We all have seen,(or should have) the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack a Hessian garrison in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day in 1777.   Not many understand why he chose this day for a stunning feat of arms that saw the Continental Army defeat a Hessian Regiment in a short battle that killed and wounded one-hundred and ten Hessians and captured a thousand more with all their equipment, arms, provisions, and ammunition.

The Hessian Rent-a Armies of Hesse-Cassel in Germany.

It’s important to know something about the Hessians in this case. King George III, hired some 30,000 German troops to fight for the crown during the American revolution, believing they would fight better than his own troops when it came to shooting the rebellious colonists who were English in language and customs.  Germany at that time was not a unified country but a collection of small states with their own Kings and the rental of armies was a common practice.  The kingdom is most well known for Rent-a-Armies was Hesse-Cassel which provided the bulk of the troops that King George hired.  This is where the Hessians got their name. It was pretty good business too.  The fee that Prince Landgraf Friedrich II charged King George was equivalent to thirteen years of tax revenue that he could spend on public works and other things that kept his people happy.

In Hesse-Cassel you registered for the draft at age seven and presented yourself for military service at age sixteen. If you had a job or were in school still you were generally exempt, but if you were unemployed, a school dropout out or any other kind of “idler” into the army you would go.  Discipline was harsh along with the training, but the officers were said to be of high quality. Their equipment and uniforms were also very good and these expendable men serving in the regiments were given a sense of purpose and a place in society.  Morale among these troops was very high.  Their pay was tax-exempt, and more than one earned working in the fields.  They could sell captured “Booty” comprised of captured military equipment to the British and were also allowed to keep plundered goods seized from civilians during campaigns.  Supposedly plunder was forbidden by regulations but officers wanting their own cut of the spoils of war tended to look the other way. This appetite for plunder was one of the reasons the Hessians(named as mercenaries) are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as one of the causes of our separation from England.

They were also mostly Lutheran or Catholic in their practice of religion and took the Christmas holiday very seriously. It was generally a day off with leisure, feasts, and of course alcohol. This is important to the story. Christmas was also celebrated by the Anglican church that most of the British soldiers were members of as well.