History Wars Revolutionary War

Thousands of Russian troops almost fought the American Revolution

Thousands of Russian troops almost fought the American Revolution in 1780, but the British approached the Hessians for spare troops instead.
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russian troops

"Advancement of the Promyshlenniki to the East" by V.G. Vagner (1880-1942), based upon the sketch by Dmitry Karatanov (1874-1952). From the collection of the Krasnoyarsk Kray Museum.

When the American colonies declared themselves independent from Great Britain, the British monarchy decided it needed a little more muscle than it had on hand to put down the American Revolution. At the time, a small part of the Holy Roman Empire called Hesse-Kassel (in modern-day Germany) was lending its troops to the highest bidder.

In 1776, that bidder was England’s King George III. He hired 30,000 Hessian troops to help the redcoats subdue the unruly colonists. Had it not been for Catherine the Great’s suspicion that Britain and Russia would soon be rivals, George Washington might have crossed the Delaware to kill Russians in their sleep that Christmas instead. 

Catherine the Great was known to violently squash any attempts to overthrow her monarchy, and her support to other monarchs fighting insurgencies against monarchies was famous. King George III, having just supported Catherine in ending her own rebellions. Moreover, Russia was coming away from a huge victory over the Ottoman Empire and had a huge number of veteran troops to spare. 

King George, despite the size of Britain’s large empire, didn’t have a large land force. It relied on its navy and the troops aboard its ships to respond effectively to uprisings and rebellions. For the most part, its system worked well until the American colonies decided to rebel against the crown. George needed a lot of troops trained, equipped,and ready to move. He wanted Catherine’s veterans.

catherine the great russian troops in american revolution
Portrait of Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796). (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

Britain and Russia enjoyed warm relations at the time. King George supported Catherine in Russia’s war against Ottoman Turkey and hoped she would repay that support in North America. In 1775, British diplomats began pressing the Russians for that support, which saw some initial success.

His first ask was for 20,000 seasoned, disciplined Russian infantry, fully equipped and ready to dispatch to North America as soon as the Baltic Sea ice melted enough to make the passage West. They would make their way to Canada where they would be placed under the command of British generals. 

But Catherine didn’t see the rebellion in America as a threat to King George’s monarchical authority. When Russians rebelled against Catherine, they were denying the monarch’s right to rule. In her view, the colonists didn’t want to unseat King George at all, and were no threat to the monarchy in Britain. 

Moreover, though Anglo-Russian relations were cordial at the time, Catherine saw Britain as a future rival and wanted to see the British grow weak from a prolonged war far from home. She thought bleeding Britain to fight a colonial war would be good for Russia and she didn’t want Russians dying for a British possession. 

Catherine informed King George that the Russian military and the country itself needed time to heal from its previous wars before starting a new expedition and that she no longer had the troops to spare. George would have to find his muscle elsewhere. In fact, throughout the Revolutionary War, the British approached Catherine on a few occasions to ask for reinforcements. Each time, Catherine found an excuse not to give them.

Thousands of Russian troops almost fought the American Revolution in 1780. Russia issued a declaration of armed neutrality with the fledgling colonial rebels, which allowed the Americans to conduct trade with Russia. Britain was incensed, but there was nothing they could really do about it, so they approached the Hessians for spare troops instead.