Hessian (soldier)

Two Hessian soldiers of the Leibregiment
Country Hesse-Cassel Hesse-Hanau
Part of Attached to but not incorporated into the British Army

American Revolutionary War

Wilhelm von Knyphausen
Johann Rall 

Hessians (US: /ˈhɛʃənz/ or UK: /ˈhɛsiənz/[1]) were German soldiers who served as auxiliaries to the British Army during the American Revolutionary War.[2] They took their name from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, which were in the habit of hiring out their professional armies for profit to larger countries. Hessians were contracted by Great Britain and others in several 18th century European wars, but they are most widely associated with the American Revolution.

About 30,000 German soldiers fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War, making up a quarter of the troops the British sent to America.[3] They entered the British service as entire units, fighting under their own German flags, commanded by their usual officers, and wearing their existing uniforms. Because 65% of the German troops came from Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, Americans use the term Hessians to refer to all German troops fighting on the British side, a form of synecdoche. The remainder were leased from other small German states.

The use of German troops to suppress a rebellion in the British colonies angered the American patriots. One of the grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was "transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries".


The small German states of the Holy Roman Empire had professional armies, which their ruling princes sometimes hired out for service with other armies as auxiliaries. When military conflict broke out, the German states provided a ready supply of trained troops that was prepared to go into action immediately. Hesse-Kassel was particularly prominent in this role:

Between 1706 and 1707, 10,000 Hessians served as a corps in Eugene of Savoy's army in Italy before moving to the Spanish Netherlands in 1708. In 1714, 6,000 Hessians were rented to Sweden for its war with Russia whilst 12,000 Hessians were hired by George I of Great Britain in 1715 to combat the Jacobite Rebellion. ... In the midst of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, 6,000 Hessians were fighting with the British army in Flanders whilst another 6,000 were in the Bavarian army. By 1762, 24,000 Hessians were serving with Ferdinand of Brunswick's army in Germany.

John Childs, Rethinking Leviathan[4]

In most of these wars, Hesse-Kassel never became a belligerent by declaring war on any other country. The troops were hired out for service in other armies, and Hesse-Kassel itself had no stake in the outcome of the war. Thus, it was possible for Hessians to serve with the British and Bavarian armies in the War of the Austrian Succession, even though Britain and Bavaria were on opposite sides of the war.

In the Seven Years' War, the forces of Hesse-Kassel served with both the Anglo-Hanoverian and the Prussian armies against the French; although Hesse-Kassel was technically allied to Britain and Prussia, however her troops were actually leased by the British.[5] In July 1758, the city of Kassel and most of the principality was occupied by a French army under Charles, Prince of Soubise, easily overcoming the home defence force of 6,000 Hessian militia. Soubise ordered his troops to live off the land while taking high-ranking hostages and extorting payments of cash and produce; the intention being to force the withdrawal of Hessian troops from the war. However, Hessian forces together with their allies attempted to liberate their homeland but were repulsed at the Battle of Sanderhausen on 23 July. They later participated in the first Siege of Cassel in 1761 and the second Siege of Cassel in 1762 which was finally surrendered by the French that November, the last action of the whole war.[6]

To field a large professional army with a relatively small population, Hesse-Kassel became the most militarized state in Europe. The country maintained 5.2% to 6.7% of its population under arms in the 18th century, a larger proportion than even heavily-militarized Prussia.[7][8] One in four households had someone serving in the army. Hesse-Kassel manufactured its own weapons and uniforms. Its textile industry was so prosperous that workers could afford to buy meat and wine every day. Subsidy payments from Great Britain were used to build public works and buildings, and taxes were reduced by one-third from the early 1760s to 1784.[8][9] In 1884, the American historian Edward Jackson Lowell lauded the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel for spending the British money wisely, describing him as "one of the least disreputable of the princes who sent mercenaries to America."[10]

The characterization of Hessian troops as "mercenaries" remains controversial over two centuries later. American history textbooks refer to the Hessians as "mercenaries."[11] American historian Charles Ingrao said that the local prince had turned Hesse into a "mercenary state" by renting out his regiments to fund his government.[12] However, British historian Stephen Conway called them "Britannia's auxiliaries."[13] Canadian military historian Rodney Atwood explained that jurists of the time drew a distinction between auxiliaries and mercenaries. Auxiliaries served their prince and were sent to the aid of another prince, while mercenaries served a foreign prince as individuals.[2]

American Revolutionary War

German auxiliaries

Great Britain maintained a relatively small standing army, so it found itself in great need of troops at the outset of the American Revolutionary War. Several German princes saw an opportunity to earn some extra income by hiring out their regular army units for service in America. They entered the British service not as individuals but in entire units, with their usual uniforms, flags, equipment, and officers. Many of the princes were closely related to the House of Hanover and were comfortable placing their troops under British command. For example, the Landgraves of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau were George III's brother-in-law and nephew, respectively.

A total of 29,875 German troops fought alongside British troops in the American Revolution, of which 16,992 came from Hesse-Kassel and 2,422 from Hesse-Hanau.[10] Since the majority of the German troops came from Hesse, Americans use the term Hessians to refer to all German troops fighting on the British side,[2][11] a form of synecdoche.

Service in America

Hessian troops included jägers, hussars, three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers. Most of the infantry were chasseurs (sharpshooters), musketeers, and fusiliers. Line infantry was armed with muskets, while the Hessian artillery used the three-pounder cannon. The elite Jäger battalions used the büchse, a short, large-caliber rifle well-suited to woodland combat. Initially, the average regiment was made up of 500 to 600 men. Later in the war, the regiments had only 300 to 400 men.

The first Hessian troops to arrive in North America landed at Staten Island in New York on August 15, 1776. Their first engagement was in the Battle of Long Island. The Hessians fought in almost every battle, although after 1777, the British used them mainly as garrison and patrol troops. An assortment of Hessians fought in the battles and campaigns in the southern states during 1778–80 (including Guilford Courthouse), and two regiments fought at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.

Americans, both Rebel and Tory, often feared the Hessians, believing them to be rapacious and brutal mercenaries. Meanwhile, Hessian diaries frequently express disapproval of the British troops' conduct towards the colonists, including the destruction of property and the occasional execution of prisoners, the latter being doubly upsetting when American Germans were among them.[14]

The British common soldiers, in a similar fashion to the Americans, distrusted the primarily German-speaking Hessians and hence, despite their strong military performance, often treated them with contempt.

The chaplain then recounts the case of a Jaeger subaltern who was assailed "by an Englishman in his cups" with the declaration: "God damn you, Frenchy, you take our pay!" The outraged Hessian replied: "I am a German and you are a shit." This was followed by an impromptu duel with hangers, in which the Englishman received a fatal wound. The chaplain records that General Howe pardoned the Jaeger officer and issued an order that "the English should treat the Germans as brothers." This order began to have influence only when "our Germans, teachable as they are" had learned to "stammer a little English." Apparently, this was a prerequisite for the English to show them any affection.[15]

Hessian captives

General George Washington's Continental Army had crossed the Delaware River to make a surprise attack on the Hessians on the early morning of December 26, 1776. In the Battle of Trenton, the Hessian force of 1,400 was wiped out by the Continentals, with about 20 killed, 100 wounded, and 1,000 captured.[16]

The Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to raise American morale; anger at their presence helped the Continental Army recruit new soldiers.[17] Most of the prisoners were sent to work as farm hands.[18]

By early 1778, negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Washington and the British had begun in earnest.[19] Nicholas Bahner(t), Jacob Strobe, George Geisler, and Conrad Grein (Konrad Krain)[20] are a few of the Hessian soldiers who deserted the British forces after being returned in exchange for American prisoners of war.[21] These men were hunted by the British for being deserters as well as by many of the colonists as a foreign enemy.

Americans tried to entice Hessians to desert from the British and join the already large German-American population. The US Congress authorized the offer of 50 acres (approximately 20 hectares) of land to individual Hessian soldiers to encourage them to desert the group. British soldiers were offered 50 to 800 acres, depending on rank.[22]

War propaganda

In August 1777, a satirical letter, "The Sale of the Hessians", was widely distributed. It claimed that a Hessian commander wanted more of his soldiers dead so that he could be better compensated. In 1874, John Bigelow translated it to English (from a French version) and claimed that Benjamin Franklin wrote it, including it in his biography, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, published that year. There appears to be no evidence to support this claim.[23]

Lancaster POW experience

Many Hessian prisoners were held in camps at the interior city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lancaster was a center for the Pennsylvania Dutch, who treated the German prisoners well. The Hessians responded favorably; some volunteered for extra work assignments, helping to replace local men serving in the Continental Army. After the war, many POWs never returned to Germany and instead accepted American offers of religious freedom and free land, becoming permanent settlers. By contrast, British prisoners were also held in Lancaster, but these men did not respond favorably to good treatment – they tried to escape.[24]

Nova Scotia theatre

The Hessians served in Nova Scotia for five years (1778–1783). They protected the colony from American privateers, such as when they responded to the Raid on Lunenburg (1782). They were led by Baron Oberst Franz Carl Erdmann von Seitz.[25]

Conclusion of the war

About 30,000 Germans served in the Americas, and, after the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 returned to their German homelands. Of the 12,526 who did not return, about 7,700 had died. Some 1,200 were killed in action, and 6,354 died from illness or accidents, mostly the former.[26] Approximately 5,000 German troops settled in North America, either the United States or Canada. Four thousand five hundred of them, mainly press-ganged, settled in United States.

Commanding officers


  • Hesse-Cassel Jäger Corps (Hessisches Jägercorps zu Pferd und zu Fuß)
  • Fusilier Regiment von Ditfurth (Füsilier-Regiment "von Ditfurth")
  • Fusilier Regiment Erbprinz, later (1780) Musketeer Regiment Erbprinz (Füsilier-Regiment "Erbprinz"; Infanterie-Regiment "Erbprinz")
  • Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen (Füsilier-Regiment "von Knyphausen")
  • Fusilier Regiment von Lossberg (Füsilier-Regiment "von Lossberg")
  • Grenadier Regiment von Rall, later (1777) von Woellwarth; (1779) von Trümbach; (1781) d'Angelelli (Grenadier-Regiment "von Rall"; "von Woellwarth"; "von Trümbach"; "d'Angelelli")
    • 1st Battalion Grenadiers von Linsing
    • 2nd Battalion Grenadiers von Block (later von Lengerke)
    • 3rd Battalion Grenadiers von Minnigerode (later von Löwenstein)
    • 4th Battalion Grenadiers von Köhler (later von Graf; von Platte)
  • Garrison Regiment von Bünau (Garrisons-Regiment)
  • Garrison Regiment von Huyn (later von Benning)
  • Garrison Regiment von Stein (later von Seitz; von Porbeck)
  • Garrison Regiment von Wissenbach (later von Knoblauch)
  • Leib Infantry Regiment (Leib-Infanterie-Regiment)
  • Musketeer Regiment von Donop
  • Musketeer Regiment von Trümbach (later von Bose (1779))
  • Musketeer Regiment von Mirbach (later Jung von Lossburg (1780))
  • Musketeer Regiment Prinz Carl
  • Musketeer Regiment von Wutgenau (later Landgraf (1777))
  • Hesse-Cassel Artillery corps (Artillerie-Korps)


  1. Jones, Daniel (2011). "hessian". In Roach, Peter; Setter, Jane; Esling, John. Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-052-115255-6.
  2. 1 2 3 Atwood, Rodney (1980). The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Alan Axelrod (9 January 2014). Mercenaries: A Guide to Private Armies and Private Military Companies. SAGE Publications. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-4833-4030-2.
  4. Brewer, John; Hellmuth, Eckhart, eds. (1999). Rethinking Leviathan: The Eighteenth-Century State in Britain and Germany (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199201891.
  5. Reid, Stuart (2010). Frederick the Great’s Allies 1756–63. Osprey Publishing. p. 5. ISBN 978-1849081771. Next in importance came the armies of Hesse-Kassel (not to be confused with Hesse-Darmstadt) and Brunswick, which were not allied contingents in a political sense, but were directly leased by the British government.
  6. Szabo, Franz A.J. The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756–1763. Pearson Education Limited. p. 180. ISBN 978-0582292727.
  7. Black, Jeremy (1994). European Warfare, 1660-1815. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-13536955-2. Whereas in the mid-eighteenth century, Austria and Russia had between approximately 1.1 per cent and 1.5 per cent of their population in the army, the percentage for Prussia for 4.2. ... In 1730, a year of peace but also of war preparations, Hesse-Cassel had 1 in 19 of the population under arms.
  8. 1 2 Showalter, Dennis (5 September 2007). "Hessians: The Best Armies Money Could Buy". HistoryNet. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  9. Showalter, Dennis; Astore, William J. (2007). The Early Modern World. Soldiers' Lives Through History. 3 (1 ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-33312-5.
  10. 1 2 Lowell, Edward J. (1884). The Hessians and the other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. New York: Harper.
  11. 1 2 Kennedy, David M. (2012). The American Pageant. Cengage Learning. p. 147. Because most of these soldiers-for-hire came from the Germany principality of Hesse, the Americans called all the European mercenaries Hessians.
  12. Charles W. Ingrao, The Hessian mercenary state: ideas, institutions, and reform under Frederick II, 1760–1785 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  13. Conway, Stephen (2017). Britannia's Auxiliaries: Continental Europeans and the British Empire, 1740-1800. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192536136.
  14. Steven Schwamenfeld. "The Foundation of British Strength: National Identity and the Common British Soldier." Ph.D. diss., Florida State University 2007, p. 123-124
  15. Schwamenfeld 2007, p. 123
  16. "Battle of Trenton", British Battles.com, accessed 13 Feb 2010
  17. Johannes Schwalm the Hessian, p. 21
  18. Rodney Atwood (2002). The Hessians. Cambridge University Press. p. 199. ISBN 9780521526371.
  19. Herbert M. Bahner and Mark A. Schwalm, "Johann Nicholas Bahner – From Reichenbach, Hessen To Pillow, Pennsylvania", Journal of the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, Inc. Vol. 3, No. 3, 1987
  20. http://silvie.tripod.com/HesKrain.html
  21. [Journal of Johannes Schwalm Historical Assoc., Inc Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 2]
  22. R. Douglas Hurt (2002) American Agriculture: A Brief History, p. 80
  23. Everett C. Wilkie, Jr., "Franklin and 'The Sale of the Hessians': The Growth of a Myth", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 127, No. 3 (Jun. 16, 1983), pp. 202–212
  24. Ken Miller, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence (Cornell Univ. Press, 2014) online review
  25. "Col Franz Carl Seitz (1719 - 1782) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 2016-09-16.
  26. "Revolutionary War – The Hessian involvement". MadMikesAmerica. Retrieved 2012-10-29.
  27. Colonel of the Hesse Cassel Garrison Regiment Von Seitz – see Hessian (soldiers). The Baron fought in the American Revolution, particularly on 16 November 1776, he captured Fort Washington; 1776–1778, Garrisoned New York; 1778–1783, Garrisoned Halifax. See "The Hessians of Nova Scotia" by John H Merz and Winthrop P. Bell entitled, "A Hessian conscript's account of life in garrison at Halifax at the time of the American Revolution". Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Volume 27, 1947


  • Atwood, Rodney. The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1980), the standard scholarly history
  • Crytzer, Brady J. Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America (2015). excerpt
  • Faust, Albert B. (1909). The German Element in the United States. I. Boston: Houghton & Mifflin. pp. 349–356.
  • Fischer, David Hackett (2004). Washington's Crossing. Oxford university Press. p. 517.
  • Ingrao, Charles. "'Barbarous Strangers': Hessian State and Society during the American Revolution", American Historical Review (1982) 87#4 pp. 954–976 in JSTOR
  • Ingrao, Charles W. The Hessian mercenary state: ideas, institutions, and reform under Frederick II, 1760–1785 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Krebs, Daniel. "Useful Enemies: The Treatment of German Prisoners of War during the American War of Independence," Journal of Military History (2013), 77#1 pp 9–39.
  • Lowell, Edward J. (1884). The Hessians. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  • Mauch, Christof. ""Images Of America--Political Myths-- Historiography: 'Hessians' in the War of Independence", Amerikastudien (2003) 48#3 pp 411–423
  • Mellick, Jr., Andrew D. (1889). "Chapter XXV: The Hessians in New Jersey". The Story of an Old Farm. Somerville, New Jersey: The Unionist-Gazette. pp. 352–370.
  • Miller, Ken, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence (Cornell Univ. Press, 2014) online review
  • Rogers, Alec D. "The Hessians: Journal Of The Johannes Schwalm Historical Association" Journal of the American Revolution (2018) Online

Primary sources

  • Winthrop P. Bell, ed. "A Hessian conscript's account of life in garrison at Halifax at the time of the American Revolution". Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Volume 27, 1947
  • Johann Conrad Döhla. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution (1993)
  • Ewald, Johann (1979). Tustin, Joseph P., ed. Diary of the American War: a Hessian Journal. Yale University Press.
  • Valentine C. Hubbs, ed. Hessian journals: unpublished documents of the American Revolution (Camden House, 1981), translation of the Von Jungkenn manuscripts.
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