An Unwelcome Bedfellow. Philadelphia, 1777

In the popular imagination, the “Hessians” were pressed into service for the war in America, often by recruiters who employed dubious methods, like getting the men drunk. There is no doubt that many men did not go to America voluntarily. However, there were a number of reasons why a man from the Holy Roman Empire would choose to enlist. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe recalled in 1821 that in 1775, “America used to be … the El Dorado of people who found themselves in a difficult situation” (Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit [Tübingen, Germany, 1821], part 4, book 19). For some men, service in America meant an opportunity for a fresh start, an escape from poverty or challenging personal circumstances, or free passage to America where they hoped to settle. Others were soldiers eager to advance their military careers. Still others were searching for adventure.

A few men, including scientists, seized the opportunity to explore another continent. In fact, they enlisted with the explicit intention of furthering and sharing their knowledge about America. Among these “explorers” was Christian Friedrich Michaelis, who joined the Hessian corps because he wanted to study fossils in America (and who subsequently searched for mastodon bones in New York). Friedrich Adam Julius von Wangenheim, also a member of the Hessian corps, conducted botanical studies with a focus on shrubs and trees which he eventually published. Perhaps the most prominent scientist who accompanied the German corps was the physician Johann David Schöpf, who went to America as the surgeon for the Ansbach regiment. Because he felt that he had not seen enough of the United States during the war, he extended his stay for two years after 1783 in order “to see something of the interior of the country” (Johann David Schöpf, Reise durch einige der mittleren und südlichen vereinigten Staaten nach Ostflorida und den Bahama-Inseln, unternommen in den Jahren 1783 und 1784 [Erlangen, 1788]. For an English translation, see Johann David Schoepf, Travels in the Confederation, transl. Alfred J. Morrison [Philadelphia, 1911]).

Another Hessian “explorer“ was Captain August Eberhard von Dincklage of the von Linsingen Grenadier Batallion. He spent a good amount of time searching for fossils, and during the British occupation of Philadelphia enjoyed a tour of the natural specimen collection at the college. During the summer of 1779, he often went on solitary walks exploring the countryside of New York. As a self-described lover of nature, he was greatly dismayed that human beings chose the destruction of war over what he described as the beauty and abundance of God’s creation. On one occasion, he was deeply affected when he was ordered to cut down an orchard that stood in the way of the army. In every tree were one or two bird nests, he wrote, and with a sad whimpering the birds appeared to accuse the soldiers of the violence they were committing. Of course, the German officer was able to stroll through the American countryside and admire its beauty precisely because he was taking part in a war.

The source included with this post consists of an entry from Dincklage’s journal from October 1777, when he was part of the British army that occupied Philadelphia. In it, he describes encounters with two animals that were common in America but unknown in Europe. The snake – and unwelcome bedfellow – may have scared Dincklage but it was almost certainly not venomous. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are the only species of snakes that are native to the region, and they can hardly be described as colorful. He may have encountered a milk snake, which does not pose a threat to humans. The other animal, which he describes as a frequent visitor in the soldiers’ camp, was the opossum Didelphis virginiana. It is the only marsupial in North America and native to Pennsylvania. Dincklage’s claim that they do not run away when scared is correct. Opossums play dead when threatened. According to his diary, locals considered the animal a delicacy. It was too fatty for his taste.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

On the 5th, all quiet; on the 6th the encampment, or rather the shelter (we did not have tents during the entire campaign), was changed and we moved closer to Germantown. Here we were posted until October 19. The service was extraordinarily hard since we had to furnish pickets ahead of and behind the front.  On October 19, the army marched back toward Philadelphia and positioned itself behind the fortifications that had been erected there. From there we sent commandos to Province Island, where batteries were built in order to fire at Fort Mifflin on Mud Island (“Moode Island”). Our regiment was encamped on the left wing in a pretty forest near the Schuylkill River (“Schulkil”). Here I experienced an incident that could have ended badly for me. I had put up a small musketeer tent, and on the ground made a bed consisting of some hay and several blankets. When I was about to lay down for the night, I had fortunately taken a light with me, which I rarely did, and was holding it in front of me into the tent. How startled I was when I saw a large, colorful snake lying next to my bed. Since I did not like this bedfellow in the least, I called several soldiers who killed it by cutting off its head. The next morning we took off its skin from which the company surgeon made himself a sheath for his sword. Another animal that does not exist in Europe but is common here visited the soldiers in their shelters at night. It has a close resemblance to our badgers. The fur is remarkably thick, but it is not very large. It does not live in the ground but stays in the trees during the day. It has a bare tail like a rat, from which it hangs on tree branches. It can climb up very fast but it lets itself fall down, with its head between its legs; this is also its only defense when one encounters one of them. It is too lazy or clumsy to run away. The locals eat this animal as a delicacy, but for me it was too fatty.

TRANSCRIPTION

Den 5ten stille, den 6ten wurde das [161] das Lager oder vielmehr die Hütte verändert (kein Zelt hatten wir diese gantze Campagne) und kamen wir näher an Germantown; hier standen wir bis den 19ten October, der Dienst war ausserordentlich stark, denn wir mussten Pikets vor und hinter die Front geben. Den 19. Oct. marschirte die Armee zurück, bis vor Philadelphia, und setzte sich hinter die daselbst angelegte Verschanzung. Von her aus gaben wir Commando’s nach der Provinz Island, woselbst Batterien angelegt wurden um das Fort Miflin auf Moode Island zu beschiessen. Unser Regiment hatte seinen Lagerplatz auf dem linken Flügel, in einem schönen Walde nahe an Schulkil bekommen; hier hatte ich einen Vorfall, welches übel für mich hätte ausschlagen können. Ich hatte ein kleines Musketier-Zelt aufgerichted und ein Bett, bestehend aus ein wenig Heu, und ein paar Decken auf die Erde gemacht, wie ich den Abend mich niederlegen will, so nehme ich zu meinem Glück ein Licht mit, welches sonst selten geschah, und halte dasselbe vor mich her [162] ins Zelt. Wie erschrak ich, als ich eine grosse bunte Schlange neben meinem Lager liegen sah; da mir nun dieser Schlafkamerad im geringsten nicht anstand, so rief ich etliche Sldaten, welche dieselbe durch Abhauung des Kopfes tödteten. Den andern Morgen zogen wir derselben die Haut ab, woraus sich der Compagnie-Feldscher eine Scheide über seinen Degen machte. Noch ein Thier, welches nicht in Europe, hier aber häufig, kam zu Zeiten des Nachts und besuchte die Soldaten in ihren Hütten, es hat viel Ansehlichkeit mit unseren Dächsen, das Fell ist erstaunlich fett, aber nicht so gross, es wohnt nicht in der Erde, sondern hält sich am Tage in solchen Bäumen auf, hat einen kahlen Schwanz wie eine Ratte, womit es sich an die Äste der Bäume hängt, hinauf klettern kann es sehr geschickt, aber herunter lässt es sich fallen, den Kopf zwischen die Beine steckend; dieses ist auch seine einzige Gegenwehr wenn man es antrifft, zum weglaufen ist es zu faul oder zu ungeschickt. Die hiesigen Einwohner essen dieses [163] Thier als ein Leckerbissen, vor mich aber war es zu fett.

Citation: Tagebuch des Obrist-Lieutenants von Dincklage, ff. 161 – 164 (October 1777), Universitätsbibliothek Kassel, Landesbibliothek und Murhardsche Bibliothek der Stadt Kassel, 4° Ms. Hass. 186.

Image in text: [Detail from] John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And A Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel’d Thro’ Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, &c. (London, 1709), 180.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s