A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution by Daniel Krebs (review)
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A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution. By Daniel Krebs. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Pp. 376. $34.95 cloth)

The first thing one learns upon reading this impressive study is this: the German soldiers who were shipped to the American Revolution were not mercenaries in any sense. They were regular and conscripted soldiers from northern German, mostly Protestant, provinces of the Holy Roman Empire that supplied subsidy troops to King George III, much as they did in earlier wars, in order to assist the British to oppose the American War of Independence. Each principality—Hessen-Kassel, Hessen-Hanau, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Brauanschweig-Wolffenbüttel, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst—rented a total of 37,876 troops plus later reinforcements, to the British army in separate treaties, from which they gained enormous amounts of British funds to enrich themselves and their regions (p. 24).

The Americans believed that these German soldiers, referred to as the Hessians in America, were nothing more than mercenaries who interfered with the patriots’ resistance to British tyranny. In short, these Germans were outsiders meddling in an insiders’ war, and according to the American propaganda of the era, were simply “victims of princely tyranny” (p. 35). However, Daniel Krebs shows his readers another side—that these Germans were caught between two opposing concepts: the European notion of a large standing army that can be used in treaties with allies versus the American notion of a nation of citizen-soldiers fighting for their rights, namely, the right to govern themselves. The author also explains who these Germans were, where they came from, why they joined their armies, how much they were paid, their ages, and their social composition. Without a doubt, these details create a wholly new interpretation of the German experience in revolutionary America.

The Americans, at first, greatly feared the German soldiers, especially their expert use of the bayonet which they displayed in battles around New York in 1776. However, in the first big capture at Trenton [End Page 597] on December 26, 1776, the German auxiliaries surrendered readily to General George Washington’s victorious army and marched into captivity fearfully, not knowing what to expect. The Americans sought to show the people of Philadelphia that their citizen-soldier army defeated these dreaded Germans and marched them through Philadelphia where angry mobs greeted them roughly. Eventually, the American guards aborted the parade and marched the prisoners into the barracks for their own protection. In any prisoner’s mind, the question—when will I be exchanged or released—never goes away.

The next big capture took place at Saratoga on October 17, 1777, and the author excels in showing how and why the surrender ritual was important in that era. Changing the status of a soldier from a fighting man to a prisoner of war had to be done safely, in precise steps, ending with the grounding of the weapons. At Saratoga, British general John Burgoyne gained the upper hand over American general Horatio Gates and preserved the dignity of his army, although the American Congress denied their “Convention” for parole to Britain. Sadly, these prisoners remained in captivity and marched from place to place in America until the peace treaty was signed in 1783. The last huge capture of British and German troops took place at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the last major battle of the American Revolution, and General Washington made certain that he held the upper hand in the surrender.

The author accomplishes his goal of explaining the complexities of American treatment of German prisoners. He shows effectively that the Americans looked at prisoner employment as a benefit to everyone from 1777 to 1782. Then, after long periods of short rations and general misery, things changed when the Americans, sensing that the war was all but won, offered the Germans three choices: join the Continental army and become a citizen; pay a ransom and go home free; or enter into a three-year indenture contract, then go home.

The research for this book is nothing short of stunning. It challenges much of the previous American interpretations of the Germans who...