The Mercenaries That Helped Washington Win the American Revolution

While a group of mercenaries did help Washington win the American Revolution, they weren't fighting on the American side. Washington's strategic ability to defeat and capture a group of mercenaries and his political ability to turn it into a rallying event for America would change the course of the war and history. 

On Christmas night, 1776, almost 250 years ago, George Washington crossed the Delaware to perform a sneak attack on the British troops that had captured Trenton, NJ. Washington and his men quietly crossed the river and made their way into Trenton. Rumor has it that the enemy soldiers had been a little too confident that no attack would take place. It’s likely they were full of “holiday cheer,” thus too intoxicated to put up much of a resistance against the American army. As you know, Washington crossed the river and captured a large number of British forces with very few casualties of his own. He really showed those redcoats! Except they weren’t wearing redcoats… and they weren’t even British. Washington and his troops captured a group of mercenaries that had been hired by the British to fight the colonists. Britain hired almost 30,000 of these troops from modern day Germany. Most came from the German state of Hesse-Cassel (Germany wasn’t an official country yet, but a grouping of states with the same language and similar culture). In fact, Hesse-Cassel or the Hessians as they were known, were expert soldiers and exporting mercenary armies was their main source of revenue. Supposedly, the state of Hesse-Cassel received an entire years worth of colonial taxes as payment for their mercenaries. 

As you might expect, the colonists were already upset with England for the whole taxation without representation deal, but sending in foreign soldiers to fight their own people was a move that ultimately turned a lot of colonists against their British counterparts. Washington knew this and so he started developing a plan to strike a blow to the British army while also raising support for his cause amongst Americans. You see, by 1776 the morale of the colonies and their armies was dwindling. A lot of soldiers were up for the completion of their service and would be going home soon. The British had just taken New York and the Continental Congress had fled to Philadelphia. It wasn’t looking good. To make matters worse, it was winter, and winter is almost never a good thing for armies…well, unless you're Russia and another army is trying to invade you—just ask Napoleon and Hitler about that. Fortunately for America, Washington saw the winter as a good thing. He saw an opportunity and he took it.

On Christmas morning 1776, General Washington ordered his troops to prepare their weapons and three days rations. They were going on a secret mission. By 4 PM that day, they were marching out to prepare and cross the Delaware. The weather was brutal that day and mixes of rain, sleet and snow pounded the men. Due to ice floating on the river, it took until 3 AM until all of the troops and artillery had made it across the river. Many historians point to Henry Knox as the reason the plan was able to be executed so smoothly (only a few men fell into the river!). Washington had put Knox in charge of the operations. The password for any landing Americans was "Victory or Death." Washington may have realized that this was his one real chance to turn the tide of the war.

By the early morning of December 26, Washington readied his soldiers for an attack…and so it began. The American army rushed into Trenton and killed 22 Hessian soldiers, wounded 98 and captured over 1,000 men plus much-needed war supplies. It was an absolutely massive victory for the colonies, especially in regard to morale. Washington marched the captured troops through Philadelphia, gaining morale, support from Congress and convincing a large number of men to sign up for the army or extend their service. Most historians will argue that this was also the moment that Washington really gained the support and respect of the colonies and the government as a military leader.

Ironically, some of the Hessians must have enjoyed America. 10% of the mercenaries stayed in America after the war and declined the journey back to Europe. There’s a chance these former mercenaries and enemies of the colonies would go on to share drinks with their former antagonists, I mean, after all, that’s one of the great things about America.