German Patriots
in the
Revolutionary War

Behind the Front Lines | Hessian Soldiers | Pennsylvania Rifles
Daniel Morgan's Riflemen | Major-General Peter Muhlenberg

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Behind the Front Lines
Ministers and congregations of some churches, especially the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed, were strong supporters of the fight for freedom. However, everyone in the colonies wasn't an American patriot. In Philadelphia, the center of the new government, many Tories hoped the rebels would seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It is estimated that as many as a fourth of the men living on farms in the countryside remained loyal to King George III. Many church members, especially the Quakers, opposed the excesses of the British taxes that sparked the war but, to the great frustration of Congress, were prohibited by their pacifist beliefs from joining or openly supporting the fight. General Nathanael Greene, son of a Quaker preacher in Rhode Island, was even expelled by the Society of Friends for his firm belief in armed resistance. However, he quickly advanced to become a brigadier general in the Continental Army on June 22, 1775. For the next three years he was in constant service as a field commander and is said to have been one of Washington's most loyal officers.

Members of the Church of England were probably the most committed group of British loyalists. In Lancaster this was ably demonstrated by the highly respected Rev. Thomas Barton who wrote, when he closed the doors of his church in 1776:

"I have been obliged to shut up my churches to avoid the fury of the populace who would not suffer the Liturgy to be used unless the Collects and Prayers for the King and Royal Family were omitted, which neither my conscience nor the declaration I made and subscribed when ordained would allow me to comply with."

Hessian Soldiers
Many people first think of the Hessian troops when the subject of German soldiers in the Revolutionary War is mentioned. For the war the British purchased the services of almost 17,000 Hessians from Frederick II of Hesse-Cassel for £3,000,000. Princes of four other German states --Brunswick, Waldeck, Anspach-Bayreuth and Anhalt-Zerbst-- also took payment from the British for about 13,000 more men. Of about 30,000 soldiers sent to America, less the 18,000 returned to Europe. About 1,200 were killed in battle while 6,000 died of illness and accidents. About 5,000 --influenced by the prosperous farms and shops owned by German- Americans in Pennsylvania-- liked the opportunities they witnessed in America so much that they remained there after the war.

One of the most significant encounters with Hessian troops occurred in Washington's surprise attack on Trenton, New Jersey as 1776 was coming to an end. The dramatic crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night is one of the most heroic images we have of the determination of the beleaguered army seeking a victory after retreating from New York a few weeks earlier. Hessian soldiers, who were in command at Trenton, had made the best of a lonely Christmas in a foreign land by feasting and sampling generously of their sizable rum supply. At 8:00 A.M. Gen. Nathanael Greene's advanced guard began the attack and in less than two hours the Hessians suffered 114 dead and wounded and surrendered 948 men.

The effect of this much-needed victory was crucial to the American cause. The Continental Army had shown the world --and more importantly its own citizens-- that it not only could fight, but it could win over the enemy. The Hessians were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia on their way to prison in Lancaster and other outlying counties. The good news spread rapidly, recruiting suddenly became easier, and civilian morale improved significantly. Washington sorely needed this boost, since the enlistments of most of his veteran troops would expire in a few days. He entered the next year with only 5,100 men, primarily militia and a few new volunteers. He mustered his troops for another major encounter at nearby Princeton, New Jersey, defeating another contingent of British force that had rushed south under Lord Cornwallis, and then retiring to his winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

In the Borough of Lancaster the Hessian prisoners were eyed coldly and quietly as they shuffled through the streets and into the stockaded barracks. Prisoners had been placed there as early as December 1775 and as many as 2,000 were under guard in January 1777. To keep the unwelcome visitors from causing problems, it was decided to put them to work. They were found to have many useful skills --39 trades were recorded for 315 of the Hessians-- with the largest number being weavers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, smiths, wagonmakers and masons. Shoemakers were especially needed and many were assigned to making footware for the Continental Army. Other goods from the prison included cannons, clothing, saddlery and blankets.

Many of the Hessians had been recruited against their will, seized from the streets of German villages and impressed into the army by local princes. They caused little trouble and received good treatment at the hands of German-speaking residents in Lancaster. Hessians under guard became a common sight as they marched to and from work at local iron forges and farms. Later during the war as many as 8,000 were held in Lancaster, principally Hessians of the class termed "unconditional prisoners." Other major centers for prisoners in Pennsylvania were in York, Reading, Easton, Lebanon and Philadelphia. When commissioned companies weren't available to guard the prisoners, local militia units with citizens who were older or were otherwise unfit for active duty were called to serve.

Pennsylvania Rifles
A major factor in the success of the volunteer Continental Army against a superior professional army during the Revolutionary War was the Pennsylvania rifle and the men who had become expert in its use. The technique for making longrifles came to America in the early 18th century when immigrants from Germany and Switzerland poured into Pennsylvania. Among these people were gunsmiths who brought their special trade and art with them. The decorative designs used by an artisan clearly distinguished his product from others. In Lancaster a well-known gunsmith was John Graeff. By the time the French & Indian War broke out, the American version of the longrifle had evolved and was in use in the Appalachian Piedmont from Eastern Pennsylvania through Maryland, the Valley of Virginia, and into the Carolinas. Pioneers in the Kentucky region of Western Virginia used the rifles to great advantage and their guns became to be known as "Kentucky Rifles."

The spiral grooves --rifling-- inside the long four-foot long barrels of the guns gave the lead shot a spin as it left the muzzle, causing it to go longer and straighter than projectiles from the alternative, smooth bore muskets. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the flintlock was still in use to ignite the powder. General Washington knew that the Scotch-Irish and German frontiersmen were excellent shots with their longrifles when he called for rifle companies from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Western Virginia. They brought with them what we would now call "a technological advantage" over the British forces he was preparing to engage.

Daniel Morgan's Riflemen
Daniel Morgan [1736-1802], destined to become a brilliant general of the Revolutionary War, was the son of a Welsh ironmaster of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He ran away from home at the age of seventeen and headed south to Charles Town, Virginia, near the mouth of the Shenandoah River. He was a big strong man who wasn't afraid to work but had a healthy appetite for drinking, gambling and fighting. Within a year he bought a wagon and a team of horses and became a waggoner, hired to haul goods during the French & Indian War. He served briefly as a ranger serving the British Army, then returned in 1759 to Winchester, Virginia.

Between 1763 and 1774 he served in the militia, defended against Pontiac's Conspiracy, and fought Shawnee Indians in Ohio during Lord Dunmore's War. On June 14, 1775, following the events at Lexington and Concord two months earlier, Congress asked Virginia to raise two companies of riflemen. By August 6th Morgan and a company of 96 men he had recruited arrived in Boston, ready to aid the Massachusetts patriots. The homes these volunteers came from were almost exclusively of German and Scotch-Irish descent.

During the Siege of Quebec Morgan was captured by the British and in January 1777, about a year later, he was released in a prisoner exchange. Promoted to Colonel and assigned to Washington's main army, he returned south to recruit 500 more riflemen. In June Morgan commanded a unit that engaged and ravaged Maj. Gen. William Howe's rear guard in New Jersey. Washington reluctantly agreed to send Morgan and his corps to New York in August 1777 to join the Northern Army under Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, who was defending against Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne. Morgan's riflemen played a leading role in the critically important defeat of the British troops at the historic Battle of Saratoga in October. Many historians call this victory "the turning point of the war," since news of it influenced the French to finally agree to Benjamin Franklin's pleas that they become an ally of the struggling, self-declared American nation.

Morgan rejoined Washington's main army in November 1777 to skirmish and scout for the Commander-in Chief throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In October 1780, while on furlough at his home in Virginia, Congress promoted Morgan to Brigadier General and he was given command of a light infantry corps in the Southern Army under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. He led his men in a victory over Col. Tarleton --the British cavalry leader who had literally scourged the farm lands inhabited by many patriot families-- in January 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens in North Carolina. This is called the most important defeat over the British since Saratoga.

"Morgan's Virginians," through their successful exploits as marksmen, scouts and soldiers on the battlefield, were considered amongst the Elite of the American forces. When Morgan was once asked which race of those composing the American armies, made the best soldiers, he replied:

"As for the fighting part of the matter, the men of all races are pretty much alike; they fight as much as they find necessary, and no more. But sir, for grand essential composition of a good soldier, give me the 'Dutchman' --he starves well."

Records show that two thirds of Morgan's men were actually Pennsylvanians, and a very large percentage of the whole were Pennsylvania-Germans.

Major-General Peter Muhlenberg
John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was born on October 1, 1747, in Trappe, Pennsylvania. His father, Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, is known as the "Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in North America." Peter's early education was supplemented at the Philadelphia Academy --later to become the University of Pennsylvania. At the age of 18, he was sent with two brothers to Halle, Germany, for further education and was apprenticed to a grocer in Lubeck. After being ill-treated, he ran away and joined an English regiment that saw action in the French and Indian War.

In 1771 Peter Muhlenberg accepted a call to the struggling Lutheran congregations at Woodstock, located thirty miles south of Winchester in Dunmore --now Shenandoah-- County, Virginia. In this colony, however, the Anglican Church was the "Established Church," so in order to secure the full privileges of a clergyman Muhlenberg went to England in 1772 and received ordination as a priest of the Church of England. Returning to Woodstock, the young pastor soon became actively involved in civil affairs and began a long friendship with George Washington. Dunmore County appointed Muhlenberg chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, and in 1774 they elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses.

At General Washington's request, Muhlenberg accepted an appointment as colonel and a commission to raise and command the Eighth --later called the "German"-- Virginia Regiment, composed largely of Germans from the Shenandoah Valley. The Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill had done much to kindle patriotism throughout the colonies, and there was growing talk of independence.

In January of 1776, Muhlenberg sent word for his congregation to gather for his farewell sermon. Ascending his familiar pulpit, he preached from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. The sermon glowed throughout with devoted patriotism as the man of God told his people of his own resolve to fight and, if need be, to die for his country. He closed his message with these words:

"In the language of holy writ, there is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but the time for me to preach has passed away." Then in a voice that re-echoed through the church like a trumpet blast, he exclaimed, "And there is also a time to fight, and that time has now come."

After pronouncing the benediction, Muhlenberg threw off his clerical gown and stood before his people in full military uniform. Stepping down the aisle, he ordered the drums at the door to beat for new recruits. The whole village gathered at the church to learn what strange event had turned a quiet church meeting into a scene of bustle and excitement. Before the day's end, nearly 300 men had joined Muhlenberg's standard. He immediately marched south and assisted in the relief of Charleston, South Carolina.

In June 1776 he demonstrated his abilities at the Battle of Sullivan's Island, and the following year he was commissioned to the rank of brigadier-general. Having been ordered north to Pennsylvania in February 1777, his company bore the brunt of action at Brandywine on September 11th and at Germantown on October 8th. He was stationed at Valley Forge with General Washington during the horrendous winter of 1777-1778. The next year, General Anthony Wayne selected him to take part in the recapture of Stony Point, New York. Muhlenberg was second-in-command in Major-General Friedrick Wilhelm von Steuben's campaign against the traitor Benedict Arnold.

Finally, when Lord Cornwallis was bottled up in Yorktown in 1781, Muhlenberg was in charge of the troops on the south bank of the James River. Here, on October 14, he commanded the American brigade that stormed one of the two British strongholds; Alexander Hamilton, as senior colonel of this brigade, led Mulenberg's advance force.

Returning a hero, he was elected to the Supreme Executive Council in 1784 and served as Pennsylvania's vice president from 1785 to 1788. He was elected to the First Congress (1788-1789), of which his brother Frederick was Speaker, and served in several successive Congresses. Elected to the Senate in 1801, he resigned shortly thereafter to accept the appointment of supervisor of revenue for Philadelphia. He served in this post until his death on October 1, 1807.

At the close of the war, Muhlenberg was a brevetted major-general. His health was permanently impaired, but he had proved himself a courageous, level-headed officer, strict in discipline, but vigilant for his men's welfare and comfort. Among the Pennsylvania-Germans, Muhlenberg was a hero second only to General Washington himself.

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