7. A Window on Our First Civil War

“Civil wars so often take on the character and cruelty of a crusade because they are about the nature of society itself.” So writes the acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan in her most recent work. “The other side is seen as having betrayed the community by refusing to agree to shared values and a common vision and so extremes of violence and cruelty become permissible, even necessary, to restore the damaged polity” (from War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Random House, 2020, p. 42). The struggle between fellow countrymen is powered by the anger and hurt that each side feels at the incomprehensible betrayal of the other.

The American Revolution was truly a civil war—an armed contest between neighbors, relatives, and former friends that was often waged in the most intimate and brutal manner. It lasted twice as long as the far bloodier War between the States eight decades later.

Overview

In John Haslet’s World, I offered the following synoptic explanation of what was at stake between the American combatants on both sides—the so-called Patriots or Whigs who supported political separation from Great Britain and the Loyalists or Tories who rejected the cause of independence (p. 108):

As much as the more brutal conflagration of 1861-1865, the struggle for independence literally involved, in some cases, a fight that pitted brother against brother, father against son (witness revolutionist Benjamin Franklin and his Tory son, William), and neighbor against neighbor. The more militant advocates of rebellion would brook no opposition from those less sympathetic to their cause and often strove to stamp out such dissent in the harshest and most uncompromising ways, which could involve the use of extreme violence, seizure or destruction of property, and scathing public ridicule. Notwithstanding its transformative and positive consequences, their insurrection “required violent escalation and terror to sustain itself and combat its domestic enemies,” as with other modern revolutions. To the insurgent faction, the objective of attaining liberty and independence justified the fierce treatment of fellow Americans who were seen as standing in the way.

For their part, the Loyalists were strongly committed to ensuring constitutional protections of their liberties, and many agreed with the rebels in opposing specific British policies. However, unlike those Revolutionaries, who supported the notion of independence, the Loyalists remained faithful subjects of the King and wanted to settle any disagreements within the existing constitutional framework. They feared that separation from the mother country would have adverse economic consequences and disrupt their social networks. In addition, many discounted the possibility that the colonists could overcome Britain’s armed might.

Ferocity in the South

The Southern theater of the conflict, where the fighting predominated in its later stages (1780-1782), witnessed the most savage clashes between Patriot and Loyalist units. In many cases, no mercy was shown by either side, even to those who had already surrendered.

Thomas Brown was an Englishman who established a Georgia plantation before the Revolution and was beaten, tarred, and feathered for failing to pledge his support to the Continental Congress. Commissioned as a lieutenant colonel by the royal governor of East Florida, he led Loyalists and Indians fighting along the Florida-Georgia frontier (1777-1778), and commanded the King’s Carolina Rangers during the British Invasion of Georgia (1779-1781). Brown confessed that the armed struggle “exhibits many dreadful examples of wanton outrages, committed by both parties, disgraceful to human nature.” He further commented: “A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity” (from his letter to David Ramsey in The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence, 1775-1783, ed. John Rhodehamel, The Library of America, 2001, pp. 681-682).

These remarks are echoed by Robert Gray, a South Carolina Loyalist commissioned as a colonel in the provincial (Loyalist) forces after the British occupied his state in 1780. When writing about the war in the Carolinas, he noted that “both parties in this petty, but sanguinary war . . . seemed to breathe the extirpation of their enemies” (from his “Observations on the War in Carolina” in Rhodehamel, p. 764).

Final Notes

Some sixty thousand white Loyalists—about two percent of the population—left the country when the war ended and braced themselves for an uncertain future in exile. At the same time, several hundred thousand like-minded Americans had to contend with the threat of retaliation by their neighbors or at least the prospect of an unsettled relationship with the communities into which they sought to reintegrate.

And speaking of civil war, the savagery of the Patriot-Loyalist struggle in the South evokes the observation made by General William Tecumseh Sherman when he ordered the evacuation of Atlanta’s inhabitants in 1864: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” The depredations suffered by the South’s residents at the time made those inflicted on their eighteenth-century forebears seem tame by comparison.

 

6. Red, White, and the Blues

Meet Chris Mlynarczyk

Chris is President of the 1st Delaware Regiment—technically the 1st Delaware Regiment Living History Corporation established in 2012 as a Delaware nonprofit and a 501(c)(3) public charity based in Newark. Its reenactors, whom you might call living history practitioners, are dedicated to preserving the legacy of this elite Continental army unit.

In his review of my newest book, John Haslet’s World: An Ardent Patriot, the Delaware Blues, and the Spirit of 1776 (to be released as a Knox Press Imprint of Permuted Press on November 3), Chris writes: “The story of the Delaware Continentals is one that is truly amazing! It is almost unbelievable that this one regiment from one of the smallest states impacted the outcome of the Revolution not just once but time after time, each and every year of the war.”

John Haslet’s World

The new book focuses primarily on Colonel Haslet and the initial Delaware Regiment that he led from its inception in January 1776 until his death at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. However, it also sheds light on the exploits of the reconstituted regiment created after Haslet fell. Its men fought in nearly every major engagement for the rest of the war and particularly distinguished themselves during the 1781 Southern campaign as a mainstay of Nathanael Greene’s resilient army.

Aside from the perils of combat, the Delaware Continentals—known as the Delaware Blues for the color of their uniforms—endured a litany of hardships that would severely test anyone, as this excerpt suggests:

From 1776 to 1783, the Blues would march in broken shoes or without shoes, on rutted roads and where there were no roads, in mud and sand, across marshes and streams, in sweltering heat and frigid cold, for thousands of miles. They slept—or attempted to—in tents in freezing weather, or absent any shelter whatsoever, missing blankets or any covering, on the bare ground in rain and snow, in need of clothing, food, and drink, and going without pay from one year to the next.

During this time, these soldiers participated in more than a dozen significant battles, as well as skirmishes and minor encounters. More than three-quarters-of-a-century ago, the noted historian Christopher Ward lauded them as follows in his acclaimed work on the Delaware Continentals:

Forged on the anvil of hardship under the hammer of experience, the Delaware regiment was a weapon which any of the great captains of history would have been glad to launch at his foe. It is not too much to say that no other single regiment in the American army had a longer and more continuous term of service, marched more miles, suffered greater hardships, fought in more battles or achieved greater distinction than this one of Delaware.

Making History Come Alive

Today, Chris Mlynarczyk and his fellow history enthusiasts in the 1st Delaware Regiment seek to educate the public about the role played by Delaware and Delawareans in the Revolution. They do so through living history programs and by portraying the regiment at various events, although public health considerations have obviously impacted those efforts for the time being. More information is available on their website and by email at info@1stDelawareRegiment.org.

Kudos to these ambassadors for our Revolutionary heritage. You might say they are (in a manner of speaking) singing the Blues.

5. George Washington Didn’t Sleep Here

But many of his soldiers did—that is, on its grounds or nearby. This historic treasure, known today as the Thompson-Neely farmstead (TN), is located in upper Bucks Country, Pennsylvania, and is a featured attraction of Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP).

A History-Laden Spot

In December 1776, a Continental army brigade commanded by General William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling, encamped here (although Stirling himself stayed at another residence). Over 600 soldiers were posted on or near the grounds of TN in Solebury Township, two miles south of Coryell’s Ferry (New Hope today). During this time, the house was used to care for soldiers who were ill and served as a headquarters for several Continental officers, including: Captain William Washington, the commander-in-chief’s second cousin, once removed; and eighteen-year-old Lieutenant James Monroe, the future fifth President of the United States—both with the 3rd Virginia Regiment.

On Christmas Day 1776, the soldiers in the brigade who were physically able to do so marched four miles south to McConkey’s Ferry, which is in today’s lower section of WCHP. There they joined in the fabled Delaware River crossing that led to a dramatic victory over the German troops (known as Hessians) occupying Trenton, New Jersey—the first significant success enjoyed by George Washington’s army and the beginning of its legendary “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that changed the course of the war.

Kimberly McCarty, WCHP Museum Curator, describes TN’s historical significance as follows:

The Thompson-Neely property is one of the most meaningful spaces at Washington Crossing Historic Park. For sick and exhausted soldiers, this campsite served as a temporary home after an arduous retreat across New Jersey—and for some it became their permanent resting place. Here the beleaguered Continental army struggled to replenish itself before its daring crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776.

The House

TN is a stone structure built in three sections and characteristic of stone farmhouses constructed by early-eighteenth-century settlers of Bucks County, who typically replaced their log cabins or framed cottages with stone dwellings. The house is located near Pidcock Creek (named after the first European immigrant to live on this property), which provided power for the owner’s gristmill, and is surrounded by a barn and a cluster of small outbuildings that are restored examples of structures from an eighteenth-century farm complex. The stone house has undergone several stages of construction and restoration since its original section was built around 1740.

The Families

When the Continental army arrived at their doorstep in December 1776, two families occupied TN. They included Robert Thompson and his wife Hannah (he being her second husband), their daughter Elizabeth and her husband William Neely, and the Neely’s two young children—Jane and Robert.

The families operated a thriving milling business. Their success reflected the importance of millers in the agricultural society of colonial Pennsylvania at a time when the grinding of grains such as wheat, corn, and barley was an essential life-sustaining activity and the prosperity of local wheat farmers derived from Philadelphia’s burgeoning export market for flour. In fact, Robert Thompson was one of the wealthier men listed in the Solebury township tax records for 1761, 1778, and 1783, all the while expanding the size of his stone house. A later version of the TN gristmill, built around 1870, is now accessible to the public (see below).

We’re (ahem) Neely at the End

Today, TN is open for guided tours from April through November. For more information, check online or call the WCHP visitor center at 215-493-4076.

This venerable piece of Bucks County history has a fascinating story behind it—the hardships faced by Revolutionary War soldiers, the sweat and enterprise of eighteenth and nineteenth-century millers, changing family fortunes over the decades, the rescue and restoration of a deteriorating house by the state of Pennsylvania, and the revival of a now-operational gristmill by the Friends of Washington Crossing Park. Plus the kids will love the sheep and miniature goats residing in the barn, and there’s the Bowman’s Hill Tower and Continental soldiers’ cemetery nearby.

Come visit. If you’re a history buff or just love old houses or gristmills, you won’t regret or forget your time at TN. Indeed, this is no (wait for it) run-of-the-mill experience.

4. A Hero’s Home

Historic Rock Ford was the residence of Edward Hand (1744-1802), who may have been the most unsung Patriot military hero of the American Revolution. That conviction led me to dedicate my second book, The Road to Assunpink Creek, to Hand and the soldiers he led into battle on January 2, 1777—which was not, well, an offhand decision.

Hand’s Heroics

On that pivotal day in our struggle for independence from Great Britain, the Irish-born colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment led a remarkable defensive action along the road from Princeton to Trenton, New Jersey, against a British-Hessian force that outnumbered his contingent by more than six-to-one. In so doing, he may very well have forestalled the destruction of George Washington’s army and paved the way for one of the most remarkable military maneuvers in history. The rebel forces successfully parried the enemy thrust, then counterattacked the redcoats at Princeton in the climactic victory of the “Ten Crucial Days” campaign that reversed the course of the Revolutionary War.

You have to (ahem) hand it to those Pennsylvania riflemen, but especially their colonel who demonstrated inspiring leadership at a critical moment for young America’s fortunes. He went on to become a brigadier general, a breveted major general, and a steadfast associate of General Washington—perhaps best known for being the last adjutant general (chief administrative officer) of the Continental army. Shortly after the conflict ended, the commander-in-chief wrote his comrade-in-arms to express “my entire approbation for your public conduct.”

Hand’s House

With the war over, Hand returned home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he would build Rock Ford, a Georgian-style brick mansion on several hundred acres of land he had purchased. Here he lived from 1794 until his death, along with his family and their servants and laborers—both enslaved and free. Hand practiced medicine, served first as a member of the Congress of Confederation and then the Pennsylvania Assembly, and later as a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Tradition has it that he played host to Washington during the president’s 1791 visit to Lancaster.

Today, Historic Rock Ford consists of 33 acres at the southeastern edge of Lancaster City enveloped by Lancaster County Central Park. The street address is: 881 Rockford Road, Lancaster, PA 17602.

A registered National Historic Landmark, the mansion is recorded in the Historic American Building Survey. It’s widely considered one of the most important examples of Georgian domestic architecture in Pennsylvania and the most intact building in Lancaster County built before 1800. The mansion’s elegant rooms feature an exceptional display of period furnishings and decorative arts.

You could say the folks at Rock Ford deserve a hand (oh, please) for their efforts to preserve the general’s legacy and home, and to educate the public about the realities of eighteenth-century life in America. Find out more about what they have to offer on their website.

Hand in Hindsight

I’ve taken the Rock Ford tour, and for any history lover it would be an absorbing experience. But for an aficionado of eighteenth-century Americana, I can’t think of a better place to visit. Most Americans don’t know who lived here, but I wish they did. This site ought to be regarded as one of the leading shrines to a new nation’s spirit and enterprise—hands down.

3. Hail Hale-Byrnes

What is it?

Situated on the banks of White Clay Creek near Stanton, Delaware, the historic Hale-Byrnes House dates from circa 1750. Built by millwright Warwick Hale, who left it to his son Samuel, the house was purchased first by David Finney of New Castle who added the south wing, and then by Quaker Daniel Byrnes (1730-1797) in 1773. Byrnes, who became prosperous operating a grist mill on the creek, added the house’s service wing. The southern section has four fireplaces and is a fine example of Georgian brick architecture. This was the first building in Delaware to receive the State “Heritage Plaque” and is a registered National Historic Landmark.

Where is it?

The house is located on old Route 7 just south of Stanton, near the intersection of Route 4 East and Route 7 North. The street address is: 606 Stanton-Christiana Road, Newark, DE 19713.

What happened here?

On September 6, 1777, three days after the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge, General George Washington held a council of war in the Hale-Byrnes House with other officers of the Continental army, including the Marquis de Lafayette who turned twenty that day. From there the American troops marched north to Chadds Ford in Pennsylvania, where they unsuccessfully engaged a British-Hessian army under General William Howe at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11.

Kim Burdick oversees this treasured link to our colonial past. She is a retired history instructor, founder and chairman of the American Revolution Round Table of Northern Delaware, and former chairman of the Delaware Humanities Council. The author of Revolutionary Delaware: Independence in the First State (The History Press, 2016), Kim has written frequently for the Journal of the American Revolution, including her 2015 article, “A Quaker Struggles with the War,” about pacifist Daniel Byrnes. She recounts the depredations Byrnes suffered at the hands of his Patriot neighbors because he stubbornly adhered to his religious convictions in refusing to support the war effort, as well as his letter to President Washington in 1793 seeking compensation for eight wheels of cheese as “the Army had my property to Live upon and I think the States aught in Justice to pay me a Reasonable price for it.”

What’s happening here?

During April through December, Hale-Byrnes House is open to visitors on the first Wednesday of each month from 12 to 3 p.m. (yes, that includes NOW) and at other times by appointment. In addition, it can be rented for meetings and weddings. Please note: the house is closed from January through March. You can email to halebyrneshouse@aol.com, which is the much-preferred method of contact, or leave a voice message at 302-998-3792. And you’ll find more information on the website, including the public programs—currently on Zoom—listed on its calendar of events.

History lives here. Check it out.

2. Eutaw Springs

Who Fought

Next Tuesday marks the 239th anniversary of one of the more obscure military encounters in young America’s quest for independence, and one of its bloodiest—at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, on September 8, 1781. Although this was the last major battle in the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, it has been eclipsed in historical memory by the climactic military event of the conflict one month later. The surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s beleaguered garrison at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19 to a Franco-American army commanded by George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau overshadowed the struggle in South Carolina.

Eutaw Springs Battleground Park is near today’s Eutawville, some fifty miles northwest of Charleston—then occupied by the British. Here some 2,400 Americans led by General Nathanael Greene, half of them Continental soldiers and the rest militia, collided with 2,000 British regulars and Loyalists under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart. The combatants were bathed in blistering heat during a four-hour engagement, one of the longest of the war, and over 1,200 were killed, wounded, captured, or missing—including more than a third of Stewart’s army and at least twenty percent of Greene’s.

Who Won

Both sides claimed victory. For the British, the outcome was arguably a tactical win because they held the field but a strategic setback. It sliced deeply into their limited troop presence in the Carolinas and failed to neutralize Greene’s army or rally public support for the royal cause. The same could be said of Greene’s clashes with the King’s forces at Guilford Courthouse and Hobkirk’s Hill earlier that year.

Colonel Otho Holland Williams of Maryland, who commanded a brigade in the battle, characterized it as a “steady and desperate conflict.” He argued that the “evidence [of victory] is altogether on the American side” as it regrouped after evacuating the field and set off in pursuit of the enemy army. The latter “relinquished the country it commanded” and withdrew to Charleston.

What It Meant

The civil war then raging between Loyalists and Whigs in the South continued into the following year, but the rebels controlled the countryside after the slugfest at Eutaw Springs. The British troops occupying Charleston and Savannah no longer ventured inland and would evacuate both seaports by the end of 1782.

Even before this battle, Nathanael Greene had described his troops’ combat experience during their remarkable Southern campaign in one famously memorable sentence. Reflecting on his success in wearing down their adversary by making British victories so costly while preserving the integrity of his army, the wily general wrote: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

In his second volume of Poems Written and Published During the American Revolutionary War, Philip Freneau memorialized the Americans who fell on that September day. His elegy, “At Eutaw Springs the Valiant Died,” ends with this verse: “Now Rest In Peace, our patriot band; Though far from nature’s limits thrown, We trust they find a happier land, A brighter sunshine of their own.”

1. Smallpox in the Revolution

In 1777, George Washington ordered that every soldier in the Continental army who had not already had smallpox be inoculated against the disease—by introducing a small amount of the pus from a recuperating victim through a cut in the skin. This scourge was rampant in the colonies as well as Europe, and had decimated the American force that invaded Canada in 1775. (The army’s commander-in-chief endured a mild version as a young man, which may have accounted for his sterility.) Some historians say this effort—America’s first major public health initiative—was Washington’s most unheralded contribution to winning the War of Independence. According to Michael Stephenson in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (HarperCoilins Publishers, 2007), “It would save his army.” In fact, one might say it gave the rebellion (ahem) a shot in the arm.

So our quest for independence led to a revolutionary development in public health, no less than in the political status of the thirteen colonies. Today, as we confront the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, it’s worth remembering how important the army’s conquest of a deadly disease was to America’s struggle for the right to rule itself—and that Washington’s judicious leadership on this issue was essential to achieving that outcome.