- 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
As Howe was marching on Philadelphia, hundreds of patriots fled the city, as did Congress, which sought safety first in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then in York. General Howe decided to spend the winter in the comfort of Philadelphia, the largest and wealthiest city in America and, like New York, a loyalist bastion. Washington led his starving, ragged army north to Valley Forge.
Philadelphians hailed the arrival of Howe’s army “by loudest acclamations of joy.” Tories picked out patriots still left in the city, and hundreds were imprisoned. Overnight, the pro-patriot Pennsylvania Evening Post became pro-loyalist. Quakers, whose religion condemned war and earned patriots’ distrust, felt more comfortable under British rule. Merchants believed that the British would bring stability to the city—and payments in gold rather than the near-worthless Continental currency. Young men, eager to join the winning side, signed up for the Queen’s American Rangers, which needed replacements after the Battle of Brandywine, and for three newly formed units: the Roman Catholic Volunteers, the Maryland Loyalists, and Pennsylvania Loyalists.
Philadelphia high society eagerly entertained the British officers. “Most elegantly am I dressed for a ball this evening,” wrote 18-year-old Rebecca Franks. “I spent Tuesday evening at Sir William Howe’s, where we had a concert and dance.” She was the daughter of a Tory who, after being a commissary agent for the Continental Army, switched to supplying the British Army. He and “market people,” as the American dealers were euphemistically known, included both committed Tories and apolitical war profiteers.
“I am amazed at the report you make of the quantity of provisions that goes daily into Philadelphia from the County of Bucks,” Washington wrote to a staff officer one freezing January day at Valley Forge in 1778. Neither his starving men nor patriot militias could stop the trafficking between Americans and their British customers. Tories kidnapped patriot leaders and pillaged neighbors’ homes. In one of many raids, loyalists killed five militiamen, took 32 prisoners, and destroyed a wool mill after taking 2,000 yards of cloth meant for patriot uniforms.
The Queen’s American Rangers attacked patriots trying to intercept the market people, killing at least 26 and plundering the militia camp. Some corpses bore not just the marks of bayonet wounds and cutlass slashes but terrible burns. Witnesses later said under oath that some militiamen had been killed after surrendering and that wounded men had been thrown onto a blazing stack of buckwheat straw.
Similarly vicious civil strife raged from New York to Georgia. Along the Canada–New York border, Tory and Indian raiders terrorized peaceful river settlements. In New Jersey, Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son William
unleashed his own guerrilla Tory army, and a loyalist officer ordered that all rebel houses be marked with an R so that Tories would know “who they were at liberty to annoy.” Rebel raiders in whaleboats struck Long Island’s Tory communities, marauding and kidnapping. In the South, a Continental Army officer reported that Tories and patriots were “killing and destroying each other wherever they meet . . . plundering one another” and committing “private murders.”
By September 1780 there was no large concentration of Continental Army troops anywhere in the South. Charleston and large areas of the Carolinas had fallen to the British. Georgia had become a royal colony again. With the coast conquered, redcoats and Hessians could press inland toward the untamed backcountry, leaving loyalist regiments in their wake to occupy territory cleared of rebels. The loyalists, taking over the backcountry, would aid in the reestablishment of royal governments and split off the South from the northern colonies.
British officers did not restrain their loyalist comrades. After a four-day battle near Augusta, for instance, a band of Tories took 13 prisoners and hanged them from the banister of a staircase. The hangings were ordered by Thomas “Burnfoot” Brown, a merciless Tory who led his mounted King’s Rangers on a personal war of vengeance. He got his nickname from patriot captors who fractured his skull, partially scalped him, tarred his legs, and held them over a fire long enough for him to lose two toes.
Patriots and loyalists had a word for that kind of war: intestine. Or, as North Carolina Governor Abner Nash more vividly described the land that suffered it, “a Country exposed to the misfortune of having a War within its Bowels.” In the South, intestine war continually raged inside the conventional war of strategy and maneuver being fought by the British and Continental armies. Intestine warfare was more than pitched; it fondly embraced cruelty, nighttime murders, and hangings without trial.
The Revolution’s epochal battle between patriots and Tories came on October 7, 1780, at Kings Mountain on the North Carolina–South Carolina border, when some 900 rebels annihilated a force of about 1,200 loyalists, all Americans but for the British officer who led them. The rebels took 698 prisoners and, for murky reasons of vengeance, held a campfire court martial that sentenced 36 of the captives to death. After nine were hanged—three at a time, from the limb of a great oak tree—officers stopped the lynching. On the march to prison, a survivor later wrote, an unknown number of captives, “worn out with fatigue, and not being able to keep up,” were “cut down and trodden to death in the mire.”