I couldn’t help but note that once again this year the date of October 19th passed without editorial notice let alone any official celebration. Not surprising when the event in question took place 234 years ago. It says something about how long I have been around when I can say that in my own elementary school days that historical “oversight” would not have occurred; especially given that I lived in the State of New Jersey, on whose soil some of the American Revolutionary War’s most crucial battles were fought, and in whose woods and fields kids my age were still digging up rusted musket balls, uniform buttons and other artifacts of that hard-fought War of Independence.
After five long years of that up-hill struggle pitting America’s yeomen and farm-boy armies against the combined military of the world’s most powerful nation, the day of victory came on October 19th, 1781 when Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia ending a three-week siege and Britain’s struggle to save much of its investment in the New World. (A “New World” by the way in which at least 40% of the inhabitants still thought of themselves as loyal subjects of the king.)
The Battle of Yorktown was widely known afterward, as the “German Battle”, not just because a fairly large proportion of Britain’s infantry was composed of professional soldiers – known as Hessians -- from several of Germany’s states, including Hess, but because 3,000 of Washington’s soldiers were themselves German/Americans. (Up until the beginning of World War I, German was the 2nd most spoken language in the United States.)
In the 18th Century, Germany as we think of it today was not so much a country as a conglomerate of “principalities” governed by “Princes” with local power and authority, loosely member states of The Holy Roman Empire. Hess, or Hessen had long enriched its treasury (and its Prince’s pockets) by “renting out” regiments of its world renowned and well-trained army.
In all, Britain deployed 30,000 of these fighting men, including a number from neighboring principalities – all referred to as “Hessians”-- in their efforts to resolve the “Colonial problem.” They took part in just about every battle of the war including the seminal Siege of Yorktown, and they fought well, serving under their own officers, in their own colorful uniforms and with their own regimental banners flying.
Those who were captured were often put to work on farms as laborers, some even offered 50 acres of land if they were willing to desert. After accounting for those who were killed, both in action and from the high cost of illness and accidents, it looks as if up to 6,000 Hessians remained in America.
I was captivated some years ago by a novel written by Howard Fast titled The Hessian which wove a very believable tale about a young soldier who wished to stay behind and become an American. In the end – since the war was still in progress – he was executed by citizens. But for a sad ending, the story remained in my mind.
Years later, as I pursued an interest in the Amish, Mennonite and Dunker cultures who brought to Pennsylvania the unique food and folkways of Germany, Switzerland and Alsace, I fell in love with the people often referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch (it should read Deutsch,) and the way of life which left its mark on the land and the legacy which still lives on in the hinterland today. With each visit to those small towns and back roads I began sketching out a rough genealogy based on such clues as the recipe of a particular sausage, or how and why the stuffing of a goose stomach was the center of an annual celebration, the recurring use of a certain first name and dozens of other earmarks. And then I asked myself if I had a Germanic background and wished to find a hiding place where I could fit in, a place where most religious services featured a Bible written in German and where the people shied away from all things “English”, where might I go?
I have yet to find a better answer to the question: Where did those 6,000 Hessians go to?
Having dined recently at a table loaded with fabulous recipes by a good friend who is a latter-day migrant from Hess, I think I may be onto something.