- Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America by Brady J. Crytzer
Brady J. Crytzer’s new book tells the story of the Hessians, the 30,000 soldiers hired by the British from the German states, principally Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Hanau, to put down the rebellion in the North American colonies. Crytzer does so through biographies of three particular Hessians: Captain Johann Ewald, the leader of an elite unit of Jäger Corps on maneuver against the Continental army; Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness von Riedesel, the wife of a Wolfenbüttel general who followed her husband on General John Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign; and Philipp Waldeck, a chaplain to the Waldeck soldiers fighting along the Gulf Coast. Crytzer’s approach reveals the varied geography of the Revolutionary War, with his stories set in central Europe and [End Page 661] Canada, New York and New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia, West Florida, Jamaica, and Louisiana. He also calls attention to the varied roles played by men and women in eighteenth-century wars: officer and leader of men; wife, mother, and camp follower; minister of souls. But as much as the reader learns about these individuals, the Hessians’ overall role in the war remains elusive.
The strengths and weaknesses of Crytzer’s approach can be seen in the story of Baroness Riedesel’s quest to follow her husband on campaign in North America. Staying behind in Wolfenbüttel to have their baby while the baron took up his post in North America, Riedesel set out to find her husband in May 1776, with an infant and two small children in tow. Reaching England, she bounced between London, Bristol, and Portsmouth amid transportation delays, quarrels with the woman Baron Riedesel had selected as her traveling companion, and fashion faux pas—her fondness for ribbons and taffeta brought cries of “French women!” and “French whore!” from Britons used to a more subdued style (pp. 98, 100). The baroness and her children braved an ocean crossing to land in Quebec, where people found her clothes too British. Later, they reached Fort Chambly, where, at long last, more than a year after leaving home, she was reunited with her husband. The Riedesels followed the Hessian-British army as it fought at Freeman’s Farm, battled at Bemis Heights, and surrendered at Saratoga. Becoming prisoners of war, the family continued its American odyssey, moving from Boston, Massachusetts, to Charlottesville, Virginia (where they rented a house from Thomas Jefferson), and finally to New York, where the baron was officially exchanged. Before departing, they welcomed their fourth child, a girl they named “America.”
Baroness Riedesel was an amazing woman. My wife and I have a hard enough time flying with our one-year-old on an airplane to visit family in upstate New York, and she brought three little ones there by ship, carriage, and canoe. Unfortunately, we seldom get to hear the baroness in her own words, even though she kept a diary (Crytzer’s principal source) and wrote regular letters to her husband. When we do get to hear her voice, the results are fascinating. Furthermore, as interesting as the baroness is, it is not clear where she and her husband fit with the tens of thousands of other men and women connected to the Hessians fighting in America. Were they representative of other Hessians or were they exceptional? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Nevertheless, for an on-the-ground account of what it was like for these three Hessians to fight in North America, Crytzer’s stories are unlikely to be surpassed.