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The Hessians were a group of German auxiliary soldiers hired by the British Crown in 1776 to assist them in putting down the American colonial rebellion. In all, approximately 30,000 "Hessians" would eventually serve in North America during the course of the American Revolution. Although the term "Hessian" was commonly used by contemporary Americans of the day and later historians, the title actually identifies only those from the German principalities of Hesse-Hanau and Hesse-Cassel. In fact, these soldiers were recruited from a wide variety of locales across Germany during the course of the war. However, of the 30,000 troops sent, the Land-graf of Hesse-Cassel provided well over half (18,970) of all German troops who would fight in the war. The next-highest contingent came from Brunswick (about 5,723), followed by Hesse-Hanau at 2,422, Hannover at 2,373, Anspach-Bayreuth at 2,353, and Waldeck at 1,225. Owing to its tiny home army, the smallest amount was provided by Anhalt-Zerbst at 1,152 (Fischer, Washington's Crossing, pp. 53–54).

The first contingent of Hessians (about 8,000 officers and men) arrived off New York City in mid-August 1776. Crossing over to Long Island on 22 August 1776, the Hessians played an instrumental part in the rout of General George Washington's Continental Army during a series of engagements in and around New York City, White Plains, and Fort Washington, where they captured over 2,800 Continental soldiers.

Having driven Washington and his army across New Jersey in the late fall and early winter of 1776, a large Hessian contingent of about 1,000 men, located at Trenton, New Jersey, under the command of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, was subsequently attacked in a surprise Christmas Day raid by Washington, and the first large contingent of Hessians become prisoners of war.

During this time, Hessians assisted British troops in the bloodless capture of the city of Newport, Rhode Island, and later, in August 1778, helped repel an American attempt to retake the city by force. Accompanying William Howe to the Philadelphia area in the summer of 1777, Hessian forces participated in the British victories at Brandywine and Germantown only to become victims of a stinging defeat at the Battle of Red Bank, New Jersey. Another Hessian contingent, commanded by Major General Friedrich Adolph von Riedesel, formed part of the army led by General John Burgoyne that was defeated at Saratoga in October 1777. Another sizeable contingent of nearly 6,000 Hessians (mainly from the Brunswick and Hesse-Hanau regiments) were taken prisoner.

During the latter years of the war, Hessian soldiers formed part of the British force that seized the southern cities of Savannah and Charleston from the Americans and Pensacola from the Spanish. A large Hessian contingent was also captured along with the rest of Lord Cornwallis's British army at the decisive battle of Yorktown, Virginia, and became the third large Hessian force to have surrendered during the war. In all, it is estimated that nearly half of the total Hessian contingent did not return to their native Germany. Some became either American or Canadian citizens by discharge or desertion, and others were killed or died of disease during their long years of service during the Revolution.

See alsoSaratoga, Battle of; Soldiers; Trenton, Battle of; Yorktown, Battle of .


Atwood, Rodney. The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Dabney, William M. After Saratoga: The Story of the Convention Army. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954.

Döhla, Johann Conrad. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution. Translated and edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Ewald, Johann. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Lowell, Edward J. The Hessians and the Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. 1884. Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House, 1970.

Neimeyer, Charles Patrick. America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Charles Patrick Neimeyer

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