Achtung Baby! 

 by Dan Shippey & Michael Burns

   Hessians! A word that inspired fear in Washington’s army. German soldiers whose service was purchased by King George to fight against the American rebels. Their name originated from the fact that the many of the soldiers (almost 13,000) came from the germanic state of Hesse-Cassel, as did their commander General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. They were royal subjects impressed into service by their various Princes, Counts and Dukes, disciplined and trained to be among the best soldiers in the world, then hired out to swell their leaders’ purses. Throughout the war, approximately 30,000 of these soldiers came to fight against the patriots in America.

     Almost everything about these troop seemed foreign and frightening to the early American army, who were, after all, largely militia and green soldiers in a new army. The Hessians wore crisp blue and white uniforms with tall pointed miter hats.  Their hair was worn in a long “rattenschwanz” or rat tail wrapped tightly in cloth.  Many had mustaches, while colonial Americans shunned facial hair. Their foreign appearance and strange language made them an exotic threat which allowed the imaginations of Americans to ascribe all kinds of wild stories to these alien boogymen. A generation later, author Washington Irving would write the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  He fashioned his nightmare figure The Headless Horseman as, “the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball.” In fact, while some Hessians were crack units deserving fear and respect, many were just poor men forced to be soldiers and working for food rations. Many Loyalists who supported King George changed sides to support the patriots when they heard their King had hired foreign mercenaries to “invade” their land. From the time the first Hessian soldiers landed at Staten Island on August 15th, 1776, they were involved in most of the major battles and campaigns. The first action they saw was the battle of Long Island, and there were even a number of Hessian troops that fought at Yorktown five years later in 1781. These men made up almost a quarter of all the British forces in America. 

         The Hesse Cassel flag

    One of the more interesting facts about the Hessian soldiers in America is what became of them after the war. Estimates say that of the 30,000 who came to fight only 17,000 returned to their German homeland. Almost 8,000 died in combat or from illness in America, but that leaves 5,000 unaccounted for. What became of this final 6th of the Hessian troops? Their descendants live among us today.     




Almost 5,000 soldiers who were sent to fight stayed and built lives for themselves. To give that perspective, the entire population in the city of New York in 1776 was just a little over 5,000. Some were enticed to defect because the Americans were offering land and money to defect. Others just saw the possibility of a better life in a new country. I mentioned before that their descendants live among us; I should also mention that one is writing this article. Shortly after beginning the research on this piece I discovered the information linking my family to the story of Hessians in America. 


A surviving Hessian miter helmet

      My 5th Great Grandfather, Frederick Hill, was born Frederick Hiller in Brunswick, Germany in either 1745 or 1750. According to A.D. Hiller (1939):  "Frederick Hill was in the British Army under General Burgoyne in the northern part of New York State, when he and seventeen other soldiers left the British and on June 14, 1777, crossed the Hudson River in an old boat, using their hats for oars, and joined the American Army under General Gates, served under Major (William) Washington (Light Dragoons), was present at the capture of Burgoyne's Army, after which, he, with eight of the men who crossed the Hudson with him, was sent to Springfield, New Jersey, where he served under Captain Andrew Mann and guarded, for a short time, between the two and three hundred prisoners captured by the Americans. Sometime later in October, 1777, he went to White Plains and enlisted in Captain ___ (Irwin's) Company of the Flying Camp until March 1778.  After this service he went to Fredericktown, Maryland, where he again entered the service under General Pulaski and in the fall of 1778, was ordered to Staunton, Virginia, where he, being a blacksmith, was engaged during the winter (1778-1779) caring for the horses of General Pulaski's Corps and assisted in making seven hundred pairs of horseshoes.  When General Pulaski marched to the south, Frederick Hill remained in Staunton caring for a number of lame horses, and when he heard of General Pulaski's death, he returned to Fredericktown, Maryland, with the horses where he delivered them to the proper authorities.  He volunteered in 1780 and served three months as Indian spy and scout, in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, under Lieutenant Wood and Colonel Davidson.  He joined the Pennsylvania militia in 1780.   After the Revolutionary War, he moved from Fredericktown, Maryland, to Bedford County, Pennsylvania,  He was allowed pension on his application executed January 1, 1834, at which time he was a resident of Napier Township, Bedford Co. PA."  So a Hessian sent to fight against rebellious British colonist wound up joining the fight for liberty and ended the war as an American. Just one of 5,000 similar stories in the larger story of the American Revolution. Achtung Baby!

For further reading on Hessian soldiers you might look at

A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution Johann Conrad Dohla

Or online information from american

The grave of Frederick Hill

For past articles go to