According to an old myth, General Washington met light resistance at the Battle of Trenton on the morning of December 26, 1776, because the town's Hessian defenders had been up late the night before celebrating Christmas. The story explains that the Patriots made quick work of the bumbling mercenaries besotted with holiday cheer. But the Hessian troops were hardly the hapless drunks of legend. Rather, they were generally excellent soldiers.
The term "Hessians" refers to the approximately 30,000 German troops hired by the British to help fight during the American Revolution. They were principally drawn from the German state of Hesse-Cassel, although soldiers from other German states also saw action in America. (At the time, Germany was not a unified country but a collection of individual states that shared a language and culture.)
Hiring a foreign army was not unusual in the eighteenth century. For Hesse-Cassel, soldiers were a major export. By renting its army to the British, Hesse-Cassel took in an amount equal to about thirteen years' worth of tax revenue. This allowed the state's prince, the Landgraf Wilhelm II, to keep taxes low and public spending high. A man of the Enlightenment, Wilhelm oversaw public works projects, administered a public welfare system, and encouraged education.
Even so, military needs dominated the country. When boys turned seven they were registered for military service, and each year men ages sixteen to thirty had to present themselves to an official 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 could be forced into service at any time.
Life in the Hessian Army was harsh. The system aimed to instill iron discipline and the punishments could be brutal. Still, morale was generally high. Officers were well-educated, promotion was by merit, and soldiers took pride in serving their prince and their people. Furthermore, military service provided economic benefits. The families of soldiers were exempt from certain taxes, wages were higher than in farm work, and there was the promise of booty (money earned through the sale of captured military property) and plunder (property taken from civilians). Officially plunder was verboten, but officers, who also had a taste for looted goods, often looked the other way.
The penchant for plunder made the Hessians unpopular with Americans. The Declaration of Independence, for example, condemned the king for "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."1 During the war, Hessian plundering often pushed neutral or indifferent Americans to the Patriot side.
In spite of such hostility, some 3,000 Hessians decided they liked the country well enough to make it their new home after the war, and they declined returning to Europe. In America, they lived side by side—and perhaps shared a Christmas drink—with their former foes.
David Head, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor of History
University of Central Florida
1. For the text of the Declaration including the reference to foreign mercenaries, see the National Archives and Records Administration.
Rodney Atwood, The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Charles Ingrao, "'Barbarous Strangers': Hessian State and Society during the American Revolution," The American Historical Review, 87 (1982), 954-976.
"George Washington to William Howe, 13 January 1777." (Regarding Hessian prisoners)
"George Washington to Nathaniel Gorham, President of Congress, 18 August 1776." (On encouraging Hessians to desert the British)