Were Hessian prisoners housed at Fort Frederick?

May 14, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

In films, books and essays, it is claimed that Hessian prisoners of war were incarcerated at Fort Frederick during the American Revolution. Writers about this issue have no reluctance about making direct statements in the affirmative. Nonetheless, after several years devoted to the verification of this "fact," I have not found any reliable evidence for agreement.

One important technical fact well known to all writers of history is that you have a footnote to show the authority of your sources. I found these important source verifications missing where they were needed. After reading several books containing nothing but the diaries of German prisoners, I was only able to find "Fort Frederick" mentioned once and it was not applicable to the issue. If one soldier had reported being held at the fort, the situation would be different.

A visit to the library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore did not provide any positive data. A study of the papers of Col. Moses Rawlings, commandant at the fort during the period, did not mention "Hessian" or "German" once. How could such an important event be so anonymous? There were a number of references to British prisoners, but this does not permit one to substitute "Hessian" for British. The absence of any notice of German prisoners is a serious consideration against the presence of foreign troops.


What does the record show? England paid for mercenaries from six German principalities. While many writers use "Hessian" for any soldier from Germany, Hesse could only claim to have supplied the most. Brunswick, Hanau, Ansback-Bayreuth, Waldeck and Zerbst also contributed troops to the British army.

The record also shows that orders were given by Gov. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Gen. George Washington for large numbers of prisoners - including Germans - to march to Fort Frederick. Jefferson ordered 1,503 German prisoners to proceed to Fort Frederick in 1780. They were captured earlier at the battle of Saratoga. Then, after the victory at Yorktown in 1781, Washington ordered almost 3,000 prisoners to Fort Frederick. There were nearly 1,000 Germans included in that group.

However, there is a problem. There is no record showing they actually arrived at the fort. Until this is established, the proof is still lacking. The one mention of Fort Frederick in the German diaries gives a clue as to why there might have been no German prisoners at the fort. He reported that he "had learned positively" that the German prisoners currently at Fredericktown had now been ordered to proceed to Lancaster, Pa. This means that they did not cross South Mountain and march to Fort Frederick.

There is yet another indication that German prisoners might not have been housed locally - the scarcity of local family accounts of Hessian soldiers released to work on farms. There are numerous reports of British prisoners permitted to work on nearby farms, but at this point in time, I have only found two instances of German prisoners in this area. It is not known where they were held before being hired.

It is possible that a "copycat" effect has taken place on this issue. Because earlier writers made firm statements that Hessian prisoners of war were held at Fort Frederick, others who followed assumed the validity of their claims. The earlier writers might have been aware of the orders that sent the prisoners to Fort Frederick and then assumed that orders were tantamount to arrival. But, as was pointed out, this was a risky assumption.

In 1783, notices appeared in local newspapers that ordered all prisoners to report to their units in preparation to march to New York and to be sent back to Europe. They were permitted to remain in America if they could present $80 in Spanish currency. Many who had married women on the farms where they worked chose to remain.

The case for German prisoners being housed at Fort Frederick has not yet been settled. What is needed is a "smoking gun" sort of evidence to end the discussion. While I have moved on to other matters, the invitation is open to others who have the interest, tenacity and ability to find the "smoking gun."

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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