The first German troops to start for America were the Brunswickers. These marched from Brunswick on February 22d, 1776, two thousand two hundred and eighty-two strong, and were embarked at Stade, near the mouth of the Elbe. The second division of Brunswickers embarked at the end of May - about two thousand men. The first Hessians set out from Cassel early in March, and were shipped at Bremerlehe, near the mouth of the Weser. The second division was embarked in June. Together they numbered between twelve and thirteen thousand men. They were for the most part excellent troops and well equipped, for the Landgrave's little army was one of the best in Germany.
The march from Brunswick or Cassel to the port of embarkation was a comparatively simple matter. The troops passed from the territory of their own prince into the Hanoverian dominions of the King of England, and these reached to the sea. The Prince of Waldeck sent his regiment through Cassel without trouble. The Prince of Hesse-Hanau, the Margrave of Anspach-Bayreuth, and the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst had a longer road and more difficulties before them.
The town of Hanau lies above Frankfort, on the river Main, about thirty miles from Mainz, where that river falls into the Rhine. The district of which Hanau was the capital was at this time governed by the heir-apparent of the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, as an independent county. The prince was not on good terms with his father, and was unwilling to send his troops through the territories of the latter, for fear of desertion. The soldiers were therefore shipped on boats and sent down the Rhine. The three spiritual electorates, the lands of the Elector of the Phalz, the free city of Cologne, and other less important districts bordered on that stretch of the river which the modern tourist passes in his steamboat between breakfast and dinner-time. Any one of the little states might make trouble if its permission for the passage of troops were not obtained, and after running the gantlet of them all, there was danger of still more serious hinderance when the flotilla came to Rhenish Prussia. Difficulties had already arisen between the local authorities and the English recruiting officers, and although the first regiment from Hanau, in the spring of 1776, was allowed to pass unmolested, trouble was brewing.
A detachment of chasseurs and recruits started from Hanau on March 7th, 1777. On the 8th the boats were stopped at Mainz, and eight men were taken from them. The archbishop claimed these either as his own subjects or as deserters from his service. The English government refused to interfere, and the complaints of the Prince of Hanau were unheeded. On March 25th, at S'Gravendael, in Holland, seven men sprang overboard, and three of them escaped, with the help of sympathizing peasants.
Meanwhile, two regiments of Anspach and Bayreuth, with one hundred and one chasseurs and forty-four artillerymen (in all twelve hundred and eighty-five men), had marched from Anspach on March 7th, 1777, and were embarked at Ochsenfurth, a pretty little walled town lying on the Main about a hundred miles above Hanau, and belonging at that time to the Bishop of Wurzburg. The men were embarked towards evening, and their boats remained at anchor through the night. The poor country lads were unused to their crowded quarters, shivering with cold, and sickened by the smell of the boats, in which, in their simplicity, they thought they were to sail to America. Their grumbling grew at last into a mutiny, a poor, helpless mutiny, without a plan, without a leader. At daybreak some of the soldiers of the Anspach regiment, whose boat lay near the bank, laid a plank to the shore and walked over it. They then dragged other boats to land, and in an hour the miserable crowd of cold and hungry men was on shore, storming with anger and refusing to yield to the threats and promises of its officers. These acted prudently. They sent for food and wood to warm and feed the starving mutineers. Unfortunately the inhabitants of Ochsenfurth brought drink as well. The insubordination increased. The soldiers began to wander away; but the chasseurs still obeyed orders. They were posted on the surrounding hills and told to fire at deserters, "to frighten them." The rioters returned the fire. Several men were wounded. The burghers of Ochsenfurth shut their gates and drew up their drawbridges to keep themselves out of harm's way. Towards evening the soldiers began to get sober again, and were finally brought back into their ranks, some scores of them having succeeded in escaping. The Bishop of Wurzburg sent hussars and dragoons to help quell the riot. He was afterwards officially thanked by the English government.
Meanwhile an express had been sent to warn the Margrave at Anspach. The Margrave was startled. Here were twelve hundred men, with eighteen thousand good English pounds, and next winter's little journey to Paris, all in danger of making off at once. His Most Serene Highness threw himself into the saddle, forgetting his watch and neglecting his carpet-bag; (he had afterwards to borrow some clean shirts of his princely neighbor of Hanau). He rode quickly through the night, and early morning found him at Ochsenfurth. The regiments were drawn up and the Margrave passed from man to man. He inquired into their grievances, and promised forgiveness to all who would go to America. He announced that any man might then and there leave the service, forfeiting his home, all his property, and the princely favor. No one stirred. The soldiers were re-embarked and taken down the Main. The Margrave accompanied them. The story that he sat in one of the boats, with a cocked rifle, ready for future deserters, seems to want authority.
The flotilla arrived at Mainz. About thirty officers and men had been sent by the Bishop-Elector to visit it and take off deserters. They were recalled, however, on account of the presence of the Margrave, and of the two Hessian princes who were with him. The Elector prepared a grand dinner for these distinguished guests, but they did not venture to accept it, and only sent an officer to demand that the bridge should be opened, threatening to blow it up in case of refusal. The bridge was opened in the night, without the formal consent of the Elector, and the boats went on their way. From this point, the voyage down the Rhine was unhindered, and the troops were mustered into the English service in Holland. Each regiment received a present of 100 ducats from the Margrave, and extra rations during the journey.
The Margrave had accomplished his purpose and could return with a light heart to Anspach. He set out for Paris on the 16th of October following, with his good friend Lady Craven, having arranged that a new body of about three hundred recruits and chasseurs should start down stream at the end of the month, taking with them uniforms for his regiments. He had taken the trouble to write to his uncle, the great Frederick of Prussia, asking that the passage of these troops might be permitted; but he looked on this request as a mere formality, and travelled off without waiting for an answer (Elliot, the English Ambassador at Berlin, had sent a like request, which also was refused. Elliot states in a letter to Suffolk that the German princes had felt obliged to ask the permission of the court of Berlin before letting out their soldiers to Great Britain, and that they had obtained this permission. Kapp, "Friedrich der Grosse und die Vereinigten Staaten," pp. 63-65.) He was destined to be disappointed. His ministers at Anspach received and opened in due time the following letter, written, as was usual with diplomatic correspondence, in the French language:
"Potsdam, this 24th October, 1777.
"MONSIEUR MY NEPHEW! - I own to your Most Serene Highness that I never think of the present war in America without being struck with the eagerness of some German princes to sacrifice their troops in a quarrel which does not concern them. My astonishment increases when I remember in ancient history the wise and general aversion of our ancestors to wasting German blood for the defence of foreign rights, which even became a law in the German state.
"But I perceive that my patriotism is running away with me; and I return to your Most Serene Highness's letter of the 14th, which excited it so strongly. You ask for free passage for the recruits and baggage which you wish to send to the corps of your troops in the service of Great Britain, and I take the liberty of observing that if you wish them to go to England, they will not even have to pass through my states, and that you can send them a shorter way to be embarked. I submit this idea to the judgment of your Most Serene Highness, and am none the less, with all the tenderness I owe you, Monsieur my Nephew, your Most Serene Highness's good uncle,
The ministers were perplexed. They thought it too late to keep back the troops, and hoped to gain their end by negotiation. In this they did not succeed. The soldiers were stopped on their passage down the Rhine, and after spending a month in their boats, lying, for the most part, off the little town of Bendorf, which belonged to the Margrave of Anspach, were finally brought back to winter at Hanau. Their sufferings while crowded on board the boats in the months of November and December, and only allowed occasional exercise on shore, must have been great; but there were but few desertions, for a cordon of troops lined the bank to prevent them. About two hundred and fifty recruits from Hanau lay alongside of the Anspachers, similarly detained, and these suffered much from fever.
The whole party of five hundred and thirty-four men marched in February and March, 1778, overland to the coast, and was shipped in April for England and America. The passage was a long one, and these men, who had left Anspach early in November, 1777, were not landed in New York until September, 1778.
The sudden refusal of Frederick the Great to allow the passage of troops told most of all on the Zerbst regiment. In order to pass round the Prussian dominions, this body was obliged to march through seven different states and free cities. The result was disastrous. In the village of Zeulenrode a deserter chased by a corporal sought refuge in an inn. The corporal, in his anger and excitement, shot after him through the window and killed the innkeeper's wife, who was sitting quietly in the room. The peasants were enraged, and a riot shortly afterwards occurred, in which a lieutenant was mortally injured. Moreover, the Prussian recruiting officers saw their chance to pick up a few men, and once on the route there was a skirmish with them and bloodshed. Three hundred and thirtyfour men deserted in the course of ten days, leaving only four hundred and ninety-four under the banners. The colonel succeeded, however, in enlisting about one hundred and thirty recruits, to take the place of the deserters, and six hundred and twenty-five men were thus shipped on April 22, 1778, at Stade. Making a quick passage, they arrived before Quebec towards the last of May; but they had not come to the end of their troubles. The commander of the place had received no orders concerning them, and would not allow them to land. For three months the poor fellows had to lie on shipboard in the St. Lawrence, before instructions could be received from England.
Frederick the Great has left in his memoirs his own account of his reasons for his conduct on this occasion.
"The King of England, who from caprice or obstinacy maintained Bute's system, stiffened himself against the obstacles which arose under his feet. With little consideration for the misfortunes which fell on his people, he became all the more ardent in the execution of his designs; and in order to obtain a superiority of force over the Americans, he had negotiations carried on with all the courts of Germany to obtain what little help they could still furnish. Germany already felt the evil consequences of sending so many of her men into those distant climes, and the King of Prussia did not like to see the Empire deprived of all its defenders, especially in case of a new war; for in the troubles of 1756, Lower Saxony and Westphalia alone had set on foot an army with which the progress of the French had been stopped and disorganized. For this reason he made difficulties for the passage of the troops of the princes allied to England when they had to pass through Magdeburg, Minden, and the district on the Lower Rhine. That was but a weak revenge for the bad attitude which the court of London had assumed towards him concerning the city and harbor of Dantzic. Nevertheless, the king did not care to push matters too far, for long experience had taught him that one always finds a host of enemies in the world, without taking the trouble to raise them wantonly against oneself." (OEuvres de Frederic le Grand," vol. vi. p. 117.)
These troublesome measures of Frederick were but temporary, and in 1778 the business returned to its old channels. The war of the Bavarian Succession had then broken out, and Frederick was inclined to be more conciliatory towards England. The whole relation of the King of Prussia to our Revolutionary War is hardly worth the attention that has been bestowed on it. It would appear that Frederick, owing to his dislike for the British, and on grounds of general policy, gave orders to his ministers to treat the American agents, Arthur and William Lee, with politeness, though he was prevented by his political judgment from according them the smallest advantage. "I propose," wrote he to his brother Henry, on June 17th, 1777, "to procrastinate in these negotiations, and to go over to the side on which fortune shall declare herself." ("OEuvres Frederic le Grand," vol. xxvi. p. 393.) Seeing, however, in the autumn of 1777, a good opportunity to vent his spite against the English, to express his contempt for what he considered a disgraceful business, to diminish the drain of men from Germany, and, perhaps, to do a good turn to the Americans, with whom he sympathized as the enemies of his enemies, he adopted the measures above described. It is possible that Frederick was also influenced by a personal dislike for "Monsieur his Nephew," who had long before embraced the Austrian side in German politics.
As for the importance to America of the hindrance thus thrown in the way of the mercenary princes, it seems to me that Kapp overrates it. It may possibly have been the want of the reinforcements thus delayed and the uncertainty of obtaining more men in the future that prevented Sir William Howe from destroying Washington's army at Valley Forge, and completely stamping out the rebellion. But such a consequence of the delay in receiving fifteen hundred men, and of the abandonment of a scheme for obtaining a few thousands more from Wurtemberg, seems to me too remote for serious consideration. Is there any reason to suppose that Sir William would have made a better use of the fifteen hundred German soldiers he expected than of the twelve or fifteen thousand he had already? The great king, as we have seen, confined himself to small annoyances. One authoritative word from him might probably have sufficed to put a stop to the whole disgraceful business. (Kapp's "Soldatenhandel," pp. 147-177; Kapp's "Friedrich der Grosse und die Vereinigten Staaten," part i. passim. Frederick subsequently encouraged the French court to enter into the American alliance, "Bancroft," vol. x. chap. iii. In January, 1778, Schulenberg, Frederick's minister, wrote to Arthur Lee that the King of Prussia would not delay to acknowledge the independence of the United States so soon as France should have done so (Kapp, "Friedrich," etc., p. 52). This promise was not fulfilled.)
The march of the auxiliaries from their national headquarters to the sea can have been, at least after the first year, no cheerful or martial spectacle. The poor fellows travelled partially armed, escorted by picked men. The villages in which they slept were surrounded by a double chain of sentries (MSS. of Regiment von Mirbach, in the Cassel Library.) If they went by the river Weser, a certain number of them had at most times, even when Prussia was not unusually troublesome, to march round her territory at Minden. We have seen how they were treated on the Rhine. For it was a peculiarity of these troops, that a regiment of them could hardly pass through any part of Germany where the authorities had not some claim on some of the soldiers.
Seume, the captive poet, has left a graphic description of his experiences on shipboard. The men were packed like herring. A tall man could not stand upright between decks, nor sit up straight in his berth. To every such berth six men were allotted, but as there was room for only four, the last two had to squeeze in as best they might. "This was not cool in warm weather," says Seume. Thus the men lay in what boys call "spoon fashion," and when they were tired on one side, the man on the right would call "about face," and the whole file would turn over at once; then, when they were tired again, the man on the left would give the same order, and they would turn back on to the first side. The food was on a par with the lodging. Pork and pease were the chief of their diet. The pork seemed to be four or five years old. It was streaked with black towards the outside, and was yellow farther in, with a little white in the middle. The salt beef was in much the same condition. The ship biscuit was often full of maggots. "We had to eat them for a relish," says Seume, "not to reduce our slender rations too much." This biscuit was so hard that they sometimes broke it up with a cannon-ball, and the story ran that it had been taken from the French in the Seven Years' War, and lain in Portsmouth ever since. The English had kept it twenty years or so, and "were now feeding the Germans with it, that these might, if it were God's will, destroy Rochambeau and Lafayette. It does not seem to have been God's will, exactly." Sometimes they had groats and barley, or, by way of a treat, a pudding made of flour mixed half with salt water and half with fresh water, and with old, old mutton fat. The water was all spoiled. When a cask was opened "it stank between decks like Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus all together." It was thick with filaments as long as your finger, and they had to filter it through a cloth before they could drink it. They held their noses strong while they drank, and yet it was so scarce that they fought to get it. Rum, and sometimes a little beer, completed their fare.
Thus crowded together, with close air, bad food, and foul water, many of them insufficiently clothed, these boys and old men, students, shopkeepers, and peasants tossed for months on the Atlantic. Much of the suffering of the voyage was doubtless inevitable, and many of the recruits were already inured to hardship. But much of what they underwent was the result of wanton carelessness or grasping avarice. What shall we say of the British Quartermaster's Department, which sent these men to sea without proper food or drink? What of the Duke of Brunswick, who despatched his subjects to Canada without shoes and stockings that would hold together, and without overcoats? Men have often borne such hardships cheerfully for a cause that they understood and loved. But these poor fellows suffered in a quarrel that was not their own, and simply to provide means to pay the debts, or minister to the pleasures of their masters. It is well for us to know something of their sufferings; to know what despotism means.