The Forgotten History of the Brutal, Internecine Battles of the American Revolution
H.W. Brands on America’s First Civil War
The fighting had been vicious in the Carolinas since the start of the war. And it was the more vicious for pitting not American against Briton, nor even American against Hessian, but American against American. John Adams would say that the American Revolution was in the “minds and hearts” of the American people before it produced the armed struggle between the United States and Britain; what Adams neglected to mention was the degree to which those minds and hearts were at odds, one American against another. In every colony, and then every state, were thousands of men and women who wanted nothing to do with independence.
They valued the freedom and security they had enjoyed under British rule, and they resented the rebel Patriots for bringing on the war. These Loyalists cast their lot with their mother country; the result was the shattering of trust among neighbors, the rending of families, and murderous conflict like that convulsing the Carolina backcountry.
There, in the Waxhaws region on the border of North and South Carolina in the summer of 1780, a column of Loyalists led by a British lieutenant colonel named Banastre Tarleton gave chase to a Patriot force commanded by Abraham Buford. Tarleton and the Loyalists soon caught Buford and the Patriots, and Tarleton demanded the surrender of Buford’s force. He claimed more men than he possessed, hoping to frighten the untested recruits who formed a large part of the Patriot contingent. The ruse failed; Buford rejected the demand, and fighting commenced.
It went badly for the Patriots. Tarleton’s cavalry ripped through the lines of Buford’s infantry, and Buford quickly reconsidered his defiance. He sent a truce flag to Tarleton, but the message to cease fire didn’t reach all of Buford’s own men, and firing from their side persisted. Tarleton’s horse was killed, and Tarleton was pinned beneath it. His Loyalist troops, watching him fall, thought he had been killed and blamed the Patriots for faking a truce. They responded with what Tarleton called “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.”
The Patriots called it a massacre. Robert Brownfield, a surgeon’s aide with Buford, afterward wrote that the Patriots, seeing the Loyalists resuming the fight, attempted to put themselves in a defensive position. “But before this was fully effected,” Brownfield said, “Tarleton with his cruel myrmidons was in the midst of them, when commenced a scene of indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages. The demand for quarters, seldom refused to a vanquished foe, was at once found to be in vain. Not a man was spared. And it was the concurrent testimony of all the survivors that for fifteen minutes after every man was prostrate, they went over the ground plunging their bayonets into every one that exhibited any signs of life. And in some instances, where several had fallen one over the other, these monsters were seen to throw off on the point of the bayonet the uppermost, to come at those beneath.”The savagery of the Loyalists was summarized by their treatment of one Patriot.
The savagery of the Loyalists was summarized by their treatment of one Patriot, a man named Stokes, who barely lived to tell Brownfield the tale. “He received twenty-three wounds, and as he never for a moment lost his recollection, he often repeated to me the manner and order in which they were inflicted,” Brownfield said. “Early in the sanguinary conflict he was attacked by a dragoon, who aimed many deadly blows at his head, all of which by the dextrous use of the small sword he easily parried; when another on the right, by one stroke, cut off his right hand through the metacarpal bones.
He was then assailed by both, and instinctively attempted to defend his head with his left arm until the forefinger was cut off, and the arm hacked in eight or ten places from the wrist to the shoulder. His head was then laid open almost the whole length of the crown to the eye brows. After he fell he received several cuts on the face and shoulders. A soldier passing on in the work of death, asked if he expected quarters. Stokes answered I have not, nor do I mean to ask quarters, finish me as soon as possible; he then transfixed him twice with his bayonet.”
The Battle of Waxhaws left the Patriots reeling, but also seething. Their anger spilled over the mountains into what would become Tennessee, where a Patriot regiment mustered to avenge the Loyalist atrocities. These “over-mountain men” had their chance at Kings Mountain in October 1780. “Their numbers enabled them to surround us,” wrote Anthony Allaire, a member of one Loyalist company. “Our poor little detachment, which consisted of only seventy men when we marched to the field of action, were all killed and wounded but twenty.” Other Loyalist companies were similarly mauled, with nearly three hundred Loyalists dying on the battlefield, many after surrendering.
Isaac Shelby, a commander of the Patriots, acknowledged the slaughter of the Loyalists. “They were ordered to throw down their arms, which they did, and surrendered themselves prisoners at discretion,” Shelby recounted. “It was some time before a complete cessation of the firing, on our part, could be effected. Our men, who had been scattered in the battle, were continually coming up, and continued to fire, without comprehending in the heat of the moment, what had happened; and some, who had heard that at Buford’s defeat the British had refused quarters to many who asked it, were willing to follow that bad example. Owing to these causes, the ignorance of some, and the disposition of others to retaliate, it required some time, and some exertion on the part of the officers, to put an entire stop to the firing.”
What causes a man to forsake his country and take arms against it? What prompts others, hardly distinguishable in station or success, to defend that country against the rebels?
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were the unlikeliest of rebels, from all outward appearance. Washington in the 1770s stood at the apex of Virginia society, possessing everything material a man of his place and time could desire. Franklin was more successful still, having risen from humble origins to world fame, a feat he could have accomplished in no other sphere than the British empire. John Adams might have seemed a more obvious candidate for rebellion, being of cantankerous temperament generally. Even so, Adams revered the law, and rebellion begins with an overthrow of existing laws. Yet all three men became rebels against the regime that had fostered their success.
William Franklin might have been expected to join his father, Benjamin, in rebellion, the young often being more disposed to overthrow existing standards than the old. But William Franklin remained loyal to the British crown. Thomas Hutchinson grew up near Benjamin Franklin in Boston and worked closely with him in the Albany Congress during the French and Indian War. Yet though Hutchinson often criticized British policy toward the colonies, he refused to break with London. Joseph Galloway led the Pennsylvania provincial assembly in its challenge to the privileges of the colony’s founding family. But when that challenge evolved into a revolt against Parliament and the Crown, Galloway stepped back.
The American Revolution turned accepted notions of allegiance on their heads. Even before the Declaration of Independence proclaimed the severing of American ties to Britain, individuals like William Franklin, Thomas Hutchinson and Joseph Galloway heard themselves denounced as traitors—for not having betrayed the country they had grown up in and long served. The Declaration gave the denunciations bite, and the Loyalists became subject to arrest, imprisonment, violence and death.
Benedict Arnold embodied the confusing demands of allegiance. As a young man, Arnold had enlisted on Britain’s behalf in the French and Indian War. Fifteen years later he fought against Britain, as the most energetic and valued of George Washington’s lieutenants. Then he switched sides again, turning coat from the Patriot cause to the Loyalist and accepting a commission in the British army. Arnold’s case was unusual for its visibility; his name would become synonymous in American minds with treachery. But he was hardly alone in reconsidering choices made under the duress of a complicated and often dispiriting war.
Joseph Brant brought a different perspective to the questions of allegiance and loyalty. Brant was a war chief of the Mohawks, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. For more than a century the Iroquois and the other native peoples of North America had maneuvered among the competing groups of interlopers from Europe; in the long struggle between the British and the French, the Iroquois had tilted toward the British. But the American Revolution split the British, and Brant and the Iroquois had to choose between Patriots and Loyalists. Brant and most of the Iroquois chose the British; others of the confederacy sided with the Patriots. Thus the civil war among the British Americans became a civil war among the Native Americans.
As fraught as the choice of allegiance was for the free inhabitants of the American colonies, it was more parlous still for the enslaved. Slavery existed in all thirteen colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution, and slave-owners were found among both Patriots and Loyalists. The slave-owners typically demanded that their bondsmen follow their lead. But British officials offered freedom to slaves of Patriot masters if the slaves would cross to the British and Loyalist side. The offer was tempting yet dangerous, for the slaves knew they could expect no mercy if they fell back into Patriot hands. Some took the chance; others sat tight. A modest number even fought on the Patriot side, helping secure the liberties of those who enslaved them. Such were the paradoxes of this disorienting era.
After the revolution, it served the unifying purposes of the victors to portray the conflict as one of Americans against Britons. The Patriots were cast as heroes and founding fathers; the Loyalists were relegated to bit parts better forgotten. But amid the struggle, the bitter fight among the Americans—for minds and hearts, for political allegiance and material support, for control of the destiny of the homeland both sides laid claim to—was crucial in determining the outcome of the contest between nations. Before America could win its revolution against Britain, the Patriots had to win their civil war against the Loyalists.
From Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution by H. W. Brands, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by H. W. Brands.