Seeing the Revolutionary War Through Germany’s Eyes

By Cassandra Sottile
Elm Staff Writer
In the 1770s and 1780s, Britain employed at least 30,000 German soldiers, known as Hessians, to assist in quelling the American rebellion. In 1778, one-third of Britain’s troops were German auxiliaries. The Hessians’ role in the American Revolutionary War is often minimized by historians; they are frequently depicted as losers or plunderers in the war, specifically at the Battle of Trenton.
On Wednesday, March 29, Associate Professor of History Dr. Ken Miller introduced Professor Friederike Baer as part of the series.
“Her talk, ‘Hurray to America: German Auxiliary Troops in the War for American Independence,’ is drawn from her forthcoming book with Oxford University Press that centers around the 30,000 German troops who fought alongside the British during America’s War for Independence,” Miller said.
An Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, Baer focuses on German-speaking people in early American history. Baer has been awarded a range of fellowships from prestigious institutions such as the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the German Historical Institute, and the David Library of the American Revolution.
“For the small role they were given in history, a lot is known about the Hessians, through the records of business transactions between Britain and Germany and the letters of the troops themselves, which were consistent with the ‘Century of the Letter,’” Baer said.
Not all of the German city-states were scouted by Britain for regiments of soldiers. At the time, Germany was divided into 300 city-states; only Braunchweig, Waldeck, Hessen-Hanou, Anhalt-Zerbst, Hessen-Kassel, and Ansbach-Bayreuth supplied German soldiers as auxiliaries.
“The German soldiers fighting in the war were auxiliaries, or troops recruited and hired as regiments by rulers. In history, they are portrayed as mercenaries, which are individuals for pay in the army,” Baer said.
There was already lukewarm support for British efforts to put down the American Revolution. Training and deploying native troops was believed to take too much time; therefore King George’s decision seemed reasonable and was a common practice.
“The first treaties were signed in 1775, and in 1776 the first regiments of German troops were deployed, including clergymen, surgeons, musicians, women, and children. In the records, only 351 women were listed, and there was no mention of children. If it were not for the one memoir of the wife of a German general, we would know nothing of German women’s involvement at all,” Baer said.
“Professor Baer’s talk gave me real insight as to the nature of these hired regiments, their families, and their actions in America,” freshman Mairin Corasaniti said. “She gave a very comprehensive lecture on the auxiliary troops and how their role in the American Revolution and other conflicts has been oversimplified and undervalued.”
Once the regiments of troops arrived in the U.S., many of whom had no military experience, minimal English language experience, and almost no knowledge or understanding of the new country, they were guarded at all times. Of all the German soldiers to fight in the Revolutionary War, 17,313 of them returned home to Germany, 6,354 died from accidents or illness, 1,200 were killed in action, and 4,972 stayed in the U.S.
Deputy Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience, Dr. Pat Nugent, said, “Professor Baer’s talk really put the ‘T’ in transnational history, tracing the lives of 30,000 German soldiers across oceans, nations and ports — not to mention dozens of archives across Europe and America — on their way to fight in the Revolutionary War, what many consider the first truly global war.”
The Guy F. Goodfellow Memorial Lecture Series was created in 1989 to honor the memory of the late history professor who taught at Washington College for 30 years. Its intent is to bring a distinguished historian to campus each year for a public presentation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *