By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
Every so often, visitors to Saratoga will opine: “If I lived back during the Revolutionary War, I’d have been a Tory [or Rebel]”. It’s gratifying that the Revolutionary War is taken to heart, but it’s obvious that they haven’t probed the subject deeply. They might discover that sometimes that a decision had to be re-thought, or stifled.
First of all, choosing sides in a civil war is a very risky business and no choice carries with it a money-back guarantee of being on the winning side. Being on the winning side also does not guarantee safety for yourself, family or property, especially during the War for Independence.
Therein lies a big difference between the Civil War of the 1860’s and that of the 1775-83. Selecting a side during Civil War of the 1860’s essentially was decided by state leaders. If a state remained with the Union, or went with the Confederacy, the population mostly followed along with that. There were notable exceptions, but mostly the fault line between Unionist and Secessionist was the state line.
During the Revolutionary War, being Loyal or Rebel was often based upon differences of religion, ethnicity, personal animosities and other factors that aren’t always easily discerned. The fault lines were anything but tidy resulting in communities, neighbors, acquaintances and families divided by the question of which side to support.
In such a situation, it’s hard to know anyone’s alignment. Joseph Plumb Martin noted the problem during his service at Woodbridge, New Jersey in 1780, bearing an eerie resemblance to American experiences 180 years later in Southeast Asia:
“There was no trusting the inhabitants, for many of them were friendly to the British, and we did not know who were or were not, and consequently, were distrustful of them all….
This is not to say that some of the people living in the shadow of the British garrison of the City of New York might have supported the cause of independence. Considering that they were within reach of the British, expressing the wrong sentiments could be dangerous.
Expressing a Loyalist opinion in an area where the British couldn’t make “house calls” could be equally foolish and unsafe. On official levels, the penalties for choosing the wrong side led to harassment or imprisonment. The records of the Committee of Safety and Protection, King’s District, Albany County [present-day Columbia County] detail, in original spelling and punctuation, some of the treatment of Loyalists. :[10 June 1776] “…Samuel Gardineer… on complaint being made of his being unfriendly to the Liberties of America was brought before this board having examined Sd. Gardineer and attended to Evidence against him Ordered that sd…Gardineer be Sent to the Committe of Albany with the Evidence there to be delt with according as they Judge the merits…. [no date, 1776] “John Savage Ritchard Powars and Moses Dorman being all of them aprehended By a Party under the Comand ofcapt. Salsbery who wer all taken well armed and Broght Before this Board…hearing the Evedances…find that to their full sattisfaction the above Persons were armed against these States and were on a very wicked Design therefore resolve that the above…shall be handcofed…together and kept safe by a saficient gard til the Morning and then sent…to Hartford in Conectticut for clost Confinement….” [7 May 1777] “ Joshua Barrit being brought before this board and in Some Degree appea’d to be unfriendly to his Country…Confin’d to his farm and if found any Distance from his farmto be a mark for any friend of his Country to be Shot at During the Pleasure of the Committee…”
No war is conducted on an entirely official level; civil wars are usually personal and especially brutal. The 19th century antiquarian Asa Fitch brought to life the Revolutionary War along the Vermont/New York border areas interviewing people who’d been through it. Their experiences show how choices could save or destroy property, livelihood or lives.
One interview brought up a frightening incident showing the dangers encountered during the war while trying to support a family:
“Once three men came to father’s house in his absence and asked mother for a drink of water. She gave them a drink. They then asked what party she belonged to, without giving and intimations of the side they were on. She was all alone and wholly at their mercy if they were viciously inclined. She tried to evade the inquiry, told them that she was a woman, it was not her place to meddle with politics, that it was not fair for them to ask such a question, anything they needed, and asked for she had given them, and it would be of no benefit to them to know which party she preferred, they therefore ought not to ask her. They thereupon did not press the point….”
Being vague on this occasion did the trick for a lone woman facing armed men. However:
“..it was a daily occurrence for parties to call at the dwellings of inhabitants, not only to ask for refreshments (which no one was inclined to deny them) but also to ask the party the family belonged to, keeping their own politics wholly a secret. No one knew how to shape an answer under such circumstances, for if they differed in politics from their visitors, they well knew, they would probably be insulted and abused by them.”
It was not just a matter of choosing one side or the other during the war; it was also choosing how to represent yourself. A wrong word at the wrong time to a stranger could have disastrous results.
A terrible aspect of this sort of war, an individual on other side is not always a stranger. Too often someone on the other side was a relative, neighbor or friend, as Asa Fitch reports:
“…Thomas Steele also was said to be a tory and his wife a whig [pro-independence], though they never quarreled about politics in the house, but what they did was in direct opposition to each other…[A local Loyalist leader, Dr. Adams] used to lay in the woods near Thomas Steel’s and by some signal would make their presence known to Steele, when he would go to them and get the news, and supply them with provisions, and at the same time he was doing this, his wife in the house, was making her son’s clothes and fixing them out…to enter the militia, to go to the [Hudson] river and fight Burgoyne.”
The Steele’s almost comical de facto accommodation of each others’ politics stands in stark contrast to the fate of David Mallory who was raised by the aforementioned Dr. Adams. One of Fitch’s informants related how Adams’ band had successfully ambushed a Whig party. Mallory rode to the sound of the gunfire and was met by Dr. Adams who said:
“David, you was once my boy, and you must now be my prisoner. I don’t want to hurt you, therefore surrender yourself and you shall be well treated….”
Mallory’s reply was to advance at Adams with a cocked pistol.
“Adams in alarm exclaimed, “David, you ain’t going to fire at me, your father!” but seeing from [Mallory’s] motions his determined purpose, Adams had only time to raise and hastily discharge his own gun…”
Both fired. Both were wounded; Mallory mortally.
“Adams saw the nature of [Mallory’s] wound at once, and deeply affected, exclaimed, “Oh, Mallory, this is an awful affair! Why didn’t you Surrender! The Lord knows and you know you are as a son to me, and I would have allowed no one to harm you, whilst with me, my protégé, you would have fared as I fared. Your blood is upon your own head, for even if you had killed me, you could not have escaped death from my men.”
Dr. Adams refused to allow his men to finish off Mallory, in a slim hope of his recovery. But his parting words to his former protégé were as brutal as the wounding:
“Mallory, you die as the fool dieth. May God be merciful to you.”
For visitors today, the notion of choosing sides in the Revolutionary War is at best an academic exercise. For people who lived through the conflict, it was real life with real and often unpleasant consequences.