The Soldiers

As found in the book, "The Hessians The Revolution", By Edward J. Lowell.



The soldiers whom the German princes let out to England for the suppression of the American rebellion were brought together in various ways. In HesseCassel the country had been cut up into districts, each of which was to furnish a given number of recruits to a certain regiment. Officers were, however, instructed to bring as many foreigners as possible into the service, in order to spare their own districts, whose inhabitants would always be at hand,to be called in case of need. It was announced in the army regulations that regimental chiefs, or captains, would best recommend themselves to favor, by striving to enlist foreign recruits.[Footnote: Reglement von der Infanterie. Cassel, 1767. Theil ii. tit. v. art. 6.] Forcible recruiting was forbidden; but this rule was probably intended to apply only to natives. It certainly does not seem to have diminished the activity of the recruiting officers, and probably no such rule existed in the smaller states. In Anspach no subject could leave the country, or marry, without permission.[Footnote: “Geschichte von Anspach,” Fischer, 1786.] It is to be noted that in this case the country did not mean Germany, but the territories of the Margrave, and that the foreigners whom the Landgrave of Hesse wished to see recruited were the subjects of the neighboring German princelings. Recruiting officers were active all over Germany. Spend- thrifts, loose livers, drunkards, arguers, restless people, and such as made political trouble, if not more than sixty years old and of fair health and stature, were forced into the ranks. The present of a tall, strapping fellow was at that time an acceptable compliment from one prince to another, and in every regiment were many deserters from the service of neighboring states. Together with this mixed rabble served the honest peasant lads of Germany, forced from their ploughs. It may be noted, as a general rule, that the regiments sent to America in 1776 were made up of better material than were the bodies of recruits subsequently furnished.[Footnote: In the autumn of 1777 Knyphausen complains to the Landgrave that since the new recruits have joined the army, pilfering within the regiments and plundering outside of them can hardly be restrained.]

Johann Gottfried Seume, who afterwards attained some prominence as a writer, was a victim of the recruiting system, and has given an account of his adventures. Seume was a theological student at Leipsic, and having conceived religious doubts which he knew would be offensive to his friends, left that city on foot for Paris, with a sword at his side, a few shirts and a few volumes of the classics in his knapsack, and about nine thalers in his pocket. His journey, however, was destined to take a different direction. “The third night I spent at Bach,” writes he, “ and here the Landgrave of Cassel, the great broker of men of the time, undertook through his recruiting officers, and in spite of my protestations, the care of my future quarter on the road to Ziegenhayn, to Cassel, and thence to the New World.”[Footnote: “Autobiography.”]

“I was brought under arrest to Ziegenhayn, where I found many companions in misfortune from all parts of the country. There we waited to be sent to America in the spring, after Faucitt should have inspected us. I gave myself up to my fate, and tried to make the best of it, bad as it might be. We stayed a long time at Ziegenhayn[Footnote: Ziegenhayn was an unhealthy place, where most of the men fell sick, of scurvy or itch. Seume’s article in Archenholtz's Magazine, 1789.] before the necessary number of recruits was brought together from the plough, the highways, and the recruiting stations. The story of those times is well known. No one was safe from the grip of the seller of souls. Persuasion, cunning, deception, force--all served. No one asked what means were used to the damnable end. Strangers of all kinds were arrested, imprisoned, sent off. They tore up my academic matriculation papers, as being the only instrument by which I could prove my identity. At last I fretted no more. One can live anywhere. You can stand what so many do. The idea of crossing the ocean was inviting enough to a young fellow; and there were things worth seeing on the other side. So I reflected. While we were at Ziegenhayn old General Gore[Footnote: von Gohr] employed me in writing, and treated me very kindly. Here was an indescribable lot of human beings brought together, good and bad, and others that were both by turns. My comrades were a runaway son of the Muses from Jena, a bankrupt tradesman from Vienna, a fringemaker from Hanover, a discharged secretary of the post-office from Gotha, a monk from Wurzburg, an upper steward from Meinungen, a Prussian sergeant of hussars, a cashiered Hessian major from the fortress itself, and others of like stamp. You can imagine that there was entertainment enough, and a mere sketch of the lives of these gentry would make amusing and instructive reading.”

A plot was gotten up among this rabble. Seume was offered the command of the conspirators, but, by the advice of an old sergeant, declined the dangerous honor. The mutineers were to rise in the night, surprise the guard and take their weapons, cut down such as opposed them, spike the cannon, lock up the officers at headquarters, and march fifteen hundred strong across the frontier, which was only a few miles away. The plot was betrayed; the ringleaders were arrested, Seume among them. He was soon released, however, for too many were implicated to allow the punishment of all concerned. “The trial went on,” he says; “two were condemned to the gallows, as I should certainly have been, had not the old Prussian sergeant-major saved me. The remainder had to run the gantlet a great many times, from thirty-six down to twelve. It was a terrible butchery. The candidates for the gallows were pardoned, after suffering the fear of death under that instrument, but had to run the gantlet thirty-six times, and were sent to Cassel to be kept in irons at the mercy of the prince. ‘For an indefinite time,’ and ‘at mercy’ were then equivalent expressions, and meant ‘forever, without release.’ At least, the mercy of the prince was an affair that no one wanted to have anything to do with. More than thirty were terribly treated in this way, and many, of whom I was one, were let off only because too many of the accomplices would have had to be punished. Some came out of prison when we marched away, for reaSons which were easy to understand; for a fellow that is in irons at Cassel is not paid for by the British.”[Footnote: Autobiography.]

With troops collected as these were, desertion was necessarily common. The military service was dreaded, and in the smaller states a successful run of a few miles would take the deserter beyond the frontier. The people sympathized with him, and would gladly have helped him had they not been restrained by severe punishments. These, however, were not wanting. In Würtemberg, when the alarm was given, the parish must instantly rise and occupy roads, paths, and bridges for twenty-four hours, or until the fugitive was caught. Should he escape, the place must furnish a substitute as tall as the deserter, and the sons of the principal man of the village were first liable. This order was to be read every month from the pulpit. Whoeverhelped a deserter lost his civil rights, and was imprisoned with hard labor and flogged in prison. The laws of HesseCassel appear to have been a little less savage. Peasants arresting a deserter received a ducat; but if the fugitive passed through a village without being arrested, the village was liable to pay for him. Every soldier going more than a mile from his garrison was to be furnished with a pass, and all persons meeting him at a greater distance from home were required to demand it.[Footnote: Reglement von der Infanterie, Theil ii. tit. vi.] A characteristic incident occurred in 1738. A Prussian recruiting officer and a Prussian soldier’s wife induced an Anspach soldier to desert for the sake of re-enlisting in the Prussian army. They were intercepted by the Anspach authorities. The woman was hanged; the officer was obliged to be present at the execution and was then locked up in a fortress. The deserter seems to have escaped with his life, being a valuable merchantable commodity.[Footnote: Lang, “Geschichte des vorletzten Markgrafen,” p. 92.]

Having enlisted his recruits, perhaps under a foreign jurisdiction, the officer, or under-officer, was obliged to get them to his garrison. This would afford, of course, opportunities for escape; and Kapp quotes, from a book printed in Berlin as late as 1805, the precautions to be taken against this danger. The under-officer who is escorting a recruit must wear sword and pistol. He must make the recruit walk in front of him, never let him come too near, and warn him that a single false step may cost him his life. He must avoid large towns, and places where the recruit has previously served, as much as possible. It is also desirable to avoid the place where the recruit was born. They must spend the night at inns where the landlord is known to be well-disposed to recruiting officers, and sure -to side with them, and not with their victim. The recruit and the officer must both undress, and their clothes be given to the landlord for safe keeping. Inns where recruits are to spend the night must have a separate room for the purpose; if possible, up-stairs, and with barred windows. A light must be kept burning all night, and the under-officer must give up his weapons to the landlord, lest the recruit should get them away from him and use them against him in the night. In the morning he must get them back, see to the loading and priming, dress himself, and be ready for his journey before the clothes of the recruit are brought to him. The recruit must enter a house, or a room, first; he must come out last. At meals he must sit behind the table, next the wall. If he shows signs of being troublesome, the straps and buttons must be cut from his breeches, and he must hold them up with his hands.

A good dog, trained to the business, will be very useful to an under-officer under such circumstances. If an under-officer is unfortunately obliged to kill or wound a recruit he must bring a paper from the local magistrate. But no document will excuse the escape of a recruit, an accident which the Prussian military imagination refuses to consider ever necessary.

The men collected to serve in America were of various qualities from a military point of view. They were all received and examined by an English commissioner, generally by Colonel Faucitt, who had negotiated the treaties, at the seaports before shipment, and while some of the regiments were pronounced excellent, others were found to be partly made up of old men and boys, unfit to endure the fatigues of a campaign. Some soldiers were rejected for these causes, especially in the latter years of the war, when good men were growing harder to get in many of the states.

It is not easy, from the documents before me, to judge what chance a private soldier had of promotion from the ranks. Seume writes that he himself had hopes of promotion, which were shattered by the ending of the war, as in time of peace no one who was not noble could aspire to be anything more than a sergeantmajor. Kapp speaks of the officers as belonging mostly to the lower nobility. The list of Hessian officers in 1779 does not bear out these statements. It appears that at that time more than one half of the officers were not noble, nobility being judged by the presence, or absence, of the mystic particle von.

We come at last to the character of the officers. Their education was generally confined to a limited amount of writing and a little barbarous French. They understood neither the cause for which the Americans were fighting, nor, at first, the language in which the statesmen of both contending parties argued their different claims. But had they understood far more than they did, their feelings would still have been on the side of royal prerogative against popular rights. I can recall no instance in which one of the German officers engaged in this war uses any expression showing him to have been in sympathy with the liberal intellectual movement of the eighteenth century. This conservatism was not necessary to make them go where they were ordered, nor did it prevent some of them from heartily wishing themselves at home again after a campaign or two in America. Once there, we find them talking about the despotism of Congress. This absurd idea was probably suggested to them by the English, and was taken up by the anti-American press in Germany. There is little doubt, too, that many, both of the officers and soldiers, looked forward with pleasure to active employment in America, if only to break up the monotony of garrison duty.

In spite of the injustice with which the rank and file had been treated, there are signs that many of these involuntary volunteers were not such bad fellows after all. The Germans have their fair share of those virtues which every nation is fond of claiming as its peculiar birthright; honesty, courage, kindliness. The motley mass had been shaped and welded by a rigorous, if often cruel discipline. They could not wipe out, to American eyes, the shame of their mercenary calling. But the shame fairly belonged to their princes, and not to themselves. In the field, or in captivity, they often deserved and sometimes obtained the respect of their opponents. Many of them became, in the end, citizens of the republic they were sent to destroy.

[ The Hessians In The Revolution ]