Military Monday: Henrich Horn on the March

1784 engraving showing the Hessians captured at Trenton being marched to Philadelphia, then the American capitol. via Wikipedia, public domain.
1784 engraving showing the Hessians captured at Trenton being marched to Philadelphia, then the American capital, via Wikipedia, public domain.

McMurray Family, Horn Family (Click for Family Tree)

When we last left our Hessian ancestor Henrich Horn and his fellow prisoners of war, they had been marched by General Washington’s troops about fifteen miles from Trenton, New Jersey to Newtown, Pennsylvania. It was the 26th of December, 1776, late in the by-then dark day after crossing the Delaware River, with the blustery, frigid weather of the northeast making their trek even more miserable. They were exhausted after many days of high alert, skirmishes, brutal weather, and their ill-fated Battle of Trenton that very morning. Once in Newtown, possibly their only meal of the day had been dropped from a hole in the ceiling of their hastily-thrown-togeher prison, and they felt they were being treated like animals. The Americans had left them to sleep, but it was likely not a very restful sleep with not knowing what was in store for them as POWs.

Our Henrich Horn was only about 16-18 years old at the time, and likely had been a soldier for less than a year. Thankfully he was in a large group of fellow soldiers, which would have been a bit less frightening than being by himself. Despite his shared woes, he must have been very frightened, angry at the mishandling of the battle by his Hessian superiors, and concerned for his life, so far from home.

The Americans after the Battle of Trenton, as well as the populace of Newtown, were eager to see what the hated Hessians looked like. They found they were just men, not the ruthless spawn of Satan, as some had feared. One American, a Sergeant Elisha Bostwick, had this to say about the Hessians:

“They are of Moderate Stature and rather broad Shoulders their limbs not of equal proportion light complexion with a blueish tinge hair cued as tight to the head as possible Sticking straight back like the handle of an iron skillet. Their [von Knyphausen’s Regiment’s] uniforms blue with black facings.”

[Could that blueish skin tinge possibly be due to the bitter cold and their clothes soaked from rain, snow, and the river?]

One researcher stated that their uniforms were purposefully made short and tight, to make it look like they were getting larger and more invincible. (True? Or just because the tailors wanted to save on cloth?)

George Washington decided that the hated Hessians would be paraded through Philadelphia, the capital of the colonies. He wanted to show off his triumph- he needed that to boost citizen morale as well as that of his soldiers and Congress, as the Americans had been losing battles and the enlistment of many of his soldiers was almost over; supplies and payroll funds were short, too. The American army had been teetering on the brink of destruction, and it was important to rally at that moment in time, or they would be defeated from within as well as without.

Washington wanted the people to realize that the Hessians were not invincible- they could actually be defeated, even captured, by his brave troops. So with hardly time to warm up and recuperate, the Hessian POWs were gathered into rows and columns on 30 December 1776 and marched to Philadelphia, about 30 miles southwest of Newtown. Google indicates that it would be an eight-hour walk today, but it would be interesting to know how long it took these sick, injured, and exhausted men in the snow and cold. The thought of another march must have been daunting to the captured as well as the capturers, after the exhausting few days they had just survived. But march they all did, as General Washington ordered.

Would the Hessians have been told of the plan, or their minds left to wander as to their next fate? Think about the language barrier, too, although there were German-American patriots who would have translated orders. The minds of Henrich and his comrades would have been teeming with fear of the possibilities: Would the Hessians be executed in another place? Would they be separated, as they had been from their officers right after the battle? Or would they be lucky enough to be a part of a prisoner exchange?

An angry mob had already gathered outside the city when the Hessians arrived at Philadelphia. By that time the Hessians had been told of what was to happen next. They were joined by their officers, who had been marched to different towns after the capture, and been wined and dined by American officers, as was often the custom. (Officers often treated each other very well and respectfully after capture or defeat, and some of the Hessian officers had actually dined with George Washington and discussed the tactics that had led to their defeat.)

The Hessian officers rode in covered wagons through the city which protected them, but the common soldier captives were hit, pushed, yelled at, etc. as they marched through the angry mob. The old women screamed at them that they had come as mercenaries to take away the freedom of the American people and they tried to strangle the men; dirt and rocks were thrown at them. The Americans hated the German auxiliaries, as for the past year, even before the Hessians had arrived on American shores, newspapers had whipped up terrible fears- one paper stated the Hessians were soldiers who:

“… will exhibit such a scene of cruelty, death, and devastation as will fill those of us who survive the carnage, with indignation and horror, attended with poverty and wretchedness.”

(Sadly, this had been often true earlier in 1776.)

It was recorded that some Americans brought brandy and bread for the captives, but the old women would not allow them to help the Hessians.

"Presidents House" at 524-30 Market St., in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Hessians would have paraded before this home which was built in 1767. Later, Presidents Washington and John Adams lived in this home.
“Presidents House” at 524-30 Market St., in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Hessians would have paraded before this home which was built in 1767. Nine months after the Hessian POW parade, the house would be lived in by General Howe during the British occupation of Philadelphia. Later, Presidents Washington and John Adams lived in this home. Wikipedia, public domain.

The Continentals paraded their prize of about 850 German POWs for all to see, down Market Street, Front Street, and then Walnut Street. The guards had been told to lead them throughout the streets of Philadelphia: “We became a spectacle for the entire city,” wrote one German captive. The Hessians must have been a sorry sight after their ordeals, and the Americans were therefore embarrassed that they had run in terror from “such vagabonds.”

Washington had ordered that the prisoners should be protected, and the escort realized that with such an angry mob around them, it was impossible to guarantee the safety of their charges. As the mob numbers and violence increased, the Americans cut short the path through Philadelphia and marched their prisoners to the city barracks rather than continue the dangerous parade. The American small escort had to fend off the townspeople while the German prisoners sat inside the barracks, listening to the cries for their death from the mob outside. Even though they were battle-hardened, well-trained troops, being so outnumbered in the midst of an angry enemy must have been very frightening, especially for a soldier no older than about eighteen, like Henrich Horn.

Why were the Americans so protective of their prisoners, especially when the Hessians were so hated by all, even British Loyalists whose homes and businesses had been raided by the Hessians on their fierce march through New York and New Jersey? One of the American plans was that the POWs would be paroled or exchanged, and go back to their Hessian regiments with stories of how well they were treated, and “sow the seeds of dissension between them and the British troops.” The Americans had even gone so far as to publish and distribute tracts in German offering land and money for desertion of the Hessian troops. Additionally, Washington was afraid of attacks on the prisoners alienating them, making them even more fierce opponents once they had been released.

Henrich Horn and his fellow POWs would have been quite relieved to have survived the march through an angry Philadelphia. They would have been wondering as to what would happen next in the saga of their capture.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Re: 1784 engraving showing the Hessians captured at Trenton being marched to Philadelphia, then the American capital. Translation is approximately:  “The Hessians captured by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are introduced as prisoners of war in Philadelphia.” Note that the Battle of Trenton was on the morning of December 26, 1776, not the 25th as written in caption.
  2. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett, 2004. Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for History, this tells the story of the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton, mostly from the American point of view. This is an excellent book, and very well-written.
  3. The Hessians and the other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War by Edward J. Lowell. Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1884.
  4. “The Hessians,” chapter VIII, an excellent read-
  5. Journal of the Fusilier Regiment v. Knyphausen From 1776 to 1783, possibly by Lt. Ritter? See
  6. Henrich Horn
  7. Hessians Remaining in America:
  8. Wikipedia articles:
  9. The Hessians. Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution, by Rodney Atwood, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  10. The Hessians and Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, by Edward J. Lowell, Harper & Brother, New York, 1884 Republished by Forgotten Books, 2012.
  11. A Generous and Merciful Enemy. Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution, by Daniel Krebs. University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.


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