Historical Markers
Hessian Camp Historical Marker
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Hessian Camp

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Mineral Spring Rd. (Business US 422 westbound) at 18th St., Reading

Dedication Date:
October 1949

Behind the Marker

An oil on canvas of the <i>Surrender of Hessian troops to Washington</i>, depicting the surrender of the mortally wounded Hessian commander Johann Rall, to Washington, on horseback, who offers his hand in assistance.
Surrender of Hessian Troops at Trenton, 1776, by John Trumbull, 1786.
Berks County was a critical center of Pennsylvania's support for the patriot cause. Its Scots-Irish and German residents volunteered in large numbers for the Continental Army, and also provided food, munitions, and shelter for the army, wounded soldiers, and prisoners of war. The county seat of markerReading, founded in 1748, was an especially important site for the internment of prisoners.

Beginning in December 1775, when Congress designated the town as a prison camp, Reading provided food, shelter, and firewood, first to British soldiers captured by Gen. Richard Montgomery at St. John's in Canada, and later to Hessians troops captured at the Battles of Trenton and Saratoga.
A battle scene on a colonial street, showing the American army advancing on the retreating Hessian forces.
Hessian retreat at the Battle at Trenton.

When the British Army landed in New York in July, 1776, it included more than 10,000 Hessian mercenaries from Germany. Known as the finest soldiers in the world - and also rumored among many Anglo-Americans to be among the most vicious - the Hessians were deeply feared by the poorly trained American forces. Their defeat and capture provided a much-needed proof of Americans' fighting abilities and resolve. Disarmed and placed under a curfew, the Hessian prisoners in Reading - along with German Brunswickers captured by Americans at the Battle of Saratoga - lived in the homes of local residents, and were permitted to wander about the town at will.

Because much of the migration into the upper Schuylkill Valley was from the German principalities of central Europe, German-speaking colonists dominated Reading and, by 1776, the vast majority of the residents were fiercely loyal to the patriot cause. Any concern that German prisoners might sabotage the local munitions depot and destroy the town was quickly resolved by the confiscation and immediate destruction of enemy weapons and the decision to mobilize the local militia as round-the-clock guards. British prisoners were treated less hospitably.

Because of the difference in ethnicity, the German-speaking residents were less forgiving of the British prisoners than the Hessians and Brunswickers, especially when they began working as laborers in the county's iron industry and instigated drunken brawls in the local taverns. By May, 1779, the presence of Redcoat prisoners was resented by many townspeople. Joseph Reed, president of Pennsylvania, recommended to the Board of War that the captured Redcoats be relocated from Reading to New Jersey. His request was denied on the grounds that it was an "avoidable expense," and that Capt. P. Pitcairn, one of the British officers imprisoned at Reading, assured the Board of War of "better behavior."

Reading's Committee of Correspondence appointed Henry Haller to be in charge of all prisoners - German and British - and to provide for their basic needs. It took him nearly five years to establish a prison camp on a "piece of ground which belonged to the late Proprietaries." Located on the east side of Mount Penn "some small distance" from Reading, the camp was opened in 1781 and most all of its 1,000 prisoners were Hessians, who "behaved themselves very orderly and peaceably." Two years later, when the prisoners were evacuated from Reading, some of the Hessians decided to remain in Pennsylvania, where they worked as farmers or laborers in the state's burgeoning iron industry.
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