In the second installment of “Revolutionary War in a Nutshell” we are going to think about how the two sides are labeled: Loyalists and Patriots. I had always thought of the Revolutionary War in terms of British and Americans, but I realized that most of the people fighting on both sides were Americans. There were Americans who chose to stay loyal to the British (“Long live the King!”) and Americans who chose to rebel against Great Britain and declare the right to be an independent country (“Give me liberty or give me death!”). Most of the literature about the Revolutionary War refers to them as Loyalists and Rebels, but that feels like a British way of referring to them, so I will call them Loyalists and Patriots in my blog.
Loyalists were often people who had recently come from Great Britain. They knew there were problems but subscribed to the idea of “my country, right or wrong.” Great Britain was their country and the American colonies were a part of it, even if they hadn’t figured out the problem with representation yet. These people wanted to preserve the status quo and work through legal channels to make changes. They were willing to give Great Britain time to give the colonies more equal footing. Loyalists considered anyone who wanted independence to be a traitor or rebel.
Patriots were tired of waiting for Great Britain to give them the rights they deserved. They felt more loyalty to their colony than they did to their state. They considered themselves Virginians, or Rhode Islanders, or Pennsylvanians instead of British. Patriots became increasingly dissatisfied with Great Britain’s unwillingness to change the status quo and give them the respect and representation they deserved. Eventually they felt that Great Britain had given them no choice but to declare independence and fight for their rights.
Both sides had armies that fought in the Revolutionary War. The Loyalist army was also known as the Provincial army. There were soldiers from Great Britain with the British army, but there were increasing numbers of Americans who chose to serve with the British army and put down the rebellion. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War there were 10,000 British troops in the colonies. Great Britain also hired 18,000 German mercenaries to help bolster their colonial forces. 20,000 soldiers in the British army were American colonists. So the total fighting force of the British army was about 48,000 men. Most of their officers wore red coats but there were also green, blue, brown, and yellow coats with the different regiments.
The Patriot army was formed and funded by the first Continental Congress. Each colony was called upon to furnish and pay regiments of soldiers. Each colony was allowed as many generals as they had regiments. George Washington, a delegate from Virginia to that first Continental Congress, was declared the General in Chief of the Continental Army. Washington had 20 years of experience as an officer with the British Provincial Army and served as the General in Chief for the entire American Revolution. The officers in the army wore blue coats and the soldiers at the beginning of the war also wore blue coats. By the end of the war most of the soldiers wore beige linsey-woolsey
Both armies fought in the style common to the day. They preferred fields of battle, where both armies would advance toward one another in ranks and fire their muskets in an orderly manner until getting close enough to each other to charge with bayonets. Most of these soldiers carried “Brown Bess” muskets that were not accurate, but lethal in large volleys at close range. Officers would joke that hitting a target at a distance greater than 80 yards was an accident.
One additional group of soldiers was important to both sides of the war: the Militia. Each town had a militia that drilled and defended that area. They were called the “Minutemen” in Massachusetts because they would be ready to fight together in a minute. Some towns were Loyalist towns and their militias were loyal to Great Britain. The militia were summoned when there was going to be a battle in a specific area and they expected to be able to leave and go back home as soon as the battle was over. The militia were not good at fighting in ranks and were easily scared off by a bayonet charge. They used whatever guns they had in their homes – muskets or rifles – and carried knives and hatchets instead of bayonets. Because the militia wore ordinary clothes, you couldn’t tell one side from another so the Loyalists wore pine twigs in their hats and the Patriots wore white pieces of paper.
There wasn’t much difference between Loyalists and Patriots. They were all American colonists and lived next door to each other, all mixed together with no obvious boundaries. I wonder – if I had been alive back then – which side I would have chosen.