With Little Less Than Savage Fury

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On April 22, 1775, three days after a British column marched out of Boston and clashed with militiamen at Lexington and Concord, the news—and the cry of Revolution!—reached Danbury, Connecticut, where 18-year-old Stephen Maples Jarvis was working on the family farm. Over the next several days, the young man would confront the hard, consequential choice between joining the rebel patriots or staying loyal to King George. He was not alone; all across the eastern seaboard, others were wrestling with the same dilemma.

American history textbooks don’t often discuss the internal confusion and acrimony that the outbreak of revolution set off in the British American colonies. Stephen Jarvis, his family, and his town would all become caught up in a civil war within the Revolutionary War. What had begun as political conflict between politicians called Whigs and their “Tory” opponents had evolved into a war with the peculiarly brutal qualities of fraternal conflict. The “patriots” taunted, then tarred and feathered, and finally, when war came, killed their Tory neighbors and kinfolk. Americans who called themselves Tories gave themselves a proud new name: loyalists, a label that had not been needed when all Americans were subjects of the king.

Not long after taking command of the Continental Army of the South, Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote in 1781 to Col. Alexander Hamilton: “The division among the people is much greater than I imagined and the Whigs and Tories persecute each other, with little less than savage fury. There is nothing but murders and devastation in every quarter.”

At that hard moment, the divided Jarvis family mirrored the parting of families and friends throughout the birthing nation. Our histories prefer to call the conflict the Revolutionary War, but many people who lived through it knew it as a terribly personal civil war.

“My father was one of those persons called Torries,” Jarvis begins his memoir, quickly veering from mention of “the first blood . . . at Lexington” to his courtship of a young woman, Amelia Glover. She was “disapproved of by my father,” and Stephen “was under the necessity of visiting the Lady only by stealth.”

With a teenager’s defiance, the young Jarvis declared that he would join the rebels’ Connecticut Militia. Enraged, his father promptly “took me by the arm and thrust me out of the door.” Jarvis would soon become one of 3,600 Connecticut men in service against the British. The militia that Stephen joined, originally formed to serve the king, was commanded by his mother’s brother, a rebel whose sons were also rebels. Stephen also had cousins on both sides. Amelia Glover’s sister was married to a loyalist who would be jailed under a Connecticut anti-Tory law. Later he would switch to the king’s side and kill fellow Americans as one of the Queen’s American Rangers.

The Revolution’s  civil war, so real to the families it sundered, would be almost forgotten in the nineteenth century when North and South came to a greater civil struggle. And perhaps thankfully lost in that particularly bloody conflict was the realization that it had happened before, when tens of thousands of Americans had chosen to fight on the side of the king. John Adams, answering a query about the Revolution, told the eminent geographer Jedidiah Morse that, from 1765 to 1775, the British government “formed and organized and drilled and disciplined a party in favor of Great Britain, and they seduced and deluded nearly one third of the people of the colonies.” In that letter, Adams went on to say that “many men of the first rank, station, property, education, influence, and power, who in 1765 had been real or pretended Americans, converted during the period to the real Britons.” Among them, he continued, were “my cordial, confidential, and bosom friends,” drawn away to the ranks of the Tories by offers of power and prestige.

Adams’s description of the effort to convert Americans to Britons covers only the decade before the war began. He did not speak to the Tories’ activities during the war itself. Nor did he mention the thousands of loyalists who joined the regiments formed to fight the Continental troops and state militiamen who deserted their regiments, not because they no longer wished to be soldiers but because they wanted to fight on the loyalist side. Neither did Adams see fit to number what George Washington called “half tories,” who secretly aided the patriots, usually as spies.

From the fight at Concord Bridge to the siege of Yorktown, patriot troops fought armed loyalists as well as the British and their mercenaries. By one tally, loyalists fought in 576 of the war’s 772 battles and skirmishes. Relatively few of these actions receive much mention in military chronicles, and few had an important effect on the war’s eventual outcome. But they did strengthen the solidarity of the loyalists: they were not merely opposing the Revolution; they were fighting and dying to crush it.

Stephen Jarvis was one of the few Tory soldiers who wrote about their war, acknowledging how he had killed patriots in battle. But he fought by a code of personal honor that raised him above the ordinary patriot–loyalist savagery. Once, when Tory soldiers mobbed a captive rebel and “came near taking off his scalp,” Jarvis drew his pistol and said, “If you touch the prisoner I’ll blow your brains out.”

Jarvis wrote of the tug of family and the summons of loyalty. One of his Tory cousins, who, like Stephen, joined the Queen’s American Rangers, saw the war as a crusade, believing that loyalists had earned “a crown of righteousness” for prevailing over “the devil and all his works” after fighting in “one of the blackest scenes of iniquity that ever was transacted.”