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History's Headlines: A baroness in Bethlehem

Published On: Dec 24 2013 06:08:02 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 18 2013 05:01:08 PM CST

History's Headlines: A baroness in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

A $32,000 hotel bill seems a bit steep, if not impossible, even in our time. It’s the kind of thing a cutting edge rock band or wealthy hedge fund manager might be presented at some high-toned lodging at an international playground. The fact that such a bill was once presented in the 1780s for a stay at Bethlehem’s Sun Inn seems a little stranger.

Granted, it was for a six-week stay for 20 people and 20 horses. Still it came as a shock to its recipient. “Great was our horror,” recalled the guest, the Baroness von Riedesel, when she was presented with that bill by innkeeper Jost Jansen.

Although a former Norwegian sailor, Jansen had not suddenly turned pirate. The bill was in “American paper money,” which, during the American Revolution, was a highly inflated currency. According to the Baroness’ journal, the sum was equal to around 400 English pounds. 

Finding that large an amount of paper money was the real problem. Fortunately, Jansen did not press the issue, and when another guest, a Tory who was passing through, offered them the American money at a handsome exchange rate, the Baroness took it was able to pay the bill.               

There are many things that make this story unique, not the least of which is the sex of its main participant. In all of the interesting stories that are told of the many greats of the American Revolution who passed through Bethlehem and stayed at the Sun Inn, one thing stands out: they are almost always men.

Adams and Franklin have their arguments, Lafayette has his rumored love affair with a Moravian maiden and at one time or another practically the entire Continental Congress seems to pass through. Except for a brief pass through the Christmas City by Martha Washington, prominent women are an afterthought.

So who was the Baroness? Her name was Baroness Fredericka von Riedesel, and together with her three young daughters, she traveled to America to be her husband Baron von Riedesel, who was in command of a group of German mercenary troops who fought for the British during the Revolution.

The Baroness’ insightful and detailed book is considered a classic historical narrative. She met Thomas Jefferson, whom she liked a great deal, and British general John “Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne, whom she did not like at all.

The Baroness crossed the Atlantic shortly after a pregnancy and witnessed the Battle of Saratoga in all of its horror as cannon balls whizzed around her. What followed that British defeat was a long period of traveling with her husband as a prisoner of war while Congress tried to decide what to do with them.

The Baroness was not surprised to find herself in America. Raised in a Prussian military family, and the wife of an officer in the army of the Duke of Brunswick, which had been an arranged marriage (that took place when she was 16 and her husband was 24) that was a love match as well, she was delighted to hear of his being chosen to lead troops wherever his prince chose.

This service came about when King George III, a German prince as well as Britain’s king, sought to buy the services of the armies of the rulers of the 300 German states. “In all,” writes historian Fred Cook, “six German states, Brunswick, Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Hanau, Waldeck, Anspach-Bayreuth and Anhalt-Zerbst, sent nearly 30,000 men to the colonies during the war. Of these some 12,000 never returned home. Nearly 5,000 deserted to stay in the New World.” And at least some of them ended up on family trees in the Lehigh Valley.

The word “Hessian” was generally used to describe all the German troops sent to America. This was because the prince of Hesse-Cassel sent more than half of the mercenary troops that fought in America, contributing four out of every 10 able-bodied men under his rule, for which he was well paid.

Von Riedesel’s Duke of Brunswick signed a treaty with George III that sent 4,300 of his subjects to America. “The price was paid more than 11,517 British pounds,” writes Cook “and twice that each year for the next two years. In addition, the Duke received ‘head money’ of over 7 pounds for each man furnished and a similar payment for each one killed. Three wounded brought the Duke as much a one dead man.”

The Baroness left for America shortly after her husband in May, 1776, with her three daughters in tow. One, Caroline had been born in March. Unfortunately bad weather and other problems prevented her from leaving England until mid-April of 1777. She and her children arrived in Canada on June 3rd.

The destination of the German troops was, as part of the British Army commanded by Burgoyne, designed to invade New York and divide the colonies. But for a series of reasons, the strategy failed and they found themselves in the hard fought battle of Saratoga, a British defeat that was to convince France to support America with troops and was looked on later as the turning point of the Revolution.

Following the surrender, the status of the family- not quite prisoners of war, but still subject to confinement- became the subject of debate in Congress. 

For the next several years they were moved from one place to another but by her own testimony was generally well treated. It was during this time that they met Jefferson. He purchased a home for them in Charlottesville where they farmed, the Baroness noting proudly that she churned the butter.  

The Baron, the Baroness and their children returned home at the end of the war in 1783. It was not until 1800 that she wrote her memoir, a book American historian Francis Parkman called an excellent example of “good historical memoirs—the very life of historical literature.”