Witness to War: Writings of Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel
I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired….
These words, written near Freeman’s Farm, New York, by Frederika Charlotte Riedesel on September 19, 1777, come from a journal that chronicles the Battle of Saratoga and other experiences of a German baroness during the American Revolution. Frederika was the wife of Major-General Friedrich Riedesel, Baron of Eisenbach and commander of German troops from the duchy of Brunswick hired by the British to fight the rebellious colonies.
What was this German noblewoman doing near the front line during the American Revolution? “It is the duty of a wife to forsake all and follow her husband,” she wrote. So in May 1776, accompanied by her four-year, two-year and ten-month-old daughters, this irrepressible woman left Brunswick for England and then Quebec to join her husband.
In August 1777, Friedrich was attached to the forces of British Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne. Burgoyne had devised a plan to gain military control of the strategically important Hudson River valley and divide New England from the southern colonies, making it easier to end the rebellion. Burgoyne’s forces successfully crossed Lake Champlain from Quebec, captured Fort Ticonderoga, and confidently advanced toward Albany, New York.
Frederika and her children joined other officers’ wives who followed at some distance behind the first line of advance. Frederika wrote about Burgoyne’s small tactical victory at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September and his retreat at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, a turning point in the American Revolution. She also documented her own harrowing experiences in her journal.
When we marched on I had a large calash [light carriage] readied, with room for myself and the three children and my two maids; thus I followed the army right in the midst of the soldiers, who sang and were jolly, burning with the desire for victory.
It was a terrible bombardment, and I was more dead than alive … Little Frederika, was very much frightened, often starting to cry, and I had to hold my handkerchief over her mouth to prevent our being discovered.
The greatest misery and extreme disorder prevailed in the army. The commissary had forgotten to distribute the food supplies among the troops … more than thirty officers came to me because they could stand the hunger no longer.
My children lay on the floor with their heads in my lap. And thus we spent the whole night. The horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children, and, even worse, my own fear prevented me from closing my eyes.
Eleven cannon balls flew through the house, and we could distinctly hear them rolling about over our heads. One of the poor soldiers who lay on the table, and was just about to have his leg amputated, had the other leg shot off by one of these balls … I was more dead than alive …
My husband often wanted to send me to the Americans, in order to put me out of danger, but I told him it would be worse than anything I had had to bear heretofore to be with people to whom I should have to be polite while my husband was fighting them.
I was the only one among all the women whose husband had not been either killed or at least wounded, and I often said to myself, ‘Should I be the only lucky one?’
I tried to divert my mind by busying myself with our wounded. I made tea and coffee for them, for which I received a thousand blessings.
On October 17 the capitulation went into effect … while driving through the American camp I was comforted to notice that nobody glanced at us insultingly, that they all bowed to me, and some of them even looked with pity to see a woman with small children there.
After Burgoyne’s surrender on October 17, 1777, Frederika and her children accompanied Riedesel into captivity. When the war officially ended in 1783, they returned home to Brunswick. Encouraged by her husband, Frederika published her journal and letters about the American expedition shortly after his death in 1800. Her engaging journal reveals the life of a compassionate, courageous, and resourceful woman and provides a unique glimpse into the American Revolution.
Source: Barnoness von Riedesel and the American Revolution. Translation and introduction by Marvin L. Brown, Jr. with assistance of Marta Huth. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, by The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 1965.
A new Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation video explores women’s roles during the American Revolution: