The Dilworthtown Solution

The British army was tough on soldiers who preyed on civilians.

During the American Revolution, the Dilworthtown Oak was used to hang three British soldiers accused of rape.Democracy is not an unmixed blessing. It does an efficient job protecting civil liberties and motivating business activity. But a democracy’s need to be popular makes it less effective at sustaining military discipline, particularly when the consequences of poor discipline fall on foreigners.

In 1777, Chester County residents were fortunate that the foreign soldiers in their midst reported to a king. When British Gen. Sir William Howe passed through after the Battle of Brandywine, he left two—and possibly as many as five—of his soldiers dangling from local trees. The men had robbed residents in Middletown and Chester townships, and may have also committed several rapes.

Howe was practical, according to local historian Nancy Webster. Whatever the merits of his cause, he preferred to avoid “a hostile populace … rising behind his army and cutting their communications as [he] marched on Philadelphia.” For similar reasons, German soldiers in occupied France during World War II were under strict orders to respect the rights of local civilians. In one case, a Wehrmacht soldier caught stealing potatoes in Normandy was reassigned to the Russian front, a virtual death sentence.

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Americans, in contrast, can overlook atrocities committed by their soldiers. In 1971, nearly 80 percent of Americans surveyed disapproved of the life sentence handed down by a military court to Lt. William Calley, who’d been found guilty of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. President Richard M. Nixon subsequently reduced Calley’s punishment to three-and-a-half years of house arrest.

This difference may be due to the high regard Americans have for their military. A 2008 poll reported that Americans trust the military significantly more than we trust business, police, organized religion, doctors, teachers, banks, Congress or the president. When things “happen” in war, we’re understanding. So governments that ignore popular opinion can actually do more to protect civilians.

The two soldiers hanged for offenses in Aston were Hessians, who comprised about a third of Howe’s 17,000 troops at Brandywine. “Hessians” was a term used (inaccurately) by Americans to describe troops from what is now Germany who fought on the side of Great Britain in the American Revolution. Overall, about 30,000 participated in the war, in which they constituted about 25 percent of all British forces. The Hessian troops included light infantry, light cavalry, artillery and grenadiers (soldiers who specialized in throwing the era’s baseball-sized iron grenades). More than a third of Hessian troops (12,500) never returned to Europe. Of these, 7,750 died. The rest remained in America, blended in, and became U.S. citizens.

The term Hessian stemmed from the fact that a majority of these soldiers came from Hesse-Kassel, an independent principality ruled by George III’s uncle, Frederick II, and Hesse-Hannau, a town near Frankfurt. But a third were actually from Braunschweig, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Anhalt-Zerbst, Waldeck or Hanover, each a small state, principality or district within the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Germany was not formed until 1871, so the Hessians would not have considered themselves German.

About 18,000 Hessians arrived in 1776 at Staten Island. Their first engagement was the Battle of Long Island, in which the Americans lost possession of New York City for the duration of the war. The Hessians fought in almost every battle of the Revolution, and two Hessian regiments were among those that surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.

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In American memory, the Hessians were either unwilling draftees or mercen-aries, labels rejected by their defenders. They were acknowledged to be fierce fighters—a fact the Americans attributed to British lies—but also blamed disproportionately for wartime atrocities. Probably, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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In 1901, William Brooke Rawle, whose grandparents had lived at Germantown during the British occupation, wrote in Pennsylvania Magazine that Hessians had been “chiefly” responsible for the devastation of the countryside: “houses empty and abandoned with windows taken out and floors pulled up; enclosures leveled to the ground; gardens ravaged and destroyed; forests cut down … a silent and deserted country.”

Benjamin Franklin sought to make the use of Hessian troops a propaganda issue. He is widely believed to have been the author of the anonymously published 1777 letter, Sale of the Hessians, which sought to besmirch Frederick II’s motives for lending his army. The letter alleged that Hessian leaders received a bonus for each of their soldiers killed—and, therefore, did not care how many died.

“The report sent to the English ministry does not give but 1,455 dead” rather than the 1,605 killed at Trenton, wrote a fictitious “Count de Schaumbergh.” “This would make 483,450 florins instead of 643,500, which I am entitled to demand under our convention. You will comprehend the prejudice which such an error would work in my finances.”

Mason Weems, the writer who fabricated the story of little George Washington and the cherry tree, wrote in his 1858 biography about Waldeck troops’ march across New Jersey in 1776. The Waldeckers, wrote Weems, “burnt houses, destroyed furniture, killed the stock, abused the women and spread consternation and ruin along all their march.”

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Why? Weems blamed British tales that Americans were cannibals who would “barbecue and eat [a Hessian] as they would a pig.” He related a typical Hessian’s horrified response:

“Vat! Eat Hessian man up like vun hog! Oh, mine God and Vader! Vot peoples ever been heard of eat Christian man before! Vy! Shure, des Mericans must be de deble!”

James Thurber, an American army surgeon, reported hearing a similar story from Hessian prisoners—that, “if taken, their men would have their bodies stuck full of pieces of dry wood, and in that manner burned to death.”

Propaganda, say Hessian defenders, who insist that the troops were both well motivated and well paid. According to early 20th-century historian Joseph G. Rosengarten, there was no draft in Hesse-Kassel, so its soldiers should be considered volunteers. Plus, as fellow Protestants, the Hessians had been allied with Great Britain for 150 years—mostly in wars against Catholic France—and believed in their American mission. “Hessian troops,” wrote Rosengarten in 1909, “went to America with the full approval of their country, in accordance with the wishes of its legal representatives, in joyful courage, bent on winning new laurels at the side of their old allies.”

Rosengarten dismissed the charge that Hessian troops were sold to the British as slaves. It was true, he wrote, that the Hessian state treasury received 21.3 million thalers. Of that, about 10 percent was money Great Britain had owed Hesse-Kassel since the Seven Years War (1756-63). The rest covered the increased expenses of an army at war.

“The soldiers themselves received the high English pay without deduction, often in gold,” he wrote. “Common soldiers sent home some 600,000 thalers to their families.”

The Hessians appear to have had both a genuinely low opinion of the Founding Fathers and their own hopes of financial gain. Taught to respect their own sovereign, wrote historian Rodney Atwood, the Hessians naturally concluded that “the colonists’ revolt contravened the laws of God and man.”

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At the same time, wrote Rawle, many Hessians believed that “Americans, having rebelled against their king, had forfeited all the rich and fertile country they held, which was ready to be divided among the soldiery.” Such interest might explain why Hessian infantryman Johann Conrad Dohla wrote in his diary that local Quakers had secret “storehouses of gold and silver.” It might also explain those torn-up floors in Germantown.

At Brandywine, 5,000 Hessians under Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen were assigned to make a diversionary assault on Washington’s army at Chadds Ford. As they did so, Howe’s other 12,000 men marched around the Americans’ flank and attacked from the rear. The strategy worked perfectly. Washington, defeated, retreated toward Philadelphia. Howe camped on the battlefield, but sent some troops toward Chester to keep an eye on the Americans. Two days later, these troops—commanded by Gen. Cornwallis—were camped at Village Green. From there, wrote historian John W. Jordan (History of Delaware County, 1914), Cornwallis “dispatched parties in every direction to secure supplies for the British army, seizing … the flour in all the mills within reach of his troops.”

Despite explicit orders, soldiers who’d been sent on these expeditions often took everything they could carry. On the night of Sept. 14, 1777, three soldiers went to the home of Jonathan Martin in Middletown and stripped the house. Among the articles taken were several belonging to the owner’s daughter, Mary Martin, 18, who “indignantly reproved them for their unmanly conduct.”

“One of the soldiers, in anger at her reprimand, slightly wounded Miss Martin with a bayonet,” wrote Jordan.

Next, the three soldiers repeated the process at the home of a Mr. Coxe about three quarters of a mile away. Coxe also had a teenage daughter.

The next morning, the two girls went to Cornwallis’ headquarters. Howe was present and, according to one version of the story, “promised that if they could point out the men, they should be punished.”

The Hessians were formed into line. The girls passed along and pointed out the robbers. The officers then rearranged the troops and asked the girls to point them out again. They did. The soldiers were scrambled a third time, and again, the girls identified the thieves. “The men were then searched,” wrote Jordan, “when some of the stolen property was found upon them.”

They were tried by a court-martial and convicted. The sentence was that two would hang with the third acting as executioner. Who lived and who died was decided by lot.

The losers were hung from an apple tree. At about the same time, according to Delaware County lore, the British also hanged three convicted rapists on the Dilworthtown Oak, which stood until the 1980s.

Would we have been as tough?

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at

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