Major Patrick Ferguson
Three other units deserve special mention. Each was led by charismatic and maverick officers. Major Patrick Ferguson’s American Volunteers was raised in New York in 1779. Ferguson, an Irishman, had been wounded at Brandywine in 1777 leading his specialized corps of sharpshooters armed with Ferguson’s own invention, a unique breech-loading rifle. Appointed inspector of militia in May 1780 in South Carolina, Ferguson quickly wearied of the dreariness of administration, preferring the hand’s-on business of active soldiering. He would die at the head of his men in a defiant sword-in-hand last stand trapped on the summit of Kings Mountain, South Carolina, on 7 October 1780.
The famous, or infamous, British Legion was raised in New York in July 1778 under its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a young British cavalry officer with a swaggering, almost casual brutality that is reminiscent of the Confederate cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Both men also shared a taste for flamboyant hats.) Tarleton’s defeat of Colonel Abraham Buford at Waxhaws, South Carolina, on 29 May 1780 was accomplished with an “astonishing cruelty” that is illustrated by the comparative casualties: 113 Americans killed and 150 wounded, while the Legion lost five killed and twelve wounded. (“Tarleton’s quarter” would become a battle cry of revenging patriot troops thereafter.) Tarleton would meet his own comeuppance at the battle of Cowpens just over six months later at the hand of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan when the Legion was cut to pieces and its commander was lucky to escape with his life.
The name of the third regiment—the American Legion—has a decidedly ironic twist when one considers its commander: Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, the “Dark Eagle” of the war. It was raised on Long Island, New York, in October 1780 and from there was led by Arnold on its raiding campaigns into Virginia in June 1781, and New London, Connecticut, in September 1781.
Spurred by the entry of France into the war following Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, the British authorities tried to jump-start Loyalist enlistment by offering, in December 1778 and January 1779, a bounty (initially three guineas but later increased by twenty-two shillings and six pence) and £40 per year per regiment as a contribution toward medical services. Provincial officers would now be entitled to half pay if their regiments were reduced or disbanded, and, as George Germain put it, if they “happen to be wounded in action, so as to lose a limb, or be maimed, shall be entitled to the same gratuity of one year’s advanced pay as officers of His [Majesty’s] established army.” Unfortunately for the British, these plums did not whet the appetite of too many enlistees. By December 1778–January 1779, when the reforms were announced, there were 7,400 men in the provincial line, and it rose only to 9,000 by December 1779 and 10,000 by December 1780, where it remained steady.
The truth was, perhaps, that the British seemed never to have had much respect for the “Friends of Government.” They neither understood their culture nor knew how to harness their military potential. Too often Loyalists were viewed as the country bumpkins, the “provincials.” There were a few notable exceptions where British officers—Major Patrick Ferguson, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and Colonel Francis Rawdon, for example—led Loyalist units with a passionate commitment. Ferguson described his men as “very fit for rough & irregular war, being all excellent woodsmen, unerring shots, careful to a degree to prevent waste or damage to their ammunition, patient of hunger & hardship & almost regardless of blankets, cloathing, rum, and other indulgences.” But on the whole the British military establishment was superior and dismissive: “I should be very sorry to trust any one of them out of my sight,” said Captain John Bowater of the Royal Navy to Lord Denbigh on 5 June 1777. “They swallow the Oaths of Allegiance to the King, & Congress Alternately, with as much ease as your Lordship does poached Eggs.” The Carolinian Loyalist Robert Gray saw it clearly: “Almost every British officer regarded with contempt and indifference the establishment of a militia among the people differing so much in custom & manners from themselves.”
The “failure” of the Loyalists to flock to the royal standard cannot be understood without appreciating how effectively they had been locked down and neutralized by the patriots. Loyalists could not buy, sell, or bequeath property or other assets. They were barred from all legal recourse to recover debts or redress any other injury. They could not practice law or teach unless they had taken an oath of allegiance to the cause. They could not be executors of estates or be a guardian to a child. “Any person who wrote, or spoke, or by any overt act libeled or defamed Congress, or the acts of the Connecticut General Assembly, should be brought to trial.” All known Loyalist sympathizers were disarmed, yet they were coerced to join the patriot militia; any refusal was met with heavy fines or punishments like tar-and-feathering or riding a rail (“grand Tory Rides,” as a patriot called them). Although these punishments may now seem comic (electricity has done so much to improve our torture techniques!), they were in fact excruciatingly painful. A patriot described the procedure for tarring.
First strip a Person naked, then heat the Tar until it is thin, and pour it upon the naked Flesh, or rub it over with a Tar Brush, quantum sufficit. After which, sprinkle decently with the Tar, whilst it is yet warm, as many Feathers as will stick to it. Then hold a lighted Candle to the Feathers, and try to set it all on Fire; if it will burn so much the better.
Hot tar (pine was preferred) that has cooled will strip off a layer of skin when it is removed. Riding a rail could cause severe damage to the genitals and anus. The Committees of Safety and their enforcers brought a Jacobin-like enthusiasm to suppressing and neutralizing Loyalists. Cornwallis wrote to his superior, Sir Henry Clinton, on 29 August 1780: “We receive the strongest professions of Friendship from North Carolina; our Friends, however, do not seem inclined to rise until they see our Army in motion. The severity of the Rebel Government has so terrified and totally subdued the minds of the people, that it is very difficult to rouse them to any exertions.” The young Lord Rawdon wrote to Cornwallis, his commander in the South, on 5 December 1780 that those coming into his camp professing attachment to the Crown were often fifth columnists: “My conduct towards the inhabitants, and the extraordinary regularity of the troops under my command, I must assert to have been such as ought to have conciliated their firmest attachment; yet I had the firmest proofs that the people who daily visited my camp…used every artifice to debauch the minds of my soldiers and persuade them to desert…Several small detachments from me were attacked by persons who had the hour before been with them as friends in their camp.”
Throughout the war Britain disastrously mismanaged its Loyalist dependents. Time after time, starting with Howe’s evacuation of Boston in 1776, Loyalists who had exposed themselves by declaring for the Crown during British occupations were abandoned and left to patriot retribution—“the fury of their bitterest enemies,” as an English officer put it. When Howe quit Boston the city was thrown into a wild panic. A contemporary diarist reported the desperation: “We are told that the Tories were thunder-struck when orders were issued for evacuating the town, after being many hundred times assured, that such reinforcements would be sent, as to enable the king’s troops to ravage the country at pleasure…Many of them, it is said, considered themselves as undone…One or more of them, it is reported, have been left to end their lives by the unnatural act of suicide.” This pattern would be repeated when the British quit Philadelphia in 1778. Ambrose Serle was ashamed of his country’s betrayal of its Loyal supporters in the city.
This [the news of the army’s evacuation] was soon circulated about the town, and filled all our friends with melancholy on the apprehension of being speedily deserted, now a rope was (as it were) about their necks, and all their property subject to confiscation. The information chilled me with horror, and with some indignation when I reflected upon the miserable circumstances…I now look upon the contest as at an end. No man can be expected to declare for us when he cannot be assured of a fortnight’s protection. Every man, on the contrary, whatever might have been his primary inclinations, will find it his interest to oppose and drive us out of the country.
Like many colonial regimes since, the British were too often ignorant and clumsy when it came to understanding the complex dynamic between friend and foe. To some extent they were caught in the classic colonial dilemma of trying to appease an enemy in an attempt to win “hearts and minds” even when it resulted in undermining Loyalist support. Howe’s policy of issuing general pardons to rebels who would go through the motion of taking an oath of allegiance outraged Loyalists, who denounced his “sentimental manner of waging war,” and even roused Germain’s ire. He lashed Howe’s policy as “poor encouragement for the Friends of Government who have been suffering under the tyranny of the rebels, to see their oppressors without distinction put upon the same footing as themselves.”
The British were trapped in this dilemma throughout the war. Later, in the South, they stumbled around with the same uncertainty. The Carolinian Loyalist Robert Gray detailed the mess.
The want of paying sufficient attention to our Militia produced daily at this time the most disagreeable consequences. In the first place, when the Rebel Militia were made prisoners, they were immediately delivered up to the Regular Officers, who, being entirely ignorant of the dispositions & manners of the people treated them with the utmost lenity & sent them home to their plantations upon parole…the general consequence of this, that they no sooner got out of our hands than they broke their paroles, took up arms, and made it a point to murder every Militia man of ours who had any concern in making them prisoners, on the other hand whenever a Militia Man of ours was made a prisoner he was delivered not to the Continentals but to the Rebel Militia, who looked upon him as a State prisoner, as a man who deserved a halter, & therefore treated him with the greatest cruelty. If he was not assassinated after being made a prisoner, he was instantly hurried into Virginia or North Carolina where he was kept a prisoner without friends, money, credit, or perhaps hopes of exchange. This line being once drawn betwixt their militia & ours, it was no longer safe to be a loyalist.
The “collateral damage” that is inevitable in insurgency warfare hurt friend as well as foe. The Quaker merchant Robert Morgan watched as British troops in Philadelphia in November 1777 destroyed Loyalist houses because they were being used by patriot snipers: “This morning about 10 o’clock the British set fire to Fair Hill mansion House, Jon’a Mifflin’s and many others…The reason they assign for this destruction of their friends’ property is on acco. of the Americans firing from these houses and harassing their Picquets.” But what astonished Morgan was the ignorant glee with which British troops burned the furniture of the Loyalists, something, he points out, “Gen’l Washington’s Army cannot be accused of. There is not one instance to be produced where they have wantonly destroyed and burned their friends’ property.”
And in the end, for Britain, there was simply an implacable blank wall. When Cornwallis (perhaps the only British senior commander who felt a genuine bond with the Loyalists) urged shifting the main theater of operations into Virginia following the failures—his failures—in the Carolinas, Sir Henry Clinton wrote to his pugnacious subordinate: “Your Lordship will, I hope, excuse me, if I dissent from your opinion…there is no possibility of re-establishing order in any rebellious province on this continent without the hearty assistance of numerous friends. These, my Lord, are not, I think, to be found in Virginia; nor dare I positively assert, that under our present circumstances they are to be found any where else, or their exertions when found will answer our expectations.” Still, Clinton could not help himself when he added, “But I believe there is a greater probability of finding them in Pennsylvania.” He still had an ear cocked to the siren’s call.