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Brunswickjager.org » Blog Archive » From Dancing Master to Combat Commander: The Story of Lieutenant Wilhelm von Van Den Velden
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By Justin Boggess (please do NOT reproduce without either asking permission first or giving credit where credit is due)

Born in 1753 to Isaac and Marie von Van Den Velden in the principality of Hesse Kassel, little Wilhelm would eventually grow to serve his Prince and serve the fledgling Provincial government of Canada.  Little is known of his early life, but Velden eventually made his way to the city of Frankfurt in the principality of Hesse Hanau.  There, he would embark in 1777 on a journey that would take him to the other side of the world and change his life and fortunes forever.

The English Crown recognized soon after the battle of Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill) in 1775 that they needed additional manpower to quell the rebellion in the American colonies.  In early 1777, the English signed a treaty with the Hereditary Prince of Hesse Kassel, Wilhelm IX of Hesse Hanau, that placed the Prince’s Corps of Jagers in the paid service of the English Crown.  Hesse Hanau was to provide up to five companies of rifle armed Jagers for service in Canada.  On 1 March 1777, at the age of 24, Velden received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Jager Corps.  Due to his organizational and language skills, Lt. Colonel Carl Adolph Christoph von Creuzbourg selected the young Lt. Velden as his adjutant.

Lt. Velden had many responsibilities as adjutant.  One such responsibility was to negotiate passage through the various city-states and principalities through which the Jager Corps would have to pass to get to the coast at Nijmegen.  The negotiations were very important as customs duties, inspections, or worse, denial of passage could have caused serious problems for the Jager Corps.  One such issue arose when customs officials for the city of Coblenz stopped the Jager Corps flotilla for a request to search the ships for dutiable items and alleged deserters from Coblenz.  Velden used his diplomatic skills to negotiate passage without search at the expense of a lengthy delay.

Upon arrival in Canada in early June of 1777, Creuzbourg entrusted Velden with leading an investigation into an incident of alleged mutiny involving Brunswick Jagers that occurred earlier in May.  During this investigation, Velden impressed Creuzbourg.  In September of the same year, Creuzbourg requested that the Prince promote Velden to 1st Lieutenant.  In a letter to the Prince, Creuzbourg wrote that “…he [Velden] is most worthy of recommendation, the more so since his talents show promise to employ him in the future in different capacities.”  However, events would transpire that would indeed be a true test of Velden’s capabilities.

Trans-Atlantic communication in the 18th century was lengthy and unpredictable at best.  The problems were magnified in times of war, especially when letters were sent to principalities deep inside ‘Germany’.  Whether or not the Prince ever received Creuzbourg’s recommendation will likely never be determined.  Velden understood all too well that his Prince may never receive Creuzbourg’s request for a promotion.  In July of 1778, Velden began discussions with several merchants in the Quebec area.  Many German soldiers sought their riches in Canada after the war, and Velden was no exception so he requested an honorable discharge from Creuzbourg.  However, what made the situation with Velden unique was, at least according to his commanding officer, that Velden’s urge to make his riches impeded his work as adjutant.  Other officers in the Corps attempted to talk Velden out of his request by arguing that to request an honorable discharge on the grounds that getting rich “…was dishonorable.”  However, Velden persisted in his request.

Lt. Velden’s Life Changed forever on 1 June 1779.  While waiting for official approval of his discharge request from the Prince, Velden maintained his position as Adjutant.  One hot afternoon, Velden assisted Creuzbourg with the changing of the guard in garrison.  Velden appeared before the parade wearing stockings and a striped necktie in direct contravention of an order issued earlier prohibiting such items from being worn.  Always a stickler for following orders and proper military procedure, Creuzbourg promptly went ballistic.  Later, in a letter to the Prince, Creuzbourg wrote that “I [Creuzbourg] dismissed him [Velden] from the parade with the strict orders to change his dress immediately and in the future, to be ashamed to appear before a fully armed troop of soldiers in shoes and socks looking like a dancing master.”

To be called a “dancing master” in front of the men, especially in the 18th century (much less in today’s Army), was like a slap in the face that insulted and disheartened Velden.  Later the same night, Velden barged in on Creuzbourg’s private quarters, and in front of dinner guests, demanded that the Colonel apologize for insulting him in front of the men.  Creuzbourg promptly placed Velden under house arrest for eight days, and as punishment for his disobedience had him removed from his prestigious post as Adjutant.  Within days, Creuzbourg quickly transferred Velden to the company of Captain Count Charles Louis de Wittgenstein where he would serve as a field Lieutenant.  Unknown to both men, Velden would lead men in intense combat in one year time.

A portion of Captain Wittgenstein’s Company had for some time been on duty at Carleton Island helping to garrison Fort Haldimand.  As part of a rotation, in July of 1780, Lt. Velden was sent to replace Wittgenstein’s command with a section of 50 Jagers drawn from multiple companies.  Little did Velden know, plans were already being made for two simultaneous expeditions into the Mohawk Valley set to occur in the Fall of 1780.  Lt Colonel Sir John Johnson of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York was slated to lead one of the expeditions set to depart from Carleton Island.  Upon his arrival at Fort Haldimand, Velden found himself in command of a section of 25 Jagers to be sent on the raid with Sir John Johnson.  At first a “dancing master”, Velden was about to lead Jagers in their deadliest engagement of the American Revolution.

Lt. Velden’s Jager detachment was part of a larger force of just under 1,000 men consisting of British regular infantry, Loyalists, and Indians.  This little army was to push into the Mohawk Valley and burn everything it encountered while avoiding major contact with Rebel militia and levies.  Velden had his work cut out for him as some of the Hanau Jagers were noted for being unaccustomed to long campaigns in the wilderness.  It would be up to Velden to motivate his men as the campaign they were about to embark upon would demand of them not only physical strength, but mental strength as well to operate deep inside enemy territory far from supplies, and against overwhelming odds.

The Raid Was Progressing Well in the brisk October days of 1780.  The expedition had met some opposition, fighting battles at Stone Arabia and Schoharie, but it was cutting a wide swath of destruction throughout the Mohawk Valley.  Thus far, the Jagers had served well.  However, the luck of the expedition would soon run out as Rebel militia and levies soon cornered Johnson as he was attempting to cross the Mohawk River at Klock’s Field on 20 October.  Johnson turned on his pursuers with only about 620 men.  He anchored his right on the river while he posted British regular companies in his center.  Johnson sent Velden with his 25 Jagers and men from Brant’s Volunteers to hold the left flank that was ‘up in the air’.  Velden probably dispersed his Jagers among Brant’s men as they moved into position among Klock’s farm buildings and apple orchard.

The Rebel commander sent two Militia regiments against Johnson’s left while hitting his center and right.  The Jagers and Brant’s Volunteers were under intense pressure.  Smoke from burning buildings nearby and the falling dusk helped to cut the range for the rifles the Jagers carried, and thus negated any advantage they had.  Numbers began to tell quickly, and soon the Rebels pushed the Jagers and Brants off of the high ground on Johnson’s left.  However, the smoke and dusk eventually worked to Johnson’s advantage as he was able to disengage from the Rebels and cross the Mohawk to leave the Rebels behind.

The Battle of Klock’s Field that smokey evening in October would become the deadliest engagement for the Hesse Hanau Jager Corps.  A total of five men were killed in the battle (with an unknown of walking wounded), or 20% of the Jager detachment.  Velden survived the battle unharmed and led the remaining Jagers during Johnson’s withdrawal to Canada.

Velden returned to Carleton Island to resume command of the Jager garrison at Fort Haldimand.  Unknown to Velden, while on campaign, news arrived to Creuzbourg that the Prince granted his request for an honorable discharge.  However, due to fears of a Franco-American invasion of Canada, Governor General Haldimand refused to have the Jager detachment at Carleton Island relieved, and Creuzbourg (perhaps still fuming at Velden), refused to push the issue and send a replacement for Velden.  One can only imagine how disheartened Velden must have felt.

The news that Velden was waiting for would eventually arrive in November of 1782.  By this time, Velden was on post for almost three years after he first requested his discharge.  Lt. Velden turned over command of the Jager detachment at Carleton Island probably to Corporal Einfeld of Major von Francken’s Company, and then proceeded to Quebec City to enter a new chapter in his life.

Upon his discharge, Velden settled in Quebec City and eventually opened a private surveyor’s office in 1783.  He also served as a teacher in mathematics and French.  In 1793, Velden expanded his surveyor business to include contracts with the Provincial government.  He also worked with a private merchantman to open a printing firm that ran a periodical titled The Times that ran until 1795.  In 1795, the Provincial Government appointed Velden as Surveyor General where Velden worked to prepare the first topographical map of Lower Canada.  Velden even became involved in politics, winning a seat in the House of Assembly from 1800-1804.  In 1801, Velden found love and married a Quebec woman named Marie-Suzzane Voyer.

However, Velden’s luck would run out.  On 20 June 1809, Wilhelm von Van Den Velden died tragically in a freak carriage accident at the age of 56.  Velden’s dream of fortune did come true however, as he left his wife and son with over 56,000 acres of land and substantial wealth and prestige.

Sources Used:

Primary:
Anonymous, Roster of the Hesse Hanau Jager Corps 1779.  British Public Library, Q Series V162, MG11

Creuzbourg, Carl Adolph Christoph.  Narration of the Hesse Hanau Jager Corps in America.  Translated by John C. Zuleger.  Morristown National Historical Park, NJ.  Series “O”.

————-.  Orders of the Field Jager Corps from May 7, 1777 to April 30, 1783.  Translated by Virginia Rinaldy.  Morristown National Historical Park, NJ.  Series “Q”.

Secondary:

Burgoyne, Bruce.  Notes From the British Museum.  Bowie MD:  Heritage Press, 2004.

Watt, Gavin K.  The British Campaign of 1777.  Bowmanville:  Mothersill Printing, 1988.

—————–.  The Burning of the Valleys:  Daring Raids From Canada.  Toronto:  Dundurn Press, 1997.

Wilhelmy, Jean Pierre.  German Mercenaries in Canada.  Quebec:  Maison Des Mots, 1985.

Internet:

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, s.v. “Vondenvelden, William” (by John E Hare), http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBioPrintable.asp?BioID=36823 (accessed 3 February 2007).

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