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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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Hagist on Looting by the Hessians

At the first Battle of Trenton in December 1776, Gen. George Washington’s army surprised the king’s troops and took over 900 prisoners, as later detailed on this government document.

The three infantry regiments those men came from were designated by the names of their commanders, not by numbers in the British army. And those names were German, as the prisoners were.

According to Don Hagist’s new book, Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution, those “Hessians” were already gaining a poor reputation for looting, even among their own allies. Don writes:
…by late 1776, the army in America was no longer all British. Needing more professional, campaign-ready troops than could be spared from Britain or raised and trained rapidly, the British government augmented the army with regiments from German states. Collectively called Hessians even though regiments came not only from Hessen-Kassel and Hessen-Hanau but also Braunschweig-Lüneburg, Anspach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and other states, these troops also had an appetite for plunder—and it was on them that many British officers laid the bulk of the blame.

Major Stephen Kemble, an American-born officer serving as deputy adjutant general, confided several complaints to his journal in 1776. “The Ravages committed by the Hessians, and all Ranks of the Army, on the poor Inhabitants of the Country, make their case deplorable; the Hessians destroy all the fruits of the Earth without regard to Loyalists or Rebels, the property of both being equally a prey to them, in which our Troops are too ready to follow their Example, and are but too much Licensed in it,” he wrote on October 3. A month later, he repeated the lament: “The Country all this time unmercifully Pillaged by our Troops, Hessians in particular, no wonder if the Country People refuse to join us.” . . .

The Germans, with no sense of attachment to America as their nation’s colony, behaved as European troops normally did in an enemy country, despite receiving the same orders and admonitions as their British allies.
Don Hagist’s book has a lot more to say about the men who made up the British army, and how they differed both from the Hessians and from common conceptions of them. For a taste, check out his recent online talk for the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton.

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