Kováts Mihály

Not Just the Hessians: The Habsburgs and the War of American Independence

By Jonathan Singerton

Who are the most famous foreigners to have fought in the War of American Independence? Fighting for the side of American liberty, we may think of familiar French officers like the Marquis de Lafayette or the Comte de Rochambeau. Prussians like Baron von Steuben or martyrs like Johann de Kalb and Casimir Pulaski might also cross our minds. And of course the most vilified campaigners against American independence were the enlisted Hessians soldiers.

But what about inhabitants of the Habsburg lands? Did any answer the call of liberty or fight to preserve British hegemony in North America? Devoid of an Atlantic coastline, we might think that people in the Habsburg lands showed little interest in participating in a faraway war. Yet when we leave behind our presuppositions, we find that there are many individuals who felt compelled, for a variety of reasons, to join both sides of the conflict.

Justus Eggertt was one such person, and saw action for almost the entirety of the War of American Independence. Born near Leipzig but working in Vienna since 1771, he suffered a dispute with his employers, the Counts of Hoym, and found himself without a job by the summer of 1776. Eggertt obtained a pass to Amsterdam, where he heard he could enlist in the Hessian regiments destined for North America and joined the Ansbach regiment. Eggertt crossed the Atlantic on a British ship, which carried more cannons than mattresses for the 250 soldiers on-board. After a gruelling nine-week voyage, they reached Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in mid-August 1776. Days later Eggertt took part in the largest battle of the entire war, the Battle of Long Island. A resounding British victory that enabled the fall of New York City a few months later, he survived unharmed.

Eggertt fought in several more marginal victories and minor defeats during the New York and New Jersey campaigns before heading south later in the war. He was stationed in Philadelphia and Baltimore where he quartered with German immigrants; he noted with surprise that they owned slaves. Eggertt saw more slaves during his final campaign in the southern theatre. Landing at Charleston in 1781, Eggertt fought northwards in the “most exceptional heat and severest storms” he had ever experienced. On the way he witnessed many plantations “ruined” by his forces.[1] In his journal recording his American adventure, Eggertt estimated wildly that his military life had taken him over 45,000 miles (“6,000 German miles”).[2] He was among the number of Hessians who surrendered alongside Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. A prisoner of war for two years, Eggertt eventually returned to Austria in 1783, then worked in the military organisation of the Trauenviertel in Upper Austria before he died in Graz in 1823.

Eggertt is the only Austrian in Hessian ranks to leave behind any written documentation of American Revolutionary War experiences, but many more from the Habsburg Monarchy served among Hessian forces. Six German principalities supplied the war in North America with around 31,000 soldiers. As manpower stocks diminished, recruiters widened their geographic scope and turned to more illicit practices. Men from neighbouring territories became either willing mercenaries or targets for impressment. Recruiters encroaching into Habsburg lands caused enough alarm that the Aulic War Council (Hofkriegsrat) met several times to discuss the matter before banning all emigration without express permission from local authorities.[3]

At least 192 identifiable Habsburg subjects served in the Hessian militias.[4] There were certainly many more given the concern of the Habsburgs and the inaccuracies of some records. We can assume many soldiers were poached from the border regions with the German lands, like Josef von Bosen, an officer from Innsbruck, or Antonin Masorka from Krásny Les in Bohemia. Other men, like Georg Frohnhauer from Trieste and Janós Messet from Debrecen, likely sought out work as Eggertt had and joined of their own accord. War was still a deadly business. All four of the men named above died during the conflict. Two others, Johannes Strosser from Grieskirchen in Upper Austria and Bernard Schäffer from Graz, died at sea before they reached America.

A similar tragedy occurred with one of the most interesting individuals who left the Habsburg Monarchy to fight in North America: Joseph Cauffman. Cauffman was the first American-born student at the University of Vienna. When the American Revolution broke out, he was in the early stages of his medical degree, studying under Benjamin Franklin’s close friend Dr. Jan IngenHousz. In April 1777, Cauffman felt so distressed by the conflict that he wrote to Franklin, declaring his desire to fight for “his country” in “one of the most glorious causes, which man ever held from the creation of the world.”[5] Cauffman completed his studies early in September 1777 and set off with a few other medical students for the American colonies via France. They boarded the frigate Randolph, serving as the ship’s makeshift medics. A few months later, their jolly venture ended in the mid-Atlantic when a British warship sank the Randolph. None survived.[6]

The Marquis de Lafayette is undoubtedly the most famous European nobleman to join the patriot cause, but there were also several Habsburg noblemen who fought for the Americans and became famous during that time. The swashbuckling Count Maurice Benyovszky was a larger-than-life figure.[7] He supported rebellion in Poland, experienced exile in Kamchatka, fought in Bavaria, and attempted to colonize Madagascar before he ventured to North America to fight alongside his brother. He offered Washington “my blood, my knowledge, and my courage.”[8]

The Hungarian Mihály Kováts arrived in North America in 1777. Previously, he had served the Austrian and Prussian armies with distinction before he supported the same Polish uprising (the Confederation of the Bar) as Benyovszky. In the United States, Kováts ardently promoted the use of cavalry. He received a commission from the Continental Congress to create a well-trained cavalry division, forming the basis of the U.S. Cavalry and training his recruits in the manner of the Hungarian hussars. Kováts used his mounted forces to relieve the Siege of Charleston in 1779, where he was killed during battle.

No epics were told of these individuals in their home country. The Habsburgs did not celebrate those who left to fight for American independence. In contrast to their illustrious French and Prussian contemporaries, they have largely remained obscured and forgotten.[9] Their actions and participation in the War of American Independence, from the first year of independence in 1776 until the final surrender in 1782, ought to be more widely recognized. Not only Hessians fought in the American Revolution, but Habsburg subjects as well.

Jonathan Singerton is a specialist on the early connections between the Habsburg Monarchy and North America. He recently completed his PhD entitled ‘Empires on the Edge – The Habsburg Monarchy and the American Revolution 1763-1789’ at the University of Edinburgh. He is currently a Plaschka Fellow at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary History at the Austria Academy of Sciences, Vienna.


[1] Oberösterreichisches Landesarchiv, Herrschaftsarchiv Weinburg, A-IV, Bd. 182.

[2] Georg Grüll, “Aus dem Tagebuch eines ewigen Soldaten,” Mitteilungen des oberösterreichischen Landesarchiv, Vol. 9 (1968), 297.

[3] “Werbungen in den Reichs Landen dadurch einen Abbruch zu erleiden hat, dass Reichs Unterthanen nacher America geschickt werden, muss der Reichswerbungs Directeur sich mit den betrefenden Ministers im Reich darüber einvernehmen, ob nicht etwa aus dem Grunde des Auswanderungs Edicts [von 7. Juli 1768] diesem Übel Einhalt zu verschaffen thunlich seyn könnte” in ÖStA, Kriegsarchiv, Zentralstellen, Wiener Hofkriegsrat, Protokolle, Hofkriegsrat Memorandum, 9th September 1780, G.2677, No. 5113; See also debates in G.756, No.1433 and G.958, No.1852.

[4] I have relied upon the on-going Hessian Information System on Regional History (LAGIS) project run by the Hessisches Landesamt für geschichtliche Landeskunde in Marburg which digitises muster lists of recruited Hessian soldiers under the HETRINA (Hessian Troops in North America) project/database which provides the basis for this estimate. See http://www.lagis-hessen.de/en/subjects/intro/sn/hetrina [last accessed June 2017].

[5] Joseph Cauffman to Benjamin Franklin, 23rd April 1777 in Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 23 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), 603-606.

[6] T. F. Rodenbough, Autumn Leaves from Family Trees (New York: Clark and Zugalla, 1892), 17; 25-30.

[7] There are many variants of his name: Count Maurice August Benyovszky (English), Benyovszky Móric (Hungarian), Móric Beňovský (Slovakia), Maurycy Beniowski (Polish) and Benyovszky himself used inconsistent spellings of his own name. The commonly accepted English version is used here.

[8] Maurice-Auguste de Beniousky to George Washington, 18th March 1782 via http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07991

[9] There are many efforts to rehabilitate their memory today in the United States and Central Europe. See the artworks of Gabriella F. Koszorus-Varsa http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/news_memorials_koszorus-varsa.htm and Anton Garbik http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMJD4H_George_Washington_with_Moric_Benovsky_Vrbove_Slovakia for example.

Further Reading:

Rodney Atwood, The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution, New Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War: The Experience of Common Soldiers in Old Regime Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Brady J. Crytzer, Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2015).

Andrew Drummond, The Intriguing Life and Ignominious Death of Maurice Benyovszky (Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2017).

Georg Grüll, “Aus dem Tagebuch eines ewigen Soldaten,” Mitteilungen des oberösterreichischen Landesarchiv, Vol. 9 (1968), 291-297.

Patrik Kunec, “The Hungarian Participants in the American War of Independence,” Codrul Cosminului, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2010), 41-57.

Archival Sources:

Archiv der Universität Wien, Medizinisches Akten, Rigorosenprotokoll, Med. 9.5 (1777).

Oberöstrreichisches Landesarchiv, Herrschaftsarchiv Weinberg, A-IV, Band 182.

Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Kriegsarchiv, Zentralstellen, Wiener Hofkriegsrat, Protokolle, Hofkriegsrat Memorandums, G. 2677, No. 5113; G. 756, No. 1433; G. 958, No. 1852.

Learn More:

More on the life of Mihály Kováts: http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/news_michael_kovats_de_fabricy.htm

More on Benyovszky (in Hungarian): http://www.benyovszky.hu/

More on Kováts and Casimir Pulaski’s friendship and collaboration: https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/08/casimir-pulaskis-difficulties-recruiting-legion/

Hessian Troops in America database: https://www.lagis-hessen.de/en/subjects/index/sn/hetrina

More on Hessian military involvement in New York and Pennsylvania (Eggertt’s campaigns): https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/05/the-hessian-jagerkorps-in-new-york-and-pennsylvania-1776-1777/