August 26

This Day in History

American Revolution

Aug 26, 1776:

Washington urges Hessians to desert

Falsely confident that the British would not attack New York's Manhattan Island, General George Washington pours additional reinforcements into the lines around Brooklyn Heights, then considered part of rural Long Island, on this day in 1776. Washington also ordered the dispersal of certain documents among the Hessians, about which he wrote "The papers designed for the foreign (Hessian) Troops, have been put into several Channels, in order that they may be conveyed to them, and from the Information I had yesterday, I have reason to believe many have fallen into their Hands." The "papers" induced Hessian troops to desert the British army.

Washington had first contemplated how to woo Hessian mercenaries away from their British employers to the Patriot forces the previous May. At that time, he recommended raising companies of German Americans to use against the German mercenaries anticipated to fight for Britain. He hoped that fighting against Americans from the same region would engender "a spirit of disaffection and desertion" among Britain's paid soldiers. Washington surmised that "If a few trusty, sensible fellows could get with them, I should think they would have great weight and influence with the common Soldiery, who certainly have no enmity towards us, having received no Injury, nor cause of [quarrel] from us." Though Washington was correct in realizing that many so-called English colonists were actually German immigrants, he was apparently unaware that most Germans living in the American colonies spoke southern German dialects, and they might well be derided by the British mercenaries—Hessians from the central German territory of Hesse--if they could understand one another at all.

One third of Pennsylvania's population was German speaking. Significant German-speaking populations also lived in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as the Mohawk Valley of New York, the Raritan Valley of New Jersey and areas near Savannah, Georgia. However, the vast majority of these German speakers originated from the Rhineland-Palatinate, Swabia and Salzburg. Although fellow members of the Holy Roman Empire and possibly readers of Hoch-Deutsch, the German used by Luther in his translation of the Bible, their spoken language would have been extremely difficult for Germans from other regions to understand. In addition, many German Americans remained neutral during the revolution, unwilling to oppose the empire that had offered them the opportunity to enjoy better and freer lives in its colonies than they had at home.

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