Johann Ewald

Professional Soldier Skeptical of the English Approach
Portrait of Johann Ewald by C. A. Jensen after H. J. Aldenrath circa 1835.

Portrait of Johann Ewald by C. A. Jensen after H. J. Aldenrath circa 1835.

For Johann Ewald, the defeat of the British army under General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown represented the culmination to seven years of government folly. He agreed with the famous military theorist, Baron Carl von Clauswitz, that war was an extension of politics, and that any government “in which there are no soldiers among the ministers” of state, was doomed to calamity in war. Such was the fate of the “finest and most valiant army” under the command of such a splendid officer as Lord Cornwallis. The disaster resulted from the “absurd rules established . . . in which no plan was followed” against a people “who could have been stamped to the ground in the first year” of the conflict. Johann later mused how “the fate of entire kingdoms often depends upon a few blockheads and irresolute men.”

Johann Ewald was born in Hesse-Cassel on March 30, 1744 to Georg Heinrich and Katharina Elisabeth Breithaupt Ewald. Georg was a bookkeeper, and hoped that his son might choose a non-military profession. Yet in 1760 at the age of sixteen, Johann enlisted in the Infantry Regiment Gilsa as a Cadet. His regiment was then under the command of Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, who led the German troops opposing the French during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). In 1761 Johann’s regiment was reassigned to the Count of Buckeburg, who, ironically, besieged Hesse-Cassel. On March 4, 1761, Johann was struck by a musket ball in his right leg above his knee. His quick return, however, did not go unnoticed, and Johann soon rose to the rank of Ensign.

After the end of the Seven Years’ War, Johann’s regiment was reduced, but he kept his commission. His fortunes improved in 1765 when he was transferred to the elite Guards at Cassel. In 1766, at the age of twenty-two, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant.

Unfortunately, Johann’s lack of noble birth forced him out of the Guards in 1769. Tragedy struck him a year later when he lost his left eye in a duel. After his recovery Johann studied military science at the Collegium Carolinum under Jakob von Mauvillon. Johann produced his first military treatise in 1774, afterwhich his military career progressed steadily.

Promoted to Captain in the Liebjager Corps in 1774, he drilled his troops in his theories on “partisan warfare.” Jager troops were elite “light infantry” armed with rifles, which fired much further and were more accurate than muskets. They carried swords, not bayonets; they were usually supported by Regular Light Infantry in case of an enemy bayonet attack. Jagers served as mounted and foot soldiers, and were thus well suited to Johann’s theories on the importance of improvisation, deception, ambush, and reconnaissance on the battlefield using detached groups of well-disciplined troops (a modern-day equivalent would be the U.S. Army Rangers.) Johann’s jagers were often used as the vanguard in an attack, or as the rear guard in a retreat.

"The Hessians held up at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia" by Daniel Berger, published 1784.

“The Hessians held up at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia” by Daniel Berger, published 1784.

When military recruitment for the American war lagged in England in 1776, Parliament decided to hire foreign auxiliaries. Johann’s company came under the command of Lieutenant General von Knyphausen, and in June 1776, he left Germany for New York. Upon their arrival in America, his company joined General Lord Cornwallis’s pursuit of Washington’s Continental Army through New Jersey. However, it soon seemed obvious to Johann that General William Howe, the British commander-in-chief, did not really want Cornwallis to capture Washington, or to press a general attack on the Americans. Instead of defeating Washington “the enemy was pulled in all directions and nowhere driven by force.” For Johann, this proved the linchpin to the eventual British defeat, for in trying to end “the war amicably, without shedding the blood of the King’s subjects in a needless way,” the British ensured that “all was lost, when it was desired to preserve all.” American Loyalist Joseph Galloway seethed, “I see, they [British] don’t want to finish the war!” Johann agreed that “every honest man must think” the same.

Hessian fortunes turned worse at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. The battle marked George Washington’s first victory as commander of the Continental Army, and eliminated the myth of German invincibility. Trenton was not fortified, nor did Colonel Rall, the commanding officer at the post, send out regular patrols. Johann ranked the lack of patrols as the primary reason for the Hessian defeat, commenting that if jagers had “patrolled diligently . . . on the morning when Washington crossed the Delaware, the enemy would have been discovered.” Johann saw significant action in the campaigns of 1777-1778. At the Battle of Brandywine he led the attack on Washington’s flank at Jeffrie’s Ford, and at the Battle of Monmouth his jagers helped to save the British baggage on the retreat to New York. Although not present at the Battle of Germantown, Johann, not surprisingly, heaped praise upon British Colonel Musgrave. The British officer borrowed from the tactics of partisan warfare by placing his regiment in Benjamin Chew’s country estate in order to defend the Germantown Road. The tactics pleased Johann, who commented that “this example of a single brave and intelligent man, through whom the entire English army was saved, shows what courage and decision in war can do.”

A map depicting the plan of action for the 1777 Battle of Bound Brook by Johann Ewald circa 1777.

A map depicting the plan of action for the 1777 Battle of Bound Brook by Johann Ewald circa 1777.

After the treaty with France in 1778, Johann’s jagers were transferred to the South. Once again under the command of General Lord Cornwallis, they took part in the siege of Charleston. Johann criticized British Major Moncrief’s plan to take the city, and held that while Moncrief succeeded at Charleston, he “would not capture a dovecot in a European war.” The subsequent British campaign through the Carolinas struck Johann as absurd. He questioned “Why not operate out of one point and use all our force there to be the master of at least one province?” All the British strategy accomplished was to make “people miserable by our presence. . . yet we still want to find friends in this country!” At the Battle of Yorktown, Johann’s jagers could do little against the incessant artillery fire of the American and French batteries. By this final battle Johann had developed a respect for American persistence. He asked “with what soldiers in the world could one do what was done with these men, who go about naked and in the greatest privation?” His conclusion was that “what an enthusiasm–which these poor fellows call “Liberty”–can do! Who would have thought . . . that out of this multitude of rabble would arise a people who could defy kings?”

Depiction of Hessian grenadiers by Charles Lefferts, early 20th c.

Depiction of Hessian grenadiers by Charles Lefferts, early 20th c.

After the war, Johann published his Abhandlung Ober den kleinen Kreig (Treatise on Partisan Warfare, 1785) which became an immediate military classic. Twenty-five years later, Carl von Clauswitz and Gerhard von Scharnhorst still recommended Johann’s book as an important treatise on the use of light infantry. However, Johann’s lack of noble birth continued to plague his career. Despite exemplary service, he had not been promoted from Captain after thirteen years. When he was passed over again in 1787, he reluctantly offered his service to Frederick VI of Denmark who accepted him immediately. Johann was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and placed in command of the Schleswig Jager Corps.
In 1788, Johann married Susanne Ungewitter of Cassel, with whom he had a son and four daughters, and in 1790, he was elevated to the Danish nobility. His career continued to progress steadily in the Danish Army, as he became a Colonel in 1795 and a Major General in 1802. During the French Revolution, Denmark maintained its neutrality until the British bombarded and captured Copenhagen in 1807. This forced Denmark into an alliance with Napoleon. In 1809, when Ferdinand von Schill revolted against French domination of Prussia, Johann’s jagers proved decisive in defeating the rebels on May 31, 1809. Johann was promoted to Lieutenant General that day, and was later appointed a commander in the Dutch Order of Union, and an Officer in the French Legion of Honor. Johann finally retired from active duty on May 1, 1813, and died on June 25, 1813 at the age of sixty-nine. He was revered in Denmark, and was celebrated for decades after his death as a national hero.


Primary Source Documents: Johann Ewald

The following passages are taken from Joseph P. Tustin, trans., Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, by Captain Johann Ewald, Field Jager Corps (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), and Robert A. Selig and David Curtis Skaggs, trans., Treatise on Partisan Warfare, by Johann Ewald (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).

On pursuing an enemy from Ewald’s “Treatise on Partisan Warfare”:

. . . If one is fortunate enough to defeat the enemy at such an opportunity in a divided, mountainous or wooded area, one can not be careful enough on the pursuit . . . Since one can not see too far ahead in such an environment, one can easily fall into an ambush . . . For example, if Colonel Simcoe had pursued the American corps, which had been beaten back near Spencer’s Planation near Williamsburg in Virginia another quarter of an hour through the :thicket, it would have been supported by the army of the Marquis de Lafayette . . . and the whole detachment of Colonel Simcoe would certainly have been lost.

On ambushing an enemy from Ewald”s “Treatise on Partisan Warfare”:

. . . In order to achieve this [ambush] you place your infantry at a certain distance before your post to the side of the road that the enemy has to take. Your cavalry you place between the ambush of your infantry and your own post. The former will let the enemy pass quietly and then follow him at a distance, whence they will try to give well-aimed fire into the back of the enemy. This will have to be the sign for the cavalry to break out from their ambush and to use the disorder of the enemy and to cut down whoever puts up resistance. This way the Indians of the Stockbridge nation, which constantly lay before our outposts and harassed them, fell into an ambush . . . hardly one of the Indians escaped with his life to tell what happened to his fellow warriors. Since even their chief Sachem Ninham and his son lost their lives in this, this nation became so intimidated that it lost all inclination to send again fresh troops to the army of General Washington. . .

On the disaster at Trenton, from Ewald’s Diary:

the 29th [December 1776] . . . Thus had the times changed! The Americans had constantly run before us. Four weeks ago we expected to end the war with the capture of Philadelphia, and now we had to render Washington the honor of thinking about our defense. Due to this affair at Trenton, such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used this opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America . . .
This great misfortune, which surely caused the utter loss of the thirteen splendid provinces of the Crown of England, was due partly to . . . the jager detachment . . . posted at the Dickinson house near Trenton. Had [the jagers] patrolled diligently . . . on the morning when Washington crossed the Delaware, the enemy would have been discovered . . . Thus the fate of entire kingdoms often depends upon a few blockheads and irresolute men.

On the recall of General Howe, from Ewald’s Diary:

The 15th [April 1778) Yesterday a frigate arrived from England carrying express for the Commander in Chief which recalled him to England and appointed Sir Henry Clinton to commanding general . . . The ship also brought the pleasant news for the entire army that Lord Cornwallis had sailed from England at the same time.
The ship brought a proposal from the London Court for a compromise which they wanted the Congress to approve according to the Act of 1763. I therefore talked with various inhabitants, who were half and half. These people assured me that they would never agree to peace without independence . . . Moreover, they maintained that the alliance with France was as good as completed, to which the capture of Burgoyne’s army had contributed a great deal. . .

During the campaign against Charleston, from Ewald’s Diary:

The 25th (March 1780) . . . A noncommissioned officer of the enemy party, who ventured ahead beyond all daring, was shot in the belly and captured. I asked him why he had behaved so rashly. – “Sir, Colonel Washington promised me that I would become an officer right away, if I could discover whether the jagers were supported by infantry and had cannon with them, because if not, he would try to harass the jagers.”
He begged me to ask the surgeon whether his wound was mortal, and when he heard that it was he quietly lay down like a brave man, clasping his hands, saying: “Well, then, I die for my country and for its just cause’.”
Captain Hinrichs handed him a glass of wine. He drank it down with relish, and died like a man. . .

Questioning an American Patriot on Loyalty, from Ewald’s Diary:

29th [March 1780] . . . [I] asked him why he had given his son into the services of the rebels and not into the service of the King.
“For the entire war we have been kept under the mandate of the Congress, and not the slightest help appeared from the King’s party, on which the loyal subjects–whose number was not small–could have depended . . .”
I shrugged my shoulders, assented to all this in my heart, appreciated the sincerity of this man, and permitted him to return quietly to his home. . .

On the British campaign in North Carolina, from Ewald’s Diary:

[April 23, 1781] . . . What use to us are the victories and the defeats of the enemy at Camden and Guilford? We now occupy nothing more in the two Carolina provinces than Charlestown, Wilmington, and Ninety-Six. In these areas, we hold no more ground than our cannon can reach.–Why not operate out of one point and use all our force there to be the master of at least one province? What good are our victories which have been so dearly bought with our blood? We have made people miserable by our presence . . . yet we still want to find friends in this country!

On the British forces in Virginia, from Ewald’s Diary:

[June 21, 1781] On the 21st the entire army departed from Richmond . . . I cannot deny that the extremely numerous baggage of the army set me to wondering, for I was not yet used to such a cavalcade. The army appeared similar to a wandering Arabian or Tartar horde . . . Any place this horde approached was eaten clean, like an acre invaded by a swarm of locusts . . .

On General Cornwallis’s Defeat at Yorktown, from Ewald’s Diary:

[December 8, 1781] . . . This disaster, the capture of the army under Lord Cornwallis, will give the Opposition Party in England enough impetus to carry through its plan to give up the dominions in North America. This is the result of the absurd rules established during the war in which no plan was followed. The enemy was only pulled in all directions and nowhere driven by force, whereby all was lost, when it was desired to preserve all . . . And this, indeed, against a people who were no soldiers, and who could have been stamped to the ground in the first year. . . Such a calamity must be incurred by every state in which there are no soldiers among the [government] ministers . . .

On his visit to West Point after the war in 1783:

[October 22, 1783]. . . What touched me most strongly and profoundly, and led me into deep reflection for several minutes, were three light 3-pounders which looked as simple as a Quaker. They had been cast at Philadelphia, were the first cannon in the American army, and had comprised their entire field artillery in the first and second campaigns. I became totally lost in my meditations as I tried to imagine the American army in its wretched condition, such as we had often encountered it during the year 1776 . . . On the other side I tried to envisage the splendid and formidable army of the English . . . But they were put to such poor use that eight campaigns were lost, followed by thirteen provinces, which, in a word, had torn down the Crown of England . . .


For Further Reading:

Johann Prechtel, A Hessian Officer’s Diary of the American Revolution (1994).
Bruce Burgoyne, Enemy Views: The American Revolutionary War as Recorded by the Hessian
Participants (1996).
Edward Lowell, The Hessians and the Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the
Revolutionary War (2002).