Review: Ferocious war of American fratricide (Financial Times)

Norman Gelb (Financial Times) reveals that loyalists and rebels, not Redcoats, were really responsible for atrocities seen in The Patriot.

Ferocious war of American fratricide
Norman Gelb (Financial Times)
29 July 2000

The film The Patriot, set at the time of the American Revolution and starring Mel Gibson, has been accused of playing fast and loose with historical authenticity.

However, the movie does confront a basic truth about the American War of Independence that is generally overlooked.

Though it is groundless to suggest that the British Army perpetrated mass atrocities against civilians while trying to put down the colonial rebellion, countless acts of vicious, calculated savagery were indeed committed during the war.

What the film fails to point out is that, mostly, only Americans were involved in such behaviour.

It is true that the British Army and George Washington’s Continentals engaged in a fierce struggle and that some Redcoats were bent on killing beyond the call of their soldierly duty.

But the most brutal slaughter during the revolution was not between Redcoats and revolutionaries. It was between Americans who fought for independence and Americans who fought alongside the Redcoats to crush the rebellion.

Not a single British soldier was present at the ferocious battle between American rebels and American loyalists at Hanging Rock in South Carolina. At King’s Mountain not far away, where loyalist American fighters were cut down by rebels after they surrendered, the only Redcoat participating was the commander of the loyalist force.

American loyalists trekked dozens of miles through thick forest in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania where, with the assistance of Iroquois Indians, they massacred American rebels.

The people of the American colonies were sharply divided in their loyalties at the outbreak of the revolution. No less a revolutionary than John Adams, George Washington’s successor as US president, judged that at the beginning of the war, one-third of Americans were in favour of independence, one-third against, and one-third uncommitted.

During the revolution, tens of thousands of Americans volunteered to fight against the cause of independence. They often fought with distinction, as at the battles of Brandywine, Charleston and Savannah.

They formed more than 50 regiments under British command. Thousands more fought against the revolution as irregulars under their own command. New York was said to have supplied more recruits to George III than to George Washington.

Throughout the colonies, loyalist volunteers at times outnumbered those who rallied to Washington’s banners and joined rebel irregular “patriot” fighting bands like that led by Mel Gibson in the film.

They included the New Jersey Volunteers, Bucks County Light Dragoons of Pennsylvania, Queen’s Loyal Virginians, King’s Rangers of Carolina and Georgia Light Dragoons. One unit consisted mostly of Scottish immigrants. Ironically, in view of today’s headlines, the Volunteers of Ireland, intensely loyal to the crown, held the first American St Patrick’s Day Parade in British occupied New York in 1779.

In many clashes during the eight-year conflict, it was Americans versus Americans. They struggled against each other with a fraternal hatred far transcending anything felt by most of the professional soldiers dispatched from abroad.

Redcoats captured by revolutionaries and revolutionaries captured by Redcoats received more humane treatment than American fighters unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner by their American adversaries.

Only in the American Civil War, more than eight decades later, would the conflict between, Americans be as bitter and bloody as it was during the War of Independence.

Revolutionary General Nathanael Greene feared: “If a stop cannot be put to these massacres, the country will be depopulated.”

The war has set “neighbour against neighbour, father against son and son against father, and he that would not thrust his own blade through his brother’s heart was called an infamous villain”, another man grieved.

For a long time, the excessively confident British command did not appreciate the situation or its possibilities. At first, the Americans, loyalists as well as rebels, were dismissed as likely to be undisciplined rabble, not really soldier material.

Poor use was made of those colonials who, largely unbidden, volunteered to fight against Washington’s army. Many were assigned to non-combatant roles, including garrison duty, foraging and policing occupied areas. Others were alienated by the disdain with which they were treated by British officers and went home.

Not until it became apparent that Washington’s “rabble” might end up winning the war did General Sir Henry Clinton, the new commander in America, develop a greater sense of the possible usefulness of loyalist fighting units.

By then, King George himself was urging his commanders in the colonies to “call forth those who may have a sense of the duty they owe their mother country”.

General James Robertson, the British military governor of New York, declared his primary purpose was “to assist the good Americans to subdue the bad ones”.

But the war’s growing burden on British resources and war weariness continued to distort London’s view of the situation.

In a reversal of policy, though their contribution to the British cause still was not efficiently organised, exaggerated expectations were made of the fighting potential of the loyalists.

Those expectations were used as an excuse not to dispatch adequate Redcoat reinforcements that could have been advantageously deployed at a time when a rebel victory was still far from certain.

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