The Hessians

Illuminations: The Hessians

The Hessians were German soldiers who served as auxiliaries to the British Army. The name “Hessian” is derived from the fact that the majority of the German troops came from the states of Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Hanau in Germany (at the time, Germany was not a unified country, but a collection of individual states that shared a language and culture).

Most history books refer to the Hessians as “mercenaries,” but the more correct term for them would be “auxiliaries.” Mercenaries served a foreign government of their own accord, auxiliaries were soldiers hired out to a foreign party by their government, to which they remained in service. Like most auxiliaries, Hessians served with foreign armies as entire units, fighting under their own flags, commanded by their usual officers, and wearing their existing uniforms.

Soldiers were a major export for the German states. For example, by renting its army to the British, Hesse-Cassel took in an amount equal to about thirteen years worth of tax revenue.

When boys turned seven, they were registered for military service, and each year men ages sixteen to thirty had to present themselves for possible induction. Some men were exempted because their occupations were considered vital to the state. But others, such as school dropouts, bankrupts, servants without masters, idlers, and the unemployed, were deemed “expendable people” and were forced into service. Over 5% of the population was in military service at any given time.

Life in the Hessian Army was harsh. The system aimed to instill iron discipline and the punishments could be brutal.

Hiring a foreign army was not an unusual practice for the British in the eighteenth century: twelve-thousand Hessians were hired by King George I of England in 1715 to combat the First Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland. In the midst of the 1744 War of Austrian Succession, 6,000 Hessians were fighting with the British army in Flanders.

Hessian Soldiers

American Revolution
The most significant use of Hessian troops was during the American Revolutionary War. Between 1776 and 1783, England hired an estimated 34,000 Hessian soldiers to fight in its war against the Americans. This represented 25% of the total number of British troops in America.

Why was the British army short of troops? A contributing factor was that the army had stationed 21 regiments in Ireland to guard against an anticipated Irish rebellion. This necessitated the hiring of Hessians to increase the number of troops in America.

Although the Hessians took part in most of the major battles of the Revolution, the best known engagement was the Battle of Trenton, when George Washington’s Continental Army made a surprise attack on the Hessians on December 26, 1776. In the battle, the Hessian force of 1,400 was quickly overwhelmed by the Continentals, with about 20 killed, 100 wounded, and 1,000 captured.

The Americans singled out the Hessians as a particularly merciless and violent enemy. Looting by the Hessians was also a major concern among the Americans. As a result, the Hessians were mentioned among the 27 colonial grievances enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

The grievance said of King George III: “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized nation.”

During the war, Hessian plundering often pushed neutral or indifferent Americans to the Patriot side. Patriots urged Hessian soldiers to throw down their weapons, desert, or switch sides – and many did. After the war, almost six thousand German veterans chose to put down roots, betting their futures on the prospects of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the newly formed United States.

Washington Irving’s fictional story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), includes a celebrated figure known as the “Headless Horseman,” who is “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War.”

The Hessians

The Hessians in Ireland

In 1798, the British rushed 1,000 Hessian forces to Ireland to deal with the suppression of the rebellion inspired by the Society of United Irishmen. Influenced by the American and French revolutions, its members began an armed campaign in 1798 against the British to seek independence for Ireland.

The government troops popularly referred to as ‘Hessians’ with both contempt and dread was Baron Hompesch’s 2nd mounted Battalion of riflemen, that arrived on April 11, 1798, at the port of Cork. In addition, they were later joined by the Jäger (Hunter) 5th Battalion 60th regiment of foot (Royal Americans).

Both Hessian units were specialist light infantry and armed with rifles. In fact, the new units would be the first all-rifle armed battalions in the regular British Army. The rifles were more accurate and deadly than the muzzle loading guns used by the rebels. They were in the action at the battles of Vinegar Hill and Foulksmills.

In 1798, the Hessians were notorious in Ireland for their atrocities and brutality toward the population of Wexford. A Hessian soldier wrote in his diary about the battle of Vinegar Hill, “All men with weapons in their hands scattered across the country were pursued, and those we apprehended were sent back to New-Ross, where a court martial was established at which they were judged without delay and hanged. That day, we killed or took about 700, rounded up by our mounted troops, which terrorized the whole county and made us formidable without further effort.”

While the employment of “mercenary” armies had long been controversial among European rulers, by the late 18th century, public opinion, particularly in England, began to turn against the use of hired troops. The German states steadily lost its biggest customer.

In 1803, the Hessian states were amalgamated with the Holy Roman Empire and eventually fused to the Confederation of the Rhine. The days of the hired Hessians were over.

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J. Michael Finn

J. Michael Finn

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also past Chairman and Life Member of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]


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