A Hessian Visits The Victors: 1783

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While waiting for passage home after the American Revolution had ended, Captain Johann Ewald, a Hessian mercenary who had been fighting in America since 1776, traveled to West Point, then still just a fort. Ewald’s account of his visit gives us an unusual, oblique view of how a professional soldier regarded the tattered crew who had somehow managed to defeat the well-trained, well-equipped British and Hessian forces with whom he had served.

This previously unpublished account is excerpted from Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal , which Yale University Press will publish this fall. The journal was discovered accidentally by Joseph P. Tustin when he was working as a historian with the United States Occupational Forces in Germany after World War II. He purchased most of it from an impoverished German clerk. Later he tracked down the rest and translated and edited it all for publication.

Our excerpt begins on October 21, 1783, as Captain Ewald leaves his headquarters just north of New York City and starts up the Hudson for West Point, accompanied by a Lieutenant von Gerresheim.

At seven o’clock in the morning I left my quarters and arrived about noon in Tarrytown, which lies twenty-three miles from my quarters and thirty miles from New York. Since this place was a scene of action for both combatants during the entire war which sometimes we and sometimes the Americans had occupied, it frequently had happened that I occupied this town with a party. As the inhabitants of the place and the surrounding area were all on the side of the Congress, our people were not usually received in the friendliest manner.

The first fellow I met in town, in front of the door of the tavern where I desired to stop for lunch, was one of the most fiery ringleaders, whom I had caught on a patrol and who had been put in chains and fetters. As soon as I recognized him, I asked him in quite friendly fashion how he felt, whereupon he replied indifferently with a look distorted by spite. I asked him if I could have something to eat and fodder for my horses for money. He answered with a short “Yes!” but his face brightened somewhat, since he expected to gain some money from me.

While I was dismounting and walking into the house, a number of residents of the town assembled. At the mention of my name they whispered a “God damn!” in each other’s ears, whereby I noticed that they had not yet forgotten the punches in the ribs which they had received from the Jägers [Hessian riflemen] during their imprisonment. Why! The womenfolk inside the house could scarcely stand the sight of me! I certainly expected an unpleasant reception and finished my lunch as quickly as possible. But what can money not do? As soon as I asked what my bill came to, and paid seven piasters into the woman’s hand for a poor meal, without any argument and without showing that it was too expensive, all the faces in the entire house brightened. They wished me a pleasant journey and asked me not to pass up their house on my return trip.

Since we could not use the old bridge across the Croton River, we had to take our route over the new bridge and travel several miles along the new road toward Peekskill which the American army had built during the war. Because the road had to be constructed for miles on the slopes of a steep and rocky mountain range along the right bank of the Croton River, much honor is due the man who designed it.

 

Toward eight o’clock in the evening we arrived at Peekskill, a small town of about eighty houses, only average buildings among them, which lies close to a deep valley on the left bank of the Hudson River and is surrounded by rocky hills. Since there is not a single good tavern in this place, several private individuals are keeping public houses to accommodate strangers or travelers. My address was directed to Madam Bourges, who is one of the finest women in this town. However, the entire house was full of strangers, and we were refused with much politeness and referred to another house, where we did not fare any better. Hence we went to a third one. Here we at last found accommodations for ourselves and our horses. It was quite lucky for us that we were very tired and craved lodgings more than a good dinner, for the latter was so poor that none of it could be consumed. Meanwhile, our host, who had served with the Americans during the entire war, was very courteous. Since I was not recognized here, and we were taken for French officers, everyone was exceptionally polite, for I took great care not to show that I had ever been here before, and had burned the barracks and several magazines two miles away.

Early on the 22d we breakfasted as soon as possible, badly and filthy, and after I had paid a guinea for the blessings we received we continued our journey. In this area begins the mountain range called the Highlands by the inhabitants, which is some twenty miles deep and cuts across America. The roads across these mountains are so steep that one is compelled to ride foot by foot, with the greatest caution. Because of the rocky ground, the area is so sparsely inhabited that for a distance of nine miles we did not see over ten miserable cabins, whose occupants lived from the chase and who did not make the best company.