Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Hessian at West Point

‘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.’ This is the Kassel-born soldier, Johann Ewald, reflecting in his diary - now considered historically important - during a visit to West Point, New York, in the aftermath of the American War of Independence. He and his Hessian troops had served with the (losing) British forces, and were waiting to return to Europe. Today marks the 200th anniversary of his death.

Born in Kassel, Germany, in 1744, to a bookseller and a merchant’s daughter, Ewald entered military service at 16. He joined the infantry regiment, Gilsa, and fought in the Seven Years War, and then did 14 years garrison duty. He also studied military science. In 1774, he was promoted to captain and put in charge of the elite Jäger unit. In 1776, and thanks to an agreement between Frederick II and King George III, the unit sailed across the Atlantic to join British troops in the American War of Independence. During the Southern Campaign, in 1780, Ewald’s unit helped at the siege of Charleston. Following the British surrender, Ewald returned to New York on parole, and spent the end of 1782 and 1783 on Long Island before being released through a prisoner exchange.

On returning to Kassel in 1784, and after the death of Frederick II, Ewald was denied promotion, so he joined the Danish army which appointed him a lieutenant-colonel. Subsequently, he was ennobled to Johann Von Ewald and made commanding general of the Duchy of Holstein. Ewald also wrote several books on military issues, such as Treatise on Partisan Warfare and Treatise on the Service of Light Troops. He died on 25 June 1813. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia or at the Hesse Kassel Jaeger Korps website.

While on campaign in America, between 1776 and 1784, Ewald kept a detailed diary. It appears that three volumes were looked after by his family for generations until 1948, when a clerk in Vienna offered them for sale to Joseph P. Tustin, who was, at the time, a historian with the US Air Forces in Europe. Tustin tracked down the text of a fourth volume, though not the original, and then translated and edited the diary. This was published by Yale University Press in 1979 as Diary of the American War - A Hessian Journal. More details are available in an archived New York Times article. The full work can be read at the Hesse Kassel Jaeger Korps website (a 40mb pdf); and a few pages are also available to read online thanks to the American Heritage website.

According to Tustin, Ewald’s diary ‘is an outstanding contribution to the literature of the American Revolution. Certainly it is the most important and comprehensive diary kept by a Hessian mercenary.’ Tustin’s text - and presumably Ewald’s - does not read like a diary with dated entries, but more like a narrative written in retrospect. Here is an excerpt from near the end of the diary, after the war, concerning 21-22 October 1784, when Ewald is intent on finding out more about the American fort at West Point.

‘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. 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 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 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. As soon as we climbed up the steep bank several hundred fathoms from the battery situated at the end of the promontory, we found ourselves on a natural place d’armes about one and a half German miles long and a good half mile wide. It is surrounded by a chain of steep and rocky mountains six to seven German miles deep, which form a semicircle of which the North River is the diameter and across which only footpaths lead.

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 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 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.

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 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. 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!’


The Diary Junction

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