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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Revolutionary Mothers: Baroness Frederika von Riedesel

Baroness von 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…

When you think of women involved in the American Revolution, I’ll bet you don’t visualize a German baroness. But when the British hired Hessian troops to help fight the American rebels, some women accompanied their husbands to our shores. One of them was vivacious young Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, the Baroness von Riedesel.

She was born on July 11, 1746, at Brandenburg. Her father was a general, and as a child, Frederika experienced the hardships of travelling with the Prussian Army. In 1762 during the battles of the Seven Years’ War, sixteen-year-old Frederika helped care for the wounded, among them, the then lieutenant colonel Friedrich Adolph Riedesel, baron of Eisenbach. It’s clear they were quite attracted to each other because they married later the same year.

Red-haired Fredericka was described as looking more like an unmarried school girl than a married woman, “full in figure and possessing no small share of beauty.” She and Friedrich became a devoted couple and soon added two daughters to their family. Frederika was pregnant again in 1776 when Brunswick signed a treaty to support Great Britain in the war against her rebellious American colonies. Now a general, Friedrich could not do without his wife at his side. When he sailed for America he made sure that Frederika would join him as soon as the new baby could travel. Carolina was born in March, and in May 1776, accompanied by her three little girls, Frederika sailed to England. Ever resourceful, she brought along a number of German antiques to sell to help pay travelling expenses.

England proved to be a less than enjoyable experience, with Fredericka’s German fashions and language attracting scorn. Nevertheless, she learned the English language and customs in six weeks, while she waited for a ship to take her and her daughters to Canada. General Riedesel had insisted she travel with a companion, and it was April 1777 before all the arrangements could be made and she and her little girls finally set sail. They were reunited with the general in June at Trois-Rivières, Quebec, just in time to accompany the army south on General John Burgoyne’s campaign to capture Albany and divide the New England states from the rest of the new nation.

Riding through the wilderness behind the army in a calash—and I’ll bet that was fun!—Frederika and her children eventually ended up on the battlefields around the small town of Saratoga, NY. The quote above is from an entry in her journal, written on September 19, 1777, during the battle of Freeman’s Farm. You’ll find a longer excerpt from this fascinating journal on The American Patriot Series website. During the battle Frederika and the children sheltered in a nearby house, where wounded soldiers were brought and where a young English officer slowly died during that agonizing night. Then on October 7 she was preparing a meal when the Battle of Bemis Heights began. The meal had to be cleared from the table in order to provide a bed for mortally wounded General Simon Fraser. Frederika spent another night tending wounded soldiers, several other women, and her own children. Before expiring the next morning, General Fraser asked that his body be buried at one of the redoubts. Frederika handled all the arrangements and in spite of her terror attended the funeral while under American cannon fire. To make their precarious situation even worse, the house caught fire that afternoon, forcing everyone to evacuate.

Lansing House
Through this ordeal Frederika became very critical of security at the British camp and of General Burgoyne himself. She wrote: “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.” It finally became necessary for her to remind Burgoyne that his men were starving due to lack of supplies. Burgoyne held out, however, until even he could no longer deny that defeat was imminent. When he finally agreed to retreat to Canada, the army was forced to march north through torrential rains, with their equipment miring in knee-deep mud. Unable to go farther, they took refuge near Saratoga, present day Schuylerville, where they were soon surrounded by the American forces. General Riedesel arranged his command on heights now occupied by the Schuylerville Central School and directed Frederika to take the children to a nearby farmhouse at that time owned by a man named Lansing, about three hundred yards to the north of the lines.

Baroness Riedesel and her children (Harper's Weekly, 1857)
This marked the beginning of a horrifying week for the women, children and wounded soldiers who soon crowded into the building’s cellar with her. The house has been known as the Marshall House since 1817. Although a much larger structure today, it still preserves the stone cellar where Frederika recorded what they all endured. Beams that were shattered by American cannon fire are visible as are bloodstains on the floor left by a soldier whose leg was severed in the cannonade. Three of the eleven cannonballs Frederika noted as having hit the building are also displayed. She wrote: “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.” She spent days managing the needs of the children, women, and wounded soldiers in the crowded cellar as the battle continued. A German soldier described her as an “angel of comfort” who “restored order in the chaos.”

The Riedesels celebrate Christmas in Canada. They are credited
with popularizing the German tradition of Christmas trees
in the Americas
After Burgoyne’s surrender on October 17, 1777, Frederika, Friedrich, and their children became prisoners along with Burgoyne’s entire army and the approximately 2,000 women who accompanied them. They were marched to Boston, then transferred to Virginia. In 1779 they were allowed to move to New York City, and in 1780 Frederika gave birth to their fourth daughter, named America. Friedrich commanded troops on Long Island during the winter of 1780–1781, after which he and his family were sent to Canada. Frederika gave birth to a fifth daughter there, named Canada, who sadly didn’t live. It wasn’t until the peace treaty was signed in 1783 that they at last returned home to Brunswick. Frederika bore 4 more children, a total of 9 altogether, 6 of whom survived to adulthood.

Encouraged by her husband, Frederika published her journal and letters shortly after his death in 1800. The Letters and Journals Relating to the War of the American Revolution and the Capture of the German Troops at Saratoga may well be the most complete and reliable account of this ill-fated British campaign. She died March 29, 1808, in Berlin and was buried with her husband in a family grave in Lauterbach.

Frederika was clearly a resourceful, courageous, and admirable woman. Please share your thoughts about her and about the challenges of caring for 3 tiny children in the midst of a war zone. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d handle what she endured nearly as well!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, releases April 1, 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. Replies
    1. Melissa, Frederika was a wonder, that's for sure! Not to mention the little girls, who must have been pretty obedient and trusting to make it through all that without constantly dissolving into hysterics. I would have! lol!

  2. Oh my! I am not sure I could have done what she did, especially with small children along. Thank you for sharing Joan.

  3. What an amazing story of strength. And, I doubt she was used to doing all her own 'housekeeping', especially on the move with an army. What devotion. Thanks, Joan! wow!

  4. Frederika is one of my favorite ladies of the Revolution!! Love your rendition of her story. Thank you for featuring her!

  5. That's an amazing bit of history I had forgotten. Thank you for sharing.
    I could not have done what she did with children to care for as well.


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