Book Review: The German Element In The War For American Independence

The German Element In The War For American Independence, by George Washington Greene

Happily blessed with a name that refers to two of the greatest American heroes of the American Revolution, George Washington and Nathaniel Greene, this book is an attempt to provide a brief but very thoughtful and worthy examination of the role of Germans in the American Revolution. Written in the late 1800’s, when a large number of Germans had sought to improve their economic position by leaving overcrowded Germany or the German colonies in what is now Ukrainian or Russian territory that had faced increasing repression by the Russian government [1], this book appears to have been written with the important context of seeking to legitimize the Germans as loyal American citizens and help to overcome nativist tendencies. As I know quite a few descendents of these late German immigrants, who are decent and upright folks who are not seen as anything other than patriotic Americans, perhaps this book has at least some small share of credit for that.

In terms of its structure, the book is divided into three nearly equal sections. The first section looks at the dramatic career of Baron von Steuben, painting a colorful picture of a man with a passionate personality who was an orderly military man of considerable importance in his time in helping to shape the Continental Army, and also a friend of American liberty who was shortchanged by the parsimonious behavior of Congress for many years. The second section looks at Baron de Kalb, which provides an opportunity to examine the often neglected and clandestine role of early French encouragement and observation of colonial discontent going back even into the 1760’s, of which De Kalb was a major figure. Of course, de Kalb’s heroic death in the disastrous Battle of Camden has largely prevented him from receiving the praise that would otherwise be due to him as a hero of the American Revolution. The third section is perhaps the most poignant, dealing with the rapacious greed of petty German princes and their extreme willingness to sell their menfolk to serve as degraded mercenaries of the British army. The account of their suffering is enough to make one sympathetic of the men, and in high choler against their corrupt rulers.

As a whole, this book is written in a warm and engaging style, about a subject of considerable personal interest, and as it was free when I downloaded it to read a few months ago, it certainly was well worth the time spent in reading it. The book may be obscure now, but as part of a solid body of work by a popular historian of the late 19th century who has an admirable prose style as well as an attention to the importance of archives, and a consciousness of the limitations of those archives for the petty German dukedoms whose dregs were forever tainted by the name Hessians, it deserves to be better known and appreciated. The book is excellent in its content, written in a worthy style, and about a subject that deserves to be better known and recognized, and certainly was often ignored in the late 1800’s, namely the pivotal role of foreign aid in encouraging and fostering the American Revolution. That story deserves to be better remembered, in humility, lest we think too highly of ourselves and our own strength.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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