On this day May 11th, in 1776, in a letter addressed to the president of Congress, American General George Washington recommends raising companies of German-Americans to use against the German mercenaries anticipated to fight for Britain. Washington hoped this would engender a spirit of disaffection and desertion among Britain’s paid soldiers.
Washington surmised that If a few trusty, sensible fellows could get with them, I should think they would have great weight and influence with the common Soldiery, who certainly have no enmity towards us, having received no Injury, nor cause of Quartell [sic] from us.” Though Washington was correct in realizing that many so-called English colonists were actually German immigrants, he was apparently unaware that most Germans living in the American colonies spoke southern German dialects, and they might well be derided by the British mercenaries—Hessians from the central German territory of Hesse—if they could understand one another at all.
One third of Pennsylvania’s population was German speaking. Significant German-speaking populations also lived in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as the Mohawk Valley of New York, the Raritan Valley of New Jersey and areas near Savannah, Georgia. However, the vast majority of these German speakers originated from the Rhineland-Palatinate, Swabia and Salzburg. Although fellow members of the Holy Roman Empire and possibly readers of Hoch-Deutsch, the German used by Luther in his translation of the Bible, their spoken language would have been extremely difficult for Germans from other regions to understand. In addition, many German-Americans remained neutral during the revolution, unwilling to oppose the empire that had offered them the opportunity to enjoy better and freer lives in its colonies than they had at home.