The Somerville Times Historical Fact of the Week – September 18

On September 18, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times


Eagle Feathers #35– The Hessians

By Bob (Monty) Doherty

In 1775, after defeats at Lexington and Concord and their dearly-won battle at Bunker Hill, the British spent the next year isolated and licking their wounds in Boston before they were forced out by the Patriots.




The English fleet then sailed up to Canada where they waited for reinforcements and regrouped. Their plan was to attack New York from the north and south, thereby cutting off and isolating New England in order to win the war quickly. The plan didn’t work, and the war lasted eight long years.

If you ask who the Americans fought against during the Revolutionary War, most people would say the British and leave it at that. But the English Army was made up of not only British, but Canadians, Indians, Tories (Americans who sympathized or fought for the British), and the Hessians.



All these names should be familiar except for the last. So who were the Hessians? At the time of the Revolutionary War, what we now know as Germany was an area made up of many principalities and ruled by leaders who had their own private armies. When not at war, some of these rulers hired out their soldiers to other countries.

The English found that hiring these mercenaries would be more economical and faster than drafting and training their own troops. They acquired over 30,000 soldiers, primarily from the Hess-Kassel section of Germany to bolster their army in America. One out of every four men in the English army was a Hessian.



At the victorious battle of Saratoga N.Y., the Americans captured over 5,000 enemy troops, half of them Hessians. The prisoners were then marched to Massachusetts. The higher-ranking officers were sent to Cambridge and the lower-ranking soldiers to what is now Somerville. The English were imprisoned on Prospect Hill and their German confederates, some with their families, were located from Winter Hill to Walnut Hill in West Somerville.

They arrived here in November, 1777, and were escorted by Colonel Paul Revere and his troops to Somerville, where they were confined for a full year until November, 1778.  They were then relocated to the center of the state in Rutland, MA, near Worcester, and later to Virginia. While in Somerville, their housing was the forts and dugout emplacements built by the Americans throughout Somerville during the siege of Boston in 1775-1776.  Both prisoners and American guards suffered a severe winter with little shelter.


Before leaving the hills of Somerville and after having spent a year here, the Hessians left their mark. They brought the ritual of the Christmas tree to America, about a century before Prince Albert introduced the practice to Victoria’s England. They also introduced a sport called Keg Legging to America, so called because the pins used were the height of a small keg or barrel and the thickness of the bottom of an adult’s leg. You might know it as bowling. Their favorite variation was called nine-pin, a game set up in a diamond shape. In the camp, betting on nine pins was outlawed, so the enterprising prisoners just changed the number of pins to ten and the configuration to a triangle. Problem solved! Ten-pin bowling was invented.

Memories of the Hessians live on through Washington Irving’s novel and Johnny Depp’s movie, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The legend features a ghost-like, headless horseman as the galloping body of a Hessian Calvary officer who has lost his head by cannonball at the Battle of Saratoga.  Even to this day in autumn, his ghost is said to terrorize the villages of the Hudson River Valley.


There are about 50 million modern-day German Americans. Many trace their roots to Hessian soldiers who stayed in America. One was General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Other German Americans include: General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., Meryl Streep, Babe Ruth, Sandra Bullock and astronaut Neil Armstrong. There is an exhaustive list of American notables with Hessian heritage.


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