The Brunswickers in Canada, 1776

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



The Brunswick contingent of the German troops hired by England to suppress the revolt in her North American colonies was commanded by Baron Fried- rich Adolph von Riedesel. He was of a noble Hessian family, and was born in 1738. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Marburg to study law, though he hardly knew how to write and had learned but a few scraps of Latin. A battalion of Hessian infantry was quartered at Marburg at the time, and Riedesel liked better to look at the soldiers than to listen to the professors of the school. The major, who had made the boy’s acquaintance, saw the chance of a recruit. He advised Riedesel to enter his company in the hope of advancement, and told him, moreover, that he was well acquainted with his father, and would write to him to ask his consent to the scheme. Shortly afterwards the major told Riedesel that he had heard from the latter’s father, who had consented to his enlistment. The boy was delighted at the news, and was presently mustered into the service. When he wrote to thank his father, however, he received a disappointing answer. The Baron von Riedesel had never heard of the major, and had never granted permission to his son to leave the profession chosen for him. Now that the young man had entered the service, his honor obliged him to stand by his colors, but he must look for no more assistance from his father. Nothing remained for young Riedesel but to make the best of his circumstances. The whole affair was but an instance of the German recruiting system of the time.

The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel had let out some of his regiments to England. Riedesel accompanied his battalion to that country with the rank of an ensign. He had not stayed there long enough, however, to learn the language perfectly, before his regiment was ordered back to Germany to take part in the Seven Years’ War, in which England and Prussia, with Han over, Brunswick, and some of the smaller German states, were opposed to France, Austria, Russia, and Sweden. From this time Riedesel’s advancement was rapid. He became a favorite of Prince Ferdinand, and exchanged the service of Hesse for that of Brunswick. He had risen to the rank of colonel at the time of the outbreak of the American Revolution, and was ap.. pointed major-general on the day when he marched from Brunswick at the head of the contingent for America.

Riedesel saw nothing disgraceful in the work in which he was engaged. He was a soldier of a type common in the eighteenth century, and in military matters knew no duty but his orders. He was, moreover, a tender husband and father, and his wife and children were to follow him to the New World as soon as the health of the former would allow it. “Dearest wife,” writes he from his first halting-place, “never have I suffered more than this morning as I came away. My heart was breaking, and if I could have returned, who knows what I might have done. But, my love, God has given me this calling; I must follow it; duty and honor bind me to it, and I must console myself and not complain.”[Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, p. 1.]

General Riedesel set out from Brunswick on the 22d of February, 1776, for Stade, on the Elbe, at the head of two thousand two hundred and eighty-two men. The troops were embarked between the 12th and the 17th of March, and got to sea on the 22d of that month. There were seventy-seven soldiers’ wives with this division. The remainder of the Brunswick contingent marched to Stade in the month of May. The divisions amounted together to the number of forty-three hundred men. The regiment of Hesse-Hanau, six hundred and sixty-eight strong, joined the expedition at Portsmouth. The Brunswickers were reviewed and mustered into the English service by Colonel Faucitt, who was not pleased with the appearance of the soldiers. Many were too old, many were half- grown boys. The uniforms of the first division were so bad that the English government was obliged to advance £5000 to Riedesel to get his men a new outfit in Portsmouth. He was cheated by the English contractors, and when the cases of shoes were opened at sea, they were found to contain ladies’ slippers. For a Canadian campaign no overcoats had been provided. New uniforms for the first division were sent after them in the course of the summer.[Footnote: As late as January, 1779, fourteen Brunswick soldiers and two sol. diers’ wives froze to death on a march in Canada, and about thirty were frost-bitten; and their officer excused himself on the ground that they were insufficiently clad.—Eelking’s “Hulfstruppen,” vol. ii. p. 187.]

The general was well pleased with the spirit of his troops. “I cannot sufficiently describe the contentment of our soldiers,” writes he from shipboard, to his old chief, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick; “all are bright and in good spirits.” [Footnote: Eelking’s “Riedesel,” vol. ii. p. 18.] Soon, however, sea-sickness came to add to the discomfort of the crowded ships. “The soldiers have almost all been sick, and most of them continue so, as do also my servants,” writes Riedesel to his wife from off Dover. “The poor cook is so bad that he can’t work at all, nor so much as lift his hand. This is very uncomfortable for us, for Captain Foy and I have to do our own cooking. You would laugh to see us.” Before the end of the voyage the drinking-water was foul.[Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, pp. 13, 22.]

The fleet of thirty sail weighed anchor at Portsmouth on the 4th of April, and arrived off Cape Gaspé on the i6th of May and before Quebec on the 1st of June. Riedesel here received the command of a separate corps made up of one English and two German battalions, with one hundred and fifty Canadians and three hundred Indians, and posted along the St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal. “This country will delight you; it is as beautiful as can be,” writes Riedesel to his wife on the 8th of June; and again, on the 28th, he says: “You will find this neighborhood beautiful. It is only a pity that the colonies are still in their childhood, so that vegetables, fruit, and such other things as belong to a good table are very hard to find; but we have meat, poultry, and milk in profusion. The houses are all only of one story, but have many rooms in them, and are very clean. The inhabitants are very polite and obliging, and I do not believe that our peasants would behave so well under similar circumstances.”

So slowly did news travel at that time, that the defeat of Montgomery and Arnold before Quebec, on the 31st of December, 1775, was not known in England when the fleet sailed thence. It was first learned by Riedesel and his companions on their way up the St. Lawrence River. Shortly after their arrival Canada was cleared of” rebel” troops as far as the northern end of Lake Champlain, on which lake the Americans had improvised a fleet, consisting of four sloops, eight “gondolas,” and three row-galleys. The summer was spent by the British in building vessels of war and transports for an advance up the lake. The troops were quartered, or encamped, along the St. Lawrence and Richelieu rivers, and but one considerable skirmish occurred to break the routine of drill, countermarching, and intrenchment while the boat-building was in progress.

On the 23d of June General Riedesel was present at a solemn meeting in the former Jesuits’ Church at Montreal, between General Carleton, Governor of Canada, and the chiefs of the Five Nations. All the principal officers of the army were invited, and about three hundred Indians were present. The European officers were provided with chairs in the choir of the church, the governor sitting in the middle with his hat on. The Indians sat on benches in the body of the building, smoking their pipes. After speeches had been made and interpreted, the services of the Indians were accepted by the English general, and posts were assigned to them. The Indians shook hands with the European officers, and rebel scalps were presented to Generals Carleton, Burgoyne, and Phillips. What the English gentlemen did with these charming presents of their humane allies does not appear. At a later conference, held by General Carleton with Indians from farther west, one of them appeared wearing the uniform of General Braddock, whom he himself claimed to have killed.

Of Montreal Riedesel says: “This city is, indeed, somewhat finer than Quebec, and has about sixteen hundred houses. It is surrounded by nothing more than a wall, with loopholes for cannon and musketry, and what is called the citadel is a block-house in very bad condition. These works were begun in 1736. The whole island of Montreal, as well as the city, belongs to the seminary. . . . Near this seminary, is the best garden in all Canada, but it is not better laid out than that of a private person at home. They have most sorts of European plants there.”

At last, on the gth of September, the transports were ready for an advance up Lake Champlain. It was necessary, however, to wait a month longer for the war vessels. These, when completed, exceeded those of the Americans more than two to one, both in numbers and in the weight of metal carried. They were manned by picked English sailors, while the sloops and gondolas under Benedict Arnold were mostly sailed and commanded by landsmen. The result was what might have been expected. Arnold chose, on the ioth of October, 1776, a disadvantageous position between Valcour Island and the western shore of the lake. Here he maintained an unequal fight on the i ith, and hence he escaped on the following night by boldly slipping through the line of the British fleet. On the 13th he was overtaken by Carleton near the Island of the Four Winds. Some of the boats struck; some were run ashore and burned; only five escaped. Arnold and his crews behaved with the greatest courage throughout; but courage alone could not compensate for want of seamanship and for inferior numbers. Some of the Germans took part in the naval engagement of the iith, and one of the batteaux on which were the Hanau artillery was sunk by the American fire. The soldiers and sailors that manned it, however, were saved by another boat.[Footnote: For a graphic account of the fight of October 11th, see the MS. “Tagebuch vom Capit. Pausch.”]

Presently, after this naval battle, Carleton occupied Crown Point without opposition. Scouting parties were pushed out into the neighborhood of Ticonderoga. Riedesel was so near that fortress on the 22d or 23d of October as to see it plainly from a hill. He thought it might easily be taken by the British army in Canada, were the whole of that army to be brought forward, yet he reckoned the numbers of the effective garrison decidedly too high. Sir Guy Carleton chose to think it too late to undertake further conquests that autumn. He even abandoned Crown Point and retired to the northern end of the lake.

The troops were ordered into winter quarters; the Germans along the Richelieu River and in the neighborhood of Lake St. Pierre. Riedesel’s headquarters were at Trois Rivières. Pains were taken that the presence of the soldiers should not weigh too heavily on the inhabitants, unless on those who had shown sympathy with the rebels. Strict discipline was maintained. The soldiers received rations, and cut their own firewood in the forest. The labor of hauling the wood when cut, and of cocking, seems to have been laid on the inhabitants. The soldiers were provided with long trousers of thick cloth, coming up high on the body, and warm mittens and hoods.

The second division of Brunswickers had arrived in Canada in September, after a long and stormy passage. Officers and men had at last been put on short rations of musty food. When the division, of about two thousand soldiers, arrived in Quebec, nineteen men had died and one hundred and thirty-one were sick of the scurvy.

The long Canadian winter presently set in. It was employed by Riedesel in drilling his troops when the weather would allow it, and especially in practising them in shooting. He had noticed that the Americans were better marksmen than the Germans, and he exerted himself to remedy this deficiency of his soldiers. He travelled over eighteen hundred miles in the course of the winter in a sleigh, visiting his scattered detachments, and waiting on General Carleton in Quebec and Montreal. He was at the former place on the 31st of December, 1776, when a solemn service was held in the cathedral to celebrate the deliverance of the city from Arnold and Montgomery on that day of the preceding year. The service was conducted by the bishop, and eight unfortunate Canadians had to do open penance, with halters round their necks, and beg pardon of God, the Church, and King George for having helped the Americans.[Footnote: Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. iv. p. 306.]

During the latter part of the winter Riedesel gave a ball at Trois Rivières every week, partly to please the inhabitants and partly to keep his officers out of mischief. The 20th of January, the birthday of the Queen of England, was celebrated with great pomp. Forty guests sat down to dinner. Healths were drunk in champagne, and a small cannon was fired at every toast, after the manner of the first act of “Hamlet.” In the afternoon and evening was a ball, at which so many as thirty-seven ladies appeared. To these supper was served in the evening, and they were waited upon by the gentlemen. “The Demoiselle de Tonnencour,” writes an eye-witness, “ increased her charms by her jewels, but poor Demoiselle R—e, in her shabby cotton gown, was preferred by many of us, on account of her natural and pleasant manners and her beautiful voice. You must know, sir, that the Canadian fair ones sing French and Italian songs at table, and that several songs have already been written and composed in honor of General Riedesel, and that they are often sung at Trois Rivières.” So, with duty and pleasure, the months wore away until the beginning of June, 1777, when an eventful campaign was to open for the Brunswickers.[Footnote: Ibid., vol. iv. pp. 308, 309.]

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