Hessian Mercenaries: German Elements in America

Stories that Take You for the Ride of Your Life

April, 2015

Hessian Mercenaries: German Elements in America

The main antagonist in The Rule of Ranging is Johan Kopf, a young Hessian officer. He is, in fact, based on a real life person from the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel region. The region is strategically located between the main part of Prussia and the Prussian provinces of Westphalia in western Germany. That’s why Prussians are called Hessians in the US.

The was in America posed a serious challenge to the British military might. The English fielded 30,000 mercenaries supplied by friendly German states to boost their sagging army facing rout at the hands of the Continental Army. These German forces were popularly identified as Hessians, as a majority of them belonged to the Hesse region surrounding today’s Mainz and Frankfurt cities. The ruthless approach, stringent military training, brutal treatment of civilians, and loyalty for money made the Hessians a unique character in the war widely viewed as an epitome of fight for liberty and equality.

The Hessians had strong military tradition and its armed men were extensively recruited by Frederick the Great of Prussia as mercenaries during his Silesia campaign and the Seven Years’ War. They helped the Prussian head of state to command a huge, powerful army despite the lack of resources and successfully fought an offensive alliance of European empires. When Frederich Wilhelm II became the ruler of the Hesse principality, he ordered for nation-wide conscription and began offering his army to major European powers in lieu of money for his state ravaged by wars. About 20,000 of his Hessian soldiers came to the support of the British forces fighting American army and militias during the War of Independence.

The number of Hessian mercenaries increased in August 1776. More Hessians arrived in New York’s Staten Island to relieve the British forces engaged in the Battle of Long Island. Their ruthless tactics won the day for the British and repulsed the colonial army. They fought almost all major battles and also recruited to hold garrisons at important places until the last stand at York Town in 1781.

Though the rulers of Hesse-Kassel, Waldeck, Anhalt-Zerbst, Hanau, Brunswick, and Ansbach-Bayreuth allied with the British and handed over their military units for fight in America for money, the overwhelming number of the Hessians led the locals to name all German mercenaries after them.

The Hessians comprised almost a quarter of the imperial forces fighting the Continental Army. Though they fought under the British flag, their distinct military tactics and psychology made them a distinct lot. The Hessians were mercenaries in their character, though they had been hired as unit or regiments. They were not paid directly, except for food and shelter. While their pay went to their ruler in Germany, they earned from loots of the vanquished forces and colonial settlements.

Uniforms, military insignias, disciplined combat, and nonchalant military tactics also made the Hessians, considered the best among the European armies, a distinct force. Though they dug firm despite harsh conditions to fight adversaries, the American forces used surprise and guerrilla attacks as an effective element to defeat these battle-hardy soldiers.

Ruthlessness is a key Hessians military character, and it became more pronounced when they became mercenaries. They treated defeated soldiers and civilians ruthlessly and their brutal acts antagonized many Americans loyal to the British. George Washington paraded these soldiers whenever captured to incite nationalist feeling among his ranks.

Mercenary character robbed the Hessians of their loyalty toward the British. They were firmly after money. A large number of conscripts are unwilling to fight for foreigners, though they showed their ultimate valor whenever there was a fight. Many deserted their units following the US Congress offer of 20 hectares of land for those siding with the revolutionary forces.

(Image credits: the portrait by an unknown artists could well be Frederick William II of Prussia. In real life it’s Ricky Gervais portraying a mercenary king on Fubiz.net)

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