America’s first civil war took place during the Revolution, an ultra violent, family-splitting, and often vindictive conflict between patriots and loyalists
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.”
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.”
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.”
To Tories everywhere, Kings Mountain sounded a call to reality. All the combatants except Col. Patrick Ferguson had been American, and those who chose to fight for King George III had chosen the wrong side. To the British, as Gen. Sir Henry Clinton said, this disaster was “the first link of a chain of evils” that, a little more than a year later, would lead to Yorktown, Virginia, where the last link would be forged.
Under the terms of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Tory troops were treated as turncoat Americans rather than prisoners of war. And the treaty that ended the war allowed the states to enforce their laws sanctioning the confiscation of loyalists’ property. Branded as traitors and denied their homes and farms, tens of thousands of Tories felt they had no choice but to obey the taunting jingle they so often heard: “Tories with their brats and wives / Should fly to save their wretched lives.”
Nevertheless Stephen Jarvis, after seven years as a Tory soldier, decided that he would return to his hometown. In May 1783, a month after the war ended, he arrived in Danbury—wearing the green uniform of a Queen’s Ranger. Stephen and Amelia immediately began planning a church wedding, oblivious to the fact that the overwhelmingly Tory Anglican clergymen of New England had long since closed their churches and disappeared.
A mob suddenly gathered at the house and warned Stephen to leave town before nightfall. The couple found a clergyman and were married that night in Stephen’s father’s home. The next morning the local sheriff burst into the bridal bedchamber with a warrant for Stephen’s arrest. “I met him with such a determined and threatening attitude that in his retreat he tumbled from the head of the staircase to the bottom,” Stephen recalled. “He then selected a posse—and surrounded the house.”
Stephen went to the window, threw down a dollar, and asked them to “get something to drink the Bride’s health . . . and before they had finished the bottle I had won them all to my side.” But another mob soon appeared. Stephen changed to civilian clothes, slipped out of the house, and later joined Amelia, who had found refuge with a friend.
While Stephen and Amelia were contemplating their next step, other Tories were gathering in New York for what would be America’s largest migration out of the new Republic. To loyalists willing to go, British officials offered land and a future in the vast wilderness of Nova Scotia. Recruiters promised each family 200 acres, cloth to make into warm clothing, a year’s worth of provisions, and a house—in the form of planks, nails, and even window glass—all waiting for them in the chilly Maritimes. Along with those supplies would come an iron plow and other farm tools.
Families were assigned to Royal Navy transport ships and, in April 1783, the first 20 vessels left New York carrying 3,000 loyalist men, women, and children. When a ship arrived in Nova Scotia, scouts went ashore and searched for places where homes could be hacked out of the forest.
A week later, the passengers would disembark and head for assigned sites. That was basically the system used for the entire evacuation, which lasted until November.
No one knows how many Tories renounced their homeland. By some counts, about 80,000 fled—proportionally, six times the number of people who escaped from France during the French Revolution. A larger estimate came from a Tory historian who wrote that “not less than 100,000 souls” left New York City. Most exiles chose Canada and transformed a wilderness into a nation.
One of the new Canadians was Sarah Frost, daughter of a Stamford patriot and wife of a Tory privateer. When she climbed to the top of a desolate hill to watch the ship that had brought her disappear over the horizon, “such a feeling of loneliness came over me that, though I had not shed a tear through all the war, I sat down on the damp moss with my baby on my lap and cried bitterly.”
Stephen and Amelia Jarvis lingered in their hostile homeland, where their daughter Betsey was born in 1784. Another attack by diehard patriots finally convinced them to leave, and in the spring of 1785 they headed for Canada. Their ship sailed up the Bay of Fundy to the mouth of the St. John River and upstream, where they began their long Canadian lives in a settlement newly named Fredericton in honor of Prince Frederick, second son of the man to whom they had been so loyal, King George III. The British authorities permitted, indeed encouraged, the new settlers to affix the initials UEL—United Empire Loyalists—to their names in documents.
The loyalists added a complicating dimension to the Revolutionary War, transforming it into a conflict between Americans as well as a struggle for independence. Patrick Fitzgerald, a historian of Irish migration, wrote that “Every country has a Grand Story, and there are always stories under the grand story.” Loyalists lived and died in our grand story’s margins, fighting to keep America under the sovereignty of a rather strange gentleman at Windsor whom they had never met. But they were nonetheless truly American, introducing the nation’s first generation of politicians to a troublesome truth that would endure: woven into the tapestry to be known as “We the People,” there would always be strands of a defiant, passionate minority.