Among the 27 grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence is the following accusation leveled at the British king George III:
“He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.”
The document is referring to the nearly 30,000 contract soldiers from various German states who fought with British forces in the American Revolution. Although their fearsome reputation often was built on exaggeration, these so-called “Hessians” were responsible for their share of depredations against American lives and property. If nothing else, many Americans considered the use of mercenaries tantamount to an act of war by a foreign power against their lives and fortunes. Earlier in the century, Great Britain had used similar mercenary forces to suppress rebellions in Ireland and Scotland. Under international law at the time, the Hessians were not really mercenaries (the correct term is“auxiliaries,” subjects of a ruler who assisted another by providing soldiers in return for money), but those fine points didn’t matter. The presence of foreigners with British forces was enough to convince many fence-sitting Americans that their choices were simply fight or submit.
George Washington considered the German mercenaries both a real threat and an opportunity. On August 26, 1776, Washington ordered one of the first psychological warfare operations in the history of the United States military when a baker and Patriot operative named Christopher Ludwick distributed pamphlets urging “Hessians” to desert and aid the Continental Army. “The papers designed for the foreign Troops, have been put into several Channels, in order that they may be conveyed to them, and from the Information I had yesterday, I have reason to believe many have fallen into their Hands,” Washington wrote in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Congress established a committee to develop a plan based on propaganda, promises of citizenship, and enticements of free land that might convince Hessians soldiers to switch sides. Despite the propaganda and promises, their efforts produced scant results. In America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army by Charles Patrick Neimeyer, the author notes that only 66 Hessians deserted in 1776, a remarkably low number considering the Patriot’s efforts. Even though 18th century armies normally had high desertion rates, foreign mercenaries fighting in the British Army against the Americans were battling far from home and at time when the war was going well for their side. The Hessians remained an active and formidable component of British forces throughout the American Revolution. (By the way, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration and one of the United State’s first great medical men, wrote an excellent biography of Christopher Ludwick which can be found here courtesy of Google Books.)
However, the presence of the foreign troops unintentionally aided arguments for independence. They were foreign troops who were seen as invaders. No king who claimed to love his people would do such thing. Many Americans concluded that the king did not love Americans – he hated them, and he would use every tool in his imperial arsenal to destroy them. A king who did that was a tyrant and under the doctrine of natural rights no people owed any continued allegiance to a sovereign who treated them in such a miserable way. Thus, the presence of the “Hessians” was one more piece of evidence submitted in the Declaration to a candid world that the American Revolution was not a rebellion, but a legitimate war. One of these foreigners clearly saw what Americans believed when he observed troops in the Continental Army. “With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation? Deny the best-disciplined soldiers of Europe what is due them and they will run away in droves, and the general will soon be alone. But from this one can perceive what an enthusiasm – which these poor fellows call ‘liberty’ – can do!” wrote the Hessian officer Johann Von Ewald. Offers of money or land could not purchase that kind of loyalty to a cause, one that declared liberty and independence. No wonder Gen. Washington wanted the Declaration read aloud to his troops.