Were the Hessians mercenaries?


I didn’t gain a real appreciation of the dynamics of the American Revolution until many years after my compulsory service in the American variant of the Prussian Education System. I’ve had a few epiphanies in my quest for independent thought over the years that might deviate from traditional, conservative American views.

One is an appreciation for the absolute excellence in propaganda that is the Declaration of Independence. I mean that in the most positive sense. The ascertation of natural rights , but the hyperbole directed at King George III is the stuff of legend. Modern politicians and tacticians would do well to learn from the master, President Thomas Jefferson.

(Caveat: While I appreciate both sides of a story (hindsight 20/20 and all…) the oath that the Blevinses actually alive during those events was probably the best move for the family at that time. See my previous post on William Blevins, the Long Hunter, under the heading “The Revolution” for more details.)

However, the epiphany that I want to discuss today is that Hessians who fought beside the British Army were not mercenaries.

Here is the basis for that postulation:

  • Motivated solely by a desire for monetary or material gain.
  • Hired for service in a foreign army.
  • The Hanoverian dynasty of British monarchs was by and large an Anglo-Germanic family.
  • The German aristocrats whose units were fighting against the Colonists had family ties to the British crown.
  • I’m sure there are much more learned individuals who have so thoroughly covered this topic as to make a rank amateur such as myself look a fool for even endeavoring to discuss it, but I will nonetheless. It helps me to better understand it to think it out in my own feeble way.
    First, to dispense of the definition. The Hessian soldiers did not enlist in the British army to enrich themselves. They served at the behest of their princes, in their units, with their flags and uniforms. If anything, it was a coalition force, similar to what we have in modern warfare.
    Second, is the fact that the House of Hanover was a German royal line that began with George, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and ended (with regards to the British royal branch) with Queen Victoria. Were it not for the onset of WWI, the House of Windor might still refer to itself as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. That is an interesting story in and of itself.
    Third is the fact that the German princes and nobles sending their soldiers to America to fight for the British were in some cases, related to the British royal family. Take for instance, Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. He was the son-in-law of King George II, and thus the uncle of George III. The reason that the Germans fighting in America were known as “Hessians” was because so many of them were subjects of Frederick. There was also Charles Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, a distant cousin of George III. After the war, he and his second wife, Lady Elizabeth Craven, lived in England breeding horses.
    In all cases, the German princes were paid for the services of their military forces, but it’s too complicated to just toss around the designation “mercenary”. Again I default to believing it more accurately to be a coalition. They didn’t have NATO to oblige them to defend their allies, they had something much deeper, kinship.
    So there is my spin on the topic for your entertainment. If you know of a better, more academic analysis of the matter, shoot me an email and I’ll link to it below.

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