- 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
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.