Thomas B. Allen, Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War

Thomas B. Allen, Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War

by John Staudt

For a very long time one of the most misunderstood topics of the American Revolution was the role of the American Loyalists or Tories. The historiography of the Revolution, which has been overly one-sided in favor of the American patriots, has often served to perpetuate this confusion. In the past decade or so, however, a number of excellent scholarly and popular works has sought to correct these shortcomings. Among the best of these books are Judith L. Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York (2002), Ruma Chopra’s Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution (2012) and Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff (2013). Each one of these authors focus on different aspects of American loyalism. Buskirk examines how preexisting family ties and other relationships confounded relationships between the Tories and Patriots living in and around British-occupied downstate New York. Chopra explores how Loyalists who flocked to New York City and its surrounding islands seeking refuge behind British lines were bewildered by the disregard and lack of support they received by those who they believed were there to defend them. Jasanoff’s work does an excellent job illuminating the refuge crisis of the 60,000 or so Americans who took flight during post-war loyalist exodus to such far-flung places throughout the British Empire as England, Jamaica, India, Sierra Leone, and Canada.


Thomas B. Allen’s Tories: Fighting For the King in America’s First Civil War (New York: HarperCollins, 2010) takes a more universal approach then the books previously mentioned. In his work, Allen provides a tremendous amount of information about the Loyalists from the political protests in the 1760s through the post-war period. Although his book examines the lives of Tories across all of North America, his greatest focus is on their experiences in the middle and northern colonies as well as across the frontier. His main premise is that the American Revolution was in reality America’s first civil war which tore families, communities and church congregations apart. What began as a hotly contested debate over who should wield political power, the King and his ministers or the Continental and provincial Congress, eventually deteriorated into an agonizing “savage fury” of pillage, devastation and murder. Allen estimates that American Loyalists numbered nearly half a million out of a colonial population of around 2.5 million including a half million enslaved people. Although the book is not a military history of the war, Allen spends a lot of time examining the military contributions of the Loyalists and determines that out of 772 engagements Tories were involved in 576 of them. By the end of America’s War for Independence, the fighting they took part in turned into a virtual blood bath in which Americans slaughtered Americans and sometimes for reasons unrelated to the political issues of the war.

One of the most important contributions Allen’s book makes to the literature is its depiction of the barbarous ferocity that accompanied the agonizing birth of our nation. This is especially true for those areas that were occupied by the armies of both sides. New York City and its environs, including Long Island, coastal New Jersey and southern Connecticut, is a case in point. Following the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776 and the subsequent battles that drove Washington’s army across the Hudson into New Jersey, the British occupied New York for seven years, longer than any other area during the war. Being caught behind the lines complicated the already perplexing matter of allegiance for both Patriots and Tories alike. Cut off from the mainland by the Royal Navy and confronted with armed Loyalists supported by swift moving British cavalry and light infantry roaming their streets, residents of the colony had no choice but to submit. Residents who had not fled hoped that by surrendering they would be granted the clemency promised by British commanders to all those who “peaceably submitted and supported his Majesty’s forces.” Most adult male inhabitants promised British leaders their “true allegiance” and requested that the commander restore the country to “his Majesty’s protection and peace.” In addition, they begged for clemency and promised to reject all of their prior resolutions and orders issued by the rebel Congress and avowed their allegiance to the British Crown. British officers threatened residents with conscription if they did not voluntarily raise men for the provincials. As Allen explains, local requirements for provincial troops were satisfied by Queens County Loyalists and refugees from other colonies to lower New York.

Throughout the war, the British recruited “Negroes as well as whites” into Loyalist companies. For example, John Thompson, a free black farmer in Riverhead, Long Island served as manservant and confidential messenger to Col. Edmund Fanning, secretary to royal Gov. William Tryon. At the end of the war, Thompson became a Loyalist refugee who evacuated with the British army from Long Island. African-American New Yorkers exploited the need for manpower on both sides. A number of men hired themselves out to the Americans as laborers, teamsters, drivers, commissary attendants and pilots along Long Island’s inland waterways or served on privateers; positions not open to them in peacetime. Meanwhile, the British, rather than trouble themselves with confiscating slaves, promised fugitives who deserted their rebel masters “full security to follow within their lines any Occupation which he shall think proper.” Consequently, numerous runaways served with British units as guides, couriers, cartmen, carpenters, and the like for “the Quartermaster General’s Department, the Wagonmaster, or the Forage and Provision departments.” As Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace explain in their book Gotham: A History of the City of New York to 1898, the “autonomy, and self-confidence of New York’s freedmen were unmistakable and got a good deal of attention throughout the colonies. ‘Ethiopian Balls,’ where African Americans and British officers mingled freely, drew particular criticism in the rebel press.”

Although the British made limited use of New York’s black population they ignored the few hundred Native American families living on Long Island even when the men volunteered. In March 1778, Colonel Guy Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New York, met with the Montaukett Indians who told him that although they were “few in number and surrounded by disaffected people” they offered their services “whenever the General [Howe] shall please to make use of them.” Long Island’s Indian population had hoped to win favor with the British, after years of suffering from local ordinances that limited their freedom of movement, as well as diminished their hunting and fishing rights. Although there are no available records indicating why the British never tried to co-opt the assistance of the Shinnecocks or Montauketts living on Long Island, perhaps since the Indians were so weak in number and resources imperial commanders saw them as potential burdens rather than effective allies. To make matters worse, the war cut off most of the income of the Montaukett agricultural workers when local white farmers became refugees to New England or stopped cultivating their fields in response to British plundering. As Allen points out in Tories, although reluctant to utilize Native Americans living in lower New York, the British readily turned to them to supplement Regular and Loyalist troops fighting along the frontier in Upstate New York.

Regardless of race and residence, as Tories and other books point out, it did not take long for the war in occupied New York to deteriorate from a fight for political independence to a murderous killing, plundering free-for-all devoid of any concern for human dignity or respect of law. The British and Americans robbed, beat and pillaged Loyalists, Patriots and neutrals alike. After the war ended in 1783, Allen claims that 80,000 Tories left the new United States; many starting new lives in Canada. About 2,000 formerly enslaved African-Americans, who were given their freedom for joining the Loyalists, migrated to Africa where they founded what is now Sierra Leone.

Allen has written or coauthored more than 30 books on a wide variety of subjects relating to the American Revolution and other topics including the critically acclaimed children’s book George Washington, Spymaster and Spy Book the Encyclopedia of Espionage. In Tories, Allen makes extensive use of a wide range of primary sources including among others, British archival sources, military orders, state and colonial archives, as well as personal letters and journals. There is a website that accompanies Tories ( that may prove useful for college and high school students in U.S. history and social studies classes. The website provides access to a number of primary source materials including a study of the engraving by H. Moses after Benjamin West’s painting Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in the Year 1783, as well as records transcribed from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Colonial Albany Social History Project. The site also contains lists such as the names and units of American Loyalist Troops (1775-84), Anti-Tory Laws Passed during the Revolutionary War listed State by State and a useful American Revolution Timeline.

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