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Two Hessian soldiers of the Leibregiment

The Hessians /ˈhɛʃən/[1] were 18th-century German mercenaries contracted for service under The Crown of the British Empire. About 30,000 German soldiers served in the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolutionary War; nearly half were from the Hesse region of Germany; the others came from similar small German states. In the context of the British service, they were all referred to as "Hessians." The American colonists and many historians called them mercenaries. They were regular members of the armies of their German princes who hired them out in units, not as individuals. They received wages, but the prince received most of the funds; Britain found it easier to borrow money to pay for their service than to recruit its own soldiers.[2] The British used the Hessians in several conflicts, including in Ireland, but they are most widely associated with combat operations in the American Revolutionary War. They provided extensive manpower to support the king's cause. The pro-independence side made propaganda use of the fact that the soldiers were non-British, and portrayed them as mercenaries. They also offered them land bounties to desert and join the Americans. Several more German units were placed on garrison duty in the British Isles to free up British regulars for service in North America.[3]


John Childs wrote:

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, 6000 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.[4]

During the American Revolutionary War, Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel (a principality in northern Hesse or Hessia) and other German leaders hired out some of their regular army units to Great Britain for use to fight against the Patriots in the American revolution. About 30,000 of these men served in America. They were called Hessians, because the largest group (12,992 of the total 30,067 men) came from Hesse-Kassel. They came in entire units with their usual uniforms, flags, weapons and officers.

Units were sent by Count William of Hesse-Hanau; Duke Charles I of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; Prince Frederick of Waldeck; Margrave Karl Alexander of Ansbach-Bayreuth; and Prince Frederick Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst.

Hessian hussars in America

The Hessians did not act individually. Their princes determined whether to hire out the units. Many of the men were press-ganged into Hessian service. Deserters were summarily executed or beaten by an entire company.[5]

Hessians comprised approximately one-quarter of the forces fielded by the British in the American Revolution. They included jäger, hussars, three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers. Most of the infantry were chasseurs (sharpshooters), musketeers, and fusiliers. They were armed with smoothbore muskets, while the Hessian artillery used three-pounder cannon. Initially the average regiment was made up of 500 to 600 men. Later in the war, the regiments had only 300 to 400 men.[citation needed] About 18,000 Hessian troops first arrived in North America in 1776, with more coming in later. They 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 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.

The British use of Hessian troops rankled American sentiment, and pushed some Loyalists to favor the revolution. The British use of non-English speaking foreign troops to put down the rebellion was seen as insulting, as it treated British subjects no differently than non-British subjects. Pro-British Tories believed that the British colonists deserved more than mercenary foes.

Hessian soldiers were famous for their feminine gait when marching, often credited with the stealth-like nature of their advance. This characteristic gait is still seen in many Germanic settlers to the United States and is most prevalent in Central Texas.

Hessian captives

Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at Trenton taken to Philadelphia.

In the Battle of Trenton, the Hessian force of 1,400 was surprised and virtually destroyed by the Continentals, with about 20 killed, 100 wounded, and 1,000 captured as prisoners. 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.[6] Family records of Johann Nicholas Bahner(t), one of the Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton, indicate that some of the Hessian soldiers were told they were needed to defend the American Colonies against Indian incursions. When they arrived in North America, they discovered they had been hired to fight against the British colonists, rather than the Indians.[7] 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.[8] Most of the prisoners were sent to work as farm hands.[9]

By early 1778, negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Washington and the British had begun in earnest. On a one-for-one exchange if a Hessian soldier deserted, there would be one less American who would return home.[further explanation needed][10] Nicholas Bahner(t), Jacob Strobe, George Geisler, and Conrad Kramm are a few of the Hessian soldiers who deserted the British forces after being returned in exchange for American prisoners of war.[11] These men were hunted by the British for being deserters, and by many of the colonists as an enemy.

Americans tried to entice Hessians to desert from the British and join the 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. They offered 50 to 800 acres to British soldiers, depending on rank.[12] 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. For many years, the author of the letter was unknown. In 1874, John Bigelow translated it to English (from a French version) and claimed that Benjamin Franklin wrote it, including it in his autobiography, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, published that year. There appears to be no evidence to support this claim.[13]

When the British General John Burgoyne surrendered to American General Horatio Gates during the Saratoga campaign in 1777, his forces included around 5,800 troops. The surrender was negotiated in the Convention of Saratoga, and Burgoyne's remnant army became known as the Convention Army. "Hessian" soldiers from Brunswick-Lüneburg, under General Riedesel, comprised a high percentage of the Convention Army. The Americans marched the prisoners to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they were imprisoned in the Albemarle Barracks until 1781. From there, they were sent to Reading, Pennsylvania, until 1783.

German soldiers in the American Revolution

Conclusion of the war

About 30,000 Hessians served in the Americas, and, after the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 Hessian soldiers 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.[14] Approximately 5,000 Hessians settled in North America, both in the United States and Canada.

Ireland 1798

After the Battle of Mainz in 1795, the British rushed Hessian forces to Ireland in 1798 to assist in the suppression of rebellion inspired by the Society of United Irishmen, an organization that first worked for Parliamentary reform. Influenced by the American and French revolutions, its members began by 1798 to seek independence for Ireland. Baron Hompesch's 2nd Battalion of riflemen embarked on 11 April 1798 from the Isle of Wight bound for the port of Cork. They were later joined by the Jäger (Hunter) 5th Battalion 60th regiment. They were in the action of the battles of Vinegar Hill and Foulksmills. In 1798, the Hessians were notorious in Ireland for their atrocities and brutality toward the population of Wexford.

"Hessian" units in the American Revolution


  • Rauschenplatt's Princess of Anhalt's Regiment
  • Nuppenau's Jäger Company
  • Anhalt-Zerbst Company of Artillery


  • 1st Regiment Ansbach-Bayreuth (later Regiment von Volt; 1st Ansbach Battalion)
  • 2nd Regiment Ansbach-Bayreuth (later Regiment Seybothen; 2nd Bayreuth Battalion)
  • Ansbach Jäger Company
  • Ansbach Artillery Company


  • Dragoon Regiment Prinz Ludwig
  • Grenadier Battalion Breymann
  • Light Infantry Battalion von Barner
  • Regiment Riedesel
  • Regiment Specht
  • Regiment Prinz Friedrich
  • Regiment von Rhetz
  • Geyso's Company of Brunswick Jägers\


  • Hesse-Kassel Jäger Corps
  • Fusilier Regiment von Ditfurth
  • Fusilier Regiment Erbprinz (later Musketeer Regiment Erbprinz (1780))
  • Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen
  • Fusilier Regiment von Lossburg
  • Grenadier Regiment von Rall (later von Woellwarth (1777); von Trümbach (1779); d'Angelelli (1781))
    • 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
  • 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
  • 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-Kassel Artillery corps


  • Pausch's Artillery Company
  • von Creuzbourg's Jäger Corps
  • Janecke's Frei Corps
  • Hesse Hanau Erbprinz Regiment


  • 3rd Waldeck Regiment

In popular culture

  • Hessian fly, a significant pest of cereal crops, was named after its supposed source of Hessian soldiers' straw bedding.
  • Washington Irving's collection The Sketch Book (1819) included the story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", which contained a figure now known as the "Headless Horseman". Irving described it as "the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War."
  • D. W. Griffith co-wrote and directed the short film, The Hessian Renegades (1909), about the early stages of the American Revolution.
  • In the Merrie Melodies short "Bunker Hill Bunny" (1950) set during the Revolutionary War, Bugs Bunny faces off against Hessian soldier Sam von Schamm.
  • The 1972 novel The Hessian by Howard Fast centers around a Hessian soldier who tries to escape.
  • Christopher Walken played a version of Irving's Headless Horseman, a brutal and sadistic Hessian mercenary sent to America during the American Revolutionary War, in Tim Burton's 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. Ray Park portrays the Horseman after his beheading.
  • Hessians appear as an enemy in the 2012 historical-action game Assassin's Creed III, albeit referred to as "Jägers" in-game.
  • The Headless Horseman in the 2013 TV series Sleepy Hollow is revealed to be a Hessian soldier.


  1. "hessian". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2009-12-26. 
  2. Rodney Atwood, The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), ch 1.
  3. Marston, Daniel. The American Revolution 1774–1783, Osprey Publishing (2002) ISBN 978-1-84176-343-9. 95 pages
  4. John Brewer, Eckhart Hellmuth, German Historical Institute in London (1999). Rethinking Leviathan: The Eighteenth-Century State in Britain and Germany, Oxford University Press. p.64. ISBN 0-19-920189-7
  5. David Hackett Fischer (2006). Washington's Crossing, Oxford University Press. p.60. ISBN 0-19-518159-X
  6. "Battle of Trenton", British, accessed 13 Feb 2010
  7. History of Our Ancestors: The First Bohner (Bahn, Bahner) to Migrate to America
  8. Johannes Schwalm the Hessian, p. 21]
  9. Rodney Atwood (2002). The Hessians. Cambridge University Press. p. 199. 
  10. 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
  11. [Journal of Johannes Schwalm Historical Assoc., Inc Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 2]
  12. R. Douglas Hurt (2002) American Agriculture: A Brief History, p. 80
  13. 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
  14. Name. "Revolutionary War - The Hessian involvement". MadMikesAmerica. Retrieved 2012-10-29. 

Further reading

Primary sources

  • Johann Conrad Döhla. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution (1993)

External links

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