion. Never was there exhibited in any age or country a more shocking spectacle; the poor wretches were many of them bound hands and feet, and transported in waggons [sic] and carts: but notwithstanding this precaution many of them found means to desert, and others were shot by the chasseurs, in attempting to do it. No words can express the indignation which I felt from the barbarous treatment of these poor peasants (none of them were soldiers) thus torn from every attachment of country, of consanguinity, and of friendship, and sold to suffer and perish by the fatigues, diseases, and dangers of a long voyage, and distant, cruel war. Their Prince too discovered some emotions; but they were from vexation for the loss he was likely to sustain by those of his recruits, who were either deserted or shot before their actual delivery to the purchasers. At length, however, the greatest part of these wretches were embarked: and the prince, like a true father of his people, returned to enjoy the price of their blood.”
If we accept that the German auxiliaries are mercenaries, who by definition are in the conflict for the money, then why are these recruits apparently so reluctant to earn a few thalers? And if these troops are being hired for their hallmark of heartless waging of war, why are being portrayed as such a pitiable lot? (A clue that the event may be propaganda is in the notion of the “Prince”. Not only is Rotterdam is a bit of a schlep from Anspach [over 200 miles] but seeing off a parcel of recruits seems a bit below his exalted station.)
But such is the work of propagandists: they are trying to convince a wide spectrum of mindsets. If they can frighten you with tales of an enemy wanting to dine upon your beloved children, then they will depict them as “Mercenaries” filled with “Cruelty & perfidy”. Should you think such tales are a bit overblown, then the propagandists tug at your heartstrings with tales of “barbarous treatment” of “poor peasants (none of them were soldiers)”. Both diametrically opposed stories are there to make you hate the enemy who employed those troops.
So what was the truth about the German auxiliaries? Were they heinous criminals or victims? With almost 30,000 of them we can safely say that there were instances of both.
The actions of Germans during the New Jersey campaign of 1776 did not win hearts and minds for the cause of the Crown, as the troops looted, despoiled and generally acted in very naughty ways. Owing in part to the language and cultural barriers the Germans probably couldn’t have told or cared about the difference between a rebel, neutral or loyal citizen. (Be it noted that the British regulars were far from paragons of military or civic virtue and joined in the “fun” whole-heartedly.) So we can score one for the criminal column.
On the other hand, as the War was anything but quick, and armies take losses due to enemy action and attrition (died from sickness/accidents, desertion &c.), the princes were under pressure to find troops to fill their contractual obligations. Coercion was certainly not unknown, and probably a good number of the “recruits” would rather have been somewhere else, preferably in some locality mit Bier und hübsche Mädchen. Score one for the victim column.
We could probably waste a great deal of cyber ink going back and forth about the German auxiliaries without coming to a conclusion, but suffice to say that they were that mixture of good and bad, as you’d find in any group of people. As the interpretive theme for Saratoga notes people were here “by choice and chance”, including the hirelings from Germany.