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Letters from America

Letters from the American War of Independence

Report by Marburger UniJournal


Stored in an unimpressive cardboard box in a forgotten corner of the Gilsa manor in Northern Hesse, 140 letters from the American War of Independence waited for their rediscovery for over two centuries. Their addressee, the German nobleman and officer Georg Ernst von Gilsa, had to stay home due to a battlefield injury and showed a lively interest in the occurrences in Northern America. Letters by friends and family, who had joined the British army as officers accompanying the 20.000 mercenaries from Hesse, inspired him to write a comprehensive diary, in which he reflects widely the political events from 1754 to the 1790s.


The edition of the diary and the letters was the scope of a research project, which is expected to be intensely absorbed by American scholars and the public. The twelve letter writers report to “Dear Gilsa” directly from the battlefields and, unlike other sources, do not avoid personal comments and remarks on politics and military actions, but are characterized by a great intimateness. Valuable descriptions of customs and culture are also included. Interestingly enough, the young officers experience Northern America as a laboratory for new ideas on society: when at first looking down on the rebellious farmers fighting the British crown, they gradually get enthusiastic about the extraordinary dynamics of a young people and pay deference to the American nation coming into existence. The finding turns out to be an excellent source to exemplify vividly topics usually abstract like the self-perception of nobility and the concepts of nation and democracy.


The thrilling characteristic of these documents drawn from life is the fact that they cover the complete period of the American War of Independence seen through the eyes of direct witnesses. Therefore, the Gilsa letters also provide an unique contribution to the interpretation of the military as a social system as well as of the interrelations of military, society, economy and state. In combination with the diary kept by Gilsa, the letters possess an extraordinary historic value.

Contact: Christoph Kampmann,

Professor of History