Thomas B. Allen’s Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War is an extensive examination of the portion of the American population who chose to remain loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolutionary period. Though flawed, this is an engaging and a uniquely important work.
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. These people were known as Tories or Loyalists. 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.
Great review of a book that covers as you say "essential, but under-appreciated" historical events. The guerrilla-like nature of the war on the Tories sounds much like what goes on in revolutionary actions to this day. Those who fled America gave up a lot, but at least preserved their lives.
The activities described remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux", in which a young man is faced with the impact of a rebellious mob that tars and feathers his "Kinsman".
Hi James - Indeed this type of civil, backcountry brutal warfare has sadly persisted in human history.
I must give that Nathaniel Hawthorne story a try.
Great review, Brian. I never gave the loyalist side much thought but I love to read historical accounts of different epochs, including our own such as the Revolutionary War. I don't know how well-versed I am in American colonial history but I would like to read this book, nevertheless.
The Loyalists are to some extent forgotten about. However they do pop up when studying other aspects to the conflict.
I would say a good primer on the subject like The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff or even some online research might prepare one enough for this book.
Alas as I don't have a great insight into this period in history in general let alone this war in particular as you point out this probably isn't the best book with which to start.
Hi Tracy - One thing that I mentioned in response to Sharon's comment, is that these days one can learn so much online, even without reading an entire book.
My history is a little scrambled but your review is like a quick lesson. I'm not particularly interested in history unless it's blended with fiction.
Hi Delia - Though I do like fiction set during historical events I tend to discount the history part and look it as pure fiction, even when there are real historical characters included in the narrative. I know that lots of modern authors pride themselves on their accurate research. However, I fear that it can distort a subject that is already difficult to understand.
Terrific review, as usual. I do, of course, remember the Tories and the Rebels, but I must admit that my knowledge about the American Revolutionary War era is a bit, er, "rusty". Thank you for your honest review of this book, Brian Joseph.
Hi Suko - Thanks so much.
IFor understandable reasons when 17th and 18th century American history is examined more folks are knowledgeable about the Civil war era. The American Revolutionary period is just my thing.
This sounds like a good one Brian. The American Revolution is a fascinating time in history. I live in NJ and there's a few interesting historical spots here that are connected to this time period as George Washington marched his troops through New Jersey.
Even with the authors shortcomings that you've mentioned, this sounds like a good one for history buffs.
It's crazy to think that these things happened, like the passage you quoted about the Native Americans.
Fantastic post as always. I'm actually finishing up a post on a non-fiction historical myself, but mine is on an autobiography.
Hi Naida - thanks for your kind words.
NJ was really a hot spot in the War. According to this book it was a no man's land between the armies where the war between the Rebels and Loyalists really got nasty.
I really look forward to reading your post!
I actually always thought that pre 20th Century warfare was much more cruel. That was one of the reasons the genocide in Rwanda shocked me because this was like one of those old wars, fought with machetes, guns, knifes and applying horrible cruelties- but on a amuch larger scale than before.
So that quote didn't come as a surprise.
Too bad the book is flawed but it can lead to other works, I guess.
Hi Caroline - Yes the Rwanda genocide seemed almost like throwback to pre twentieth century horrors.
As to the book being flawed, I do read a fair amount of history so I might be a bit more critical then some as I have a lot of other books to compare and contrast it to.
This is a period that I ought to know far more about than I do. Thanks for the honest and balanced review Brian.
Hi Lindsay - I think that this period is obscure for lots of folks. It just happens to be a focus for me.
Thanks for the good word!
What a review. Reminds me of the opening scene in the movie "The Blue soldier"
Hi Haddock - I have not seen The Blue Soldier but I understand that it involved atrocities committed against Native Americans. As a group they fared so badly in this and other conflicts.
You know, I really don't remember reading about the Tories when I studied American History in high school. How interesting, and ironic, that there were actually colonists on the side of the British! So there were colonists fighting against their fellow colonists! This is indeed a civil war, even though the history books might not call it such.
The massacre mentioned in this book was HORRIBLE. And then the Delaware Indians took revenge on someone who didn't even have anything to do with this massacre! Speaking of Albert Camus.....
I, too, was mystified as to why any of the colonists would choose to be Loyalists, until you mentioned the wealthy families being Loyalists. Well, I think their motivation is very clear. They would have felt 'stranded' in a new, mostly undeveloped country, without the backing of the strong British economy. They probably felt that their wealth would disappear overnight, right? And it probably did, too, because the colonists won the war against England.
I know how passionate you are about American History. It really comes through in this post! And I think I should get into these types of books, too. My knowledge about this subject is sadly lacking.
Thanks for another interesting review!! : )
Hi Maria - Thanks for another great comment.
I think that there were a lot of reasons folks decided to choose the British side. As you mention there were many who had strong economic ties.
African American slaves were promised freedom by the British.
I also think that many folks did not want to take the risk of independence. The colonies were already the most free European based society on Earth. in many places the revolution seemed to be driven by the mob. Many other revolutions descended into chaos, mayhem and eventual dictatorship. No one was sure that was not going to happen in America.
Of course, had I been a slave back then, and the British had promised me freedom, I would have been an ardent Tory!
As we both mentioned, independence was a risk for these colonists. Much as it would be for the kid who yells at his/her parents: "I'm running away from home!" The Tories who were not slaves, but had a lot of wealth, sided with the British because of the risk of losing it all. No idealism there!
I do need to read more history, especially American History! Then I can analyze such books myself, too, and compare views with you.
Hope you're having a great weekend!! : )
Hey Maria - In the interests of fairness I would also point out that lots of folks choose the Patriot Cause for monetary reasons.
The weekend has been good so far. i hope that you and your family are having a good one too!
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