Some years ago, before it was shuttered to the public, my son and I took a road trip to check out the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, CT, an abandoned copper mine that was turned into a prison in the late eighteenth century.We had the benefit of electric lights, and modern stairways have replaced the ladders that prisoners were forced down to the pit and tunnels some seventy feet underground, but even so the sense of claustrophobic isolation was palpable. Much of the cavern is narrow and cramped, with sloped floors and low rock ceilings. It is ever a cold and dank fifty-five degrees, and as penitentiary it was also dark, largely airless and no doubt horrifying for those confined there. [p49-52] That many of those hapless occupants were Loyalists imprisoned here during the American Revolution may have been mentioned by the guide, but hardly emphasized. Loyalists are the invisible actors in the drama that saw the colonies become a nation. While some estimates peg the Loyalist segment as high as twenty percent of the white population, perhaps some five hundred thousand colonists, they have largely vanished with little trace in American history.
Fortunately, a new generation of historians – most notably among these Alan Taylor – have rediscovered them, as well as the Native Americans and African-Americans long disregarded by more traditional studies. Now Holger Hoock neatly advances this trend in the historiography with Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, slated for release in May 2017, which restores Loyalists – long relegated to inconsequential cameos – to central characters that once walked on that tumultuous stage. In this fine contribution to the latest scholarship, the author treats the American Revolution as a kind of “civil war,” not only between the colonists and the British, but more critically between Patriots and Loyalists. These were, after all, friends and neighbors and relatives, some of whom were banished to that hell hole at Newgate, others on both sides who were brutalized far worse than that.
As the book’s subtitle – America’s Violent Birth – suggests, Hoock not only revisits the tame, lamely whitewashed version of the Revolution that we have grown up with to resurrect the Loyalists and challenge the myth of consensus among the colonists in their bid for independence, but he strives to locate and identify the violence in the conflict that has somehow been excised from most of the history texts. That violence dominates the theme in this well-written narrative, on the battlefield and especially beyond it. The author reminds us, for instance, that to be tarred and feathered – a favored device for the public humiliation of Loyalists – was hardly benign, but that hot tar often seared and permanently scarred the flesh. And that was, tragically, the least of it, as Patriots and Loyalists and British regulars and Hessian troops often visited terrible cruelties upon one another, and exponentially worse brutalities upon the Native Americans and blacks, slave and free, that found themselves in the orbit of the struggle. Hoock, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, brings a kind of fresh perspective to this subject especially because, as he notes in the “Introduction,” he is a “German born specialist in British history who did not grow up with the national myths of either Britain or America.” [p22]
There were certain accepted norms for rules of engagement and codes of conduct for eighteenth century war and the treatment of prisoners. These were routinely violated. Dubbing the angry incident between a snowballing-tossing mob and British regulars the “Boston Massacre” made for great public relations long before actual hostilities broke out, but during the War of Independence there were indeed massacres, mostly perpetrated by British soldiers and their Hessian allies that did not view rebels employing guerrilla tactics worthy of quarter. Bayonets made grim examples of men begging for their lives. Over the course of the war, many more were taken prisoner than executed, but their fate often made Old Newgate look like a nice place to visit. Those Americans who were captured were often condemned to horrific confinement in the fetid holds of British prison ships, replete with abysmal conditions and mortality rates that frequently ranged from forty to seventy percent! [p226] British prisoners typically received far better treatment by their colonial captors, due not only to Washington’s strict codes of conduct towards enemy forces, but also because Americans were better capable of caring and feeding captives within their lines than were their counterparts. Loyalists, of course, existed in a kind of grey area, and thus were subject to arbitrary treatment in local environments. The violence was hardly one-sided, and there were examples of “. . . sadistic American-on American cruelty . . .” manifested in torture and murder on both sides. [p324-25]
Hoock also draws attention to segments of the population typically overlooked. The British dangled freedom before the eyes of enslaved Africans willing to assist the war effort, an attractive offer that sent tens of thousands of blacks into British lines. [p310] The unintended consequence was that this acted as an incentive to rebellion for otherwise uncommitted white plantation owners, pregnant with fear of slave uprisings. [p100] Hoock notes that “Blacks were . . . used as a psychological cudgel.” A selective one. In one case a patrol whipped the overseer of a Patriot plantation in full view of the slaves. But Loyalist slaves were protected as property, and sometimes executed by the British for attempting rebellion. [p310-311] For their part, Patriots often inflicted terrible injustice upon African-Americans, slave and free, whom they suspected of inciting revolt or recruiting slaves to the British cause. [p98] For the most part, the British showed little loyalty to blacks when less than convenient, as when they abandoned a thousand dead or dying African-Americans on the Virginia coast following the bombardment of Norfolk. [p103] Native-Americans, drawn into the struggle primarily as allies of the British, fared little better. Their ways of war were seen as barbaric, and this barbarism was repaid tenfold by the victorious Patriots. [p280-299]
Something like one hundred thousand Loyalists fled the thirteen colonies during the war and its aftermath. Many settled in Canada, although some were to return in the coming years. Reconciliation, led by Alexander Hamilton and others, ultimately triumphed over bitterness and recrimination for the winning side. [p382] Many, but not all, of the Loyalists who remained after the Revolution assimilated back into society. This was also true for some who fled and later returned. But the unspoken mandate for reconciliation was unconditional silence. “The price for the losers’ reintegration into America was to keep their own scars hidden.” [p397] The disease of Loyalism was essentially expunged from the national consciousness. It was publicly forgotten, even by most historians. We can be grateful to Holger Hoock and Scars of Independence for helping us to remember.
[Note: My copy of this book is an Advance Reader’s Edition uncorrected proof that I received through an Early Reviewer’s program]
More on Old Newgate Prison http://www.cultureandtourism.org/cct/cwp/view.asp?a=2127&q=302258 ; http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/old-newgate-prison