“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.
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).
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.