Between 1776 and 1783, Britain hired an estimated 30,000 German soldiers in its war to put down the American rebellion. Collectively known as Hessians, the troops were hired out by the rulers of six German territories: Hessen-Kassel, Hessen-Hanau, Braunschweig, Anhalt-Zerbst, Ansbach-Bayreuth, and Waldeck.
Roughly 18,000 of these auxiliary troops arrived in North America in 1776. During the following three years, one third of the British regular army’s strength in North America consisted of Germans; two years later, the proportion reached thirty-seven percent.[i] They entered Britain’s conflict with its rebellious colonies with the assumption that the enemy was weak and that the war would not last long. Indeed, Britain’s Prime Minister Lord North’s predicted in 1776 that their hire would bring the war to a speedy resolution without the “further effusion of blood.”[ii] This, of course, did not happen. In fact, the steady supply of Germans kept the war going for seven more years.
Members of the German corps spent extended periods of time in locations as dispersed and varied as Canada in the North and West Florida and Cuba in the South. Across this vast terrain, German troops participated in all major military campaigns and occupied British garrisons along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. They shared in all of the significant British military triumphs and in the defeats. Thousands died of disease or were killed in battle or were captured by the enemy. Over the course of the war, a growing number also deserted. Put differently, at virtually any given moment in the years between 1776 and 1783, large numbers of German troops were in garrison, engaged in military action, remained in captivity, returned to Germany, or had settled in a local community, somewhere in North America.
Military and civilian members of the corps penned thousands of official and private letters, reports, diaries, memoirs, and similar records that describe their experiences as participants in Britain’s war against American independence. They also drew maps, collected objects, and authored memoirs about their time in America. Whether written for private or public consumption, many of these records have a high ethnographic content; they include often detailed descriptions of the American land and the people, including the natural and built environments, flora and fauna, and the climate. They also commented on the prevalence of slavery and described encounters with Native Americans. Some offer descriptions and opinions about political matters and the war. Taken together, the material constitutes a rich and voluminous body of sources that sheds light on the war in America from the perspective of a people uniquely positioned both in the midst of the war and at its margins.
This site features material drawn from archival collections as well as published editions of primary sources. Some entries will be short, others will be more extensive. They represent a wide range of emotions and sentiments; their tone and content can be serious, curious, passionate, angry, amusing, cheerful, hopeful, deflated, sad. My hope is that these glimpses will broaden our understanding of the German troops’ experiences in the war. Unless otherwise noted, all translations and transcriptions are mine.
[i] Stephen Conway, “The British Army, ‘Military Europe,’ and the American War of Independence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 67, no. 1 (January 2010): 78. This percentage does not take into account provincial and loyalist forces or Native American allies. See also Stephen Conway, Britannia’s Auxiliaries: Continental Europeans and the British Empire (New York, 2017), 50-51.
[ii] R. C. Simmons and P.D.G. Thomas, eds., Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, 1754-1783 (White Plains, NY, 1982-1987), 6:405.
[iii] Brendan Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 (New York, 2007), 592.