Top 10 American Loyalist Officers

Many historical accounts over look the impact of American loyalist military leaders and their revolutionary war contributions to the British cause.  50,000 or more soldiers in loyalist combat units actively participated in most major revolutionary battles throughout North America[1].  In addition to much needed combat power, they provided valuable scouting, battlefield intelligence and geographic knowledge. Further, many loyalists served in regular British army units.

Here is my list of the top ten American loyalist military officers listed by rank and alphabetic order within rank.  To be included, loyalist officers had to be born or reside in North America before the outbreak of the revolution.  This excludes obvious favorites like Banastre Tarleton and John Graves Simcoe, both of whom were British born and began their career as regular army officers.  Although several of my top ten loyalist officers were pre-war Crown political leaders, I also excluded politicians such as New Jersey Governor William Franklin who did not serve in military commands.

Often loyalists were given military commissions based upon their ability to recruit soldiers to the British cause. Several of the leaders focused on gathering intelligence through raiding patriot territories and operating spy networks.  Only Benedict Arnold and Joseph Brant were well known for their exploits on the revolutionary battlefield.

Due to the protection offered by British forces and bases in New York City and Canada, eight of the top ten loyalist leaders were based in the northern theater. All left the United States after the war and many became successful in Canada, Britain or other British colonies.

Brigadier General Benedict Arnold

Due to his infamous defection to the British, Benedict Arnold is probably the most well known American Loyalist military leader. Arnold defected on September 24, 1780 and was commissioned a Brigadier General in the Provincial Forces.[2]

His battlefield exploits on behalf of the patriot cause at Quebec, Valcour Island and Saratoga were publically renowned and respected by the British.  Initially, General Sir Henry Clinton had confidence in his military command abilities and sought ways to exploit his newfound leader.  Arnold’s first British assignment was a raid on Portsmouth and Richmond, Virginia that was of little strategic or tactical value.  A few months later he led an assault on Groton and New London, Connecticut that captured Fort Griswold, but at a higher casualty rate than expected.   As a result, British officers did not think he was a very good battlefield commander.  After these meaningless raids, Arnold traveled in 1782 to London, never to return to service in the British Army.[3]

Brigadier General Montfort Browne

At the outbreak of the Revolution, Montfort Browne was Governor of the Bahamas.  He was captured early in the war and exchanged for Lord Sterling.  In May 1777, Browne was commissioned Brigadier General, raised a regiment called the Prince of Wales American Regiment and fought at the siege of Rhode Island.[4]

He returned to the Bahamas as Governor, but was replaced for incompetence.  The Prince of Wales Regiment went on to fight at Charleston and Hanging Rock, South Carolina.

Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey (senior)

Oliver DeLancey was the patriarch of a large and influential family and a leading New York loyalist.  While DeLancey did participate in military campaigns in the French and Indian War, his revolutionary war contributions were primarily in rallying recruits to the loyalist forces.

In September 1776, Oliver DeLancey raised three provincial battalions for British service.  Known as DeLancey’s Brigade, the corps was recruited principally from loyalists on Long Island and Connecticut.  While the 3rd Battalion spent the entire war on Long Island, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were part of Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell’s expedition to capture Savannah, Georgia in December 1778, and likewise served at its defense in October of the following year.  While the 2nd Battalion remained at Savannah for the remainder of the time that city was held by the British, the 1st Battalion would take part in the relief of Augusta, the Siege of Ninety Six and the Battle of Eutaw Springs.  The two battalions in the South were merged into one and returned to New York in January, 1783.

Delancey departed New York with the British Army in 1783 along with his son, Oliver (the younger) who rose to the rank of a full general in the British Army in 1812.

Brigadier General Sir John Johnson

Sir John Johnson was the son of the late William Johnson, superintendent of the “Northern Confederate Indian Department.”  Fearing capture, Sir John led over 200 of his tenants from the Mohawk Valley to Montreal, where they arrived in June, 1776.  These men were formed into a new Provincial unit, the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, of which Johnson was appointed lieutenant colonel commandant.

Sir John and his regiment accompanied British Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger’s column during the 1777 Burgoyne Campaign.  On 6 August 1777, Johnson led a part of his corps, along with Indian Department Rangers and hundreds of Native allies led by Joseph Brant in the bloody ambush of New York Militia under the command of General Nicholas Herkimer.   Johnson led major raids into New York in 1780 and 1781, which helped recruit a 2nd Battalion for his corps.  In 1782, he was appointed brigadier general and superintendent general over the Six Nations Indians.

Brigadier General Cortland Skinner

Cortland Skinner was the last Crown Attorney General for New Jersey.  In July, 1776 Skinner was authorized to raise a Provincial regiment.  This corps, known as the New Jersey Volunteers, would number six battalions by the end of the year.  With over 3,300 officers and men serving in it at one point or another during the war, it would be the largest Provincial unit raised by the British.  Either in battalion or detachment strength, New Jersey Volunteers would serve in the Philadelphia campaign, Monmouth, Savannah, Augusta, Charleston, Ninety Six, King’s Mountain, Eutaw Springs, Connecticut Farms, Springfield, Paulus Hook, and numerous battles on Staten Island and neighboring New Jersey.

Skinner rarely commanded troops in the field, the last time being an excursion of about 1,000 men foraging in Pleasant Valley, New Jersey in June 1781.  This New Jersey general’s main contribution to the British war effort was an excellent network of intelligence gatherers providing information on troop movements and political doings in New Jersey and elsewhere.  Skinner retired to England after the war, while his corps, like most other provincial units, was disbanded.

Colonel Edmund Fanning

Edmund Fanning was the son-in-law and secretary of Governor Tryon and followed him from North Carolina to New York.  In 1776, Fanning raised one of the finest Provincial units of the war, the King’s American Regiment, which in 1781 was numbered the 4th American Regiment.  This corps fought at the Siege of Rhode Island in 1778, Tryon’s Raids on Connecticut in 1779, and Hobkirk’s Hill, South Carolina in 1781.

Fanning is the only one of my top ten loyalist military leaders to be wounded twice (the only other on this list wounded was Thomas Brown).[5]  On 25 December 1782 the King’s American Regiment was made a regular regiment of the British Army, making Fanning a British colonel.  Shortly before the reduction of his corps, he would become lieutenant governor of the Province of Nova Scotia, and later governor of the Island of Saint Johns (Prince Edward Island).

Colonel Beverley Robinson

Robinson might be the most interesting loyalist of my top ten as his life intersected with many notable revolutionary leaders.  Before the war, he had a friendship with George Washington who visited his home. During the war Robinson used this friendship to get Washington to release his two captured sons.

Robinson, who first equivocated about which side to join, was best known for his clandestine exploits during the war. He assisted Major John Andre in persuading Benedict Arnold to defect.   In a small world, Arnold used Robinson’s house at West Point, New York as his headquarters.

Robinson was also involved in the plot to return Vermont to the British Empire through attempting to corrupt Ethan Allen.  He sent multiple letters to Allen enticing him to defect.[6]

His military career started with raising the Loyal American Regiment consisting of loyalists from Dutchess and Westchester County, New York.  Robinson’s most notable military action was leading his troops in the storming of Ft. Montgomery in the failed campaign to link up with General Burgoyne during the Saratoga campaign.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown

Thomas Brown led a group of settlers who secured land from the Creek Indians in the backcountry of Georgia.  At the start of the revolution, Brown was asked to join the patriots but chose to remain loyal to the Crown, probably due the fact that the British were more likely to protect his land from Indian attacks.

In August 1775, the patriots captured Brown and subjected him to torture.  He endured partial scalping and burned legs and feet.  Having lost two toes to the burning, he was derisively called Burnt Foot Brown by patriots.[7]

After escaping to British Florida, Brown raised a regiment known as the East Florida Rangers, which was used to repel raids into the province and raid into Georgia.  Reorganized as a Provincial unit, the King’s (Carolina) Rangers in June, 1779, the corps fought at Savannah later that year and successfully defended Augusta in September of the following year. Here Brown hanged 13 prisoners taken during the fighting, who were still prisoners on parole to the British.

In 1780, he became Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the South and developed a strong bond with the Creek and Cherokee Nations. By the spring of 1782, Georgia was lost to the British and Brown retreated to Savannah and eventually immigrated to the Bahamas.  He continued to have good relations with Native Americans, taking 200 of them with him into exile.[8]

Lieutenant Colonel John Butler

John Butler along with his brothers and father, were loyalist leaders in New York’s Mohawk Valley.  At the outset of the Revolution, Butler was an officer of the Indian Department, and helped raise rangers to serve alongside his Native allies.  Butler is best known for his ability to understand Native Americans and lead them in battle.

John Butler’s son Walter raised an independent company of Rangers prior to the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Oriskany on 6 August 1777.  The following month, these men would form the nucleus of a new Provincial unit, Butler’s Rangers.  Headquartered at Fort Niagara, the corps would serve throughout New York, northern Pennsylvania and even into West Virginia, Ohio and Detroit.  During an October 1781 raid into the Mohawk valley, Walter Butler was killed.

In the next year, John Butler led an assault on Forty Fort in the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania.  In the battle’s aftermath, Native Americans under his command, who were often hard to control, probably tortured captured Patriots.[9]  In 1779 Butler was resoundingly defeated at Newtown by General John Sullivan during his campaign to destroy the combat power of the Six Nation Indians.  In 1780, Butler was promoted to Lt. Colonel and spent the remainder of the war at Ft. Niagara.  After the war, he returned to farming on the Canadian side of the Niagara Frontier.

Captain Joseph Brant

Joseph Brant (his Native American name Thayendanegea), born in the Ohio region to Native American parents, was the best-known Native American leader of the Revolution.  He was one of the few Native Americans to be commissioned in the British Army.  He lived both in the Native American and British worlds through his friendship with William Johnson, the British Indian Commissioner.   Brant visited England and returned in time to take part in the Battle of Long Island.  After the British victory in New York City, he went to Ft. Niagara via the Susquehanna River.

American patriots feared Brant for his destructive raids and ambushes.  In 1777, he led the Native American forces during the Battle of Oriskany.  In 1778, he led loyalists and Native Americans on attacks at Cobleskill, Andrustown and Cherry Valley, New York.[10]

Brant was also present along with Lt. Colonel Butler at the Battle of Newtown.  During the remainder of the Revolution, he participated in military excursions and raids in the Detroit and New York frontiers.  After the war, he led Native Americans to settle on the Green River in present day Ontario.

[Featured image at top: Sir John Johnson, Benedict Arnold, Edmund Fanning and Joseph Brant. Source: Wikipedia]

 


[1] The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, http://www.royalprovincial.com/military/milit.htm; Accessed February 8, 2014.

[2] Benedict Arnold was included on the Journal of the American Revolution’s Top Ten Best American Generals (http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/08/top-10-continental-army-generals/) and Top Ten Worst American Generals (http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/10/10-worst-continental-army-generals/).

[3] Thomas B. Allen, Tories – Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War, (New York:  Harper Collins Publishing, 2010), 320-1.

[4] Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, (New York:  David McKay Company, 1974), 118 and 1012.

[5] Boatner, Encyclopedia, 380.

[6] John J. Duffy, Ethan Allen and His Kin:  Correspondence 1772-1819, (Hanover:  University Press of New England, 1998), 107-9.

[7] Wayne Lynch, “The Making of a Loyalist,” Journal of the American Revolution, http://allthingsliberty.com/?s=the+making+of+a+loyalist , accessed February 8, 2014.

[8] Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles – American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, (New York:  Alfred A. Knoff, 2012), 72.

[9] Allen, Tories, 257-8.

[10] Allen, Tories, 260.

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16 Comments

  • I think Joseph Brandt is the most interesting choice. His consistently successful raids in New York would seem to have justified a higher rank. I’d submit that because he was a ‘savage,’ albeit a culturally and intellectually gifted man, his commission was limited to captain–in the ‘civilized’ world. In Mohawk terms, he was a great War Chief, a distinction that should put him much closer to the top of the list. Thank you for another interesting article.

  • I think this is a great topic and an excellent list. But I would make a change. Butler and Brant were far more important and successful than Sir John Johnson. I think Johnson should be replaced by the immensely capable Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger. Acting on his own initiative, Cruger saved Augusta, Georgia, from an American siege in 1780, withstood Nathanael Greene’s siege of Ninety Six in 1781, and played a key role at the Battle of Eutaw Springs later that year; some contemporaries believed that he and not his superior, British Lt. Col. Alexander Stewart, was responsible for the British holding their ground. Not bad for a New York politician with no previous military experience.

    • Sir John was a larger than life figure given his stature in the loyalist community. However you make very good points about Lt. Col. Cruger; especially since he was one of the few loyalists to fight outside of his home region.

    • I agree that David Fanning is an important loyalist leader. He was a successful partisan commander, operating a small unit outside of British held territory. I chose Edmund Fanning as he was more incorporated into the British military operations but you make a good point about the impact of David Fanning in the Carolinas, especially at the end of the war.

  • Arnold is an interesting–if not unique–member of this list not so much for his impact on the battlefield but, rather, for his continuing impact on American history. Most people–and not just Americans–today know little or nothing of his battlefield exploits but do know of his turning coat.

  • Interesting list & good information.
    Do you have any suggestions on books/libraries/archives that might have more information on Loyalist from New York?
    I’m interested in HACKALIAH MERRITT from Dutchess County, NY. He was mentioned in “Public Papers of George Clinton, v.II, p. 321 as a loyalist who had escaped from “Soppas Goal” evidently near Peekskill in SEP 14, 1777.

  • Just to add a couple of prominent names from the southern theater, Lt. Colonel George Turnbull led the New York Volunteers to distinction from the very start in the 1st battle of Savannah. Turnbull later tangled with Sumter at Rocky Mount in an affair that showed his courage and stubborness in the face of much greater numbers.

    Captain John Coffin who commanded a troop of dragoons from late 1780 to the end of the war. Coffin and his men spent far more time chasing Francis Marion and the other partisans around the swamps of South Carolina than Banastre Tarleton. Also recruited from the ranks of the New York Volunteers, Coffin’s troop fought very well covering the movements away from Eutaw Springs.

    Other famous loyalists from the south include Moses Kirkland, Robert and Patrick Cunningham, and Thomas Fletchall. Kirkland is thought by some to have been instrumental in the development of the famous southern strategy by arguing in favor of coordination with the Cherokee and describing thousands of loyal citizens waiting to rise and show their loyalty.

    There are also a number of British officers famous for service in the southern campaigns who actually commanded Loyalist Regiments. Anxious for the higher rank available to officers in the ‘American Establishment’, Banastre Tarleton, John Graves Simcoe, Lord Rawdon, Patrick Ferguson, and Alexander Innes all commanded soldiers recruited from the Loyalist population of the colonies.

  • I must agree with Mr. Lynch,
    Withall respect to the complier of the lists and to worthy officers like Col. Robinson, I do not begin to see his contributions or leadership in the same league as Lt. Col. Simcoe or even Lt. Col. Tarleton.

    • The list was restricted to loyalist leaders who were born or lived in the 13 colonies before the war, ie “American Loyalist Officers”. If the list included British officers leading loyalist units, both Simcoe and Tarleton would have been included. As you point out, they were both accomplished leaders of soldiers and battlefield commanders.

  • I just wanted to point out a correction under John Butler. His son Walter held the rank of Captain and died in 1781 in a skirmish on the West Canada Creek near Herkimer, NY. I think his name was mistakenly typed in when it was written that he was promoted to Lt.-Col. and he and his men were disbanded in 1784 — that’s John’s record of service.

  • You are correct – Walter Butler was killed at Jerseyfield on Canada Creek on October 30, 1781. The rank and dates of service are for his father.

    Thank you for the correction!

  • Montfort Browne was a British army officer who served miserably at every stage of his career. He was an affliction to the poor Prince of Wales American regiment, which was raised mostly from Connecticut loyalists who surely breathed a sigh of relief when Browne left (though he did not relinquish nominal command) in 1778.

  • Fascinating piece, as always! Brant is one of my historical heroes, but I must admit a partiality to Johnson, though much of that is more due to his wife. Mary Watts Johnson turned her political captivity in Albany into a chance to frustrate her captors and pass information to her husband and other British figures through her own contact network. She’s one of my favorite loyalists, commissioned or not.

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