Riedesel, Frederika von
Frederika von Riedesel
Born July 11, 1746
Died March 29, 1808
Baroness, camp follower
"I was an eyewitness of the whole affair [the Battle of Saratoga]…. I knew my husband was in the midst of it…. I shivered at every shot."
Frederika von Riedesel was a German noblewoman who spent six years living in America during the time of the Revolutionary War (1775–83). She saw battles, was taken prisoner, nursed her children through illnesses, and maintained a brave and optimistic outlook. A book comprising the letters she wrote during that time offers a vivid picture of that eventful period in American history.
Frederika Charlotte Luisa von Massow (later von Riedesel) was born into a wealthy German family in 1746. The baroness, as she was most often referred to in adulthood, was the daughter of Count Massow, head of an army formed by the German King Frederick William II (1744–1797).
Count Massow had his family come and live with him near the various battle sites where he was posted. During times of peace the family lived in their permanent home. As the von Riedesel daughters grew up, they became beauties, and young soldiers were drawn to their home.
In 1762, at age seventeen, "Fritschen," as young Frederika was nicknamed, married twenty-one-year-old Friederich Adolphus von Riedesel (pronounced REE-day-zel), a young captain in the German cavalry (a unit of soldiers on horseback). Their wedding was a fancy affair attended by many members of the nobility. By the time of the birth of their first child in 1766, the couple owned their own home in Berlin. They experienced great sorrow, though, when both of their first two children died in infancy.
Husband sent to fight American colonists
By the age of thirty-seven, Captain von Riedesel was an army officer in service to the Duke of Brunswick and lived with his growing family in a fine home in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. In the mid-1770s, the duke made an agreement with King George III see entry of England to send more than 4,000 German soldiers to America to fight against the American colonists who were rebelling against England. Von Riedesel was promoted to general and made commander of the first group of German soldiers to go. In 1776 he and his troops traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and reached Quebec, Canada.
A year earlier, in 1775, America had failed in its attempt to invade Canada (a British possession) and make it a fourteenth American colony, and Canada had remained under British control. Von Riedesel and his men served in Canada alongside British army troops under the command of British Major-General John Burgoyne see entry.
Baroness journeys to America
The military sometimes allowed a small number of women to accompany their husbands who were in active military service so they could nurse the wounded, wash the soldiers' clothes, and help boost the men's morale. The baroness did not accompany her husband when he left for Canada, however, because she was about to give birth. She stayed in Germany for a year taking care of her children before setting off with them to join General von Riedesel in Canada.
Baroness von Riedesel had a special carriage built in Germany to carry her family and their supplies on their seventy-five-day journey through Belgium and to the coast of France. The overland part of their trip through those countries was marked with difficulties. On one gruesome occasion, the baroness was looking out of the carriage when she was struck through the open window by an object hanging from a tree—the object turned out to be the body of a hanged man. She was relieved to arrive at the French coast, where they left the coach behind, crossed the English Channel by boat, and took a stagecoach the rest of the way to London, where they then boarded a ship and proceeded to Quebec, Canada.
Baroness von Riedesel was thirty-one years old in 1777 when she and her three young daughters joined her husband in Quebec. An attractive and cheerful woman, she had dark hair and bright blue eyes. In her diary the baroness mentioned that many friends warned her against coming to North America, where the people "lived upon horseflesh and cats." Her chief concern was that she was not able to understand English. As the war moved into the colonies the family's comfortable existence in Canada was soon to be replaced by the discomforts of traveling through the wilderness.
Tide turns after early victory
General John Burgoyne wanted to gain control of New York (where most people were still loyal to Great Britain) and use it as a base of operations. If he controlled the Hudson River and Lake Champlain valleys in northern New York, he could prevent the movement of American military supplies and soldiers across the Hudson River. Historians have named this attempt Burgoyne's Offensive; it was carried out from June to October 1777.
On July 5, 1777, Burgoyne's soldiers easily captured New York's Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. Along with General von Riedesel and his German troops, he then headed south to Fort Edward and Fort George on their way to Albany, New York. Baroness von Riedesel traveled with them on the slow journey through unfamiliar wilderness, during which many of the travelers became sick.
The 185-mile journey from Quebec to Fort Edward on the Hudson River left Burgoyne dangerously short of supplies. He ordered General von Riedesel to lead German troops through the New York countryside to seize cattle, horses, and carriages. Von Riedesel protested that the plan was too dangerous, and he urged his wife to stay at Fort Edward for her own safety. But the baroness insisted on accompanying the other wives who were going to follow the army. The expedition met with disastrous defeat at Bennington, Vermont, in August 1777.
A few months later, at Saratoga, New York, the campaign went terribly wrong for the British once again. In October 1777, 6,000 British and German troops were defeated by the forces of the American general Horatio Gates. On October 17, 1777, Generals Burgoyne and von Riedesel, outnumbered and surrounded, went to the camp of General Gates and surrendered their troops. This was the first great victory of the Americans and probably the decisive battle of the Revolution. Later, the baroness wrote that she believed General Burgoyne had acted wisely in surrendering to the Americans. The Americans told her that had the British not surrendered "we all would have been massacred."
After the surrender
History has shown that the failure of the invasion was in no way the fault of General von Riedesel. In fact, the general had trained his troops to fight in the American style, spreading out and keeping their movements flexible so they could react at once to changes in the battle. On two occasions his troops actually were responsible for British victories in battle.
After the British surrendered to Gates, von Riedesel, his wife, and his troops became prisoners of war. The baroness was very concerned about how the American soldiers would treat her and her children. She wrote in her journal: "While riding through the American camp, I was comforted to notice that nobody glanced at us insultingly, that they all bowed to me, and some of them even looked with pity to see a woman with small children there. I confess that I was afraid to go to the enemy as [becoming a war prisoner] was an entirely new experience for me."
The baroness recorded interesting accounts of meeting many influential people, including Lord Germain, the British secretary of state for the colonies; General William Howe , the commander-in-chief of the British in Boston; John Burgoyne, the British general who was her husband's boss; and George Washington (see entries), who would later become the first U.S. president.
Life in Cambridge and on the journey south
After the British surrender at Saratoga, the baroness and her children were invited to Albany, New York, as guests of General Philip Schuyler of the Continental army. Following a short stay there, the family traveled on to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were to remain prisoners of war for two years. But because General von Riedesel held an important position in the British military, he and his family were treated well by the patriots. The von Riedesels were given quarters by the Loyalists (colonists loyal to England) and spent their time in the Boston area pleasantly, sometimes attending dinner parties and balls.
Life in Virginia
In November 1778 the von Riedesels were given a carriage and an escort and, as prisoners of war, were told by the Americans to set off for Virginia The Americans in Boston were running into food shortages and did not have enough for the captured British officers and their troops. In addition, George Washington feared that they might rise up and try to rescue their comrades in Newport, Rhode Island.
During their trip southward, food was in short supply, and the von Riedesel family was constantly hungry. They also had to deal with the perils of traveling in heavy snow, ice, and mud. Often the Americans who were obliged to take them in treated them with rudeness and suspicion. The baroness gracefully handled these hardships, remaining optimistic. This was in contrast to her husband, who often became quite depressed during his years in America.
The von Riedesels arrived in Virginia in January 1779 and stayed for nearly a year on an estate near Charlottesville. The general enjoyed gardening there, and the Baroness sang and played a piano bought for her by her husband. Their children were also happy living on the plantation. The general and the baroness were dinner guests of Thomas Jefferson see entry, the newly elected governor of Virginia, who appreciated their company despite the fact that they fought on opposite sides in the war.
Family spends time in New York and Quebec
From Virginia, the von Riedesels, still prisoners of war, obeyed the command of the Americans to travel to New York City, where the General was to be exchanged for an American prisoner. Events unfolded slowly and the general and his family were detained for a year. During their stay, the baroness and the children were vaccinated against the outbreak of smallpox, a highly infectious disease that was rapidly spreading at the time.
In New York the von Riedesels lived in an elegant house with carpeting and mahogany furniture. The wealthy English families in the area competed with one another in making them as comfortable as possible during their confinement. Finally, in 1779, the American officials exchanged two of their prisoners, General von Riedesel and another officer, for American general Benjamin Lincoln.
During the winter of 1780–81 the British placed the newly freed General von Riedesel in charge of troops on Long Island, New York. While there, the baroness gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Amerika. Then, in the summer of 1781, the general was ordered back to Quebec, Canada, and he and his family made the journey northward. They stayed in Canada until the signing of the 1783 treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.
When General von Riedesel was released from service to the British army, he and his family began to make their way back to Germany. While in England they had tea with the British royal family. The baroness was happy to entertain Queen Charlotte Sophia and her daughters, the royal princesses, with her interesting tales of America.
The von Riedesels then returned to Brunswick. Of the 4,000 German troops that had gone to Canada with the general, only 2,800 returned. For six years von Riedesel served as commander of the Brunswick troops in the southern provinces of the country of Holland. He then retired to his castle at Lauterbach, later becoming an official of the city of Brunswick.
The couple tell their story
The baroness had written many details about her stay in America in letters to her mother. After the family returned to Germany, her letters were edited and made into a book that remains one of the best eyewitness accounts of the Revolutionary War.
The general also prepared a book, arranging his notes and papers and working with a young writer, Max von Eelking, to put his autobiography into print. Unfortunately, by the time the book was published, the general had passed away.
General von Riedesel died in his sleep on January 7,1800. Through careful management of his fortune, von Riedesel was able to leave his wife and each of his five daughters a substantial income after his death.
Baroness's book makes its mark; her final years
Baroness von Riedesel survived her husband by eight years. She was happy to visit with her daughters and grandchildren but remained lonely without her mate of thirty-seven years. Having sold some of her property and possessions, she went to live at her castle at Lauterbach. In Germany, the book that was produced from her letters was called Extracts from Lettersand Papers of General, Baron von Riedesel and His Wife nee [formerly] Massow, Concerning Their Common Voyage to America and Their Sojourn in That Country. A reference was made to the general in the title for fear that the baroness would disgrace her gender and her rank in society by being known as a female author. The title page noted that the book was printed as a manuscript for the family.
The book proved very popular and sold widely. In 1827 it was published in English under the title Letters and Memoirs Relating to the War of American Independence, and the Capture of the German Troops at Saratoga and sold well in America. A more complete translation was made in 1867, titled Letters and Journals Relating to the War of the American Revolution.
During the early 1800s, the baroness spent much of her time visiting with her family and enjoying parties and court life in Berlin. In the spring of 1808 Baroness von Riedesel, then in Berlin, was planning to make a visit to the family castle at Lauterbach, but she died suddenly on March 29. At her request, her body was laid beside that of her husband in the family vault at Lauterbach.
For More Information
Anticaglia, Elizabeth. Heroines of '76. New York: Walker and Company, 1975.
Boatner, Mark M. "Riedesel, Baron Friederich Adolphus." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: David McKay, 1966, pp. 932–34.
Dorson, Richard N., ed. America Rebels: Narratives of the Patriots. New York: Pantheon, 1953.
Lunt, James. John Burgoyne of Saratoga. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975.
Meyer, Edith Patterson. Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1976.
Riedesel, Baroness von. Journal and Correspondence of a Tour of Duty 1776–1783. Translated by Marvin L. Brown Jr. and Marta Huth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1965.
Riedesel, Mrs. General. Letters and Journals Relating to the War of the American Revolution and the Capture of the German Troops at Saratoga. Translated by William L. Stone. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1867.
Tharp, Louise Hall. The Baroness and the General. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.
Zeinert, Karen. Those Remarkable Women of the American Revolution. Brook-field, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.
The Baroness's Account of the Retreat from Saratoga
Baroness von Riedesel's account of the retreat from Saratoga is recounted in America Rebels: Narratives of the Patriots: "The whole army clamored for a retreat, and my husband promised to make it possible, provided only that no time was lost. But General Burgoyne, to whom an [honorary title] had been promised if he brought about a junction with the army of General Howe, could not determine upon this course, and lost everything by his loitering. About two o'clock in the afternoon, the firing of cannon and small arms was again heard, and all was alarm and confusion. My husband sent me a message telling me to [go] to a house, which was not far from there. I seated myself in the calash [carriage] with my children, and had scarcely driven up to the house when I saw, on the opposite side of the Hudson River, five or six men with guns aimed at us. Almost involuntarily, I threw the children on the bottom of the calash and myself over them. At the same instant the [rude peasants] fired, and shattered the arm of a poor English soldier behind us, who was already wounded, and was also on the point of retreating into the house. Immediately after our arrival a frightful [cannon attack] began, principally directed against the house in which we had sought shelter, probably because the enemy believed, for seeing so many people flocking around it, that all the generals made it their headquarters. Alas! It harbored [only] wounded soldiers or women! We were finally obliged to take refuge in a cellar, in which I laid myself down in a corner not far from the door. My children laid down on the earth with their heads upon my lap, and in this manner we passed the entire night. [The cellar had been used as a lavatory by the people fearful of going outdoors.] A horrible stench, the cries of the children, and yet more than all this, my own anguish, prevented me from closing my eyes."
At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), Germany was made up of more than three hundred tiny areas called principalities. Many of them supplied soldiers to the British army in its battle against the American colonists. The largest group came from Hesse-Cassel. As a result, all of the Germans fighting with the British were inaccurately referred to as "Hessians" (pronounced HESS-shuns).
King George III of England did not have enough soldiers in his own army to supply the needs of his commanders in America. The war was not popular in England, and not enough Englishmen volunteered. He was forced to give money for the services of German mercenaries (paid soldiers), who had served in this way for many years. But though they were called mercenaries, most of the German soldiers were not paid. They simply received their daily food rations. It was Frederick II, the Prince of Hesse-Cassel, who greatly profited when he sold the services of 12,000 mercenaries to the English king for a large amount of money.
A total of 30,000 German soldiers fought in North America for the British. Many of the German soldiers deserted the British army to stay in a new country full of possibilities. Americans actually offered free land to the mercenaries if they would switch sides against the British and support the cause of American independence. As many as 5,000 German soldiers may have stayed in America when their fellow countrymen returned home after the fighting. More than 7,700 German soldiers died in America from diseases and battle wounds.