The serious student of history, like the serious historian, values primary sources. The eye witness reports of people directly involved in an event have an immediacy which the sands of time and the fog of memory only dull. Second only to primary sources are serious scholarly works drawing together primary sources which, due to language or inaccessibility or volume, are beyond the reach of the casual scholar.
Such a work is The Hessians: and the Other German Auxilliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. Writing a hundred years after the American War of Independence Edward J. Lowell gathered many European inputs—treaties, letters, journals and memoirs—to present the perspective of those often unwilling participants whom we collectively call “Hessians.”
Unlike modern writers who casually edit history to fit their preconceived notions, Lowell is careful to note both the unreliability of some sources and the apparent conflicts. Even when it comes to interpreting what it all means, Lowell “teaches the controversy.” By that I mean that he acknowledges differing interpretations and tries to makes a fair representation of each. In the end, he often admits that we may never know the true motives, intentions and even actions of all the players.
The Hessians a delightful treasure of facts, maps, lists and anecdotes. All the better to get a feel for a war fought far from home by soldiers who had no personal stake in the outcome, other than their desire to serve well and go safely home. But over a third of the 30,000 Germans who embarked for war in the new world did not return home. A few over a thousand died in combat. Over six thousand others died of illness or accident. Five thousand deserted.
Unlike Americans or British who may have deserted these men did not escape to go home or blend in. The first word they spoke gave them away. But desert they did. And stay they did, often making a life for themselves in the American wilderness where no such possibility availed itself in the fractured German principalities of the nineteenth century.
One of them was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. (Of him you’ll hear more … someday … maybe.)
A very good read.