Everyone knows about the famous crossing of the Delaware, where General Washington surprised the Hessians in the darkness of late Christmas Day. But who were the infamous Hessians that Washington and his men killed and wounded by the score? And what happened to the ones who didn't get killed by the Continental Army? As it turns out, Hessian mercenaries liked freedom as much as any other colonial immigrant, because many just... stuck around.
Which was fine after the war, but during the war they were very unwelcome—looting people's homes is a real turn off.
The Hessians were not technically mercenaries, but rather contract armies fighting for Britain from the German states of Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Hanau. Though German troops contracted under British control came from other principalities, they were referred to as "Hessians" as a whole by the colonists.
Britain historically used Hessian troops to control large populations, especially in Ireland and the American colonies. The use of these troops was one of the reasons the Americans would declare their independence from the crown. Though more than capable fighters, the British used the Hessians as guards and garrison troops, which is how they found themselves in the center of the fight when Washington surprised them that Christmas night.
When Hessians were captured, especially after the Battle of Trenton, they would be paraded through the streets. The colonists' anger toward their mother country using "foreign mercenaries" to subdue them was strong. This anger is believed to have led to an increase in military enlistments for the Continental Army.
The Hessians were also used as a source of labor while they were prisoners of war, often working on farms. The Continental Congress even offered each Hessian who would defect to the American cause 50 acres of land for their effort.
Many German troops ended up in Lancaster, Penn. working alongside the Pennsylvania Dutch, who, by nature, treated the Germans very well. In all, German POWs had such a great experience in American farms and fields that they would sometimes join the Continental Army. Some 30,000 men came from German states to fight against the American Revolution. While more than 7,500 of them died in the fighting, the rest did not and when it came time to go home, many didn't want to go.
So they stayed.
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Only an estimated 17,300 of the original 30,000 Hessian soldiers opted to return to their principalities in the German states. The rest decided to make their way in the new United States or head to Canada to try out a new life up there. Life in the armies of German princes wasn't particularly safe, nor were the troops compensated adequately enough to make up for their risks. Starting a new life in a country where their future was their own to make was a natural step for many of the well-trained, hardworking Germans.
They could finally celebrate Christmas without worrying about Americans surprising them in their sleep.
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Featured painting of The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton: Wikimedia Commons