A Hessian Soldier’s Letter Home

DESCRIBING STATEN AND LONG ISLAND 1776

Hessian Jaeger. German huntsmen carrying grove bored rifles. Often used as skirmishers.

The following was taken from a letter written by Lieutenant Johann von Hinrichs (later Captain) of a company of Hessian Jaeger riflemen or chasseurs (taken from the French which literally means ‘hunter’) to Professor Schlozer. Hinrichs (1752-1834) briefly describes his travels from Bremerlehe to the American colonies via Portsmouth (England), Halifax (Nova Scotia), Staten Island, and Long Island, where he participated in the Battle of Long Island and other battles of the American Revolution. The letter was written on September 18th, 1776, a few days after the battles of Kip’s Bay and Harlem Heights; September 15 & 16.   During the latter conflict, Lt. Hinrichs was seriously wounded in the chest within “four finger-breadths from the heart.” He was later rehabilitated with a family near Harlem, along the East River.

Two Jaeger companies were among the first German troops sent to the Americas in 1776. The second company was commanded by Captain Johann Ewald and the first, of which Lieutenant Hinrichs was assigned, was commanded by Captain Wreden. Colonel von Dunop lead the brigade under which the Jaegers were assigned. All German troops were under the direct order of General Leopold Philip de Heister.

Hinrichs was well educated. He trained as an engineer and was commissioned a lieutenant of Hessian ‘huntsmen’ or Jaegers who served as point guard and skirmishers for the infantry. He penned a series of letters to the Hesse Kassel Minister of State, Friedrich Christian Arnold von Jungkenn. His letters were included in August Ludwig von Schlozer’s collection of German correspondence during the American Revolution. During the Napoleonic Wars, he was a major general in command of 8,000 Prussian troops.

These excerpts describe the land and residences he observed at Halifax, Staten Island, and during his three-week occupation of Long Island:

18th Century Halifax. British Soldiers of the 28th Regiment

“Halifax is a wretched city. The streets are sandy roads with a row of barracks on each side in which cobblers, brewers (who brew with bark a beer that is very good), and the like live. The churches are a couple of houses twenty-odd paces long; the arsenal and Government House are fair. Poverty, crude art, want of culture show everywhere. Houses merely boarded in where standing on a meadow with no other foundation. One saw few horned cattle and those were small, with on herdsman. All the forts and batteries were just thrown up with fresh sod. Many New Englanders fled here from Boston, etc., and perhaps this will bring the province new prosperity.

 August 12th, we entered New York’s Harbor or inside Sandy-hook, and cast anchor near Hendriks Point. All you could see was a fleet of over four hundred and fifty ships in the harbor and then a multitude of boats which patrol the enemy’s coast so that they may not set fire to the fleet or any deserters get through. Imagine the finest kind of a harbor with room for a thousand ships, all these ships really at hand, all filled with men, and all around a hostile and a friendly camp, in the most glorious region, with the finest weather, and all these men ready for a task upon which hung the whole welfare of England.

18th Century Staten Island

Staten Island is a hilly country with fine forests, which are a sort of pine, the odor of which one often smells two hours out at sea; but it is really but little settled. The soil is very fertile. Peaches, chestnuts, nuts, apples, pears, and grapevines grow in wild confusion, with roses and blackberry bushes.

The climate and type of soil are surely the finest, healthiest, and most agreeable in the world; and one or more individuals could prepare a treasure for their posterity, if they could now incest a considerable sum. Now, however, everything is still very raw, poor, and at present, stripped of the most essential things by the exhortations of the rebels and the encampments of the royal troops. The so-called Oldtown and Newtown consist of two rows of houses each, their walls and roofs covered with boards, and scarcely twenty-five feet long. Horned cattle are scarce, because the soldiers had eaten [about] everything.

Flatbush Long Island, 1776

The houses are wretched. The inhabitants are mostly Dutch by extraction so the German language is fairly current. I see various blacks here who are just as free as the whites. On the whole things here are just as at home; the same sort of shrubs and trees, only the leaves are larger and the trees thicker because the soil is richer. For two months this Staten Island was the only land that England still possessed in all North America.

Long Island is a beautiful island. It has a multitude of meadows, tilled fields, fruit trees of all kinds, and fine houses, although the rebels had already carried off many things. Nearly all the inhabitants had fled from the houses. When we landed on August 22nd [invasion and pretext to the battle fought five days later] we marched through Gravesand and New Utrecht; here there are a few spacious villages with churches and pretty houses. That evening we entered Flackbush [Flatbush]. I have made a sketch of Flackbush, because we stayed there five days and fought with the rebels: it was a fine village before these incendiaries burned the greater part of it.

There were, and still are several villas there [Long Island]. Newtown has several streets. Brooklinn, Kirk, etc., is all one long street with trees and houses built close together. You see here neat, little houses with gardens, meadows, and fruit trees in plenty. In Newtown there are two English churches and one Dutch Reformed church.

Freeshbone and Little Battein belong to Newtown; both have few houses. Most of the inhabitants of Freeshbone are Quakers who have a meeting-house there. The Quakers do not belong to the rebels; rather, they have announced in all their meetings or churches, that whosoever should take up arms would have his name stricken off the list.

In Jamaica-town are three churches, one English, one Presbyterian, and one Dutch. There are no Quakers here. The market-village New York Ferry ahs houses built contiguous, and artisans and arts still flourish there. The section around Jamaica is very charming and mostly level. From there a road runs to Hemstead, where there are fine plains with hills running along the side and small woods. Hemstead is a church-town with two churches, one English and one Presbyterian; it has extensive territory, although very few houses stand in Hemstead proper. The inhabitants, as upon the whole island, are rich, well-to-do people, who have the real wealth of the state; i.e., they are rich landowners. There are many Quakers here.

Example of Long Island Countryside

The whole island is like a painted landscape. You can hardly go an English mile in these two counties [King’s and Queen’s Counties] without finding houses. The inhabitants are lively, and usually rascals at heart. The air here is still (in September) very pleasant. Winter begins with December and lasts till the beginning or end of March.

 Deep snow falls often, so there is sleighing every year. Frequently the winters are damp, but in summer, it is mostly dry, except in August, when there are many thunderstorms. Tobacco is not raised in King’s County, but is in Jamaica. In peacetimes everyone here lives a pleasant, monotonous, healthy life. The cattle are strong and plentiful. Gardenstuffs are the same as at home.   The women are not ugly and on the mainland, are said to be very pretty. The good, quite too good manner of living was the reason that these people grew haughty, but without intrigue from England and even from London, the disorder would never have grown so bad. The more I regard this land, the fine grass, the luxuriant grain and hemp, and the beautiful orchards, the more I envy the formerly happy inhabitants of this excellent land, the sorrier I am for the unfortunates who must now suffer with the rest through the intrigues and personal envy of their fellow countrymen and others. Everywhere I went there were barns crammed full of the farmers’ wealth, but seldom or never did I find a house with the inhabitants in it where war and the wantonness of the English had not ruined everything. Most of the fruit trees were peach and apple; the streets were lined with them; pears, however, were not so plenty.

            So much for this time as an observer who is always on picket could see and jot down at odd moments. One thing more. You know the Huguenot wars in France; what Religion was there, Liberty is here, simply fanaticism, and the effects are the same.”

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

Sources

 Pettengill, Ray, W. Letters from America, 1776-1779 Being Letters of Brunswick, Hessian, and Waldeck Officers with the British Armies During the Revolution. 1924: Kennikat Press, INc., Port Washington, New York.

 Von Schlozer, August Ludwig. Schlozer’s Briefwechsel, vol. 2. Electronically reprinted 2011: BiblioBazaar, Charleston, S.C.

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