The Winter Of 1777

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



The Hessian officers and soldiers who had been taken prisoners at Trenton had to march on the 26th of December, 1776, over the same cold and snowy road by which the Americans had advanced to the attack. We can fancy them shivering in their uniforms, while their tattered and bare-footed captors marched gayly beside them, and forgot the icy wind in the glow of victory. Again the Delaware was crossed amid the cakes of floating ice, and we may be sure that it was not the ragged Americans whose teeth chattered ;[Footnote: It was not without danger that they crossed the Delaware. Wiedeihold says that he had to wade seventy paces to get to shore, with water and ice up to his breast.] but reaction came after so much labor and excitement, and on the morrow one half of the victorious army was worn out and disabled. For forty consecutive hours the Americans had stood to their arms, and marched and fought in the snow and sleet of a December storm, and nature now claimed a few days of rest and shelter. Only Washington was indefatigable, and although the term of service of a large part of his army was expiring, the great leader prepared to take advantage of his success.

The Hessian officers were treated with great courtesy by the American commanders. Washington expressed his sympathy with them immediately after their surrender. Stirling, who had but recently been exchanged after his capture on Long Island, told the officers that visited him that Heister had treated him like a brother, and that so would he treat them. He accompanied them on their visit to General Washington, and invited several of them to dinner.[Footnote: Stirling told the Hessian officers that the Americans at Trenton were “not stronger than six thousand men, and had fourteen cannon and two howitzers with them.” This expression may have been used to mislead the Germans. The Americans at Trenton, according to Bancroft, numbered but twenty-four hundred men, veterans chiefly of New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and Washington’s whole army in Pennsylvania at the time only sixty-two hundred effective men. See also p. 92, note.] Washington paid the same politeness to some of the others. One of his guests has left in his journal the record of the impression made on him by the most famous of Americans: “This general does not show in his face the greatness with which he is generally credited. His eyes have no fire, but the smiling character of his expression when he speaks inspires affection and respect.”

Wiederhold writes: “On the 28th, as I said, I dined, as did several other officers, with General Washington. He did me the honor of talking a great deal with me, about the unlucky affair, and as I freely told him my opinion that our arrangements had been bad, otherwise we should not have fallen into his hands, he asked me if I could have made a better arrangement, and how. Thereupon I said yes; mentioned all the faults that had been committed, and showed what I should have done, and how I would have got out of the scrape with honor. He not only applauded this, but made me a complimentary speech on the subject, as also on my watchfulness, and the defence I had made with my few men on the picket line, on the morning of the attack. General Washington is a courteous and elegant man, but seems to be very polite and reserved, speaks little, and has a sly physiognomy. He is not very tall and also not short, but of medium height, and has a good figure.” It is pleasant to imagine the scene—the farmhouse parlor, the fire of big logs, the guttering candles, the bowl of smoking punch, and General Washington discussing the art of war with his captive, who, though but a lieutenant, has seen foreign service, and may be worth listening to.

The prisoners were shortly marched off to Pennsylvania and Virginia. Everywhere the people flocked to see them, and if the alien invaders were sometimes met in their adversity with threats and curses, we must not blame too severely those whose sons and brothers the auxiliaries had been let out to slay. We shall rather find that the balance inlines to favor the American people, who on many occasions met their captive enemies with forgiveness and kindness. The prisoners’ escort invariably did its duty, and succeeded in protecting them from anything worse than verbal insult. The Hessian officers and men were separated from each other, and it is needless to follow their wanderings in detail. The officers were in Philadelphia, and called on General Israel Putnam on New Year’s Day. “He shook hands with each of us,” says one, in his journal, “and we all had to drink a glass of Madeira with him. This old graybeard may be a good, honest man, but nobody but the rebels would have made him a general.” [Footnote: Journal of the Regiment von Lossberg (Piel).]

After being quartered at Dumfries and in the Valley of Virginia, and suffering many petty annoyances, the officers were brought, in December, 1777, to Fredericksburg, where they were treated with great hospitality and kindness. Wiederhold becomes really pathetic at the idea of parting from his friends there. The prisoners had been much favored by the ladies of the neighborhood, who are, says the lieutenant, “beautiful, courteous, kindly, modest, and withal very natural and easy.” Sixteen ladies “ of the first rank” organized a surprise party, which visited the captain in his quarters, and of which he had been discreetly informed beforehand. He tells us that they came intending to spend only an hour, but stayed from half- past three to ten o’clock in the evening. General Washington’s brother, sister, and niece were among them. The German officers regaled their guests with tea, coffee, chocolate, claret wine, and cakes; and entertained them with music, both instrumental and vocal, in which the ladies sometimes joined. “In Europe we should not have got much honor by our music, but here we passed for masters. Sobbe played the flute, Surgeon Oliva the violin, and I the guitar. We were so overwhelmed with praise that we were really ashamed. Their friendship for us was too great. Some of the American young gentlemen were jealous.”

All this kindness had its effect upon the captives. A.t Dumfries, nine months before, Wiederhold had set down in his journal that he would rather have a small farm in Hesse than the greatest plantation in Virginia, and that America was good for people who were escaping the gallows at home. Now he was quite sad at leaving Fredericksburg, though it was to return to the army at Philadelphia. For this, however, he had personal reasons. “It was surely a great thing to enjoy so much friendship, yes, love, I may say, from people whose enemies we were, and against whom we were soon again to act as enemies. Yet, said a fair one, who was very favorably inclined to me, and whom I shall always respect and honor: ‘would God you could stay here, and that I might never be so unhappy as to part from you; as I may have to do tomorrow, and perhaps forever. But go where duty and honor call you, and be ever happy!’ This was magnanimity such as does not dwell in all rebels, for she was a good American in her feelings, beautiful and rich.” No wonder the lieutenant counted the miles as he marched away from Fredericksburg.

The private soldiers reached Philadelphia a few days later than the officers. Of their reception by the populace one of the corporals writes in his diary: “Big and little, old and young, stood there to see what sort of mortals we might be. When we came directly in front of them they looked sharply at us. The old women howled dreadfully, and wanted to throttle us all, because we had come to America to rob them of their freedom. Some others, in spite of all the scolding, brought brandy and bread, and wanted to give them to us, but the old women would not allow it, and still wished to strangle us. The American guard that had us in charge had received orders from Washington to lead us all about the town, so that everybody should see us; but the people crowded in on us with great fury, and nearly overpowered the guard. So when we were near the barracks our commanding officer said: ‘Dear Hessians, let us march into these barracks.’ We did so, and the whole American detachment had to check the raging people.” Why the American officer addressed his captives in terms of endearment does not appear, but a great degree of confidence seems to have been established between them. Eelking tells a story, hardly to be taken without a grain of salt, that when the party was being moved from Lancaster to Winchester, in the autumn of 1777, and came to the boundaries of Virginia, the Pennsylvania escort refused to march farther, and would not set foot on the sacred soil. In fact, they dispersed, and all went home. The escorting company which should have come to meet them from Winchester had not arrived. The captain who had been in command of the Pennsylvanians was a man of much presence of mind, and of equal confidence in human nature. He told the Hessians, whose affections he had won by his humanity, that they must march on without an escort, as he himself should hurry forward to Winchester. He trusted to the prisoners, promising them good treatment on their arrival. So he departed. The prisoners, if such they can be called, whom none constrained, marched on in an orderly manner. On the third day the old captain came back with an escort of Virginians, and found all the Hessians present at roll-call, though some unprincipled Englishmen had disappeared. The Germans were, thereupon, all treated to brandy, while the English captives had to take up their line of march without that stimulant, and the Hessians received many indulgences forever afterwards.[Footnote: Eelking’s “HUlfstruppen,” vol. i. pp. 138—141.]

Washington is said to have soothed the popular feeling by pointing out that the Hessians had come to America against their will. The lot of the prisoners seems not to have been unnecessarily hard. Many of the privates let themselves out as farm servants, and received food and wages.

So much of Washington’s little army as remained fit for service recrossed the Delaware in the last three days of December, and was speedily joined by Cadwalader’s and Muffin’s commands. This raised their numbers to about five thousand, of whom three fifths were ignorant of military service. Against this small force Cornwallis advanced with a larger number of British and Hessian veterans. He came with his whole force from Princeton by Maidenhead, in spite of Do- flop’s advice to march in two columns, on both sides of the Assanpink. Some skirmishing took place on the 2d of January, 1777, and Lieutenant Grothausen of the chasseurs, who had escaped from Trenton seven days before, without having done his whole duty, as some people thought, was killed. Eelking relates that he was shot by some riflemen, who decoyed him under pretence of surrendering.

On the afternoon of the second of January the English and American armies stood face to face on opposite sides of the Assanpink River. In vain did several officers urge Cornwallis to attack at once. The sun was sinking, the bridge had been successfully defended, the English army must ford the stream to get at their enemy, and the event seemed doubtful. The British general determined to delay the attack until the following day. Washington did not venture to stake the fate of America on the resistance of his undisciplined militia. The night was cold and the roads in good condition for the passage of artillery. Wood was piled on the American watch-fires, and a guard left to replenish them. Meanwhile, the American army, passing round Lord Cornwallis’s left flank, marched away through the clear January night, and at nine in the morning attacked three English regiments of foot and three companies of horse at Princeton. These the Americans routed, killing and wounding about two hundred men and taking two hundred and thirty prisoners, of whom fourteen were British officers. The American loss of men was small, but of officers heavy, owing to a check at the beginning of the affair. This victory at Princeton was the last engagement of the campaign which deserves the name of a battle. The British abandoned the greater part of New Jersey, retaining only New Brunswick, Amboy, and Paulus Hook. But the outposts of the two armies kept up a skirmishing warfare throughout the winter. Thus, on the th of January, 1777, a party of about fifty Waldeckers was attacked by a body of militia, “not superior in numbers,” who killed eight or ten and made prisoners of the remainder, including two officers.[Footnote: Washington, vol. iv. p. 264]

In this skirmishing kind of warfare, the leading part, in so far as the Hessians were concerned, was taken by the jagers, or chasseurs, as the English and Americans called them. These were trained marksmen, recruited among the hunters and gamekeepers of Germany. One company of them had come to America with von Heister, in August, 1776, another, under Captain Ewald, with von Knyphausen in October. They were found so useful that the establishment was raised, by special treaty with the Landgrave, during the winter of i777, to one thousand and sixty-seven men, in five companies, one of which was mounted. Other companies were procured from Hanau and Anspach. The corps, after the summer of 1777, was under the command of Lieutenant-colonel von Wurmb, but the companies or detached parties very generally acted separately. There were, indeed, few operations of any importance in which the chasseurs did not take part. We can easily believe that they made many a bold and lucky stroke, and yet shrug our shoulders a little when we are informed that the American militia wore broad-brimmed hats, which they used to draw down over their eyes for protection against the wind and snow, so that the chasseurs were able to slip up to them in broad daylight, and strike them down or disarm them before they knew it. Those Yankees are usually such very sleepy fellows.[Footnote: Eelking’s “HUlfstruppen,” vol. i. p. 182.—For the text of the treaties concerning chasseurs with Hesse-Cassel and Hesse.Hanau, see “Parliamentary Register,” 1st series, vol. vi. p. 152, and vol. vii. p.49. It seems probable that the total number of Hessian chasseurs was never reached. When organized in the summer of 1777, the corps numbered six hundred chasseurs, of whom one hundred and five were Anspachers, and thirty grenadiers, with two three-pounders.—Journal of the Jager Corps.]

Ewald tells us that in the early part of the year i777 Lord Cornwallis determined to surprise Boundbrook, in New Jersey, which was held by one thousand Americans under Colonel Butler. The attack was to be made in three divisions. The first, under General Matthews, was to make a feint on the front of the American works. The second, under Cornwallis, was to pass to the left, by Somerset, round Butler’s position, and take it in the rear. The third, marching to the right by Greenbrook, was to cut off the retreat of the enemy to Morristown. Ewald commanded the advanced guard of the First Division. The road from Raritan Landing to Boundbrook, leading up the left side of the Raritan River, andb about two and a half miles in length, ended in a causeway over a morass. Through the morass ran a brook, over which was a stone bridge. The Americans had built a redoubt to command the bridge and the causeway.

The division started about two in the morning. Half-way to Boundbrook, Ewald, well ahead as usual, thought he saw something stirring. In the hope of surprising a hostile patrol, he sent back a messenger to order the rest of his men to come up quietly. He was discovered, however, and challenged. Calling in a low voice to his soldiers, he advanced close to the enemy, who turned out to be about thirty strong. They fired a volley and made off, and Ewald after them. Contrary to orders, the chasseurs also fired a few shots. It would have been better, says Ewald, to follow them slowly, as they might have taken the chasseurs for an ordinary patrol, such as was to be met with on that road almost every night. Ewald hoped, however, to make his way over the causeway and into the redoubt with the Americans, but the distance was too great and day was breaking. He had followed his nose, he says, and forgotten to look behind him, until, coming within a hundred yards of the redoubt, he found himself exposed to a sharp fire, which wounded some of his volunteers. He then looked round and found that his whole force consisted of one lieutenant and seven men. With these he threw himself upon the bridge, hardly forty yards from the redoubt, and dodged behind the stone parapet. He hoped that more of his party would come to the rescue, but it turned out that General Matthews had commanded the column to halt, as he did not wish to sacrifice lives unnecessarily. Ewald’s seven chasseurs kept firing at the embrasures of the redoubt, and their fire was hotly answered, but no one on their side was hit. In less than a quarter of an hour they had the pleasure of hearing brisk firing beyond the redoubt, which had been taken in its rear by Cornwallis. The garrison abandoned the work, and Ewald, with his lieutenant and seven men, proceeded to take possession, and captured twelve prisoners into the bargain. “But,” says Ewald, “it was through my error that Lord Cornwallis took only one hundred and fifty prisoners and two cannon, instead of a thousand men. For the enemy were awakened by the firing of the redoubt, and got time to escape, together with General Lincoln.” [Footnote: Ewald’s “Belebrungen,” vol. ii. p. 122.—The date was April 3th, 1777. Lincoln had about five hundi-ed men in Boundbrook.—Bancroft, vol. ix. p. 346. The Americans lost two lieutenants and about twenty men, and two guns. The British stayed about an hour and a half and then returned to Brunswick, and General Lincoln took his post again.— Washington, vol. iv. p. 391 n.]

Here is another of Ewald’s anecdotes, concerning this campaign: “When we were posted at New Brunswick, in Jersey, in the beginning of the year 1777, during the American war, I had charge of the outermost end of the picket line near Raritan Landing, on the Boundbrook road. This post could only be held through great watchfulness, and on account of the love and good-will of the chasseurs to myself. We were daily skirmishing with the Americans, for we were only about a mile apart. One morning towards spring, the Americans, under cover of a thick fog, crept so near to one of my outposts that they reached one of my pickets at the same moment with a patrol I had sent out, and routed it. They rushed in on me so quickly as to get within about two hundred yards of me. Fortunately, there was a sunken road between us, into which I threw myself with sixteen chasseurs, calling to Lieutenant Hinrichs to cover my right flank with the rest of the men until Captain Wreeden could come up with his company. Just as I reached the sunken road I received the brisk fire of a regiment of light infantry, under Colonel Buttlar, whereupon my men, who were usually brave fellows, lost their heads and ran away. Astonished, as you may readily believe, I called after them, ‘You may run to the devil, but I’ll stay here alone.’ At this moment I perceived that one man, Jager Bauer, had stayed by me. He answered, ‘ No, you shall not stay alone,’ and he called after the chasseurs that were making off: ‘Boys! stop! a scoundrel runs away.’ After he had shouted out these words a few times they all came back and fought like brave fellows. The Americans, who had kept up a continual fire all this time, had not been aware of this frightful scrape I had been in. Captain Wreeden, and the light infantry of the English guard, under Colonel Osborn, came to our assistance, and the Americans were driven back with great loss and pushed nearly to Boundbrook.” [Footnote: Ewald’s “Belehrungen,” vol. i. p. 15.] Jäger Bauer, who stood by Ewald on this occasion, was an insignificant-looking fellow from the Anspach district. Ewald had at first refused to take him into the company on account of his appearance, but had been persuaded to enlist him on seeing the excellence of his shooting. Shortly after the affair above mentioned Bauer gave another proof of his daring. On the morning of the 25th of May, Ewald, with a party of eleven chasseurs and thirty dragoons, fell into an ambuscade near Boundbrook. They were surrounded and in danger of being taken, and just at that moment Ewald’s horse stumbled, and the captain lay in the road. When the chasseurs, who were a little way off, saw their captain’s horse coming towards them riderless, Bauer and two others started out to bring off the injured officer. They carried him back amid a shower of lead, and had got him into a safe place, when Bauer noticed that Ewald’s hat was missing. “We must go get it,” said he, “or they will carry our captain’s hat in triumph into Boundbrook to-morrow.” So they ran back again, and actually brought off the hat in spite of the bullets.[Footnote: Eelking’s “Hdlfstruppen,” vol. i. p. 186.]

Ewald asserts that Colonel Reed visited Donop twice before the surprise of Trenton, on the pretext of making an exchange of prisoners, but really for the purpose of reconnoitring. He goes on to tell the following story: “In the same way the two colonels, Hamilton and Schmidt,[Footnote: Lieutenant-colonel William S. Smith of New York (?).] came with a trumpeter to the post which I held near New Brunswick, in Jersey, in the beginning of the campaign of 1777, after General Howe had advanced from New Brunswick to Milztown,[Footnote: Millstone, an American proper name spelled by Ewald, can often be considered no more than a hint.] and marched back again. They had unimportant letters to General Grant from two English officers of his brigade, who had been taken prisoners the day before, through their own carelessness in riding about for pleasure. I let these two gentlemen, who were very elegant and polite men, understand that I was very well aware of their business, and gave them the well-meant advice to be off as quickly as possible, and not to visit me again in a hurry. At this they seemed very much astonished, but followed my advice with all speed. I would certainly have sent them under arrest to headquarters, with their eyes bound, if I had not known from experience that people would have laughed at such prudent measures against the Americans. The best thing to do, when such gentlemen come at unseasonable times with messages, is to take them about with one for at least half a campaign.”[Footnote: Ewald’s “Belehrungen,” vol. iii. p. 339.]

I do not at all believe that Hamilton came to the British outposts with the object here attributed to him, and I am certain that if he did so it was without Washington’s knowledge. There is no reason, however, to doubt that Ewald suspected him, and dismissed him as described.

It was in this winter of 1776—77 that negotiations began in consequence of which Lieutenant_general von Heister was recalled from the command of the Hessian troops, and Lieutenant-general von Knyp hausen succeeded him. The recall was insisted on by Lord Suffolk on the ground that Sir William Howe was not satisfied with Heister. How far Sir William’s dislike may have been caused by purely personal reasons, or how far the suspicion may be justified that Heister was too “regardful of the preservation of the troops under his command,” it is perhaps now impossible to determine. But we know that Howe was dissatisfied with Heister before the affair at Trenton, at a time when the English losses had been decidedly heavier than the Hessian. Heister had, by the treaty between the King of England and the Landgrave, a right to the immediate command of about one half of Sir William Howe’s army. The stipulations of the treaty were sufficiently indefinite to have given rise to many questions. Heister is said to have been unruly. At any rate, he did not get on well with his commanding officer. This should have been a sufficient reason for recalling him.

The English government preferred not to appear openly in the matter, and the recall was made by the Landgrave on the ground of Heister’s health and age, and only “for a time.” It was well understood, however, that the old general was going off in disgrace. To Knyphausen the Landgrave writes: “Nothing but the entire neglect of all order and discipline can have brought this shame [of Trenton] upon us. I think it very necessary to speak with Lieutenantgenera1 von Heister on the subject, and his health is, moreover, not robust enough for the climate over there. I therefore write to him to come here for a while, and confer the command ad interim over my troops in America on yourself.” Heister quite understood that he was in disgrace, and died within two months after reaching Cassel, of sorrow and disappointment.[Footnote: Heister did not actually leave the army until June 22d, 1777. For the negotiations concerning his recall, see Eelking’s “Hülfstruppen,” vol. j. pp. 388—393.]

In the early spring of 1777 the actual possessions of the King of England on the soil of the United States may be summed up as follows: In the State of New York, the islands in the harbor, and perhaps a little piece of Westchester County, near King’s Bridge. In New Jersey, Amboy, New Brunswick, and Paulus Hook. In Rhode Island, the actual island. But the importance of these posts was out of all proportion to their extent. Sir William Howe commanded an army, small, indeed, as modern armies are reckoned, but large enough to outnumber that of Washington, and composed of disciplined troops, many of them veterans, while the American force was a shifting mass, principally made up of militia. Congress had voted, on one of the last days of 1776, that Washington be allowed to raise, organize, and officer sixteen battalions of infantry, three thousand light horsemen, three regiments of artillery, and a corps of engineers. But these troops, the first army of the United States, as such, together with the eighty-eight battalions to be furnished at the same time by the several states, as yet existed principally on paper. On the 14th of March, 1777, Washington writes to Congress: “From the most accurate estimate that I can form, the whole of our numbers in Jersey, fit for duty at this time, is under three thousand. These, nine hundred and eighty-one excepted, are militia, and stand engaged only till the last of this month. The troops under inoculation, including their attendants, amount to about one thousand.”[Footnote: Washington, vol. iv. p. 364.] Sir William Howe’s army at this date can hardly have numbered less than twenty-five thousand soldiers.

The handful of men who actively upheld the cause of American freedom were without money, without credit, often without clothing. Against them were pitted the might of a great empire, the loyalty inspired by an ancient monarchy, an unlimited credit, incalculable resources. A second British army was preparing to co-operate from Canada with that under Sir William Howe, and by occupying the line of the Hudson, to cut the country in two. The Americans could not hope for foreign help until they should have shown their ability to help themselves. Their reliance could only be on their own steadfastness, and on the genius and patriotic fortitude of their Great Leader.

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