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The Loyalists under Arms

It has been charged against the Loyalists, and the charge cannot be denied, that at the beginning of the Revolution they lacked initiative, and were slow to organize and defend themselves. It was not, in fact, until 1776 that Loyalist regiments began to be formed on an extensive scale. There were several reasons why this was so. In the first place a great many of the Loyalists, as has been pointed out, were not at the outset in complete sympathy with the policy of the British government; and those who might have been willing to take up arms were very early disarmed and intimidated by the energy of the revolutionary authorities. In the second place that very conservatism which made the Loyalists draw back from revolution hindered them from taking arms until the king gave them commissions and provided facilities for military organization. And there is no fact better attested in the history of the Revolution than the failure of the British authorities to understand until it was too late the great advantages to be derived from the employment of Loyalist levies. The truth is that the British officers did not think much more highly of the Loyalists than they did of the rebels. For both they had the Briton's contempt for the colonial, and the professional soldier's contempt for the armed civilian.

Had more use been made of the Tories, the military history of the Revolution might have been very different. They understood the conditions of warfare in the New World much better than the British regulars or the German mercenaries. Had the advice of prominent Loyalists been accepted by the British commander at the battle of Bunker's Hill, it is highly probable that there would have been none of that carnage in the British ranks which made of the victory a virtual defeat. It was said that Burgoyne's early successes were largely due to the skill with which he used his Loyalist auxiliaries. And in the latter part of the war, it must be confessed that the successes of the Loyalist troops far outshone those of the British regulars. In the Carolinas Tarleton's Loyal Cavalry swept everything before them, until their defeat at the Cowpens by Daniel Morgan. In southern New York Governor Tryon's levies carried fire and sword up the Hudson, into 'Indigo Connecticut,' and over into New Jersey. Along the northern frontier, the Loyalist forces commanded by Sir John Johnson and Colonel Butler made repeated incursions into the Mohawk, Schoharie, and Wyoming valleys and, in each case, after leaving a trail of desolation behind them, they withdrew to the Canadian border in good order. The trouble was that, owing to the stupidity and incapacity of Lord George Germain, the British minister who was more than any other man responsible for the misconduct of the American War, these expeditions were not made part of a properly concerted plan; and so they sank into the category of isolated raids.

From the point of view of Canadian history, the most interesting of these expeditions were those conducted by Sir John Johnson and Colonel Butler. They were carried on with the Canadian border as their base-line. It was by the men who were engaged in them that Upper Canada was at first largely settled; and for a century and a quarter there have been leveled against these men by American and even by English writers charges of barbarism and inhumanity about which Canadians in particular are interested to know the truth.

Most of Johnson's and Butler's men came from central or northern New York. To explain how this came about it is necessary to make an excursion into previous history. In 1738 there had come out to America a young Irishman of good family named William Johnson. The famous naval hero, Sir Peter Warren, who was an uncle of Johnson, had large tracts of land in the Mohawk valley, in northern New York. These estates he employed his nephew in administering; and, when he died, he bequeathed them to him. In the meantime William Johnson had begun to improve his opportunities. He had built up a prosperous trade with the Indians; he had learned their language and studied their ways; and he had gained such an ascendancy over them that he came to be known as 'the Indian-tamer,' and was appointed the British superintendent-general for Indian Affairs. In the Seven Years' War he served with great distinction against the French. He defeated Baron Dieskau at Lake George in 1755, and he captured Niagara in 1759; for the first of these services he was created a baronet, and received a pension of 5,000 pounds a year. During his later years he lived at his house, Johnson Hall, on the Mohawk river; and he died in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, leaving his title and his vast estates to his only son, Sir John.

Just before his death Sir William Johnson had interested himself in schemes for the colonization of his lands. In these he was remarkably successful. He secured in the main two classes of immigrants, Germans and Scottish Highlanders. Of the Highlanders he must have induced more than one thousand to emigrate from Scotland, some of them as late as 1773. Many of them had been Jacobites; some of them had seen service at Culloden Moor; and one of them, Alexander Macdonell, whose son subsequently sat in the first legislature of Upper Canada, had been on Bonnie Prince Charlie's personal staff. These men had no love for the Hanoverians; but their loyalty to their new chieftain, and their lack of sympathy with American ideals, kept them at the time of the Revolution true almost without exception to the British cause. King George had no more faithful allies in the New World than these rebels of the '45.

They were the first of the Loyalists to arm and organize themselves. In the summer of 1775 Colonel Allan Maclean, a Scottish officer in the English army, aided by Colonel Guy Johnson, a brother-in-law of Sir John Johnson, raised a regiment in the Mohawk valley known as the Royal Highland Emigrants, which he took to Canada, and which did good service against the American invaders under Montgomery in the autumn of the same year. In the spring of 1776 Sir John Johnson received word that the revolutionary authorities had determined on his arrest, and he was compelled to flee from Johnson Hall to Canada. With him he took three hundred of his Scottish dependants; and he was followed by the Mohawk Indians under their famous chief, Joseph Brant. In Canada Johnson received a colonel's commission to raise two Loyalist battalions of five hundred men each, to be known as the King's Royal Regiment of New York. The full complement was soon made up from the numbers of Loyalists who flocked across the border from other counties of northern New York; and Sir John Johnson's 'Royal Greens,' as they were commonly called, were in the thick of nearly every border foray from that time until the end of the war. It was by these men that the north shore of the St Lawrence river, between Montreal and Kingston, was mainly settled. As the tide of refugees swelled, other regiments were formed. Colonel John Butler, one of Sir John Johnson's right-hand men, organized his Loyal Rangers, a body of irregular troops who adopted, with modifications, the Indian method of warfare. It was against this corps that some of the most serious charges of brutality and bloodthirstiness were made by American historians; and it was by this corps that the Niagara district of Upper Canada was settled after the war.

It is not possible here to give more than a brief sketch of the operations of these troops. In 1777 they formed an important part of the forces with which General Burgoyne, by way of Lake Champlain, and Colonel St Leger, by way of Oswego, attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach Albany. An offshoot of the first battalion of the 'Royal Greens,' known as Jessup's Corps, was with Burgoyne at Saratoga; and the rest of the regiment was with St Leger, under the command of Sir John Johnson himself. The ambuscade of Oriskany, where Sir John Johnson's men first met their Whig neighbors and relatives, who were defending Fort Stanwix, was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Its 'fratricidal butchery' denuded the Mohawk valley of most of its male population; and it was said that if Tryon county 'smiled again during the war, it smiled through tears.' The battle was inconclusive, so bitterly was it contested; but it was successful in stemming the advance of St Leger's forces.

The next year (1778) there was an outbreak of sporadic raiding all along the border. Alexander Macdonell, the former aide-de-camp of Bonnie Prince Charlie, fell with three hundred Loyalists on the Dutch settlements of the Schoharie valley and laid them waste. Macdonell's ideas of border warfare were derived from his Highland ancestors; and, as he expected no quarter, he gave none. Colonel Butler, with his Rangers and a party of Indians, descended into the valley of Wyoming, which was a sort of debatable ground between Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and carried fire and sword through the settlements there. This raid was commemorated by Thomas Campbell in a most unhistorical poem entitled Gertrude of Wyoming:

On Susquehana's side, fair Wyoming! Although the wild-flower on thy ruined wall And roofless homes a sad remembrance bring Of what thy gentle people did befall.

Later in the year Walter Butler, the son of Colonel John Butler, and Joseph Brant, with a party of Loyalists and Mohawks, made a similar inroad on Cherry Valley, south of Springfield in the state of New York. On this occasion Brant's Indians got beyond control, and more than fifty defenseless old men, women, and children were slaughtered in cold blood.

The Americans took their revenge the following year. A large force under General Sullivan invaded the settlements of the Six Nations Indians in the Chemung and Genesee valleys, and exacted an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They burned the villages, destroyed the crops, and turned the helpless women and children out to face the coming winter. Most of the Indians during the winter of 1779-80 were dependent on the mercy of the British commissaries.

This kind of warfare tends to perpetuate itself indefinitely. In 1780 the Loyalists and Indians returned to the attack. In May Sir John Johnson with his 'Royal Greens' made a descent into the Mohawk valley, fell upon his 'rebellious birthplace,' and carried off rich booty and many prisoners. In the early autumn, with a force composed of his own regiment, two hundred of Butler's Rangers, and some regulars and Indians, he crossed over to the Schoharie valley, devastated it, and then returned to the Mohawk valley, where he completed the work of the previous spring. All attempts to crush him failed. At the battle of Fox's Mills he escaped defeat or capture by the American forces under General Van Rensselaer largely on account of the dense smoke with which the air was filled from the burning of barns and villages.

How far the Loyalists under Johnson and Butler were open to the charges of inhumanity and barbarism so often leveled against them, is difficult to determine. The charges are based almost wholly on unsubstantial tradition. The greater part of the excesses complained of, it is safe to say, were perpetrated by the Indians; and Sir John Johnson and Colonel Butler can no more be blamed for the excesses of the Indians at Cherry Valley than Montcalm can be blamed for their excesses at Fort William Henry. It was unfortunate that the military opinion of that day regarded the use of savages as necessary, and no one deplored this use more than men like Haldimand and Carleton; but Washington and the Continental Congress were as ready to receive the aid of the Indians as were the British. The difficulty of the Americans was that most of the Indians were on the other side.

That there were, however, atrocities committed by the Loyalists cannot be doubted. Sir John Johnson himself told the revolutionists that 'their Tory neighbors, and not himself, were blamable for those acts.' There are well-authenticated cases of atrocities committed by Alexander Macdonell: in 1781 he ordered his men to shoot down a prisoner taken near Johnstown, and when the men bungled their task, Macdonell cut the prisoner down with his broadsword. When Colonel Butler returned from Cherry Valley, Sir Frederick Haldimand refused to see him, and wrote to him that 'such indiscriminate vengeance taken even upon the treacherous and cruel enemy they are engaged against is useless and disreputable to themselves, as it is contrary to the disposition and maxims of their King whose cause they are fighting.'

But rumor exaggerated whatever atrocities there were. For many years the Americans believed that the Tories had lifted scalps like the Indians; and later, when the Americans captured York in 1813, they found what they regarded as a signal proof of this barbarous practice among the Loyalists, in the speaker's wig, which was hanging beside the chair in the legislative chamber! There may have been members of Butler's Rangers who borrowed from the Indians this hideous custom, just as there were American frontiersmen who were guilty of it; but it must not be imagined that it was a common practice on either side. Except at Cherry Valley, there is no proof that any violence was done by the Loyalists to women and children. On his return from Wyoming, Colonel Butler reported: 'I can with truth inform you that in the destruction of this settlement not a single person has been hurt of the inhabitants, but such as were armed; to those indeed the Indians gave no quarter.'

In defense of the Loyalists, two considerations may be urged. In the first place, it must be remembered that they were men who had been evicted from their homes, and whose property had been confiscated. They had been placed under the ban of the law: the payment of their debts had been denied them; and they had been forbidden to return to their native land under penalty of death without benefit of clergy. They had been imprisoned, fined, subjected to special taxation; their families had been maltreated, and were in many cases still in the hands of their enemies. They would have been hardly human had they waged a mimic warfare. In the second place, their depredations were of great value from a military point of view. Not only did they prevent thousands of militiamen from joining the Continental army, but they seriously threatened the sources of Washington's food supply. The valleys which they ravaged were the granary of the revolutionary forces. In 1780 Sir John Johnson destroyed in the Schoharie valley alone no less than eighty thousand bushels of grain; and this loss, as Washington wrote to the president of Congress, 'threatened alarming consequences.' That this work of destruction was agreeable to the Loyalists cannot be doubted; but this fact does not diminish its value as a military measure.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The United Empire Loyalists, A Chronicle of the Great Migration, 1915

 

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