View Full Version : Headless Horseman: Origins of the Hessian Mercenaries and their History.

27-10-05, 17:15
Well since Halloween is fast approaching, I decided to post something about one of the many Legends of Halloween.

I guess most people here have seen the movie Sleepy Hollow, and thus know about the Hessian Horseman (played by Christopher Walken).



Hessian Horseman and History

In the movie, the Horseman has a rather bloody past. A Hessian trooper sold to England's services to battle the American troops, the Horseman did not come to fight because of the money to be gained for his country, but for the blood he alone would get. He was of imposing, huge frame, wearing a black and silver armor and having his teeth filed sharp, with strange blue eyes, and was famous for taking his black steed, named Daredevil, into battle hard, slashing off the enemies' heads with his sword and axe at full gallop.

He found his death in the winter of 79, when he was ambushed by a war party, and Daredevil killed - after a quiet goodbye he took off into the woods to loose them quietly, but was eventually given away by a young girl (and I won't spoil the movie for first-time watchers, so I won't tell you who that girl is!), who, though realizing his desperate situation, snapped the branch in her hands to lead the ambush party back on the right track of the Hessian. After a short if fierce battle, he was eventually fatally wounded and beheaded with his own sword, then buried underneath a gnarled tree in the western woods - The Tree of the Dead - and his sword set into the ground as a reminiscent of a tombstone.

He was eventually called forth again, but again I'm not going to spoil the ending. And thus he takes to the night again, this time immortal and feared by all.

There's a few minor changes to the Hessian in the novel. As changes have it, these are both interesting and less interesting, impressive and less impressive, in the end good or bad, but in the end, they are important to me nevertheless. First and foremost: The head - in the book - is never returned. The Horseman - if it really was him at all, and not Brom, as some reviewers claim - continues is existence in the disfigurement. Secondly, in the time of his living, he isn't described as being a bloodthirsty fang-teethed monster. He was a Hessian trooper - no more, no less - and was certainly not beheaded in a bloody battle in the woods, ambushed and decapitated with his own sword. He was in a battle and was unfortunate enough to get his head ripped clean off by a cannonball.

The Hessian's horse is never mentioned as Daredevil-instead, Daredevil is the name of Brom Bones' prized horse. This has propably been changed in the movie because Brom-in the book - brags about how he challenged the Hessian on a race and won with Daredevil. Since this shows Daredevil is a pretty fast horse, it's reserved for the Hessian in the movie.

The idea of the Horseman going actually into the Hollow to assault the Killians / Van Rippers in their home would count as somewhat farfetched and odd in the book. The Horseman has never been seen riding past the bridge into the town, he always vanished before. This restriction is upheld in the "Are You Afraid of the Dark" episode of the event - The Tale of the Midnight Ride - , though in the movie the Hessian very clearly battles Brom and Ichabod on the bridge, on both sides, and doesn't seem to make a fuss about it.

In the book, the Horseman, for the credit, also gains another title - "The Gallopping Hessian", which isn't mentioned in the movie as far as I remember.

Hessians Collective term for all German mercenaries, who were hired by Great Britian for the battles in the american War of Independence, Approximately 17 000 of the about 30 000 men in the Hessian troops came from Hessen-Kassel, as Hessen's Count was married to the daughter of the English king George IInd in his first marriage. About 5 700 men came from Braunschweig, 2 400 from Hessen-Hanau, 2 400 from Ansbach-Bayreuth and 1200 out of Waldeck and Anhalt-Zerbst respectivley. They made 1/3rd of the British army in North America. About 17 000 Mercenaries returned to Europe after the war was over, about 7 700 fell in battle and the rest remained and settled in North America.

So...there you go. The source of this is the Chronik Handbuch Amerika written by Dr. Hays A. Steilberg and Thomas Flemming, published by the Chronik Verlag, to give credit where it is due.


state (1990 est. pop. 5,661,000), 8,150 sq mi (24,064 sq km), central Germany. Weisbaden is the capital. Hesse is largely agricultural, with heavily forested areas. Fine wines are produced along the Rhine valley. Industries include textiles, chemicals, metallurgy, and mining. Hesse emerged (1247) as a landgraviate under the Holy Roman emperor and was divided (1567) among several lines; Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Darmstadt were the most important. In the 18th cent. the rulers of Hesse raised revenue by letting mercenaries, called Hessians, for hire. Hesse-Kassel was made (1803) an electorate and was annexed (1866) to PRUSSIA. Hesse-Darmstadt joined (1871) the German Empire and was ruled by its own dynasty until 1918.

The Charm of Hessen

Hessen offers a fascinating variety of opportunities and attractions which enrich its quality of life. Those who live here feel at home, whether in the big city, or in the many historically-restored towns, or the countryside. Hessen's residents are cheerful people, who know how to celebrate as can be seen in the scores of large and small wine festivals in the city and country.

Picturesque towns with their half-timbered gabled houses are a common sight, particularly in central and northern Hessen's countryside.

Countless forts and castles perched on crests overlooking the Rhine witnessed the medieval heyday of knighthood and robber barons. Hessen is one of the most richly wooded states in the Federal Republic of Germany and features nine large nature reserves, all within easy reach of major cities.

This is the Hessian FAQ,. This answers most questions that Hessian reenactors are asked at events, and also questions that they would like to be asked. This FAQ also refutes many myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings about Hessian Soldiers in the American War of Independance.

0.0 Who were the Hessians?

'Hessian' is most often a generic term for the German soldiers hired by England to fight during the American Revolution. For the purposes of this FAQ, however, the Hessians are those German soldiers actually from the state of Hessen-Kassal.

1.0 Were the Hessians Mercenaries?

By the most technical and liberal usage of the term, yes. But the term is misleading and innaccurate.

One must understand that the Hessian soldier received no extra pay for his duty, and stood loyal to the German state of his origin. While some could be enticed to disarm, none could be enticed to fight for the Rebel side. And one of the defining terms of a mercenary is that he will fight for anyone, for pay.

In a year, a Hessian soldier could at most earn a grand total of 3 pounds, 10 pence. Hardly the rate of a mercenary.

Perhaps James F. Dunnigan (author of 'Dirty Little Secrets' and 'How To Make War') defines it best. He considers Hessians to be term unto themselves and not mercenaries in the classic sense. If one looks at the situation the Hessian were in and calls them mercenaries, one may become very uncomfortable with the number of soldiers today who could be called mercenaries. Paid allies may be the most accurate term.

(cf James F. Dunnigan 'Dirty Little Secrets - Military information you're not supposed to know' pp. 267-268)

2.0 Were all of them from the state of Hessen-Kassel?

No. But the majority of them were either from the state of Hessen-Kassel (17,000 officers and soldiers) or Hessen-Hanau (2,600 officer and men). But 'Hessians' actually came from all over what is now Germany. Brunswick sent 5,723 men, Waldeck sent 1,225 men, Brandenburg-Anspach sent 1,040 men, and Anhals-Zerbst sent 1,119 men, which figured approximately 5% of that state's total population!

3.0 Why did the German rulers send their soldiers?

There is no simple answer for this. But the easiest way to say it is that by having England pay for the soldiers, you could keep a large army without having it drain your state's funds. And why did the German states need such armies? The answer is that to survive the chaos of the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century, you required either an alliance with a powerful nation or a large army. Otherwise the Landgraf could pretty much kiss his throne goodbye.

Make no doubt about it. While the soldiers were under British command in America, they were still part of their homeland's armies. Had trouble started up during that time in Germany, they would have undoubtedly been recalled.

4.0 Did the German rulers get 'blood pay' for soldiers killed in action?

Yes, but this was not as cruel as it sounds for two reasons: 1) Any person in 18th century Germany was of economic value, even if just for being a soldier. 2) It prevented unwarranted abuse of the German soldiery by the British high command. After all, would you like to be placed on the front of the line just so the commanders can make their payroll?

It should be noted that Hessen-Kassel did not have a 'blood pay' clause in their contract with England. Instead, a debt owed to England for hospital services rendered during the Seven Years War was forgiven by the English.

5.0 What happened to the Hessians?

Of the soldiers from Hessen-Kassal, the following is known.

357 were killed in action (most at Fort Mercer)

2,949 deserted

8,029 were captured during the war.

4,626 died of other causes (disease, starvation,etc)

914 were paroled.

These figures are obtained from the 'official' Hessian records but are most likely wrong. Another accounting by Edward Lowell in The Hessians and other German Auxilliaries of Great Britiain in the Revolutionary War gives a total number of Hessians killed in battle at 1,200, Hessians that died of other causes at 6,354, and Hessians that deserted at 5,000.

The fate of the deserters and captured Hessians varies greatly. Some were paroled into American factories and farms, others were merely made to stand down and not fight anymore. It has been estimated that some 6000 Hessian soldiers remained in America & Canada either from desertion or naturalization after paroling or capture. Most of the Hessians staying in America settled around Lancaster,PA, Reading, PA and Frederick, MD. While some true Hessians may have remained in Canada, the majority of them were actually Brunswickers and other German states.

Keep in mind that a Hessian that stayed in America may not have actually been a deserter. Large numbers of Hessians were paroled in America due to injury, completion of duties, or other reasons.

8.0 Where are the Hessians buried?

The Hessian who died during the course of the war are not buried in any special place. Most old graveyards that date back to the 18th century may have a grave or two. But it is unlikely to be easily found. The best known burial ground of Hessian soldiers is in Runnemede, NJ, where some 50 Hessians who fell at Fort Mercer are buried. Another grave, nearer to fort ( In Red Bank or National Park, NJ), may have once held an equal number. But during World War I, anti-hun hysteria seized a few locals, who promptly unearthed the remains in the grave and dumped them into the Delaware River.

11.0 Did England ever hire German soldiers at any other time beside the American Revolution?

Actually, English often hired Germans and other nationalities to do their fighting. It is a tradition that dated back some time. Many continental (European) soldiers were hired from the Middle Ages well into the English Civil War. However, these soldiers were most often 'true' mercenaries and were actually incorporated into the English Army of the time. Hessians of the American Revolution remained in their own units with their original commanders.

During the Scots Rebellion an 1745, many German (including Hessian) units were hired to fight for England. Since the commanders did not speak each other's language, they communicated by using a common language, French for the English officers and Latin with the Edinburgh middle class.

[ 27. October 2005, 19:12: Message edited by: Catapharact ]

27-10-05, 18:28
Oh wonderful! Gotta get my hands on the book.

Darko Ivanis
27-10-05, 19:48
Sleeply Hollow is a good movie! Of course Johnny Depp!