Fighting For the King in America's First Civil War

by Thomas B. Allen

Return to main page
Fighting for the King

The many regiments of the Tory Army

The First Exiles

Hundred of Boston Tories flee to Canada in 1776.

Punishing the Tories

From tar-and-feathers to land grabs

Timeline of a Civil War

Chronicling a Fight Between Americans

Who Were the Tories?

The Declaration of Independence said that by July 1776 the time had come “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” But the signers of the Declaration knew that they spoke, not for “one people” but for a divided people. Tens of thousands of Americans opposed the Revolution. They called themselves Loyalists; the Patriots called them Tories.

The Revolution is usually portrayed as a conflict between the Patriots and the British. But there is another narrative: the bloody fighting between Americans, a civil war whose savagery shocked even battle-hardened Redcoats and Hessians. As debate and protests evolved into war, mudslinging and rhetorical arguments between Rebels and Tories evolved into tar-and-feathering, house-burning, and lynching.

Thousands of Loyalists armed themselves and began a civil war whose savagery shocked even battle-hardened Redcoats and Hessians. When Brigadier General Nathanael Greene took command of the Continental Army of the South in 1781, he wrote to Colonel 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.”

There was also collaboration. When we remember the heroic suffering of George Washington’s army at Valley Forge, we forget that only twenty miles away the British soldiers occupying Philadelphia were well housed and well fed because Tories and Tory sympathizers were sustaining them. “I am amazed,” wrote George Washington to a staff officer, “at the report you make of the quantity of provisions that goes daily into Philadelphia ….”

The idea that the conflict between Tories and Rebels was a civil war all but vanished in the glory that enfolds the grand story of the American Revolution, and, when the North and South began their struggle in 1861, the Civil War entered history, and the earlier civil war was forgotten.

The book jacket of Tories (above) uses an allegorical painting by Benjamin West to introduce the types of Americans who were Tories.

The painting on the book jacket of Tories is a detail from this portrait by Benjamin West of John Eardley Wilmot, who played an important role in Britain’s efforts to compensate Loyalists for losses they had suffered. Wilmot is looking at a painting-within-the-painting: West’s allegorical The Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in Year 1783.

Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in the Year 1783.

Engraving by H. Moses after Benjamin West.

The original painting has been lost, but a later drawing based on the painting defines the characters in the original painting. West imagined the Loyalists as being welcomed by Britannia when it reality the overwhelming majority of the 100,000 Tory exiles went not to Britain but to Canada.

In the painting and drawing, Religion and Justice extend the mantle of Britannia, who shields arriving Loyalists led by characters representing the Law, the Church, and the Government. In a heavenly cloud, cherubic America and England celebrate the new treaty of peace and friendship between Britain and America. William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin and a militant Tory (leftmost robed figure), is among the Loyalist leaders. A loyal Indian raises one arm in joy and points the other to a window and orphans, victims of what Wilmot called a civil war. They are portrayed as ordinary people, not as aristocratic and wealthy Americans—the common perception. A former slave and his children look up to Britannia in gratitude, a reminder that thousands of slaves who became Tories won their freedom for their allegiance to Britain.

At the far right stand West and his wife. West, one of the first American artists to become prominent in Britain, was a court painter to King George III and a founder of the Royal Academy. West, born in Pennsylvania in 1738 to Quaker parents, went to England in 1763 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Wilmot, the subject of the painting above, was a prominent jurist and close friend of William Blackstone, author of the legal classic, Commentaries on the Laws of England. In 1766, Wilmot became a member of the Privy Council and the Chief Justice of the Common Please. After the Revolutionary War ended, Parliament appointed one of the five members of the Commission for Enquiring into the Losses, Services and Claims of the American Loyalists.

The commission established a spectrum of Loyalty, indicating that the more a Loyalist did for Britain, the more royal gratitude might be dispensed. The categories clearly show the ways Americans could be classified as Tories:

Rendered services to Great Britain”

Bore arms against the Rebels

Went into exile in Britain

Took oaths of allegiance to the Rebels but later switched to the British

Initially bore arms for the Rebels but later joined the British Army or Royal Navy

Loyalists did not do well before the commission. Skeptical Commissioner Wilmot noted that “all of the claimants and all of the witnesses were in turn Parties and Witnesses for each other; they had of course a natural bias to support each other's claim.” Parliament was tight-fisted, one member saying that “if the Loyalists were paid the whole of their Loss, they would be in a better situation that they were before the war.”

An analysis of 2,063 petitions showed claims for about $35 million real and personal property, $11.77 million in debts and $443,000 in lost incomes. Of 1,680 claims examined, the commission allowed the collection of $9,448,000. (The dollar figures come from a 1904 report from the Bureau of Archives of the Province of Ontario.) By 1788, the commissioners had handled more than 5,000 claims, disallowing about one in five.

The greatest reward for loyalty came in the form of grants of land in the Canadian wilderness. As many as 100,000 Loyalists eventually migrated to Canada.

In this romanticized view (below), published in 1925, well-dressed gentlemen meet Loyalists landing in 1783 at the mouth of the St. John River after sailing from New York City. In reality, the voyage was hard and the arrival disheartening. One of the new Canadians climbed to the top of a desolate hill to watch the sails of her ship disappear over the horizon. “[S]uch a feeling of loneliness came over me,” she later wrote, “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.” One touch of reality in the painting: two black faces. Some 3,000 ex-slaves, given freedom and land, were among the new Canadians.

The Coming of the Loyalists by Henry Sandham. 
Library and Archives Canada 

Web site management by
Sam the Site Maker