Hans and Inga, fictional names, got married. It happened so often hardly anybody took much note of it which is maybe why you never heard about it either. Hans and several thousand others like him were young soldiers from Hesse, Germany employed by the British to battle George Washington’s army in the American Revolution.
The Hessian wartime predations were exaggerated by American war propaganda. The cruel, violent, merciless, fearsome mercenary Hessians who scared the crap out of honest hard-working American patriots early in the Revolution were by and large all good Lutheran boys—some of whom were known to sing Lutheran hymns when advancing on American lines.
Two hundred and some years earlier, in fact, Phillip, landgrave of Hesse, was among the signatories to the Augsburg Confession.
Sure, in the Battle of Long Island, these good Lutheran boys bayoneted wounded Americans and others who were trying to surrender. But this was because their English officers had told them “Americans were savage cannibals, especially those who were shaggily clad,” a description that fit perhaps ninety percent of Washington’s army. “Hence the Hessians, etc. were, and are still being, incited to set upon men of their own race and blood.”
That is what Henry Muhlenberg, a German Lutheran pastor who arrived in Philadelphia in 1742, recorded in his diary. By “men of their own race and blood,” Muhlenberg meant fellow Germans and, more particularly, fellow Lutherans. In at least one case it meant kith and kin.
Muhlenberg recalls one occasion in November 1776 when some Hessian prisoners, captured in some small skirmish before Washington’s Christmas raid on Trenton, were paraded through Philadelphia. One of them was recognized by his aunt. Muhlenberg says she promptly tore into her nephew. What made him “come here to do violence to his own flesh and blood?” The young man’s stammered defense was he had been conscripted and given no choice.
I’m trying to picture this poor guy. A vaulted Hessian, jerked from home and made to endure a long sea voyage to America, then humiliated by becoming a prisoner of war to the shaggy cannibals and displayed through Philadelphia as a war trophy and, if things could not get any worse, at the end of it he gets ripped a new one by his aunt. Sure wasn’t much to write home about.
The greatest American success against the Hessians of course was the raid on Trenton, Christmas 1776. Washington’s surprise attack resulted in some nine hundred Hessian prisoners of war, all of whom re-crossed the Delaware River with Washington’s army. These men were part of the Hesse-Kassel grenadiers. They had seen fighting at the battles of Brooklyn, White Plains, and Long Island. Of perhaps 30,000 German troops imported to fight Americans, Hesse-Kassel provided more than half of them.
The defeated Hessians were marched from Trenton first to Philadelphia, then after a time on to Lancaster. Some were eventually sent to Virginia. But many were paroled to German farmers and tradesmen in the area. Parole for POWs was a uniquely civilized way of handling prisoners. Farmers and tradesmen accepting a parolee were responsible for the fellow’s up-keep, in exchange for his labor. The parolee promised not to escape and, if he did, the American paid a fine. Most did not even try to escape, especially if there was German-American daughter about. In fact there was a competition of sorts to keep the Hessians in America. Congress offered free land and other incentives to Hessian settlers; so did the British in Nova Scotia at the close of the war.
This, as you see, brings me to Hans the Hessian and Inga, the farmer’s daughter in Pennsylvania. Put Hans within Inga’s proximity and pretty soon you’ve got the beginnings of another nice Lutheran congregation shaping up among the Pennsylvania Dutch. We Lutherans owe a lot to the Hessian infusion.
What? You want to know the point of all this? Just a bit of historical whimsy I decided to indulge, having run across the Hessian and his aunt while reading Muhlenberg’s Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman, that’s all.
But maybe there is a larger point. We could go our entire lives without knowing about my fictionalized Hans and Inga or any of the real people they represent, and not suffer for it at all. But our lives are maybe just little richer for knowing them—knowing of them, at least. History is made of common people often cast into uncommon circumstances and the more we know about them, the more we learn about ourselves.
Russell E. Saltzman is the author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center of the University of Mary. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman
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