5:35am, October 5th, 1780
Sargent Wilhelm von Auchswiger sat alone on a large oak log next to a dying fire. He sharpened his Hirschfänger, a straight-bladed hunting dagger carried by almost all Jäger. He stared blankly into the fire without even looking at the razor-edged blade he ran his sharpening stone across. Though he was physically in the colonies, his mind was far away.
A schooner had arrived yesterday carrying provisions from Hesse-Kassel, and a post from home. His brother had written to inform him that last month his wife had passed from a sudden illness, and that his two sons would be coming to live with his brother until he returned from the battles in America. “Ox,” the letter said, “her love for you was professed until her last breath and your family were at her side when she passed, as many as could gather.”
As many as could gather.
He had arrived in America early as part of the first division of eight thousand Hessians from Hesse-Kassel in August of 1776, not far from here on Staten Island. He had been in many battles and taken many lives since that day. He was hailed as a hero in their first battle at Flatbush. He received two battlefield promotions since then. Those who knew him called him Ox, mostly as a shortening of his last name of Auchswiger but partly because of his size. Ox was a large man, easily towering over other men by six inches or more. His green and crimson uniform jacket had to be altered from two jackets to cover his massive frame. His commanders thought him to die early in battle since he was such a large target, yet here he was four years later. He enjoyed proving them wrong. He was amazingly agile for his size and intimidated his British counterparts not only with his size, but with his deft marksmanship and swordplay.
Shortly after he arrived, they were encamped outside a small hamlet with a tavern. When he walked in, he was immediately set upon by a British Sargent well in his cups with the declamation: “Damn you, Frenchie, you take our pay!” The surprised and outraged Ox replied in broken English and German: “I am a German and you are a shit!” This was followed by an impromptu duel with their hangers, in which the Englishman received a fatal wound from Ox’s favorite weapon, his Hirschfänger. He spent the next two weeks in the stockade until General Howe pardoned him, issuing an order that “the English should treat the Germans as brothers.” This order, however, only began to have influence only when, in his words, “our Germans, teachable as they are” had learned to “stammer a little English.” Apparently, this was a prerequisite for the English to show them any brotherly affections. Ox learned a few common phrases after that, but mostly kept silent and let his size speak for him. Earning a reputation on arrival caused the British soldiers to always give him a wide berth whenever they saw him coming.
In truth, he hated the English. Especially the higher-ranking officers. To Ox, they were cruel and greedy with little regard for lives or fortunes other than their own. He relied on his strong sense of duty and learned to get along best he could for the remainder of his conscription. After this news of his wife’s death had arrived, he hated them even more for keeping him here. He should have been home to care for her. He worked harder than anything ever in his life to win her heart and her hand from her father. Her mother had died from a pox after she was born and her father was overly protective of his only daughter. Julia was her name, and she loved him more than he could ever imagine was possible. She was young when they met, beautiful and full of life. She was also of fragile health and regularly needed special care. She had narrowly survived child birth both times, and had now succumbed to what the doctors were calling consumption.
He hated the Americans for fighting back so hard and keeping him here so long. He hated fighting a war that was not his own. After reading his brother’s letter, he hated everything. He had been here for four years. He wanted to go home.
His melancholy was interrupted by a familiar voice over his shoulder, Captain August von Wreden, the current korps commandant.
“I am truly sorrowed for your loss, Herr Auchswiger. We vill toast to your family’s vell-being when ve dine tonight.”
Ox said nothing but dipped his head in silent reply. Though he hated everything else at the moment, he did like Captain von Wreden. He was a capable officer and genuinely cared for his men. After a few silent moments, the captain spoke again.
“I have received a post of orders from New York concerning an assignment for you. I vould normally delay reply for you to grieve after such a loss you have suffered, however ze matter has urgency. Your presence is required in ze city. It appears a high-ranking American soldier has betrayed his bruzzers and now has a price on his head. General Clinton vould like to see zat his head remains on his shoulders for now, and you are tasked wiz zat unpleasant duty. You are to guard his life at all cost and ordered to depart at once. Ze ferry at Ducksberry Point even now avaits your arrival.”
After a moment, Ox stood, faced Captain von Wreden and saluted smartly. “Between us, I petitioned on your behalf to have zis order rescinded,” the captain said. “Ordered to protect ze life of a man who has betrayed his men and his country is not a just reward for your honorable service here Sargent. It is, however, part of our agreement wiz ze British and zus vill be done.” The captain had difficulty looking Ox in the eye giving him this news. He felt it was a dishonor to be ordered to preserve a traitor. “Zis vill be your last assignment in America, Ox. I have at ze least avvanged suitable quarters for you in New York. You vill have use of most of ze bottom floor of your charge’s new home and command of two ozzer Red Coats to help you perform zis duty. I expect ze comforts there vill far exceed vhat our current accommodations can offer. Take heart my friend. You have earned it beyond vhat any man here has done twice over. See zis through and you can go home to your sons. I give my personal vord as an officer. It has been an honor to command and serve wiz you Herr Auchswiger. Ve may never have ze pleasure to meet again. God speed.” He returned the salute and turned away to see to his other morning tasks. Ox turned back to the fire, still thinking of his wife. He lingered a few minutes more, then began packing for his final assignment in New York.
As the Captain reached his tent, he turned and looked back at Ox with admiration. He would later write about that morning in his war journal the following passage:
“Extended time in a state of battle readiness can alter a man for good or for ill depending on the character of the man. I have been witness to the most cowardly man become a lion in the face of the enemy and the bravest man freeze with fear at the simple sound of a musket. I have even seen a man mired in unspeakable grief perform his duty to the letter and only shed a single tear for himself. It is that man I wish to be. The man who can silently accept fate without respite…accept adversity with honor…the man who, under the worst of circumstances, can persevere and endure to the end.”