Amer­i­cans in the ser­vice of the king

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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