- Historic Sites
With Little Less Than Savage Fury
America’s first civil war took place during the Revolution, an ultra violent, family-splitting, and often vindictive conflict between patriots and loyalists
Fall 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 3
Jarvis’s account of his seven years of soldiering was not published until 1907, after his manuscript was snatched from a rubbish barrel. Even then, the document was described as “An American’s Experience in the British Army” rather than in a Tory regiment, one of more than 200 loyalist military units formed during the Revolution.
In Stamford, about 30 miles southwest of Danbury, Stephen Jarvis’s uncle Samuel was the town clerk. Soon after Lexington and Concord, the patriots’ Committee of Inspection summoned Samuel, interrogated him about his beliefs, and condemned him as a Tory “inimical to the Liberty of America.” The committee also found Samuel’s son Munson guilty of “signing a seditious paper, the import of which was that they would assist the King and his vile minions in their wicked, oppressive schemes to enslave the American Colonies; and tending to discourage any military preparations to repel the hostile measures of a corrupt Administration . . .”
Samuel and Munson, suddenly aliens in their hometown, began scheming to escape. In the early fall of 1776 they looked longingly across Long Island Sound to the low-lying land where the British flag had flown since the British had driven the Continental Army out of New York. As Samuel Jarvis told the story, he and his wife and four children escaped by boat to Long Island. According to the patriots’ version, a mob broke into the Jarvis home late one night, stripped every Jarvis naked, and dumped them all into a boat. Some of the patriots then sailed them across the sound and forced them to wade ashore to their new friends.
Soon after Samuel and Munson arrived in Long Island, Samuel became a captain in the Prince of Wales’s American Regiment and recruited his son and about 30 other Connecticut Tories. Later in the war the unit would become part of a force that attacked Danbury, destroying stockpiles of Continental Army supplies and burning down rebel houses pointed out by local Tories.
Meanwhile, having experienced a change of heart, Stephen Jarvis soon deserted the rebel militia. After eluding patriots with the aid of the underground, he rowed across Long Island Sound with other young Tories. He traveled then to New York City and eventually ended up in the elite Queen’s American Rangers, whose uniforms were green, a favorite color of Tory regiments.
The rangers had evolved from loyalists who, in the early days of the Revolution, saw themselves merely as auxiliary soldiers. Some served as scouts during the British march to Concord; others patrolled the streets of British-occupied Boston. Soon after Concord, a Massachusetts Tory who had been a brigadier general in the French and
Indian War formed the Loyal American Association, whose members pledged “with our lives and fortunes” to “stand by and assist each other in the defence of life, liberty and property, whenever the same shall be attacked or endangered by any bodies of men, riotously assembled.”
Militant loyalist organizations such as the association were rare. While the rebels’ Sons of Liberty were sparking sedition in every colony, loyalists did not rise in united opposition. As proud subjects of the king, they put their faith in the might of the British Empire at first and welcomed the arrival of British troops sent to unruly Boston. When those troops evacuated Boston in March 1776, about 1,300 Tories went with them, abandoning their homes to sail with their protectors to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Hundreds of others had already sailed to what would prove to be permanent exile in England.
After independence was declared in July 1776, loyalists began fighting instead of fleeing, and civil war began in earnest. In their own “Declaration of Dependency,” loyalists denounced independence, proclaiming that their prosperity and happiness stemmed from support of “the Constitutional Supremacy of Great Britain over the Colonies.”
The Declaration of Independence was about to be signed in Philadelphia when Gen. Sir William Howe landed on Staten Island to begin his conquest of New York City. Tories joined the invasion, tying red rags to their hats to distinguish themselves from rebels. Some “red rag men” became informers, pointing out real or suspected rebels and targeting their homes for looting. The red rag men were also prime recruits for the loyalist regiments being raised in British-occupied areas.
By the time Howe set forth against Philadelphia in August 1777, some 4,000 Tory troops had been recruited in New York, and loyalist forces were routinely fighting alongside British regiments. Howe sailed from the loyal city of New York knowing he would arrive at a loyal shore, Head of Elk on the Chesapeake Bay.
Tory spies informed Howe that Washington was planning to block the invaders at Brandywine Creek, about 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Among the Tory soldiers marching to the Brandywine was Stephen Jarvis. “We came in sight of the enemy at sunrise,” he wrote. “The first discharge of the enemy killed the horse of Major Grymes who was leading the column, and wounded two men in the Division directly in my front, and in a few moments the Regiment became warmly engaged and several of our officers were badly wounded.” (Maj. John Randolph Grymes was a descendant of one of the First Families of Virginia.)
The rangers crossed the creek—“water took us up to our breasts, and was much stained with blood”—and fought until darkness came and the rebels withdrew. “In this day’s hard fought action,” Jarvis wrote, “the Queen’s Rangers’ loss in killed and wounded were seventy-five out of two hundred fifty rank and file which composed our strength in the morning.”