Thomas B. Allen’s Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War
The American Revolutionary War era is a subject on which I have done a fairly extensive amount of reading. In accounts of this period, there is, often in the background, the ubiquitous presence of those Americans who sided with Great Britain. Existence and effects of these Loyalists often appear in various histories, biographies and analyses. Anyone one who has read or engaged in studies of the American Revolutionary period would have encountered information about this group. Their influence was pervasive in America during that time. However, this is one of the few works available that is solely dedicated to their impact and experiences.
As Allen and others have pointed out, it is difficult to ascertain just what percentage of the American population were Tories. First, there were many shades to political belief on both sides, ranging from the neutral to the generally sympathetic to those who were actually willing to take up arms. Second, there was no census or poll taken at that time. The best we have to go on are statistical estimates and educated guesses. The evidence does suggest that the percentage of Americans who opposed rebellion was both fluid and significant.
Allen examines the political, social and military experiences of individuals and families, as well as of geographical and ethnic groupings of Loyalists in great detail. Certain patterns emerged.
In the more populous areas, Loyalists, except in territory occupied by the British, were generally outnumbered and less organized than Rebel groups. Thus, they were persecuted, sometimes economically and socially, and often violently. In areas controlled by the British, the opposite occurred, with Tories being the persecutors and the Rebels becoming the persecuted. Loyalists inevitably fled their homes for British controlled areas or to locations outside of the American colonies altogether. Many males joined Loyalist military units that fought independently or alongside regular British forces. Tories also opposed the Rebel cause in ways as diverse as spying, supplying the British and even counterfeiting continental currency in an effort to damage the American economy.
In the backcountry, ranging from northern New York state down through the Western areas of all the colonies, as well as in “neutral territory” areas between the opposing armies, a nasty, brutal civil war raged between Rebels, Loyalists and Native Americans. These native people often, but not always, sided with the Loyalists. This side of the conflict usually took the form of raiding small settlements and farms belonging to both colonists and Native Americans. Executions, torture, rape and pillaging were characteristic. All sides commonly committed atrocities. Numerous horrific incidents are chronicled in this book. This work will surprise anyone who believes that horrendous crimes against civilians in wartime only began in the twentieth century.
Intestine warfare was more than battles. There was cruelty, there were murders in the night, and there were hangings without trial.
One example, not atypical, involving Native Americans is described,
“in March 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen swooped down on the missionary village of Gnadenhutten. The Delaware Indians there, converted to Christianity, were suspected of being Loyalists. The militiamen rounded up the unarmed Indians and killed sixty-two adults and thirty-four children by smashing their skulls with mallets. Two boys escaped and spread word of the massacre. In an act of vengeance three months later, Delaware braves tortured a captive militia officer who had nothing to do with the raid and then burned him at the stake.”
Geographically, ethnic experiences varied. The British occupied New York City for most of the war. Thus, it became a Loyalist haven. The British promised African American slaves freedom if they defected to the Loyalist side. Many did so and served in African American Loyalist military units.
As the title of the book indicates, one of Allen’s main points was that the conflict between these different groups of Americans was a civil war. He writes,
Our histories prefer to call the conflict the Revolutionary War, but many people who lived through it called it civil war. Americans who called themselves Patriots taunted, then tarred and feathered, and, finally, when war came, killed American Tories.
Allen not only makes a convincing case for his contention, but it is consistent with my knowledge of the era. Tories and Rebels fought each other throughout the colonies. Communities and families were divided. Allen details the nearly constant and numerous battles and skirmishes, some large, some small, some famous and some not so famous, where the two sides violently clashed.
One somewhat glaring omission in this work is the puzzling lack of information regarding the motivations as to why some choose the Tory side over the Rebel side. While the motivations of certain specific groups, such as the African American slaves, are examined, few words are spent on the reasons why many of the wealthier families, whose experiences are otherwise covered in detail, chose the Loyalist side. In addition, I find that while Allen’s writing style is occasionally eloquent, it is sometimes sloppy and workman like. These are unfortunate shortcomings in an otherwise recommended work.
I must add that this book is really for folks with a basic to moderate understanding of the history, society and major issues surrounding the American Revolutionary War era. It is a vital piece of the puzzle that comprises the history of that time. As just one part of the story, however, readers who have little knowledge of the event will likely be somewhat of a loss to follow the intricacies involved.
Despite its flaws this is a must read for those interested in the American Revolutionary Era. It covers what is an essential, but under-appreciated, aspect of this historical event. It is comprehensive and enlightening. History buffs will find it engaging and entertaining, but also disturbing in parts. This is a worthy tome that tells a very important story.