Why a German Regiment? The German Regiment and the Hessians

Congress voted to raise “a regiment of Germans” on 25 May 1776.[1] On June 27th, they worked out how they would raise it, with four companies from Maryland and four companies from Pennsylvania.[2] The decision to raise the German Regiment came on the heels of the news that Great Britain had hired auxiliary troops from various principalities within the Holy Roman Empire. Known colloquially as the “Hessians,” soldiers from five German different principalities: Hessen-Kassel, which provided the most troops; Hessen-Hanau, Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, Anhalt-Zerbst, Ansbach-Bayreuth, and Waldeck, the last of which provided only one regiment. Additionally, the state of Hanover was ruled by the same king as Great Britain, but Hanoverian troops did not serve in America during the war.

The British Government’s consideration to hire foreign troops for the war in America was widely reported in the newspapers. On 23 August 1775, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that in Boston “The people say great pains are taken to persuade them to stay, by telling them that 30,000 Hanoverians, 30,000 Hessians, and as many Russians, are shortly expected, when they shall destroy all the rebels at once.”[3] The idea of hiring foreign auxiliary troops was thrown around even before 1776, though the British government would not make treaties until late in 1775 and early 1776.  In January of 1776, the Maryland Gazette printed a speech given by John Wilkes, a radical Whig, and the biggest pro-American voice in British Parliament at the time:

I trust no part of the subjects of this vast empire will ever submit to be slaves. I am sure the Americans are too high spirited to brook the idea. Your whole power, and that of your allies, if you had any, and of all the German troops cannot effect so wicked a purpose.[4]

Wilkes wanted to dissuade Parliament from making treaties with German principalities for soldiers, but they would anyway, and send thousands of troops to America. The Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote, the largest German-language newspaper in America at the time of the Revolution reported that “the government took from Germany 1800 so-called Jaegers …. The Landgrave of Hessen-Cassel gave 12000 men, and the Duke of Braunschweig 5000.”[5] The Staatsbote reported this on 10 May. On May 11thIf the German Regiment was raised in reaction to the news that the British government had decided to hire troops from the Holy Roman Empire, it stands to reason that the German Regiment could, to some degree, be considered an American freikorps or free battalions.

The raising of the German Regiment as a reaction to the incoming German Auxiliary troops meant that Congress wanted to create a unit that would take advantage of the desire of some deserters or prisoners of war from the auxiliary troops to serve in the Continental Army. In European practice, soldiers recruited out of deserter groups or prisoners of war were organized into free battalions, which were typically irregular units of light infantry. According to Christopher Duffy, adventurers in Central Europe helped the Prussian army to organize its first free battalions during the Seven Years War, in order to combat the incredibly effective Croatian light infantry of the Habsburg military.[6] The German Regiment was not irregular light infantry, though it would temporarily be considered part of light infantry brigades throughout the war, most notably when they served in the light infantry under General Hand during General John Sullivan’s expedition against the Iroquois is 1779. Penalties for desertion were severe in eighteenth century militaries, but there was plenty of reason for auxiliary troops to want to desert, or so Congress thought. On 14 August 1776 Congress considered the situation of German auxiliary troops:

His Britannic Majesty … unable to engage Britons sufficient to execute his sanguinary measures, has applied for aid to foreign princes, who are in the habit of selling the blood of their people for money, and from them has procured … considerable numbers of foreigners. And … such foreigners, if appraised of the practice of these states would chuse to accept of lands, liberty, safety and a communion of good laws, and mild government, in a country where many of their friends and relations are already happily settled, rather than continue exposed to the toils and dangers of a long and bloody war, waged against a people, guilty of no other crime, than that of refusing to exchange freedom for slavery; and that they will do this the more especially when they reflect, that after they shall have violated every Christian and moral precept, by invading, and attempting to destroy, those who have never injured them or their country, their only reward, if they escape death and captivity, will be a return to the despotism of their prince, to be by him again sold to do the drudgery of some other enemy to the rights of mankind. [7]

To the Congress, the auxiliary troops were in a pitiable situation, and there would be nothing better for them than to desert their old service and join with the cause of the United States. Ultimately, Congress resolved to give bounties of land to any German auxiliaries who would be willing to run the risk of desertion:

These states will receive all such foreigners who shall leave the armies of his Britannic majesty in America, and shall chuse to become members of any of these states; that they shall be protected in the free exercise of their respective religions, and be invested with the rights, privileges and immunities of natives, as established by the laws of these states; and, moreover, that this Congress will provide, for every such person, 50 Acres of unappropriated lands in some of these states, to be held by him and his heirs in absolute property.[8]

If any auxiliaries wanted to fight in the Continental Army, they could serve in the German Regiment, where the other men and officers spoke their language, and where they could hardly be considered a foreigner.

[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 4:390.

[2] Ibid, 5:487.

[3] “PHILADELPHIA, August 23,” Pennsylvania Gazette, Accessible Archives.

[4], Maryland Gazette Collection, Archives of Maryland Online, Image 1021. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc4800/sc4872/001282/html/m1282-1021.html

[5] Henry Miller, “1776. Dienstags, den 14 Mai … London, den 10 Jenner,” Der Wochentliche Philadelphischer Staatsbote, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Microfilm. Original German: Die regierung hat nach Deutschland geschickt 1800 mann sogenannte jäger in dienste zu nehmen …. Der Landgraf von Hessen-Cassel hat, wie es heißt, 12000 mannn zugestanden, under Herzog von Braunschweig 5000.

[6] Christopher Duffy, The Army of Frederick the Great: Second Edition (Chicago: The Emperor’s Press, 1996) 131 – 133.

[7] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 5:653 – 654.

[8] Ibid, 654 – 655.