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A Hessian Visits The Victors: 1783

July 2024
16min read

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This previously unpublished account is excerpted from Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal , which Yale University Press will publish this fall.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.

When one observes the narrow and unfinished roads which cross these mountains, it is amazing that the Americans permitted us to penetrate into this region without interference four or five years ago, when two or three determined officers with a hundred men could have stopped at each step the best and strongest armies for several days, and where each step of the attacking party would have had to have been bought with blood. Due to the bad roads there are few vehicles in this area, and all travelers of both sexes whom we met on the way were on horseback.

Toward midday we arrived at Nelson’s Ferry, where a well-built country house of medium size lies on a small plain on the left bank of the North River [i.e., the Hudson River]. This plain is commanded by two redoubts, called North and South redoubts, which are constructed on steep and rocky heights.

Even in this house, which is occupied by a well-to-do man named [Caleb] Nelson, is another residence where one finds lodging as a “favor” and for a stiff price. In front of the door we found a middle-aged woman whom I asked to accommodate us, and who quite politely consented, after making it clear to us that her house has no tavern.

Here in this house I soon found an American officer who related to me that his brother had been shot by the Jägers at Elizabethtown in the Jerseys. I regretted this and steered the conversation to the question of whom I should turn to for permission to see the fortifications at West Point. We were informed that a General McDougall [Major General Alexander McDougall] resided scarcely a mile from here, but he did not have the command of the fortifications. Nevertheless, we considered it our duty to pay a visit to this gentleman. We were scarcely halfway to the general’s residence when he met us, and as soon as we had identified ourselves he offered us the hospitality of his house with all politeness for as long as we intended to stay. But since we could not accept this, out of courtesy, we asked him for a pass to cross the North River. He accompanied us to the plantation where we were to descend, furnished us with a pass, ordered his boat, and himself accompanied us to the opposite shore. When we thanked him, he invited us to his table the following day.

As soon as we arrived at West Point we found a battery of four guns which commanded the narrow channel of the river between this place and Point Constitution. This point is a complete peninsula, which is attached to the left bank of the North River by a marshy isthmus. It extends into the river so close to the opposite point that the river, which makes a sharp bend here, is only four hundred paces wide but fifty to sixty fathoms deep. This peninsula forms a steep cliff on all sides, on which three redoubts had been constructed to sweep the river and the side where it connects with the left bank by a marshy tongue of land. On this side there is a barracks for three hundred men, which, however, is not protected from the water side.

The duty officer of the battery at West Point received us very politely, and immediately provided us with a noncommissioned officer who led us to the quarters of the commandant, who is General Knox [Major General Henry Knox]. As soon as we climbed up the steep bank … we found ourselves on a natural place d’armes about one and a half German miles long and a good half mile wide.

We were received very courteously by General Knox, whose figure is quite distinguished and venerable. He consented at once to our request to inspect the fortifications. Since I strengthened his conviction that it was a formidable and impregnable position, he asked us to his table and provided us with his adjutant, Captain [John] Lillie, as an escort, who probably was instructed to what extent he should show us the fortifications.

We then went to Fort Clinton, which is situated on the point above the water battery mentioned. It is quadrangular, with broken flanks, and commands the river from all directions. Afterward, we inspected the barracks, which are secure against all armed vessels, since the right bank of the river is very high and the rocks at most places rise perpendicularly.


On this walk the captain took us to the artillery park, which consists of approximately eighty pieces, all of which had been captured from the English during the war, and on which the place and occasion of capture were engraved in big letters. What touched me most strongly and profoundly, and led me into deep reflection for several minutes, were three light 3-pounders which looked as simple as a Quaker. They had been cast at Philadelphia, were the first cannon in the American army, and had comprised their entire field artillery in the first and second campaigns.

I became totally lost in my meditations as I tried to imagine the American army in its wretched condition, such as we had often encountered it during the year 1776 and chased it from hill to hill. On the other side I tried to envisage the splendid and formidable army of the English, consisting mostly of veterans who despite all dangers had swum across nearly a half of the earth’s diameter. But they were put to such poor use that eight campaigns were lost, followed by the loss of thirteen provinces, which, in a word, had torn down the crown of England from its loftiest peak. How ashamed must a man like General Grant [the British Major General James Grant] now feel, who at the outbreak of the war declared in Parliament that he could make America obedient again with six thousand men, since according to his reports most people were loyalists. [Actually, Grant claimed he would only need five thousand men.]

Since the hour of three had passed during the course of this walk, and it was time to return to the general, Captain Lillie offered to show us the rest of the fortifications after dinner or early in the morning. Once more we were courteously received by the general and by Madam [Lucy] Knox, and introduced to some twenty American staff and other officers, whose names I have completely forgotten except that of a Colonel Vose, a distinguished and talkative gentleman [probably Colonel Joseph Vose of Massachusetts]. After a short time we went to the table, where I had the good fortune of being seated between madam and the general. Madam Knox had a quite pleasant face and very lively brown eyes, but I heard no other sound from her than those words I could extract. The general, who had been a bookdealer in Boston before the war, appeared to be a reasonable and well-read man, considering all the books he had studied in his business, which he showed especially when the conversation turned to finance and accounting. One could see the fancied happiness of this company from the look in everyone’s eyes as soon as the conversation turned to free trade, with which they complimented themselves to a great extent. But when one talked to them as soldiers, they made it known at once that they would be happy to disband as soon as the order was issued for the remainder of the army, which still consisted of five thousand men. Then that object for which they had drawn their swords would have been obtained, and they considered themselves fortunate enough to be independent and at peace, and now able to reap their flax.

Toward half-past five we arose from the table and strolled to the parade ground, where the entire garrison, consisting of about 3,200 men, was drawn up in battalion formation and accounted for and inspected as usual. The shortest men formed the first rank, which was introduced by General Baron von Steuben, the Inspector General, who has his usefulness in the field but who makes a very poor figure on parade.

The men looked haggard and pallid and were poorly dressed. Indeed, very many stood quite proudly under arms without shoes and stockings. Although I shuddered at the distress of these men, it filled me with awe for them, for I did not think there was an army in the world which could be maintained as cheaply as the American army. It was not even permitted to requisition straw during the campaigns, since the country could not have borne the expense. The barracks at West Point as well as those at all permanent places had to be built by the soldiers with their own hands, without compensation. Shoemakers and tailors who are assigned to regiments must work for nothing for their officers and regiments; their only benefit being exemption from guard duty—What army could be maintained in this manner? None, certainly, for the whole army would gradually run away.—This, too, is a part of that “Liberty and Independence” for which these poor fellows had to have their arms and legs smashed.—But to what cannot enthusiasm lead a people!

Although the general was so polite as to offer us a bed in his quarters, we thanked him for this kind offer, and asked his adjutant to direct us to a house or tavern where we could stay overnight. To procure good lodgings here was a difficult matter, for even the general’s residence was a makeshift house made of boards. Meanwhile, since there are always people everywhere who will undertake anything for money, there was a discharged sergeant here, who with his loving better half owned a frame house which he had named a “coffeehouse.” Captain Lillie guided us to the place, where we were welcome guests for our money. Here we found Captain Hinrichs from our Corps, Secretary Motz [of the Hessian headquarters staff], and Dr. Michaelis [a Hessian physician], who had traveled several days ago through the Province of Jersey to Valley Kill [probably Wallkill] in order to excavate some bones of a monstrous beast which must have been bigger and stronger than an elephant, and of which Buffon [Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist] makes mention. This journey had turned out so successfully that I had hardly entered the house when Dr. Michaelis shouted to me in a loud voice: “My dear captain, our journey has resulted according to our wish. We have made a great discovery, and Buffon’s entire system is overturned!” To my displeasure, none of the American officers spoke German, who otherwise would have taken me for a scholar because of the learned words of the doctor. Be that as it may, we were delighted to meet each other so unexpectedly here in this corner of the American world, and proposed to make our return journey together. We then begged Colonel Vose, through the Captains Lillie and [Captain Joshua?] Benson to give us the honor of passing the evening with us, and putting up with supper in this coffeehouse made of boards. They accepted and we spent the night quite pleasantly.

Since the North River in this area yields an abundance of oysters, and the port was of reasonable quality, we enjoyed quite an excellent supper. As we intended to open the hearts and mouths of the Americans, we passed around the bottle several times, and after a few quarter hours we became such good friends that no outsider would have believed how different our views were. Among other things, our conversation turned to the pay of the troops, whereupon the American officers assured us that they still had five years’ pay coming.—But on what did they live, since surely some of them had nothing at all to depend on?—Enough of them, who had nothing to add to their subsistence, had to live on the daily ration, which consisted of a pound of meat and a pound of bread. He who could not purchase a new coat wore his old one until it fell off his body in pieces. He who could not procure shoes made them himself from cowhide, or any other skin, or a piece of leather. Where the direst need arose and the officers complained too loudly, then a little money was paid out, with which each sought to clothe himself. “Would you believe it, gentlemen, that we had officers enough in the army who did not get on a horse during the entire war, who often marched without shoes, and who still did everything that was possible to live in this world as free men? But we had resolved to endure everything and to die in the end or throw off the yoke of tyranny.”—But wouldn’t you think that the Congress and their countrymen, who had them to thank for everything, would reward them for their toils?—“Many are against us, but we hope to receive at least half-pay. All the officers of the regular troops petitioned the Congress to grant us a piece of land of 130,000 acres between the Ohio and Mississippi, where we wanted to establish a colony, since it is against the Constitution of the country to maintain a standing army. We wanted to guard the frontier against the Indians, but be permitted to frame our own laws and be independent of Congress. This, however, was denied us. They will give us land, but not all in one area. But once the English army leaves our soil, we will try to get by force what they will not give us amicably.”

This last remark clearly showed that if the English were willing to squander large sums of money among these people they could easily cause fresh unrest in this new state, by which it would be quite possible to turn a part of these provinces to the British side again.

Toward four o’clock in the morning the American gentlemen left us, whereupon our host brought his entire supply of bedding into our room to prepare a bed for us. But since there was only enough room in it for three of our party, two of us laid at either end. As the windows and doors in this place were in poor condition and a strong, cold wind blew freely in and out of the room, our lodging was not the most pleasant, and each of us was glad to see the break of day.

The 23d. After we had a very good breakfast in our cold room, we paid a visit to the general. I introduced the other three gentlemen, and at the same time we both took our leave. We were asked to the table again, but since Lieutenant von Gerresheim and I had an appointment with General McDougall … only the other three gentlemen accepted. Hereupon we inspected Fort Putnam, which is shaped like an irregular pentagon, dominating the entire plain and Fort Clinton.…

In order to block the channel completely to armed vessels and warships, since the river is not controlled above and below the fortress, a chain of a special construction has been placed between the western point and Constitution Island. Since the right bank of the river is perpendicularly steep and several hundred rods high at some places, the forts cannot be bombarded by warships, although they would have enough deep water.… Should an armed vessel attempt to pass the works on the water side, and try to break the chain by force, to which the tide and a favorable wind could greatly contribute, it could get only as far as the point, because the river here forms a deep and double bend where the wind becomes unfavorable. Besides, the men on deck could easily be killed by pistols from the steep bank. So much is certain, that determined men could make the conquest of this post sour and expensive to an enemy.—But are there not enough examples in ancient and modern history where the strongest and impregnable posts have been betrayed by treachery or surprise?


In the afternoon we crossed the river again. The fortress appeared like a three-story amphitheater, and the many waterfalls tumbling down from the steep and rocky bank provided a majestic sight to the eye. Toward three o’clock we rode to General McDougall’s residence, where we met a company of three ladies and about twenty officers. One of the ladies was a daughter of the general and was married to an American colonel. Of the others, one was the wife of a major, with her daughter. The major was born in Frankfort-on-the-Main and seemed to me from beginning to end to be a military charlatan, but not without some knowledge.

Since we dined in the best English fashion, we did not go to the table until half-past four. At this time the conversation turned to General Arnold, who had been commandant at West Point, and was willing to play this post into the hands of General Clinton [Sir Henry Clinton]. But Madam Lawrance [Elizabeth Lawrance, General McDougall’s daughter], who did not like the military and political talk, took her lute from the wall, played it, and favored us with several first-rate English arias.

At the appointed hour we went to the table, and I had the good fortune to be seated between Madam Lawrance and Miss Bauman. The former was a very pleasant and vivacious blonde with light-blue eyes which possessed much worldliness to entertain a stranger, and I do not deny that the company of this charming woman was so pleasant that I felt much regret when we rose from the table. As soon as the ladies had withdrawn and the glasses were more frequently filled, the general came closer to me. Heart and mouth were unbuttoned and I began to speak English very fluently. I discovered that the general must be a reasonable and excellent soldier, for which he was already noted in our army. He was a native Scotsman, had commanded a privateer at his own expense during the Seven Years’ War, and since the Americans took him for a courageous man, the Congress had appointed him a general at the beginning of the war. In a word, I was so impressed by this man during this short acquaintance that I was very glad to have made it. Toward half-past seven, the ladies called us for tea. After I had enjoyed the company of the pleasant Madam Lawrance for another hour, we took our leave of these good people and rode back to Nelson’s house, where we met our three traveling companions and clean rooms and beds, and rested our bodies for the first time on this journey.

Since Captain Hinrichs wished to pay his respects to General McDougall on the morning of the 24th, and Dr. Michaelis wanted to call upon a famous rattlesnake doctor, we did not depart from Nelson’s house until around midday. Toward seven o’clock in the evening we arrived at Tarrytown, thirty-nine English miles from our last lodgings, where we seemed to be quite welcome for our money.

Here we met an American councilman who was a zealous defender of the American cause and a great enemy of the English government. For the sake of independence he had abandoned all his possessions which lay in and around New York. At first this man appeared to be quite reasonable, but in the end he seemed nothing more than a fool and a pettifogger. As we did not contradict him due to courtesy and caution, he began to speak rather severely of the cruelty of the English army. But since our hostess feared that such talk might injure her trade, because she had recommended her house highly to us and our acquaintances traveling into this country, she became arbitrator and addressed the councilman, who had continually entertained us during the supper with his reputation and dignity in his country, in the following fashion.—“Sir, I will not stand for such talk in my house. My house is open to everyone who spends his money, and I like most he who spends the most. I like the money of these gentlemen better than the money of all you councilmen, for they deposit it in the cashbox, and the others let it slide.”

At this, we all began laughing, and “my dear senator” clasped his ears to his head and quietly retired to his sleeping place.

On the morning of the 25th, about nine o’clock, we left our amicable hostess and toward two o’clock arrived safely at our quarters at McGowan’s Pass on York Island.

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