The First American Civil War

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Sean Chick

On October 7, 1780, Britain’s attempt to regain at least part of the rebellious North American colonies was dealt a major blow at King’s Mountain. The rebels rejoiced, since it was their first major victory since 1777 and it came after the twin disasters at Charleston and Camden. Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, considered it the decisive battle of the war. Years later, Theodore Roosevelt echoed that sentiment. In 1930, when the site was set to become a national park, Herbert Hoover gave a speech. For the embattled president, it was an attempt to shore up his falling support and vindicate his strategy to peel southern states away from the Democratic Party. Hoover said “This is a place of inspiring memories. Here less than a thousand men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force entrenched in this strategic position. This small band of Patriots turned back a dangerous invasion well designed to separate and dismember the united Colonies.”

Hoover, understandably, never mentioned the atrocities committed. Many were executed after the battle. Nor did he mention that King’s Mountain was not a contest between redcoats and rebels, but brother against brother. The only British man present was Major Patrick Ferguson. His command was made up entirely of Loyalists. His second in command, Captain Abraham de Peyster, was from New York City.

Joseph Galloway
(courtesy of NYPL)

Few groups in American history are as forgotten as the Loyalists and few were as complex. They were a varied lot, often making up the highest in colonial society, including wealthy merchants and colonial officials. They often included the very lowest in the society, such as recent immigrants, slaves, indigenous, and subsistence farmers. Their ideology was in many ways not radically different from those who rebelled. They were generally not in favor of absolute monarchy or the supremacy of Parliament but simply favored union with Britain and slow reform. A few, such as Joseph Galloway, were part of early protests against British colonial policy, but were unwilling to jump into the chasm of revolution. Some, such as South Carolina merchant David Fanning, were merely aggrieved and sought to settle scores. Others were on the margins of society and saw the colonists, or at least the revolutionary colonial elite, as their real oppressors.

The Loyalists were at first spurned by the British high command. Major General William had over 30,000 men under his command in 1776 and Loyalists would have added to the logistical strain. He also thought a soft war policy that he hoped would induce the colonies to return, and therefore it was reasonable to avoid civil war. Yet, by 1777 the British were using some Loyalist regiments. They would fight in John Burgoyne’s ill-fated drive on Albany and served as rangers at Brandywine.

By 1778 the game was different. France was in the war and Spain was increasingly hostile. Heavy losses could not be quickly replaced. It was clear after a peace proposal was turned down, that the colonies were intent on separation; Howe had not won enough converts. So in 1778 Major General Henry Clinton, Howe’s replacement, began recruiting Loyalists. The Southern strategy was in part designed to fill Loyalist regiments. By 1781 these men made up nearly 40% of the British army in North America.

The British never quite trusted the Loyalists. Some of it was class; these were colonials after all, and a healthy dose were colonials of the lowest order. They usually had to serve under British officers, at least in overall command, although regimental officers were drawn from the colonies. Most served in garrisons or made raids. A select few, often rangers and dragoons, served with the field armies. Regardless, as the war went on more and more of them saw heavy combat, such as at Cowpens, Hobkirk’s Hill, and Eutaw Springs.

The contests between Loyalists and rebels were often noted for ferocity. Loyalists were often men out to settle a score, and the rebels were all too keen to meet them halfway. At King’s Mountain many Loyalists were executed in the aftermath. Joseph “Quaker Meadows” McDowell hanged Loyalists without a hood so he could watch their faces contort. The words “Lynch’s Law” and “Lynching” were coined during the war and referred to the execution of Loyalists. John Pyle’s Loyalist militia was surprised at Haw River, and a large portion were massacred. The Loyalists in the north burned and looted liberally. Much of the rebel garrison at Fort Griswold was murdered after they surrendered.

Death of Ferguson
by Alonzo Chappel

This first Civil War was itself forgotten after the American Revolution. Partially it was because the Loyalists were used only later in the war, a phase often forgotten in America’s memory of the fighting. One reason was the Civil War of 1861-1865, which led historians to diminish the non-Virginia Southern contributions to the nation’s founding. The fighting was also more savage in the later years and there was the dirty secret that after 1776, the rebel armies had a hard time recruiting soldiers. Concord, where the militia turned back the British in 1775, had by 1781 all but stopped sending soldiers to George Washington’s army. This mass disaffection led both Washington and John Adams to conclude that, without a victory in 1781, the cause of independence was lost. Washington was even planning a risky and desperate attack on New York City when the opportunity at Yorktown presented itself. The result was the average American history textbook would go from Saratoga and the French alliance straight to Yorktown. The battles fought with the Loyalists were pushed to the side.

The Loyalists were also an uncomfortable part of history. What patriotic lesson could be learned by massacres or that many Loyalists had legitimate grievances? Many were neutral when the war started, but were pushed into fighting, particularly when local governments punished those who would not overtly support the revolution in its early days. Such punishment often came in the form of confiscation. The amount of Loyalist property seized and redistributed was arguably the largest project of its kind in American history, and certainly represented an until then unheard of transfer of wealth. Slaves and indigenous could hardly prosper from an American victory. To be fair, the first push of emancipation came in the north in the wake of revolution, but in the South such reforms while not unspoken, were a minority viewpoint. The best hope a slave south of the Philadelphia had was some service with the British. The natives clearly had nothing to gain, for it was the settlers pushing west who were their worst foe.

After the war, many Loyalists fled, some 100,000 leaving, or some 3-4% of the population. This still represents the largest mass migration out of America by percentage. Many went to Britain and others to Canada, where they and their ancestors helped defeat America’s many invasions of Canada in the War of 1812.

The Loyalists who stayed behind suffered some, but by 1800 there was a reconciliation, at least on the local level. A few Loyalists attained some distinction in government and commerce, although never on the national level. Partially it was the need to forget old wounds, partially it was a desire to secure votes in the hyper-partisan atmosphere. Yet, in time their role in the American Revolution was forgotten. They were an embarrassment of sorts. The slaves and natives spoke to the darker aspects of American history, aspects not confronted until the 1960s, a reckoning that continues to this day, and one for which there is seemingly no atonement. The white Loyalists showed that America was hardly the classless society of myth and that not every American agreed with Washington and Adams. Many were willing to fight and kill their neighbors, and those battles were bitter. Mutual atrocities were common.

Americans preferred the myth of a virtuous citizenry united against British tyranny, and able to mow down idiotic Brits in bright-red uniforms while hiding behind trees. In time, we forgot the crushing defeats of Long Island, Camden, and a score of other battles. We even forgot that France provided the gunpowder and money that fueled the war and that it was they who won Yorktown. In light of these conveniences, is it any wonder we forgot the Loyalists?

One thought on “The First American Civil War

  1. Mike Maxwell

    Thanks for providing this excellent post. I had never heard of the Battle of Kings Mountain; and Loyalists (Tories) were only mentioned briefly during my Rock Island County public school History education… equated with Benedict Arnold… and then relegated to “returned to England” or “fled to the British Canadian territories to the north.” Obviously a difficult topic for school teachers: “How could Americans NOT be supportive of the Revolution?” Your use of the term, “embarrassment,” is apt.
    And as for “care and treatment of enemy prisoners” …still an evolving concern to this day, 230 years later.


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