J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Christopher Ludwick and the Prisoners of War

Yesterday I spotlighted a new picture book called Gingerbread for Liberty!, about a baker named Christopher Ludwick and his activity during the Revolutionary War. Author Mara Rockliff’s main source for that book was Dr. Benjamin Rush’s friendly short biography written shortly after Ludwick died, so how much documentary support is there for his feats?

In fact, Ludwick shows up a bunch of times in the papers of the Continental Congress and Gen. George Washington’s headquarters. He had served in the Austrian and Prussian armies before settling in Philadelphia, so he could speak to the Crown’s Hessian soldiers in their native German language and with some shared experience.

In August 1776, Ludwick was with the Continental forces in New Jersey, perhaps observing the system for supplying the men with bread. On the 14th the Congress resolved to offer fifty acres of land and guaranteed religious freedom to any foreigner who deserted from the British army. That offer was translated into German and copied for distribution among the Hessian troops. But who would pass out those handbills?

Gen. Hugh Mercer summoned Ludwick and on 19 August sent him to Washington’s headquarters. Later that day quartermaster general Joseph Reed, who had (badly) handled Washington’s first espionage efforts back in Massachusetts, passed Ludwick on to William Livingston, about to be governor of New Jersey, writing:
Mr. Ludwig the bearer of this, puts his Life in his Hand on this Occasion in order to serve the Interests of America. We cannot doubt your kind Advice & Assistance as to Mode but must beg it may not be communicated farther least a Discovery may be made which must prove fatal to Mr. Ludwig
Ludwick crossed the Raritan River to Staten Island late on 22 August and returned the next day. Livingston told Mercer, “Ludwig is just now returned disappointed.” But the baker apparently tried again. On 26 August Gen. Washington reported to the Congress: “The papers designed for the Foreign Troops have been put into several Channels in order that they might be conveyed to ’em, and from the Information I had yesterday, I have reason to beleive many have fallen into their Hands.”

A couple of days later, Ludwick was on his way back to Philadelphia, carrying a letter to John Adams complaining about the bread supply—a hint he may have already been lobbying for that business.

The following months didn’t go well for the Continental Army, but they did take some German-speaking prisoners. Ludwick ended up overseeing eight such men. In November Gen. Washington wrote to the Congress “to request you will negotiate an Exchange of the Hessian Prisoners at Elizabeth Town under the Care of Mr Ludwick as soon as possible. They have been treated in such a Manner during their Stay in this City, that it is apprehended, their going back among their Countrymen, will be attended with some good Consequences.”

Ludwick argued that treating Hessians well before exchanging them would make those men eager to desert at their next opportunity, and to bring others with them. Rush’s biography of Ludwick suggested that tactic was sucessful. However, Daniel Krebs’s recent study A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War During the American Revolution (its title taken from Ludwick’s writing) states that none of the eight Hessian men exchanged in late 1776 ever deserted.

In March 1777 Ludwick was still making that argument to Congress, recommending that it designate a “discreet & humane German Person” as “Guardian of the German Prisoners” to be “their Counsel & solemn Witness in Contracts which they may make with their Employers.” He assured the Congress that
Many of the Hessians and Waldeckish Prisoners of War especially single men are so well pleased with this Country and the Way of its Inhabitants that at all Events they would rather prefer to settle here than to return to the dreary abodes of Bondage from whence they came.
Krebs notes that Ludwick might have been hoping to gain the labor of these prisoners for little money. But he also seems to have been genuinely motivated by charity and enthusiasm for life in America. In the end, the Congress didn’t adopt that plan, and few of the German-speaking soldiers captured in that campaign defected to the U.S. of A.

Instead, the Congress asked Ludwick to take on another position.

TOMORROW: “Baker General.”

1 comment:

Daniel Krebs said...


Thanks for your comments on my work. Really like your blog.

Daniel Krebs
University of Louisville