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Baroness On The Battlefield
Not all the Hessians taken prisoner at Saratoga were soldiers, nor were all of them men. There was also, with her three small daughers,
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Her full name was Frederika Charlotte Louise, Baroness von Riedesel, and according to contemporary admirers she was a “most amiable companion and Friend,” and a “cheerful, affable well bred woman.” It is also clear from her writings that she was a singularly adaptable person. When she came to America in 1777 to be with her husband, Baron Friedrich Adolph von Riedesel of Brunswick, commander of the Brunswickers and Hessians attached to the army of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, she proved thoroughly capable of dealing not only with three young children and a retinue of servants, but with a strange country, a new language, and the trials and terrors of war. In fact, during the years that followed the defeat of the combined British and German forces at Saratoga, the Baroness put up with the humiliations and hardships of semi-captivity with considerably more fortitude than her ailing and nervous husband.
After she returned home to Germany in 1783, she set down an account of her “tour of duty” in America, intending it only for her family’s eyes, but it aroused so much interest that an edition was offered to the public in Berlin in 1800. Her charming, direct, and highly feminine account of the Revolutionary period has long served as source material for historians, but no complete English translation was made until 1867, and it has long been out of print. A new edition entitled Baroness von Riedesel and the American Revolution, edited and translated by Marvin L. Brown, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in January, 1965. In the excerpt which follows, we join the Baroness with Burgoyne’s army in September of 1777, as it was driving southward from Canada toward Albany as part of an elaborate campaign to divide the colonies and end the rebellion. —The Editors
When the army marched again [September 11, 1777], it was at first decided that I was to stay behind, but upon my urgent entreaty, as some of the other ladies had followed the army, I was likewise finally allowed to do so. We travelled only a short distance each day and were very often sorely tried, but nevertheless we were happy to be allowed to follow at all. I had the joy of seeing my husband every day. … Everything went well at first. We had high hopes of victory, and when we had crossed the Hudson and General Burgoyne said, “Britons never retreat,” we were all in very high spirits. It displeased me, however, that the officers’ wives were familiar with all of the army’s plans. … Even the Americans were acquainted with all our plans in advance, with the result that wherever we came they were ready for us, which cost us dearly. On September 19 there was a battle, which, although it resulted in our favor, forced us to halt at a place called Freeman’s Farm. I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired, as nothing escaped my ear. I saw a number of wounded men and, what was even worse, three of them were brought to the house where I was. One of them was Major Harnage, the husband of one of the ladies of our party, the second a lieutenant, whose wife was also an acquaintance of ours, and the third was a young English officer named Young. Major Harnage and his wife had the room next to mine. He had been shot in the abdomen and suffered much. A few days after our arrival I heard moaning in the other room next to mine and learned that it was the young English officer, Young, who was suffering great pain from his wound. …
I sent word to him that I would be glad to do whatever I could for him and sent some food and refreshment. He expressed a great desire to see his “benefactress,” as he called me. I went to him and found him lying on some straw, as he had lost all his baggage. He was a young man of about 18 or 19 years old, and an
only son. His parents were his only concern; he uttered no complaint about his pain. He had lost a great deal of blood, and the doctors wanted to amputate his leg, but he would not let them, and now gangrene had set in. I sent him some pillows and blankets, and my maids sent a mattress. I redoubled my efforts to help him and visited him every day, for which he called down a thousand blessings upon me. In the end the amputation was attempted, but it was too late, and he died a few days later. As he lay in the room next to mine, the walls being very thin, I could hear his groaning until the end came.
The house where I was staying was fairly well built, and I had a large room. The doors and wainscot were of solid cedar, which is quite common here. It is often used for firewood, particularly when there are many insects, because they cannot bear the smell of it. It is said, though, that the smoke is bad for the nerves, and that it can even cause pregnant women to give birth prematurely. When we marched on I had a large calash readied, with room for myself and the three children and my two maids; thus I followed the army right in the midst of the soldiers, who sang and were jolly, burning with the desire for victory. We passed through endless woods, and the country was magnificent, but completely deserted, as all the people had fled before and had gone to strengthen the American army under General Gates. This was a great disadvantage for us, because every inhabitant is a born soldier and a good marksman; in addition, the thought of fighting for their country and for freedom made them braver than ever.