Hessians and History: Learning Something New Every Day

As an historian, one of the many things I find rewarding is constantly learning.  I truly learn something new every day.  It’s exciting.  Many people might find this curious since to them history perhaps seems stale, unchanging, and boring.

In reality, history is incredibly dynamic.  Things historians thought we knew with certainty for years can be instantly tossed aside with the discovery of some hidden treasure trove of historical documents or archaeological artifacts.  It’s also impossible to know everything so, even as you’re researching familiar and well-used sources, you always learn things you did not know before.

I’ve recently been researching the enslaved community at Historic Kenmore when I came across a completely unrelated bit of history that I did not know about before.  I learned that, at the end of October 1781, a group of Hessian prisoners of war passed through Fredericksburg.  This may be familiar history to life-long Fredericksburg residents and historians but perhaps there are some, like me, who were not aware of these prisoners’ brief visit to town.  For those unaware of the incident either in Fredericksburg or among our global readership, I thought I would share almost the entirety of the information I found in one afternoon about the Hessian prisoners in Fredericksburg.

First, however, we should begin with a quick overview of who were these Hessians.  As explained on Mount Vernon’s George Washington Digital Encyclopedia, the British hired about 30,000 German soldiers to fight in the Revolutionary War.  These auxiliary troops came from several small states in pre-unification Germany then known as the Holy Roman Empire.  The largest contingent was from the state of Hesse-Cassel. Confusingly all German soldiers fighting in the colonies no matter their state of origin were often called Hessians.

Holy Roman Empire, 1789

Map of the Holy Roman Empire as it existed in 1789. Arrows point at Ansbach and Bayreuth. Credit: English map by Robert Alfers based on a German original by Ziegel Brenner. / Wikipedia.

The use of Hessians by the British Army was disliked enormously by the American colonists. Hessians were so disliked, in fact, that their use was listed in the Declaration of Independence as one of the king’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” aimed at “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”  George III was “at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

Ansbach Bayreuth Regimental Flag

Ansbach-Bayreuth Regimental Flag surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Credit: National Museum of American History

Who were the Hessian prisoners who visited Fredericksburg in the fall of 1781?  Well, they were prisoners taken as a result of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19.[1]  Among them was Johann Conrad Dohla, a private in the 4th Company of the Bayreuth Regiment from the state of Ansbach-Bayreuth.  He kept a diary for his entire period of service in the war starting with his arrival in America in 1777 and ending after his return to the German states in 1783.[2] His diary titled A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution is still in print today.  The remainder of this blog post quotes extensively from Dohla’s entries describing Fredericksburg and its surroundings, which I found quite fascinating.

After the surrender, Dohla and his fellow prisoners began a long journey north escorted by Virginia militia.[3]  They neared Fredericksburg after a ten day march.  On October 29, Dohla wrote, “We marched to within one and one-half miles of Fredericksburg, where we camped in an opening in the forest.  During our march today, we saw many individual houses built in a poor manner of wood and covered with clay and patched together. But inside they were richly and well appointed, and in part furnished with the finest articles….  Poultry was plentiful here and inexpensive.  There is no shortage of good tea in Virginia because everywhere, in the forest, on the heights, and meadows, there is an abundance of such tea herbs.”[4]

The Hessian held up by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia

“The Hessian held up by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia.” An engraving by Daniel Berger after a sketch by Daniel Chodowiecki created in 1784 showing Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at Trenton marching to Philadelphia. It turns out that buildings located in Fredericksburg’s present-day Alum Springs Park housed both British and Hessian troops captured at Trenton. Credit: Library of Congress.

The next day, Dohla and his compatriots entered Fredericksburg itself.  He wrote, “Our march passed through the small city of Fredericksburg and two miles beyond that place to a main river, the Rappahannock, where we camped. This river contains sweet water and was hardly 100 to 150 feet wide here, and also so shallow that it could be waded across….  It is not to be compared to the James and Potomac rivers.  It rises on South Mountain and is of little value for inland navigation. One to one and one-half miles above Fredericksburg, near Falmouth, it has a waterfall over the granite rocks and becomes navigable from that point to its mouth in the bat, which is a distance of ninety miles.  From its source, however, it might measure two hundred miles. Here it is about a half mile wide, and at its mouth, more than four miles wide. Large ships cannot sail as far as Fredericksburg….  In the region of Fredericksburg glass bottles can be sold at high prices because they are seldom to be had here.”[5]

Dohla breaks from his daily record to make a several observations about Fredericksburg itself. He notes that “Fredericksburg is a medium-size city of rather long and wide layout. It lies in a valley and to the right and left, on heights, along the banks of the Rappahannock River. It has nearly four to five hundred houses and is heavily settled by Germans.  The public buildings lie in ruins, and for no other reason than because it was considered unnecessary to tend to them during the war period and therefore they were neglected, because no English troops came here who could have destroyed them.  They local tobacco industry is of great value and has many advantages.  The price of the best Virginia leaves was formerly twenty-five shillings per hundredweight. The hills surrounding Fredericksburg and on the Rappahannock River consist primarily of sandstone of various colors.  The bed of sand along the river between here and the bay contain, in many places, whale bones, sharks’ teeth, oysters and other shellfish.  Not far from Fredericksburg, in the vicinity of the Rappahannock Falls, one of the most important ironworks in all North America is to be seen because each year more than six to eight hundred tons of iron are said to be manufactured there….  Concerning grain, in addition to corn, much grain and wheat are grown here, although large fields are given over to the raising of tobacco.  Also in some regions below Fredericksburg, the most beautiful cotton is planted and harvested.  Six hundred Englanders are already in Fredericksburg in captivity.”[6]

On the last day of the month, Dohla and his fellow prisoners “broke camp and had to wade through the Rappahannock River.  Some crossed in their shoes and socks; however, I and most of the others took them off and crossed barefoot.  The water was very cold and reached up to our thighs.  Our route went through Falmouth, a small but beautiful village of about thirty to forty houses on the left bank of the Rappahannock, with a German church and two prayerhouses….”[7]

An officer and private in Hessen-Kassel Army's Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen

An officer (left) and private (right) in the Hessen-Cassel Army’s Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen in 1783. Credit: Wikipedia

Dohla and his comrades continued to Winchester where they were held as prisoners of war for about two months.[8]  Then, he was transferred to a prison camp in Frederick, Maryland, where he remained for 15 months.[9]  After the war’s end, Dohla’s band of Hessians were marched from Frederick to Long Island, New York, where they finally were released.  They set sail for home on August 1, 1783.[10]

Dohla’s brief visit to Fredericksburg and his story in general fascinated me and is a great example of what I love most about history. Namely, that I get to learn something new every day.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

[1] Johann Conrad Dohla, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Bruce E. Burgoyne, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, 174.

[2] Dohla, x-xi.

[3] Dohla, 182.

[4] Dohla, 185.

[5] Dohla, 185-6.

[6] Dohla, 186-7.

[7] Dohla, 187.

[8] Dohla, 188.

[9] Dohla, 196, 222.

[10] Dohla, 232.

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