Johann Conrad Döhla

Hessian Soldier Fighting in America for King George
“Hessians jaeger (American revolutionary war)” by Charles Lefferts, early 20th c.

“Hessians jaeger (American revolutionary war)” by Charles Lefferts, early 20th c.

When the American Revolution began in 1775, recruitment for the army lagged in Great Britain. To supplement their forces in America, Parliament concluded agreements to hire troops from six different German princes, including Christian Friedrich Carl Alexander, the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave’s forces included the Anspach-Bayreuth army, from which two infantry regiments, a one-hundred-and-one-man jäger company, and a forty-four-man artillery unit were to be sent to America. At the time of the agreement, Johann Conrad Döhla was a private in the Fourth Company, Bayreuth Regiment, commanded by Colonel August Valentin von Voit von Salzburg.

Johann was born to Johann Konrad and Katherine Marie Döhla on September 6, 1750 in Oberhaid, Bavaria. His home was near the village of Zell in the Fitchel Mountains along the modern border between Germany and the Czech Republic. Johann’s father was a brickmaker, but Johann decided to join the Anspach-Bayreuth army when he turned eighteen. For the soldiers of this army, the prospect of fighting a war five-thousand miles away on behalf of King George III was not inspiring. When the two regiments reached the city of Warzburg in March 1777 en route to America, a full-scale insurrection erupted when the infantry refused to stay on board the transport ships because of their crowded and filthy conditions. The jäger troops took positions on the heights overlooking the city docks, and exchanged fire with the infantry regiments for almost two hours. Johann commented that “some of our troops were wounded in the legs,” which caused “a great antipathy between us and” the jägers. Upon hearing of the rebellion, the Margrave rode all night to reach the army. Johann reported that the prince “went from man to man and asked each one what his objections were.” He promised “all kindness and princely favor to those who would go to America.” The army continued their journey up the Rhine River, and on March 27 boarded English transports at Dordrecht in Holland. The transports reached Portsmouth in England on April 2, and then sailed across the Atlantic. On June 3, 1777, after a long and often stormy voyage, Johann reached New York City.

Johann initially served as part of the garrison on Staten Island and saw little military action. In the summer of 1777, however, General John Burgoyne’s plan to lead a three-pronged attack against Albany ended Johann’s inactivity. General Sir William Howe was supposed to command the southern flank in the operation, but decided to march against Philadelphia instead. Along with the failure of the British to take Fort Stanwix in western New York in August 1777, two of the three flanks were eliminated from the planned attack. To relieve Burgoyne’s isolated army, General Henry Clinton marched from New York against Fort Montgomery north of the city on the Hudson River, “in order to open a passage from Albany.” The British victory at Fort Montgomery allowed the Bayreuth Regiment to sail up the Hudson River to relieve Burgoyne’s beleaguered forces, but they did not arrive in time. Overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga to General Horatio Gates on October 16, 1777. Clinton ordered the Bayreuth regiment to continue to Saratoga anyway, but General Howe countermanded the order on October 18, requesting that the regiments be redeployed at Philadelphia.

After Johann’s regiment landed in southern New Jersey In November 1777, they crossed the Delaware River to Philadelphia. Johann’s barracks were large, and “in winter quarters . . . we had no shortages because the then commander in chief, General Howe, had carefully seen to the acquisition of all provisions.” When the British evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778, Johann’s regiment sailed directly for New York City. The following month, the Bayreuth Regiment was transferred to the garrison at Newport, Rhode Island.

In Rhode Island, Johann finally participated in his first major battle of the Revolution. On July 29, 1778, a French fleet of sixteen ships commanded by Admiral le Comte d’Estaing, appeared “unexpectedly . . . [and] in the grandest array” outside Newport’s harbor. The following day, Johann’s position came under heavy fire from the French fleet, and before falling back, “everything in the fortifications, [including] munitions, [and] cannons, was destroyed.” By August 5, the Royal Navy had set eight ships ablaze and sunk thirteen more in the Newport harbor to keep the French ships from approaching further. Despite the best efforts of the British, Admiral d’Estaing forced an entry into the harbor on August 10 to support the landing of an American army under the command of General John Sullivan.

Over the next several weeks, the Newport garrison fortified its position, and on August 29, the Americans finally attacked. The Bayreuth Regiment was on the British left and took the brunt of the assault, but Johann was thankful that being “engaged in combat the entire day . . . we lost no more than three men.” The American offensive failed, and Johann commented that “one can say of our two regiments that they earned honor and fame . . . they did not lose courage and bravely held out so long that the enemy became aware that they were not able to drive them away.” The following day, the Americans withdrew “across the river to New England.”

French plan of the fortifications at Newport, Rhode Island, by Mullon circa 1780.

French plan of the fortifications at Newport, Rhode Island, by Mullon circa 1780.

The Anspach and Bayreuth regiments remained on garrison duty in Rhode Island for another year, until the British evacuated Rhode Island in October 1779. Johann returned to New York City, where he helped fight off American patrols over the next two years. In March 1780, Johann joined a force of four hundred troops drawn from all the regiments in New York City for a raid on Hackensack, New Jersey. The force attacked the town on March 22, “and all the houses were immediately broken into and everything ruined . . . All the males were taken prisoners, and the town hall and some other splendid buildings were set on fire.” Johann participated in another raid at Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780. As in Hackensack, the town was plundered and set on fire by the British and German troops.
On May 13, 1781, Johann’s regiment sailed for Virginia to join the Hessian contingent at Norfolk in support of General Lord Cornwallis’s army. The British fleet entered the James River on May 20, and Johann spent the next few months garrisoned in Portsmouth. He travelled up the York River with Cornwallis’s army to Yorktown on August 1st and spent the next two months helping fortify the town in anticipation of an attack by the Americans. The Germans suffered heavy casualties when the American and French bombardments began in October 1781, and many soldiers from the Anspach and Bayreuth regiments deserted rather than face the onslaught. Desertion was a serious offense, and a deserter faced severe punishment if caught. Johann reported that Private Johann Frolich was forced to run a gauntlet of three-hundred men sixteen times as punishment for deserting. By the time Frolich completed the tenth run, he was “beaten unmercifully and . . . had to be led by two noncommissioned officers because he could no longer walk.”

Johann avoided most of the allied bombardment because he was usually placed on duty away from the town. But this did not mean that he avoided hazardous duty. On October 5, he became a “detached picket,” and spent two hours lying very still on the ground only six-hundred yards from the French lines. He was so close to the enemy lines that he could hear French voices from passing patrols. It would have been easy to kill from this range, but “everything . . . was done in silence; neither relief nor patrols were challenged.” The bombardment continued, and on October 9, Johann stared in disbelief at the river, where “a French bombardier set fire to an English frigate in the harbor with a heated cannonball.” The ship was the forty-four gun Charon, which “could not be saved . . . it could be seen burning in the river throughout the night.” Faced with mounting casualties and no hope of relief, General Lord Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. Johann was relieved. He commented that the “French and Americans immediately occupied our works and . . . treated [us] according to law and fairness and the customs of the war.”
Following the defeat at Yorktown, Johann marched with the other German troops to the American prison camp at Winchester, Virginia. He complained bitterly about the conditions, which he found “worse than the pig stalls and doghouses in Germany.” He was later moved to Maryland, and in December 1783, received his discharge. He returned to Bayreuth, and left military service forever. In his later life, Johann married and became a master brickmaker, following in his father’s trade.

In 1811, he wrote his account of the Revolution, probably from field notes, for his former regimental comrade and old friend, Johann Adam Hopler of Munchberg. The manuscript remained unpublished until after Johann’s death in 1820 at the age of seventy. In his 1811 account Döhla expanded abbreviated entries and added some material, mostly descriptions of events of the war which had occurred far from his locations in the field. Since Döhla’s original diary was lost, probably early in the 19th century, the 1811 version is the only one which exists as of this date. It should be noted that many of the added entries regarding news of the war make up a mix of fact and misinformation which is often confusing to the reader but valuable in conveying the perceptions Döhla and many soldiers may have had of the conflict.

Döhla’s journal abounds not only with reports of military events of the war, but also with detailed descriptions of the everyday life of an auxiliary soldier. Camp life, for example, is recalled throughout the journal in accounts describing drills, barracks conditions, religious services, Döhla’s employment as a lance corporal (“an acting corporal without pay”), and his work as orderly “writing regimental lists” for officers. In other entries Döhla routinely noted the disciplinary actions and punishments carried out in the regiment as well as the names and numbers of the Anspach-Bayreuth troops who deserted in the course of the war. In addition to his daily entries, Döhla related throughout the journal his views and observations of America’s countryside, towns, and citizens. Sections regarding his thoughts on the soldiers and officers of the British, Continental, and German armies are also given. Rich in detail, these reflections provide, along with Döhla’s day to day notes, an especially interesting and valuable account of an auxiliary soldier’s impressions of the era.

Primary Source Documents: Johann Conrad Döhla

The following passages are taken from Johann Conrad Döhla, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, Bruce Burgoyne, ed., (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).

On the march from Bayreuth in Bavaria to Dordrecht, Holland

9 March [1777]. We arrived in the territory of Wurzburg. This is a rather large and beautiful city, and it has good drawbridges. The Main River flows nearby . . . We marched through the city and that evening, being for the first time aboard ship, halted there overnight at anchor on the Main River. We were not accustomed to these quarters. There was very little room on the ships, where we lay close together, and the ships’ smells were very unpleasant, and it was rather cold. All this created the opportunity for grumbling, and during the day a full insurrection and rebellion arose.

10 March [1777]. Early, with the break of day, the Anspach Regiment began the action, as one of their ships lay at anchor near land. They put a long board from the ship to the land, and all of them went ashore. Later they pulled other ships to shore, including one with men from the Bayreuth Regiment. Our troops sided with this undertaking and, with force and without permission, brought the officers out of the ships, so that within an hour no soldier from these two regiments remained on the ships and everything was incited to the greatest fury . . . the Jaeger Corps was ordered to take post on the heights and to fire shots into the air to intimidate the fleeing rebels. But our people fired at the Jaegers. In this exchange some of our troops were wounded . . . and because the Jaegers wounded some of us, it was the cause of a great antipathy . . .

28 March [1777]. As it was Good Friday, we lay at anchor at Dordrecht. The English ship’s provisions seem rather scant to us. They consist of one pound of bread . . . and one-eighth-of rum (that is a form of spirits or cognac made from sugar which comes from the West Indies.) At first we absolutely could not drink this, because it was too strong for us, and we had to mix it with water . . .

Arrival in America:

3 June [1777], in the afternoon, between four and five o’clock, happy, healthy, and with the greatest satisfaction, and with joy we entered the seaport of New York, where a short time previously a windstorm had arisen. We have been caught in the middle of a frightful electrical storm the likes of which has never been seen in Europe. We anchored. What is more remarkable, it was just as if this surprising electrical storm had been a signal that we should be allowed to be used to solve the mounting political storm that had arisen in America between the insurgents and their rightful ruler. Therefore, at the time of our arrival in America, we burned with a desire to demonstrate our bravery and to show that the Germans, and especially those of the famous Franconian blood, did not lack courage and wished to demonstrate this also in another distant part of the world.

On Johann’s deployment at Philadelphia to reinforce General Sir William Howes army.

13 November [1777]. The warships Somserset, Experiment, and Vigilant sailed farther up the [Delaware] river very early this morning, and they fired at Mud Island and Fort Mifflin, which are strongly occupied by the enemy. The cannonade from these ships lasted continuously for three days and three nights, and in this time there must have been more than twelve thousand shots fired on both sides. At twelve o’clock tonight, we saw an enemy frigate go up in flames, which the enemy himself had started after abandoning ship. Thereafter, we heard on the following morning that the battle of Fort Mifflin and Mud Island was over.

27 November [1777]. Toward noon the entire corps, including the Artillery, was taken across the Delaware and landed on the Pennsylvania shore . . . After all were disembarked, the entire corps marched to Philadelphia, where it arrived during the night. Our two regiments marched through the city with dressed ranks, colors flying, and music playing, and were quartered in very large barracks . . .

Views on the British:

28 February [1778]. The English officers are gallant. They wear white stockings daily in winter quarters, but in the field only when it is nice weather. They move quickly and hastily, and their manners toward people they know are polite. Basically, however, they are surprisingly proud and arrogant, and look down on all other nations, especially the Germans, and see their auxiliaries as only mercenaries. Still, they were rather friendly to us, and the more so because we were not subservient or condescending toward them either.

Views on America and American Farmers in Philadelphia:

28 February. As America has only recently been discovered and settled-by the Europeans, it is difficult to believe that this land is already so developed. It is nearly on par with Europe. The most beautiful cities are to be found everywhere, and these are well laid out, mostly large, and with good public buildings; well provided with police supervision and security, and comfort…
The farmers live better in America than our cavaliers and nobility. Their homes are exceptionally charming and the most part are [set] among many varieties of the best fruit trees. The rooms are nicely furnished also, with wallpaper or tapestries and furniture of which the most distinguished cavalier would not be ashamed.

At the Battle of Newport, Rhode Island.

29 July [1778]. At noon we received the most urgent order from the commanding general, Pigot, to break camp. At noon, completely unexpectedly, a fleet of sixteen warships and frigates, in the grandest array, appeared without our knowing if it were friend or foe . . . In this moment, however, the fleet lowered the sails, raised a white flag with three lilies, which is the French flag, and dropped anchor. Admiral Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, the Comte d’Estaing commands this fleet.

30 July [1778]. Our command, which had been left on Conanicut [Island], had to vacate the defenses because some French warships fired heavily on the battery. Before falling back, everything in the fortifications, munitions and cannon, was destroyed. Many rebels came across from New England in boats and occupied our fortifications there.

5 August [1778]. This morning the English . . . set fire to three of our frigates as two French warships gave the impression that they were sailing toward them. The men also vacated a fortification facing the water and blew up the powder magazine . . . Already eight English ships have been set afire in this harbor by the English themselves, and thirteen ships were sunk in order to hinder the French coming in.

29 August [1778] . . . two thousand men from the army, including our two regiments, were ordered to search out and pursue the retreating enemy. They marched for about three English miles, where they then caught up with the enemy, who opposed us as much as possible . . . During this heavy fighting our regiment, as we were on the left wing, engaged in combat the entire day. We lost no more than three men . . . Regarding the enemy, nothing is known about their losses, because they took all of their dead back with them . . . One can say of our two regiments that they earned honor and fame; that, as the enemy directed the heaviest fire on the post that they had to defend, they did not lose courage and bravely held out so long that the enemy became aware that they were not able to drive them away. This incident served to make today, 29 August 1778, one of the most memorable of the American War, because a so much larger force had to yield to the courage and bravery of our much smaller force.

Illness in the Camp in 1779:

[March] An epidemic of scurvy, or the so-called scarlet fever, broke out in our regiment so that many troops had to go to the hospital. The English doctors and medics prescribed bathing frequently with sea water and keeping the feet warm, also rinsing the mouth out with sea water, or better yet, with good vinegar to clean and stimulate the gums.

24 March Being indisposed with scurvy, I had to pay someone to take my watch.

27 March During the afternoon, I went into the English hospital, which was a Quaker meetinghouse.

22 April God be praised! Starting today I was again better and began to eat, after lying dangerously ill for fourteen days. . .

Expedition to Hackensack:

22 March [1780]. During the evening, after tattoo, I went with a strong command. It was drawn from all the regiments that lay here in New York and consisited of four hundred men under the command of the Scottish Major Kleevlington and Captain Tannenburg of the Hessians. We were carried in boats across the North River to the province of New Jersey. Then we marched almost the entire night, at the quickest pace and as silently as possible, mostly through forests. Toward three o’clock in the evening we reached Hackensack, a large an beautiful settlement consisting of about two hundred houses. This village was attacked and all houses were immediately broken into and everything ruined; doors, windows, boxes, and chests, everything lumped together and plundered. All the males were taken prisoners, and the townhall an some other splendid buildings were set on fire. We took considerable booty. . .

A typical series of entries regarding camp life in 1781:

14 February. I went on picket duty….

22 February. We receives an allowance to cover the cost of our cooking utensils. Each man received nineteen coppers, or English half pennies.

23 February. I went on regimental picket duty

9 March. I was the orderly for the Voit Regiment. This afternoon Private Riedel, of Quesnoy’s Company, escaped from his sergeant major, who was taking him to the captain.

15 March. The above-mentioned Reidel had to run a gauntlet of three hundred men twenty-four times in two days, for theft in the city and for leaving the company.

16 March. During the morning, I worked unloading wood from a ship. During the evening I went on picket duty at Bunker Hill as lance corporal.

At the Battle of Yorktown.

4 September [1781]. Two men deserted from our regiment, Private Aberl Falk, of the Major’s Company, and Private Johann Frolich, of Eyb’s Company . . .

11 September [1781]. Again this morning I attended punishment. Frolich was to run the gauntlet [of three hundred men] sixteen times, but six were pardoned and he had to run only ten times. He was beaten unmercifully and so cut that today he had to be led by two noncommissioned officers because he could no longer walk.

5 October [1781]. At night I went on duty at a detached picket, which was outside our lines. This picket post was a dangerous position. During the two hours on post it was necessary to sit or lie down so that the enemy outposts, which were often hardly five or six hundred yards from us, could not see us against the starlit heaven. When it was quiet, all reliefs and patrols could be heard . . . everything connected therewith was done in silence; neither relief nor patrols were challenged . . . Smoking was also forbidden, and no fire could be made. It was called, and rightly so, “the lost post.”

9 October [1781] . . . During the night a French bombardier set fire to an English frigate [Charon] in the harbor with a heated cannonball and the frigate could not be saved. It burned completely. It could be seen burning in the river throughout the night. This night two men, namely, Privates Peter Bleyer, of Eyb’s Company, and Georg Simon Brummer, of the Colonel’s Company, deserted from our detached picket.

11 October [1781]. I went on boat watch on the water. Today there was exceptionally heavy firing by both sides. Thirty-six hundred shots-by the enemy were counted in this twenty-four hours. These were fired at the city, into our lines, and against the ships in the harbor . . . I myself [held] a piece of shell from an exploded bomb in my hands which weighed more than thirty pounds, and was more than three inches thick. The Hessian Bose Regiment, which was in the second line on the left wing, was in a dangerous position because of the enemy bombs and balls, which daily killed and wounded many . . .

13 October [1781]. I went on watch in our lines. Today a bomb fell so unfortunately into our camp of the Anspach Regiment that it killed four men in a tent and fatally wounded two others. Private Stutzel II, of our regiment, while on command in the defenses, had his left foot shot off by a piece of schrapnel, so that three days later his leg had to be amputated at the thick part of the calf.

19 October [1781]. The unfortunate day for England when the otherwise so famous and brave General Lord Cornwallis, with all his troops and the ships in the harbor, had to surrender to the united French and American troops under the command of General Washington . . . We were, on one side, happy that the seige was ended, and that it was done with a reasonable accord . . . For my part, I also had good reason to thank God . . . who during the siege had so graciously saved my life and protected my body and all my limbs from illness, wounds, and all enemy shots. Oh! How many thousand bullets and deathly situations have I encountered face to face!

. . . During the afternoon of 19 October, between three and four o’clock, all the troops, with all their belongings, weapons and side arms, with covered colors but with drums and fifes, marched out of our lines and the camp. Brigadier General O’Hara led us out and surrendered us….When all this was over, we marched back between both armies, but in silence, into our lines and camp, with nothing more than a bit of our remaining equipment in the knapsacks on our backs. All courage and bravery that animates soldiers at times had left us. As we marched back through the armies, the Americans, as victors, made sport of us. We reentered our lines and tents and had complete freedom to go into the city, or the lines, or wherever we wished.

In the American prison camps:

From September 1 on, all of the captives from Cornwallis’s army who had worked here and therein the country had to return to their regiments and enter the barracks, by an order of the Congress at Philadelphia. Also, all of the captives from Burgoyne’s army who were scattered in the land, were assembled. However, anyone of them who was married to an American woman was released again for a fixed sum, and could again depart; [the same was] also [true of] many who had sworn allegiance to America. All of-us captives had permission from Congress to swear our allegiance. Also, for thirty pounds, that is, eighty Spanish dollars, it was possible to buy freedom out of captivity, or to allow an inhabitant to buy our freedom, and we could work off the indebtedness. This order was publicly proclaimed, posted and read in the churches. Also, the recruiting for the American Continentals, or regular troops, was carried out here in Frederick, and the recruiters were permitted to enter our barracks. They promised thirty Spanish dollars bounty money, of which the recruit received eight dollars as soon as he was engaged and the remainder when he arrived at his regiment.

[November 1781] We were divided among our barracks, twenty or thirty men in a hut, where we did not have room enough to stand. We were also locked in like dogs, and our rooms were worse than the pig stalls and doghouses are in Germany. . .

[Two days later] We began to improve our barracks a bit. We made cabins and cots therein, for which we had permission from the Americans to get wood from the nearby forests….Many of our people, with the permission of the American commanding officer, went, with or without passes, into the surrounding region to work for the residents threshing, spinning, cutting wood, or whatever the people had to do, in order to lessen the hunger and to earn a shirt to put on their backs.”

For Further Reading:

Edward Lowell, The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the
Revolutionary War (1884).
J. G. Rosengarten, German Allied Troops in the American Revolution (1993).
Bruce Burgoyne, Enemy Views: The American Revolutionary War as Recorded by the Hessian
Participants (1996).
Brady Crytzer, Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America (2015).