The German Element in the War of American Independence/5 German Mercenaries
|←General John Kalb||The German Element in the War of American Independence by
Vende la carne loro, essendo viva.
Dante, Purgatorio, xiv.
In the states of antiquity all citizens owed military service to the state. During the Middle Ages this military relation assumed the form of a personal obligation, which bound the vassal to answer the call to arms of his liege lord with a number of men proportioned to the extent of the domain which he held of him. When wars became longer and more expensive, the sovereign found himself dependent upon the good-will of his vassals for the success of his arms. His right to command was unquestionable. The vassal, if dissatisfied, might disobey; and thus the final question between them was a question of power — of power to enforce, or of power to rebel.
Among the more active of the German emperors whose aspirations exceeded their means of action was Maximilian the First, known to his contemporaries as Maximilian the Moneyless. Though married to the powerful Mary of Burgundy, he received no aid from her vassals; though active and energetic, he was abandoned by his own. The Swiss had fallen from him, and he had neither the money to buy, nor the strength to force them back. It was then, and probably with no conception of the full significance of what he was doing, that, instead of addressing himself to his nobles as feudal vassals, he raised an army of free burghers and peasants in eastern Austria, Suabia, and the Tyrol. This army was composed of infantry. Gunpowder had already reduced the fully armed knight to the level of the soldier on foot, or in other words the contest between the noble and the plebeian, which had been waged so long and so disastrously in Rome, was renewed in modern Europe under different circumstances and in a new form. It was a war between industry and privilege, between mechanical skill, or physical power under the control of an intelligent will, and brute force; a question, as time developed it, between the longest purse and the longest sword. It is no part of my present object to follow the progress of this contest from the first landsknechts of Maximilian to the perfect machines of the Great Frederick. I wish only to call attention to the fact that the reinstatement of the infantry to their true position soon opened the way for the decline of the old feudal armies and the enlistment of troops for longer terms of service. He who could pay best was surest of finding willing soldiers. Commercial states like Venice could always raise whatever sums they wanted at five per cent., while Charles VIII. was checked in the very beginning of his Italian wars and compelled to pay forty-two per cent. for the means of continuing them. Thus new resources were opened for the formation of armies. Princes could carry on war as long as their subjects could be made to pay for it, and war itself became a lucrative and honored pursuit. From regular bands of mercenaries came standing armies and that oppressive military system of modern Europe which has weighed so heavily upon the laboring classes and retarded the moral, the intellectual, and the industrial development of society. All the great wars of modern Europe, till the wars of the French Revolution, had been carried on in a large measure by mercenary troops, among which the Germans were perhaps the foremost for aptitude to arms, power of endurance, cruelty, rapacity, and, as long as they were regularly paid, for fidelity to their banner. But no sooner did their pay fall in arrears than they grew disobedient and discontented, and if not bought over were presently found fighting and plundering on the other side. Would you see the mercenary in his perfect form, study the Captain Dalgetty of Scott's “Legend of Montrose,” who cannot be induced by any temptation to enter upon new service until he has fulfilled all the conditions of the old; who loves his horse, and grooms and feeds him before he provides for himself, yet who, when the faithful animal is killed, skins him with his own hands. But Dalgetty was an officer, and the distinction between officer and soldier was sharply drawn. For the officer there was promotion and social position. He embraced arms as a profession because he preferred them to any other profession. Of the political questions connected with war he knew and cared little. Of the moral question connected with it he knew and cared nothing. He was trained to look unmoved upon human suffering. The battle-field and hospital seldom appealed to his sympathies, for habit had blunted them. To fight and attract the eye of his commander was his ambition. To win a ribbon or a cross was his highest aspiration. If he were a captain, he might become a colonel. If he were a colonel, he might become a brigadier. And when peace came, there were Paris and garrisons to lounge and be idle in.
In these rewards the soldier of the ranks had no part. To be an officer required a nobility of four descents, and the private, once enlisted, became a mere machine in the hands of his superiors. But let us study this victim of a barbarous usage somewhat more in detail, for it is only by getting close to a subject that we can form a correct idea of it. These details bring into strong relief the difference between the present and the past, enabling us to measure for ourselves the progress and the effects of civilization. It is in the lessons drawn from this thorough comprehension of the past that the instruction of history lies, and among these lessons there is none truer than that institutions, like men, have their periods of strength and weakness, of growth and decay. The formation of regular troops was the beginning of a great revolution, which, while it strengthened the hands of the prince, opened new fields for the intellectual and moral growth of the peasant: not intentionally, indeed, but because human events obey subtle laws, and results often cover much broader ground than we think of in directing our aim.
When regular armies had taken the place of feudal armies, and military adventurers were ready to sell their own blood and that of their followers to the best paymaster, the question most urgent upon them all was how to fill their ranks and keep them full. Some were found who took service readily of their own accord. These were chiefly either middle-aged men, whom the habits of the camp had unfitted for any other kind of life, or young men easily dazzled by the splendor of military display. They formed, however, but the skeleton of an army. Many more were wanted to fill its ranks. Of the cunning, the guile, the fraud, the heartless inhumanity with which the nefarious art of recruiting was carried on, we should find it impossible to form any idea had not the story been often told in forms which leave no room for doubt. We will borrow one of these dark pages from the Frederick of Mr. Carlyle.
“All countries, especially all German countries, are infested with a new species of predatory two-legged animals — Prussian recruiters. They glide about, under disguise if necessary; lynx-eyed, eager almost as the Jesuit hounds are; not hunting the souls of men as the spiritual Jesuits do, but their bodies, in a merciless, carnivorous manner. Better not be too tall in any country at present! Irishmen could not be protected by the ægis of the British constitution itself. Generally, however, the Prussian recruiter on British ground reports that the people are too well off; that there is little to be done in those parts. . . . Germany, Holland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, these are the fruitful fields for us, and there we do hunt with some vigor.
“For example, in the town of Jülich there lived and worked a tall young carpenter. One day, a well-dressed positive-looking gentleman (Baron von Hompesch, the records name him) enters the shop; wants ‘a stout chest with lock on it, for household purposes; must be of such and such dimensions, six feet six in length especially, and that is an indispensable point — in fact, it will be longer than yourself, I think, Herr Zimmermann; what is the cost? when can it be ready?’ Cost, time, and the rest are settled. ‘A right stout chest, then; and see you don't forget the size; if too short it will be of no use to me, mind!’ ‘Ja wohl! Gewiss!’ and the positive-looking gentleman goes his ways. At the appointed day he reappears; the chest is ready; we hope, an unexceptionable article. ‘Too short, as I had dreaded,’ says the positive gentleman. ‘Nay, your honor,’ says the carpenter, ‘I am certain it is six feet six,’ and takes out his foot-rule. ‘Pshaw! it was to be longer than yourself.’ ‘Well, it is.’ ‘No it isn't.’ The carpenter, to end the matter, gets into his chest and will convince any and all mortals. No sooner is he in, rightly flat, than the positive gentleman, a Prussian recruiting officer in disguise, slams down the lid upon him, locks it, whistles in three stout fellows, who pick up the chest, gravely walk through the streets with it, open it in a safe place, and find — horrible to relate — the poor carpenter dead!”
Once enlisted, how were recruits to be got safely to the camp or the garrison where they were to be converted into machines? The instructions framed for the guidance of the men entrusted with this difficult task will tell us. The first and most important point was to secure the safety of the recruiting officer charged with their transportation. He was to be provided with good side-arms, always carry a pistol, and never allow the recruit to walk behind him, or come near enough to him to seize him by the body. And to give additional force to the precaution, the recruit was told that the first false step would cost him his life. If practicable, the recruiting officer in choosing a route was to avoid the province where his recruit had served before, or was born. He was to avoid also all large cities and prosperous villages. In choosing quarters for the night he was to give the preference to inns frequented by recruiting officers, and where the landlord was on their side. Even here the most watchful foresight was required. The recruit was made to undress by word of command, and the clothes both of the officer and the recruit were handed to the landlord for safe-keeping over night. The officer slept between the recruit and the door.
On the march the recruit must not be allowed to look about him, or stop, much less converse with passers-by, and particularly in a foreign language. The officer guides the recruit as you would guide a horse. The words halt, march, slow, fast, right, left, forward, must be obeyed on the instant; the slightest hesitation would be a bad omen for the authority of the officer. At the inns where they stopt overnight they were put, if possible, in an upper room, with iron bars to the windows. On no account could the recruit be allowed to leave the room overnight. A lamp was kept burning all night long, and close by an unlighted one must be ready for immediate use.
To prevent the recruit from seizing the officer's arms in the night, they were given to the landlord, as his clothes were, for safe-keeping; and in the morning, when they were given back, they were examined anew and the priming freshened. When he, the officer, is dressed and armed, he orders the recruit to rise and dress. In entering an inn or a room, the recruit goes first; in going out, last. In the inn itself, the officer sits in front of the table, the recruit behind it. If the recruit has a wife she is subject to the same laws which govern his motions, obeys the same word of command, and never walks before her husband; but in every way is made to feel that the eye of the vigilant guard is constantly upon her.
Care, too, is taken, on the route, to cut off the recruit from all communication with anybody but his guard. He must not be allowed pen or ink or paper or pencil. To prevent him from rising upon his guard by the way, all his dangerous weapons, even to a large knife, are taken away, and neither he nor his wife is allowed the use of a cane. As with a novice among the Jesuits, all his gestures and words are noted down and reported, with the remarks and comments of the reporter. If he actually makes an attempt to escape, he must be instantly put in irons, or have the thumb-screw put on him. It is a bad affair if the officer is under the necessity of using his weapons and wounding or killing the recruit.
Care must be taken, also, that the recruit be not an over match for his guard. Every stout, well-built, bold-faced recruit must be closely watched, and it may even become necessary to double the guard. The danger of escape presents itself in lively forms to the imagination of the author of the instructions. He calculates cautiously how many recruiting officers may be required for a given number of recruits, and comes to the conclusion that under the most favorable circumstances three officers may take charge of seven or even nine recruits.
“But two recruits should never be entrusted to one officer. Should this, however, seem to be unavoidable, it is extremely unfortunate for the officer. When it is absolutely impossible for the officer to keep the recruits back till he becomes strong enough to give them a proper guard, he must hire somebody to help him. It is better to incur expense for the sake of foresight, than to injure the recruit or expose the life of the officer to inevitable danger.” The tone of regret in this last sentence reminds us that it was not awakened by apprehension for the loss of a human being, but from fear that a name might be stricken from the muster-roll. One more provision completes the picture. “For the recruiting officer, and even more for his subordinate, a good dog will be very useful. He must be taught not to allow recruits to carry sticks in their hands; to bark if he sees one rise or move in the night; to drive him back if he sees one leave the road; to seize him if he sees him run, and only let go of him at his master's command; not to allow him to pick up anything, and many other precautions which may serve to lighten the task of the officer and his subaltern.
“And finally, if in passing a crowd or a city, the recruit should make a desperate attempt to escape by calling for help and declaring that he has been forced to enlist, the officer is directed to appeal to the authorities, who, after seeing his papers, will doubtless give him, the necessary aid.”
Suppose now that this watchfulness has been successful, that the recruit has been safely conveyed to the camp or garrison where he is to take the first steps in this passage from, a man to a machine. Handcuffs, thumb-screws, heavy chains, and, above all, the cane in strong hands, break in time the strongest will; repeated humiliations destroy self-respect; familiarity with scenes of violence and barbarity undermines the moral sense; the recruit has no motive but to escape punishment, and no comforter but the brandy bottle. Yet even in these ashes live some sparks of humanity, some of those sympathies which, perhaps, are never altogether extinguished in the human breast. Daily association in the same duties, daily gatherings under the same flag, awaken a certain sense of common interest and feeling, and supply in a certain measure the human necessity of love. Whatever of pride is left him centres in his flag. Such was the training of the men who were hired to fight against the Declaration of Independence. What mattered it to them whether they fought in Germany or in America, for a prince or for a people? If one wishes to form a vivid conception of these wretched men, looking straight into the picture, he should read some of the scenes in George Sand's “Consuelo,” and Thackeray's “Memoirs of Barry Lyndon.” If one wishes to take the nobler point of view and look down upon the picture, he should read the life of Baron Riedesel and the memoirs of his wife. And now for the bearings of this sketch upon American history.
It soon became evident to the English government that it must either give up the contest with America or strengthen its armies. The population of the colonies was generally estimated at three millions. To reduce these three millions to obedience, England had only fifteen thousand men in arms between Nova Scotia and Florida; allowing all that could be claimed for the difference between well-armed and well-disciplined men and an undisciplined and imperfectly armed militia, it was still easy to see that in a protracted contest, such as this was sure to be, numbers must prevail. Her own subjects England could not fully count upon for filling the ranks, for by many of them the war was disliked from the beginning. The city of London itself was notoriously opposed to it. It was necessary, therefore, for the ministry to cast about them for a man-market from whence to draw their supplies. The first that presented itself to their minds was Russia. The two sovereigns were upon the friendliest terms. England had virtually consented to the partition of Poland, in 1772. The treaty of Kutschuk-Kainardsche, in 1774, had left Russia with a powerful army. What more profitable use could she make of it than by selling it to England for so many guineas a head? Gunning, the English minister to the Russian court, was instructed to begin negotiations for twenty thousand men: for it was not mere auxiliaries but an army that England sought to bring into the field, thus crushing the insurrection by a well-directed blow. In an interview with Count Panin, Catherine's prime minister, the British envoy asked, as if in casual conversation, whether, if the present measures for the suppression of the insurrection should fail, and his master should find himself under the necessity of calling in foreign troops, he could count upon a body of Russian infantry? The trained diplomat made no answer, but referred the question to the empress, who, replying in terms of general politeness, professed to feel herself under great obligations to George, which she would gladly repay in the manner most agreeable to him. Without waiting to weigh these words, which in diplomacy might mean much or might mean nothing, Gunning wrote to his court, in all haste, that the empress would furnish the twenty thousand infantry. The important tidings were received by the British court with delight. The commanders serving in America were told on what powerful succor they might rely, and the king in his rapture wrote with his own hand a letter of thanks to his royal sister. Gunning was ordered to push on the negotiations, and, as if he had never known before how little faith can be placed in the language of diplomacy, was overwhelmed with astonishment when he was coolly told that the words of the empress were but the general expression of a friendly feeling, and that she had said nothing of the Russian infantry. Great was the indignation of the English king, not that the negotiation had failed, but that the empress had answered his royal autograph by the hand of a private secretary.
Holland came next, and on a superficial view the relations between the two countries seemed to justify the application. But it was met by an opposition which found an eloquent expositor in a nobleman of Oberyssel, the Baron van der Capellen, who, speaking boldly in the name of freedom and national honor, and setting the question of succor in its true light, succeeded in awakening his countrymen — themselves the descendants of rebels — to a sense of what they owed to the memory of their fathers and the cause of freedom.
But there was a country where the name of freedom was not known, whose nationality was lost in small principalities and dukedoms, whose vast resources were sacrificed to the luxury and vanity of petty sovereigns, each ambitious of aping on his little stage the splendid corruption of the French court; yet having strong arms and hardy bodies to sell, and caring only for the price that could be extorted for them. To Germany, then, England turned in her need, and her prayer was heard.
There was one part of Germany of which England could freely dispose. George III. was not only King of England, but Elector of Hanover, and as elector could send his Hanoverian troops wherever he saw fit. The garrisons of Gibraltar and Minorca were English. By recalling these and putting Hanoverians in their place, five well-trained battalions of infantry, amounting in all to two thousand three hundred and sixty-five men, were secured for service against the colonies. In vain did the parliamentary opposition appeal to the bill of rights, and deny the king's right to introduce foreign troops into the kingdom in time of peace. They were told that Minorca and Gibraltar were not parts, but merely dependencies, of the kingdom, and that the American insurrection constituted a state of war. The debate was long and bitter, but the decisive vote of two hundred and three to eighty-one in the Commons, and seventy-five to thirty-two in the Lords, showed how much the partisans of government exceeded the friends of the colonists in number.
No sooner was England's intention to raise troops in Germany known, than officers of all grades, who had been thrown out of service by the close of the Seven Years' War, and the consequent reduction of the armies for which it had found employment, came crowding with proposals to open recruiting offices and raise men. How men were raised has already been told. George, in spite of his royal convictions, felt a humane scruple. “To give German officers authority to raise recruits for me is, in plain English, neither more nor less than to become a man-stealer, which I cannot look upon as a very honorable occupation.” But royal scruples seldom go far in the interest of humanity. Recruiting officers with full permission to steal men were soon busily at work in the name of the King of England. Busiest and chief amongst them were the German princes, who had found this a very profitable branch of commerce in former times, and were as much in want of English guineas as England was in want of German soldiers.
There was no time to lose. If the campaign of 1776 was to open with vigor, reinforcements must be speedily on their way. Sir Joseph Yorke, an experienced diplomatist familiar with the ground, was instructed in the summer of 1775 to ascertain on what terms and in what numbers men could be obtained. In September he re plied that Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Darmstadt, Würtemberg, Saxe-Gotha, and Baden were ready to furnish any number of troops at a given time and for a fair price. The Crown Prince of Hesse-Cassel, in particular, was very earnest to strike a bargain, and close upon his heels came the Prince of Waldeck. Their own letters, mostly in bad French, remain to this day in the English archives, to bear witness to their degradation. I will give a specimen of their English, which is every way worthy of their French.
“My Lord” (writes the Hereditary Prince of Hesse to Lord Suffolk), “the luck I have had to be able to show in some manner my utmost respect and gratitude to the best of kings, by offering my troops to his majesty's service, gives me a very agreeable opportunity of thanking you, my lord, for all your kindness and friendship to me upon that occasion, and begging your pardon for all the trouble I may have provided you in this regard.
“My only wishes are that all the officers and soldiers of my regiment now to his majesty's orders may be animated of the same respectful attachment and utmost zeal I shall ever bear for the king, my generous protector and magnani mous support. May the end they shall fight for answer to the king's upper contentment, and your laudable endeavors, my lord, be granted by the most happiest issue. The continuation of your friendship to me, sir, which I desire very much, assures your goodness and protection to my troops. I ask in their name this favor from you, and hope you will deserve it.
“Excuse me, sir, if I am not strong enough in the English language for to explain as I should the utmost consideration, and sincere esteem, with which I am forever, my lord, your most humble and very obedient servant,
The most important among these petty princes was the Duke of Brunswick, who paid thirty thousand thalers a year to the director of his opera and purveyor of his pleasures, and three hundred to his librarian, the great Lessing. His little territory of about sixty square miles had a population of one hundred and fifty thousand souls, and an income of a million and a half. His debts amounted to nearly twelve millions. A lover of pomp, capricious and reckless in his expenditure, he had been compelled to admit his son, the crown prince, to a partnership of authority, making the signatures of both essential to the validity of a document. Fortunately for the duke's creditors, the son was as parsimonious as the father was extravagant, and let no opportunity of raising money escape him. Such was the condition of the court of Brunswick when England sent Colonel William Fawcitt to ask for troops.
Had the English envoy been as well versed in the higher as in the lower arts of diplomacy, he would have obtained all that he asked without modification or delay. But, ignorant of the straits to which the duke was reduced for want of money, he began by asking for what he might have commanded, and involving himself in negotiations where a few firm words would have brought both father and son to his feet. The crown prince was not slow to turn to account the advantage which the slow-witted Englishman had given him, and using artfully and skillfully the name and coequal authority of his father, presently gained virtual control of the negotiation, which in itself was little more than a higgling over details. Fawcitt boasts of the perseverance with which he has beat down the German's prices, and the persistence with which he has resisted some of his claims. The main object of the transaction was won, England got her soldiers, — four thousand infantry and three hundred light dragoons, — Brunswick her money, her duke and minister their special pickings, and the English envoy a diamond ring worth one hundred pounds as a reward for his good offices.
The first division was to start at once for the seat of war. On examination by the British commissioner, it was found to contain too many old men. The duke's zeal for the king's service did not prevent him from palming off upon him men altogether unfit to bear arms. “The front and rear,” wrote Fawcitt to Lord Suffolk, “are composed of sound and strong men, but the centre is worthless. It is composed of raw recruits, who not only are too small, but also imperfectly grown, and in part too young.” Nor did the trickery end here. This same duke, who lived surrounded by expensive mistresses, sent off his soldiers upon a late spring voyage with uniforms unfit for service, and no overcoats or cloaks. It was not till they got to Portsmouth that they obtained their first supply of shoes and stockings. Their commander, Baron Riedesel, was compelled to borrow five thousand pounds from the English government in order to procure for his starving and freezing men the simplest articles of necessity.
Thus far they had had the rapacity of their own sovereign to contend with. They now came into contact with the rapacity of English tradesmen. When they got to sea and opened the boxes of dragoon shoes, they found them to be thin ladies shoes, utterly unfit for the purpose for which they were designed. Such are some of the fruits of that great demoralizer — war. We need not go far back for the parallel.
Towards the end of May the second division was mustered into service. They were nearly all recruits, levied especially for service in America; many of them, as in the first, too old or too young, or imperfectly grown and too feeble to carry a musket. But the blame called forth by the condition of the first division was not altogether vain, and the arms and uniforms were good. The officers did not escape without their share of suffering. The cabins were so small that their occupants were compelled to lie on one another in heaps. The Bristol merchants, who had supplied the transports with bedding, had made the most of their bargain. The pillows were five inches long and seven broad, the size of a common pincushion; and the mattresses so thin that with a coarse woolen blanket and coverlid they hardly weighed seven pounds. The food was prepared upon the same honest scale. The ham was worm-eaten, the water dirty, and the ship's stores had been ripened by lying in the English magazines ever since the Seven Years' War. Thus the powerful King of England and the petty sovereigns of Germany leagued together to buy and sell the blood of the unprotected German peasant.
Let us carry this study a little further. Elated with the success of his first negotiation, Fawcitt turned his face towards Hesse-Cassel. Germany “was all before him where to choose,” and he chose, or rather Lord Suffolk chose for him, the brilliant court of Hesse-Cassel for the next scene of his labors. The Duke of Hesse-Cassel, like his brother of Brunswick, felt no Christian scruples, no humane misgivings, no paternal doubts about trafficking in the blood of his subjects. Landgrave Charles I. had set the example, and. his successors had followed it. He let out his soldiers to Venice, and it might have been accepted as a mitigation of his crime that it was to serve against the Turks, the deadly enemies of Christian civilization. But it was not to the Venetians as the defenders of Christianity that he let them, but as the best paymasters in the market. From 1687, when Charles I. sent one thousand men to fight for the Venetians, till the end of the Seven Years' War, Hessians were found in one or the other of the contending armies, and always among the best disciplined and bravest of its soldiers. With the proceeds of their blood Charles I. built barracks and churches, constructed the water-works of the Weissenstein, and set up the statue of Hercules. His successors followed close in his footsteps, holding at one time twenty-four thousand men under arms, and always commanding the highest prices for their blood. Marble palaces, galleries rich with paintings and statues, spacious villas, and all the luxuries of the most advanced civilization bore witness to the wealth of the sovereign; their homes, and the boys, old men and women doing the work of ripe manhood, attested the oppression of the subject. There was a deep-set melancholy on the faces of the women. “When we are dead we are done with it,” was a common saying with the men. When a father asked for his son, whom the conscription had torn from him, he was sent to the mines. If a mother besought that he to whom she had looked for the support of her age might be restored to her, she was sent to the workhouse. Some of the barbarous punishments by which soldiers were terrified into obedience were inflicted in the streets. “Never,” says Weber, in his “Travels of a German in Germany,” “did I see so many poor wretches chased through the streets as in Cassel. It is less injurious to the health than running the gauntlet,” the officers told him; and well it might be, for that gauntlet was run through a narrow lane of men, each provided with a stout cane and bound to apply it with full force to the backs of the delinquents. In cases of desertion, the greatest of crimes, the offender was made to run this gauntlet two days in succession, and twelve times each day. Can we wonder that the terrible punishment often ended in death?
The poet tells us that —
Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes
I could wish that this were always true, but I fear that history will not bear us out in the belief. Landgrave Frederick II., whose reign from 1760 to 1785 covers the whole period in which we are most interested, can hardly be regarded as an illustration of the rule. His mixed character will repay a more attentive study.
He had inherited from his father a territory of one hundred and fifty-six German square miles, with a population of three hundred thousand souls. Over this population he exercised an absolute control, and by his wealth, his connections, and the favorable position of his territories, he was counted among the most powerful of his brother princes. From his ancestors he inherited business talent, indiscreet selfishness, coarse sensuality, and obstinate self-will. He had found Protestantism too rigorous, and became a Catholic in order to enjoy greater religious freedom, though he was not only indifferent to religion, but prided himself on playing the part of an illuminato, a protector of the arts and sciences, and a correspondent of Voltaire. He founded schools of a higher order, and even made some humane laws; but his culture was all on the surface, and his life was defiled by an indecent libertinism. French manners, French literature, and, above all, French licentiousness, reigned at his court, and to form some idea of its corrupting power we have only to remember that at the beginning of his career he was a contemporary of Louis XV. If he spent freely upon churches and museums, he spent more freely for the gratification of his voluptuousness. Yet with all this love of pleasure and display, he left at his death sixty million thalers in ready money. Where did he get it? A skillfully managed lottery furnished part; but the traffic in soldiers the greater part.
For him also the American war was a godsend, awakening new hopes for himself, and, as with his brother princes, new zeal and grateful attachment to “the best of kings.” We have seen how Fawcitt had been outwitted in his negotiations with the prime minister of Brunswick. He was still less able to cope with Von Schlieffen, the prime minister of Hesse-Cassel, — a man of both military and civil experience, a skillful negotiator, profoundly versed in the practical study of human nature, and thoroughly familiar with the aims and wishes of his sovereign. Fortunately for that sovereign, his minister was entirely devoted to his interests.
The negotiation began by a master stroke, which represented the landgrave as sensitive and nervous, and therefore in a state of mind that required delicate management. The English envoy bit eagerly at the bait, and made no secret of the dependence of his sovereign upon foreign aid. “How many men does he want?” was the first question. From ten thousand to twelve thousand, answered Fawcitt, little dreaming that the small state could furnish so many. He was told that the Hessian troops were on the best footing, and the king could have all that he asked for. Fawcitt was very happy, for the main object of his mission seemed secure. The troops promised, all the rest was merely a discussion of details. But in the skillful diplomacy of his opponent these details became concessions, cunningly interwoven, and leading by subtle interpretations from one admission to another. First came a claim for hospital expenses during the last war, — a claim the envoy had never heard of before, and concerning which he was therefore obliged to write home for instructions.
Meanwhile he urged on the preparation of the contract, which, to the wonder of diplomatists and the disgust of thoughtful Englishmen, took the form, not of a convention for hiring soldiers, as in the case of Brunswick, but of a treaty on equal terms between the mistress of the seas and a petty German landgrave, as high contracting powers. We need not, however, look far for the cause of the unwonted pliability of the English government. The margrave had money, and could wait. The king had no troops, and could not wait.
I will not follow the details of this negotiation any further. Both parties obtained their object. England got the men; the landgrave got his money. The time for the embarkation was fixed, and when it came, the first division of 8397 was mustered into the English service by Fawcitt, who seemed at a loss for words to express his admiration of their soldierly appearance. On the 12th of August, 1776, they entered New York Bay. On the 27th they took a brilliant part, under De Heister, in the battle of Long Island. A gale of wind, a persistent calm, any of the common chances of the ocean, and they would have been too late, and Howe would not have dared to fight the battle which won him his knighthood; Washington would have had time to strengthen his works on both islands; Greene, who of all the American officers was the only one perfectly familiar with the ground, would have recovered sufficiently from his untimely fever to resume his command, and the whole aspect of the campaign of 1776 would have been altered. So much, in great enterprises, often depends upon a happy concurrence of incidents. Henceforth let it be borne in mind that in every battle of the war of independence, hired men of Germany play an important part.
On the 2d of June the second division was mustered into service. On the 18th of October it landed at New Rochelle. It consisted of men, not the trained men of well-knit sinews who formed the first division, but chiefly young men of seventeen or eighteen, who had been raised to serve in America. As general of division we find Knyphausen, whose name soon became familiar to both armies. Among the colonels of the first division we find Rahl, who commanded at Trenton when Washington came upon it by surprise in the cold gray of a morning after Christmas; and Donop, who fell mortally wounded, as he led his men to the attack of Redbank, and died exclaiming, “I die the victim of my own ambition and the avarice of my sovereign.” Did those bitter words ever reach the ears of that sovereign? Not if we may judge by the cold, business-like method with which he bargained that three wounded men should count as one killed, and one killed as one newly levied, or thirty crowns banco.
But this second division was not so easily raised as the first; The alarm had spread rapidly among a people still suffering from the wounds of the Seven Years' War. The only refuge was desertion, and although the frontiers were closely guarded, deserters passed daily into the neighboring territories, where, from the people at least, they found a ready reception. To check this the king, as Elector of Hanover, put forth all his authority to restore these poor wretches to their sovereign; and the sovereign, to prove his paternal tenderness, reduced the war taxes by half; taking good care to secure for himself an ample compensation from England. “The treasury,” to borrow the energetic language of a German historian, “was filled with blood and tears.” Yet in spite of all the efforts both of the king and the landgrave, the desertion continued; the difficulty of finding recruits increased; native Hessians able to bear arms disappeared from the towns and fields; and it was only by stealing men wherever they could be found that the landgrave could fulfill his promises. Meanwhile he went to Italy to enjoy his money and form new plans of embellishment.
From Cassel Fawcitt hastened to Hanau, where he found the Crown Prince of Hesse-Cassel, and, following up his negotiations, had a new convention all ready in the course of the first twenty-four hours. He was delighted with the “impetuous zeal” of the prince. But the difficulty of his task was increasing; not from any hesitation on the part of the sovereign, who thought only of his gains, but because the subject had conceived a strong aversion for service beyond the sea. Excellent soldiers as the Germans were, they shrank with repugnance and terror from a voyage across the Atlantic. Those of my readers who have walked through a steerage crowded with emigrants will readily conceive what the sufferings of those poor soldiers must have been, badly fed, badly lodged, and worse than crowded. Draw the picture as you may, you cannot color it too highly. Little thought did either the king or the prince take of this. Each had his immediate object, and cared little for anything besides.
The Waldeckers came next; and Fawcitt pressing them on through new difficulties, they were ready in November to take a decided part in the assault of Fort Washington. For they fought gallantly, it will be remembered, on the north side, where both attack and defense were bloodiest and hottest. German writers tell us how the wounded cursed and swore, bewailing their lot; but if the prince was to be trusted, they only “longed for an opportunity to sacrifice themselves for the best of kings.”
The avarice of the German princes grew with success. All longed to come in for a share of this abundant harvest. Bavaria asked to put in her little sickle, but was refused. England might have raised her tone, for every applicant wrote as if all Germany were at her feet. But in truth the aversion to the service grew daily, and the difficulty of conveying troops to the place of muster caused serious embarrassments, which if England had been less in need might have led to the renunciation of the contract. But as has been already said, England wanted men and the princes wanted money, and thus the evil work went on, till there were no longer men to be bought or stolen.
There is a painful monotony in this story of inhumanity and crime, of the avarice of money and the avarice of power. It is common to speak of George III. as a man of a narrow mind but of an excellent heart; a moral king while so many of his contemporary kings disgraced the thrones on which they sat. This is too light a view of so grave a subject. Superiority of power carries with it superiority of moral obligation, and the man from whose will good or evil flows, compelling millions to go with it, must be held to a sterner reckoning than his fellow-men. Let us not pass lightly over this grave subject. The balancing of responsibilities, the just meting out of judgment to the strong and to the weak, is one of the most serious duties of the historian. The man who accepts a post of responsibility is bound to do whatever this responsibility imposes. Weigh the British king in this balance and grievously will he be found wanting.
And what shall we say of the German princes? Their lives speak for them. The pervading character of their relations to their subjects was cold-hearted selfishness, a wanton sacrifice of the labor and lives of their subjects to their own caprice and pleasure. Compare their spacious palaces with the comfortless cottages of the peasant; their sumptuous tables, covered with the delicate inventions of French cookery, with the coarse bread, almost the peasant's only meal; see their splendid theatres, maintained by taxes that rob the laborer of half the fruits of his toil; see how desolate the fields look, how deserted the highways, how silent the streets; see what sadness sits upon the brows of the women, what despair on the faces of the men; and think what manner of man he must be who reigns over subjects like these!
It has been said that the convention with the crown prince at Hanau was discussed and signed in twenty-four hours. The Prince of Waldeck followed, and soon the name of Waldeckers — first written in blood on the northern ridge of Fort Washington — became a name of fear and hatred to Americans. It would be useless — disgusting, rather — to dwell upon the monotonous record of this buying and selling of human blood. I will give a few incidents only to complete the picture.
A spirit of rivalry had grown up among these dukes and landgraves and princes, such rivalry as only avarice could awaken. They crowded around Fawcitt, and, while protesting that devotion to the majesty of England was their only motive, took good care to drive keen bargains and insist upon the uttermost farthing. They intrigued against each other in all the tortuous ways familiar to petty princes, bringing even religion to their aid, reminding Fawcitt how dangerous an element so large a proportion of Catholics would be in an English army. England wanted an army of twenty thousand men, with which she hoped to bring the war to a close in the course of another year; for till the Christmas of 1776 the campaign had gone all in her favor, and her hired troops had borne themselves bravely. She might have spoken in a more commanding tone. But the surprise of Trenton had thrown nearly nine hundred of these valiant mercenaries into the hands of the Americans and changed the whole aspect of the war. New troops were more needed than ever. She was again obliged to ask urgently and accept the hardest conditions.
The American service was now better understood, but not better liked. The Margrave of Anspach encountered serious obstacles in sending his troops to the place of embarkation. At Ochsenfurt they revolted and refused to embark. A skillful leader might have opposed a formidable resistance, but their officers were not with them in heart, and information of the untoward event was immediately sent to the margrave. He instantly mounted his horse, not stopping long enough to take a change of linen or even his watch, and, followed by only two or three attendants, rode at full speed to the scene of the revolt. At the sight of their master the hearts of these bold men, so daring in the face of the enemy, misgave them, and they penitently returned to their allegiance.
Other difficulties awaited other corps on their march. The electors of Mainz and Trier stopped them as they passed through their territories, and claimed some of them as deserters. At Coblentz seventeen Hessians were taken out of the boats at the suggestion of the imperial minister, Metternich. Another element of dissension was introduced, and deep menaces were uttered for the insult to the Hessian flag. But this, also, was presently forgotten; the work went on, and the new band of mercenaries reached New York in safety.
Among the mistakes of the English government, the greatest, perhaps, of all was the failure to understand the spirit and resources of the colonies, and the consequent prolongation of the war. The surprise of Trenton was, both by the actual loss of men and the still more fatal loss of prestige, a heavy blow. The privation of such troops under such circumstances imposed the necessity of immediate reinforcements. The only market in which they could be found was Germany, and that market was nearly drained. But as long as a man was to be had, his sovereign was eager to sell him and England to buy.
As early as December, 1776, the Duke of Würtemberg had offered four thousand men, and Fawcitt had been instructed to enter into negotiations with him. But upon a closer examination it was found that he was bankrupt. He had no arms and no uniforms. To prevent the men from deserting they were kept without pay. The officers' tents had been cut up to eke out the decorations of the duke's rural festivals. The prospect was gloomy. Sir Joseph Yorke was called into council, but he had no new market to recommend. Saxe-Gotha and Darmstadt might furnish a few. The Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst was willing to furnish two battalions. He was a brother of Catherine II., and a hearty hater of the great Frederick. His territories were wretchedly poor. His eagerness to get money embarrassed his negotiations, which were broken off by Suffolk, but resumed in the autumn of 1777 on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Yorke. But England wanted more men. Then adventurers began to come forward with propositions more or less feasible, but all aiming at the fathomless purse of England. A Baron Eichberg offered to open a recruiting office in Minorca; then a regiment of Sclavonians, who were also good sailors, and after the war were to found a colony for holding the Americans in check. The offer was not accepted. Other offers were made, but by impoverished men, who, when the time came, failed to meet their engagements. And thus was it till the end of the war; the only contracts that held were the first six: the contracts, namely, with Brunswick, Cassel, Hanau, Waldeck, Anspach, and Zerbst. The history of these six contracts covers the whole ground to the spring of 1777, when the difficulty of finding recruits increased. All that follows is in the main but a repetition of the original negotiations. For a year the disgraceful work prospered. But early in 1777 the market was nearly drained, and though new engagements continued to be made, they were seldom fulfilled. The story was still sad and humiliating; I shall follow its details no further. Here I must pause a moment to call attention to the heartless betrayal of his own soldiers by the Duke of Brunswick. Two thousand of these wretches had been made prisoners at Saratoga; and the duke, fearing that to exchange them would interfere with his profit and diffuse a general dissatisfaction with the service, when so many witnesses against it were scattered through the country, urged the English government to delay their exchange till the war was ended.
Frederick of Prussia and the emperor were opposed to the selling of men for foreign service; not from any feeling for the misery which it caused, but because their own political horizon was overcast and they might soon need them for their own service. It has been said that Frederick was moved by sentiments of humanity, and that with a bitter practical satire he imposed the same tax upon the passage of these men through his territories that he had been accustomed to impose upon cattle. But we have very little reason to count humanity among Frederick's virtues. He hated England for her desertion of him when Bute became minister and Chatham was forced to retire. In November, 1777, he refused the Anspachers and Hammers a passage through his territories; sorely embarrassing the German sovereigns and their English customers. They knew not which way to turn. If they should attempt to pass through Holland and the Netherlands, the discontented and ill-provided men would desert by hundreds. When at last the march began, three hundred and thirty-four men did desert in ten days. The disgraceful drama closed in 1778 with the embarkation of the levies of the Prince of Zerbst. And thus Frederick was our involuntary ally.
There was another ordeal to pass before the bargain was brought to a close. Would Parliament approve this degradation? The debates were long and bitter, and brought out the thinkers and orators of both houses. In the Commons, Burke characterized the bargain as shameful and dear. In the Lords, Camden branded it as a sale of cattle for the shambles. Even the butcher of Culloden condemned it as an attempt to suppress constitutional liberty in America. But the ministry prevailed by large majorities in both houses. England had not yet opened her eyes to the inhumanity and bad statesmanship of the war.
But England was not alone. The moral sense of Europe had not yet awakened. The old spirit of feudalism had not yet lost its hold upon the nobles nor upon the people. The noble still felt that the commoner was infinitely below him. The commoner and day-laborer could not but believe that the noble was really far above them. A few voices were raised in the defense of human rights. The most powerful of these in France was the voice of Mirabeau, who, though a noble himself, had also been the victim of tyranny. And in Germany it is pleasant to find Schiller on the side of humanity, stigmatizing the trade in men in his “Kabale und Liebe;” while the great Kant went still further, and embraced the cause of the American colonists with all the energy of his vast intellect. Klopstock and Lessing spoke in low tones, and we listen in vain for the voice of Goethe.
It is impossible to give with perfect accuracy the numbers of the Germans employed by England in this fatal war. The English archives contain one part of the story, and that the most important — the numbers actually mustered into service. But the various German archives, which contain the record of all who were put on the rolls, are not all accessible to the historical inquirer. This part of the subject has been carefully studied by Schlozer, and the result compared by Mr. Kapp with the statements in the English state paper office. Mr. Kapp's figures are as follows: —
Thus the total loss was 11,853.
It is difficult to establish with certainty the sums which this army of foreigners took from the tax-payers of England. Strongly supported as they were in Parliament, ministers did not dare to tell the whole story openly, but put many things under false titles. They did not dare frankly to say, Every man that is killed puts so many thalers into the sovereign's pocket, every three wounded men count for one dead man. Even the Parliament of Lord North might have shrunk from the contemplation of figures thus stained with tears and blood. As near as it can be established by a careful comparison of the English authorities, the sums paid under various names by the English treasury amounted in round numbers to seven million pounds sterling, or, at the present standard, fourteen million pounds sterling. Had these fourteen millions been used for the good of the people by whose sweat and blood they were won, we might still find some grounds for consolation in the reflection that the good thus done to one would, by a common law of humanity, sooner or later extend to all. But this fruit of the blood of the people went to satisfy the vain ambitions of display and the unbounded sensuality of the sovereign. Men whose names might have stood high in the annals of war, if they had fought for their country, are known in history as fighters for hire.
- Life of Frederick II., book v. ch. 5.
- The reader who wishes to study this subject more fully should read Der Soldatenhandel deutscher Fürsten nach Amerika (1775 bis 1783), von Friedrich Kapp, Berlin, 1864.