A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution

By Warren, Jason W. | Parameters, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution


Warren, Jason W., Parameters


A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution

By Daniel Krebs

Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013

392 pages

$24.95

Ansbach, Germany still displays the colors of its regiments deployed during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and a visitor to this quaint town in Mittelfranken would not depart thinking that the Ansbachers were mercenaries. Daniel Krebs, a native German speaker, in fact claims the term was a misnomer for Germans in British employ during the war. In his well-crafted "new military history," A Generous and Merciful Etiemj, Krebs makes excellent use of the extant primary sources to explore the social aspects of these soldiers' backgrounds, families, military experience, and life after combat. In so doing, he relates a story heretofore marginalized in Anglo-American accounts of the conflict.

This commitment of soldiers by the resource-starved tiny principalities of the Holy Roman Empire--then the sick-man of Europe--was no small matter. During and immediately after the war, German cultural elites depicted their princes' motivations for contributing troops as the greedy pursuit of a life of debauchery. Later German nationalist writers derided these rulers as insufficiently German. Krebs counters that the reality was more nuanced. Sovereigns, in addition to raising money for domestic projects (often to better their subjects' condition), also sought prestige for themselves and their kingdoms; then a not uncommon objective for royalty. There was also the matter of supporting a British king of German ethnicity from the Hanoverian line, and the tradition of supporting Protestant war efforts, particularly after the Catholic French and Spanish joined with the American revolutionaries.

Although not all German "subsidy soldiers," as Krebs refers to them, were Hessians, "almost the entire Hessen-Kassel army entered British service" (22) and eventually numbered 20,000 regulars (plus replacements) during the war. Krebs is able to pattern a mosaic of the varying American treatment of these soldiers by time and place because more than 14 percent of all German subsidy soldiers fell into revolutionary hands. Colonial treatment of the Germans even differed within American states, as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at first provided generous conditions, while nearby Reading failed to provide adequate treatment. In Chapter 4, Krebs uses the topic of handling prisoners as an opportunity to detail how the Western tradition evolved over centuries in matters of military captivity. He examines how the reality of prisoners' treatment on and after the battlefield often ran afoul of the lofty philosophical ideals of the drawing room.

The American revolutionaries deemed Pennsylvania a sound location for prisoner of war camps because of the German ethnicity of many of the state's inhabitants, although major camps also existed in nearby Maryland, as well as Virginia and Connecticut. Language and ethnicity mattered during the war with German-American soldiers at Trenton even enticing the surrender of German subsidy soldiers' in their native tongue (97). Indeed, the mix of volunteers, conscripts, and pressed soldiers in the German ranks often mirrored that of the American Continental Army and militia units. …

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