Americans in the service of the king
As a lad growing up near Danbury, Conn., Tom Allen heard local legends about the “Tories,” Americans who sided with the king in the American Revolution, but “I had not paid them much attention, believing that, as a small minority, they had not played a major role in the war.” Now Mr. Allen advances — and superbly documents — the conclusion that enough crown loyalists fought alongside British redcoats to warrant calling the conflict “America’s first civil war.” His task was not easy. He quotes Founding Father John Adams as lamenting that there would never have been a “good history” of the war because so many documents left the country with the Tories.
No matter to the energetic Mr. Allen, whose scope of research is truly staggering. He and his wife, Scottie, ferreted out obscure documents in libraries and archives in Canada and elsewhere. They found a story, related in vivid and very readable prose, that is at once enlightening and disturbing. In this war, friends-turnedenemies fought one another with primitive savagery in give-noquarter battles that ranged from New England into the Carolinas. The cruelties on both sides can only be described as appalling.
By Mr. Allen’s tally, loyalists fought alongside the British in 573 of the 772 battles and skirmishes of the war. But few of these encounters are mentioned in military histories, and “few had an important effect on the outcome of the Revolution.” These persons, Mr. Allen contends, “were not merely opposing the Revolution; they were fighting and dying to end it.” And although exact statistics are understandably sketchy, Mr. Allen deduces that between 441,000 and 565,080 persons (of a population of 2.5 to 2.7 million) remained loyal to the crown.
Once the war ended, about 80,000 Tories left America, chiefly for Canada, many becoming prosperous farmers or founders of mercantile dynasties. “Seldom had a people done so well by losing a war,” a Canadian historian noted.
Why did loyalists shun the rebels? John Adams complained that many “real or pretended Americans” were attracted to the ranks of the Tories “by offers of power and prestige.” Some joined regiments that the British mobilized; others fought as guerrillas. Still others had roles as what George Washington called “half tories,” who aided the British as spies. (The author of an earlier book, “George Washington: Spymaster,” Mr. Allen pays keen attention to the intelligence aspect of the war — for instance, the British “routinely put errors on copies of maps likely to fall into enemy hands.”)
The British, never squeamish when it comes to waging war, relied on Indians to supplement Tories on the fringes of the Colonies. An estimated one-third of the inhabitants of the New York frontier were killed or “carried off.” The Irish-born British commander in the West, Henry Hamilton, was known as the “Hair Buyer” because of the bounties he paid for scalps — 129 in one batch alone, 81 in another.
Contrary to what we would like to believe about the American Revolution, support for independence was spotty in broad swatches of the Colonies. While Washington’s army starved in subfreezing weather at Valley Forge, only a few miles distant, well-fed Philadelphians continued their lavish balls. Quakers, whose faith condemned war, “felt more comfortable under British rule.” Further, “Merchants, unenthusiastic about the conflict, believed that the British would bring stability to the city — and payments in gold rather than near-worthless Continental currency.”
The Eastern Shore of Maryland, along with Delaware, abounded with Tories, becoming “a Place which becomes the Reception of Deserters, escaping prisoners and most of the Disaffected who have been expelled from the neighboring states.” The rebel-controlled Maryland legislature passed a law defining Tories as traitors, subject to execution for treason. But, as Mr. Allen writes, “the coastal Tories were so powerful and well organized that they were not easily tamed.”
The British military offered land to any “of His Majesty’s faithful and well-disposed subjects” who signed up for two years of service or until the end of the war — 200 acres for an officer, 50 acres for each private. On the other side of the coin, the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, issued an edict that “every Militia Man who has borne Arms with us and afterward joined the Enemy shall be immediately hanged.” Such often occurred without the tiresome formality of a hearing, sometimes a dozen or so at a time.
In the Southern states, atrocities piled atop atrocities, with savagery on both sides. North Carolina Gov., Abner Nash, called the fighting an “intestine war,” where “a Country [was] exposed to the misfortune of having a War within its bowels.” Unique tortures supplemented the gallows. One captured Tory was “condemned to be spickered, that is, he was placed with one foot upon a sharp pin drove in a block, and was turned around [. . . ] until the pin run through his foot. Then he was turned loose.”
As Mr. Allen concludes his magisterial study, history soon healed the wounds of war. “Within a generation,” he writes, “Rebels would begin to forget — and forgive — the Tories. They would call the Revolution a war between Americans and the British, losing from their collective memory the fact that much of the fighting had been between Americans and Americans.”
With “Tories,” Thomas Allen vaults into the front ranks of his generation’s historians. He did the hard work that is essential to good nonfiction, and this is one that you should put on your Christmas want-list.
Joseph C. Goulden, a Washington writer, is the author of 18 nonfiction books.