Revolution as Civil War: Patriot-Loyalist Conflict

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The American Revolution was not simply the uprising of united American colonists fighting for independence against a British Empire unified in its desire to impose its will upon the colonies. Instead, the war involved the complex internal squabbles of a diverse population, with allegiances often hinging on uncertain circumstances. In a civil war, hostile action erupts between two groups (usually fielding conventional armies) within the same country, groups whose claims to political power and identity have proven irreconcilable. By this standard, the American Revolution often partook of the characteristics of a civil war.

outlines of the conflict

Historians who have focused on the political ideology and religious beliefs of the colonists have illustrated several points of divergence among Americans. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Low Church Anglicans (who sought a Church of England independent of state apparatus), those who sought to foster America's economic independence, and those who supported westward expansion tended to side with the Patriots. Many of these groups eagerly participated in the revolutionary movement, with its ideas about representative government, popular sovereignty, and religious and political liberty. While these supporters of the rebellion might be found throughout the British Empire, they were concentrated most heavily in New England, the Chesapeake, and interior lands stretching southward from Pennsylvania.

Loyalism tended to flourish among High Church Anglicans (who sought greater fusion of church and state), employees of the crown, strategists who sought to limit American expansion, civilians who depended upon British military protection, and those who supported British mercantile policy. These groups were more common in the Lower South and the middle colonies, though they were significant minorities in New England and the Chesapeake as well. The British also found allies among the inhabitants of Canada and the Caribbean, important Indian tribes such as the Iroquois and Cherokee, and thousands of southern blacks who believed that the British Empire held a greater promise of freedom.

There were numerous exceptions to these generalizations; nevertheless, this broad split represented significant ideological and denominational rifts within the British Empire. Such divisions were evident on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and they helped to raise the stakes in the minds of many Americans about the consequences of this civil conflict.

the chaos of internecine war

The American Revolution resembled a civil war most clearly in the sphere of military action. In some areas, civil war was less apparent because one side or another predominated. In much of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New England, rebellious Americans successfully suppressed Loyalism, just as the British effectively squelched any pockets of sympathy for the Patriots in Canada and elsewhere. On the other hand, both sides waged an often bloody civil conflict in many other places: the coastline, the Lower South, New Jersey, New York, and the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Revolutionary War was not merely the unanimous uprising of Americans against a distant and monolithic British Empire, but something more divisive and complex.

Any civil war polarizes the two warring sides; in addition, civil war also creates gray areas and gray loyalties of various kinds. Apathy, hesitation, selfinterest, and pacifism abounded, particularly in a war where English-speaking Protestants were fighting one another. (On the other hand, many focused on the participation of blacks, Indians, Hessian mercenaries, and French allies as a reason to fight for one side or the other.) Many Americans simply wanted to be left to their own devices. Patriots often tried to shock these fence-sitters into commitment by requiring loyalty oaths. Yet thousands of Americans clung to a desire for neutrality—during an early British siege attempt on Charleston, South Carolina, in 1779, a group of civilian leaders asked Great Britain to grant the city neutral status.

Perhaps a fifth of all people in the thirteen rebellious colonies were Loyalists, and as many as nineteen thousand Americans may have enlisted to fight for the crown. Some Americans found themselves aligning or collaborating with whichever party was more powerful in the area where they lived. Loyalism and Patriotism might spring from vengeance, resentment, fear, coercion, local disputes, opportunism, or short-term financial incentives in addition to broader ideological or economic reasons for supporting or opposing Great Britain.

British leaders could never decide whether to prosecute a relentless, destructive war or adopt a more conciliatory posture. Many Loyalists and British officers gained reputations for advocating a "fire and sword" approach toward fighting the Americans, while the Americans themselves occasionally destroyed Indian and white settlements, including large cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, during the course of the war. On the periphery of armed conflict, both sides engaged in ambushes, raids, plunder, brutality, banditry, depredations, and the settling of private scores. Cooler heads on both sides deplored such actions. Many Patriots believed that irregular war undermined the new nation's claims to civility, while some supporters of the crown hoped to reconcile the rebellious element in America. This conciliatory attitude clashed with more aggressive approaches, and Great Britain's inconsistent policy hindered its war effort.

The role of the Loyalists in the American Revolution has been both underestimated and overestimated. On the one hand, the presence of Loyalists and neutrals demonstrates how tenuous the rebels' influence might have been in North America had the British been willing and able to exert their full military might. On the other hand, Great Britain never took full advantage of the inchoate mass of Loyalists and their military potential. After 1778, when the British began attempting to mobilize Loyalists more fully, they leaned too heavily on these scattered groups of supporters, undermining any chance of military success. Through its initial hesitation, Britain failed to drive North America into full-blown civil war. Through its subsequent miscalculations, the British ministry failed to prosecute a civil war effectively.

The American Revolution pitted neighbors and families against one another as surely as any civil war. Military exigencies and deeper sources of disagreement fractured North America during the course of this long and bloody conflict.

See alsoLoyalists; Revolution: Military History .


Calhoon, Robert McCluer. The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760–1781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Clark, J. C. D. The Language of Liberty, 1660–1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Phillips, Kevin. The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Smith, Paul H. Loyalists and Redcoats: A Study in British Revolutionary Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964.

Benjamin L. Carp