A Series of Unfortunate Events: Chichester Cheyne’s Revolutionary War, 1778-1783

Detail of a painting by Nowland Van Powell depicting an American privateer battling a British vessel. See Nowalnd Van Powell and Richard Morris, The American Navies of the Revolutionary War (Putnam 1974).

In March 1778, George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the Continental army, was in winter quarters with his men at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; Capt. James Cook was exploring the Pacific northwest of North America; and Voltaire, the famous French philosopher, was crowned as a poet laureate in Paris.

But Chichester Cheyne, a fifteen-year-old Virginian, gave little indication that he cared about these events as he boarded the John, a ship bound for New York. He had been living in Scotland for the past seven years (probably on the estate of Thomas Bruce of Arnot, a significant landowner in Scotlandwell, near Edinburgh). He was forced to return to Virginia after his father, Thomas Cheyne, died, leaving a widow, four children, and no will or guardian; a dangerous set of circumstances given that the Virginia constitution allowed for all “escheats, penalties, and forfeitures” to go to the new Commonwealth.[1]

The homecoming the teenager desired would never come. Cheyne was “unfortunately captured” by the Marlborough, a rebel ship, one of the sixteen hundred privateers trawling the Atlantic Ocean in search of wealth and glory. This setback, though, was only the beginning of his ordeal. Like many of the prisoners captured by privateers during the war, Cheyne was probably confined below decks in leg-irons on board the John, the very ship he had set sail on in the first place. After all, cases of hostages retaking ships were an incredibly common occurrence during the period.[2]

Having been brought to Boston, Massachusetts, in chains, “he was desired by the Americans” to join them, “which on his refusing to comply” – having “always had a sturdy attachment to the Royal Crown” – “they not only stript him of all his clothes & everything else that was valuable and refused him liberty of going to his friends … they even compelled him to serve on B[oard] the Privateer[s] Marlborough & General Mifflin … [where] they treated him very harshly.” He eventually served for about a year on the latter ship. That was until they captured the Elephant, a British armed store ship. Thrown on board the new prize along with fourteen other Americans; Cheyne suddenly decided to try his luck “with some British officers,” who “had [concocted] a scheme for [using] and taking possession of the ship when they came to the British channel.” But before this motley crew could act on their hastily constructed plan, a Royal Navy vessel recaptured them.[3]

Tasting freedom for the first time in over a year, Cheyne suddenly realised he had neither money nor any possibility of seeing his family. Only one option remained: join the Royal Navy and collect the meagre salary on offer. He went on to serve for two years on board a British frigate, fighting at the successful siege of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780, where a combined naval and land attack captured the city and over five thousand rebel troops. And he had also earlier taken part in “several other expeditions in Boats up the Chesapeak in Virginia,” possibly including an infamous mission on May 8, 1779, undertaken by Gen. Edward Matthew and Adm. George Collier. Together a combined fleet of thirty ships attacked Portsmouth, burned Suffolk, and destroyed more than 130 ships, three thousand hogsheads of tobacco, and other supplies worth an estimated two million pounds. This was sweet revenge for more than a year in captivity.[4]

Yet Cheyne’s revolutionary journey was about to take another sharp turn. He was captured again, this time by the French, and was “carried to Martinique where he was stripped of everything, and remained a prisoner for over eight months.” After this, he was pressed to serve on board the Caton, a French ship that saw action at the Battle of the Mona Passage on April 19, 1782. Thankfully for Cheyne, the Royal Navy under the command of Adm. Sir Samuel Hood, 1st Viscount Hood, saw off the opposition and recaptured two vessels, including the ship on which he had just served. In total, he had fought for four years with three different navies on seven different ships; but for him at least, the war was finally over.[5]

 

Cheyne’s tale is truly an odyssey. But his experiences, and those of many others, have only recently been scrutinised. They have largely fallen through the cracks in a popular narrative that likes the frame the Loyalists – those who supported Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) – as static, recalcitrant “Tories,” a group of ethnic minorities, ideological Royalists, and the rich. This framework, though, is essentially artificial. It is a product of what the “Founding Fathers” – those who led the American Revolution – wanted us to believe about their mortal enemies.[6]

Indeed, after the guns fell silent in 1783, a dominant narrative was constructed out of a conflict that had claimed between 25,000 and 36,000 American lives, a death toll that would put the Revolutionary War second only behind the American Civil War in deaths per capita. A story of unity and revolutionary fervour, orchestrated by historians including Mercy Otis Warren and David Ramsay, pushed ordinary people who opposed the Revolution to the margins. Instead, more prominent figures – including Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, and Banastre Tarleton, a British cavalry commander – were lambasted as “Rank Tories” who “fabricate lies to deceive and divide the American people.” Even John Adams, the second president of the United States of America, entered the realm of hyperbole when he declared. “I would have hanged my own brother had he taken a part with our enemy in the contest.”[7]

After two hundred years this antipathy has not completely gone away. Even though historians have known for over forty years that one-fifth of the colonial population may have remained loyal, long-standing “Tory” caricatures still dominate the secondary literature. Gordon Wood succumbed to these arguments, too, in his Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991): “A disproportionate number of [the Loyalists] were well-to-do gentry operating at the pinnacles of power and patronage – royal or proprietary officeholders, big overseas dry-good merchants, and rich landowners.” And once this “Monarchical” culture was removed, Wood argued, a rejuvenated “Post-Revolutionary society was inevitably put together on new republican terms. The Revolution effectively weakened or severed those loyalties of the ancien regime that had enabled men like William Allen or James De Lancey to form their extensive webs of personal and familial influence.”[8]

To some extent this interpretation is understandable. It endures because ordinary people – or the “inarticulate,” as historians sometimes call them – are difficult to find in the Loyalist records, especially so in a Virginia context where seventy-five per cent of adults could not even sign their own names. All historians seem to have are the diaries and letters of elite Loyalists, who were vitriolic in their condemnation of the treasonous, dastardly, American rebels.[9]

 

This argument takes us back to the source of the Chichester Cheyne narrative: the Loyalist Claims Commission records. On the face of things, these memorials, depositions, and property lists only represent the biased ramblings of a rich few seeking reward. Three arguments can be made, though.[10]

First, petitions were an attempt to elevate individual heroism, loyalty, and self-sacrifice to the forefront of a narrative. This makes any general claims of loyalty to the Commission largely useless. Instead, one must look to the essential facts of a case: what role did these ordinary people play in the Revolution? What impact did they have on the results of the war? What effect did the conflict have on them?[11]

When this inquisitorial method is taken, the stories of ordinary people contained the archives start to look depressingly similar to the diaries and pension applications of war veterans on the Patriot side. Indeed, after more than thirty years of research into ordinary folk and their experiences during the Revolutionary War, it now seems that Loyalists like Chichester Cheyne and the soldier William Shoemaker were motivated by contingent factors – poverty, forced impressment, military mobilisation, or sheer bad luck – to become foot soldiers and sailors in a war most wanted absolutely no part in.[12]

Second, individual memory is not as fallible as we think it is. After all, Alfred F. Young has written that George Robert Twelves Hughes, a shoemaker who participated in the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773), continued to astonish listeners with his memory, even at the ripe old age of ninety-three. Cheyne, in direct contrast, had only six years between serving in the war and making his deposition to the Commission. He could hardly forget the trauma he experienced over this very short period of time.[13]

Third, the Claims Commission records may be filled with merchants, officeholders, and wealthy artisans; but that is hardly a function of the Loyalists themselves. Over sixty thousand refugees eventually left the United States. Of those, only 3,225 got to make a claim, and even fewer actually had a decision made on their memorials and depositions. Cheyne, for reasons unknown, never had any verdict made on his claim. Neither did Josiah Hodges, another Virginian whose property was destroyed. Having fled to London, and finding no work, he was eventually “arrested and carried into the fleet for a debt he contracted to support and maintain a helpless family,” “and to render your memorialist completely miserably it pleased Providence to visit his Children with the small pox while he was a prisoner.”[14]

 

It is clear, then, that historians should continue to examine the Commission records and the stories contained within, a task that is not just about academic equality. Ordinary people who became Loyalists fought the battles, built the fortifications, spied on the Patriots, and suffered and died in huge numbers. We know the Patriot battle casualties; but we may never know how many loyal men and women became victims of the conflict. These stories and perspectives need to be recaptured and reassessed for every single colony and state.

Once this perspective is adopted, the mist that has surrounded the Loyalist experience would dissipate. It would again be possible to regain a “sense of the tragic:” an idea that the war did not end at the parades, at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, or even at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but was a struggle that continued for the next twenty years as refugees from up and down the thirteen colonies attempted to find new homes. Chichester Cheyne was in exactly that situation. He returned to Britain at the age of twenty-one with no financial backers and the prospect of a lifetime on board the ships of the Royal Navy. The American Revolution gave, but in many cases it also took away.[15]

 

[1] Petition, Audit Office Papers Series 13, British National Archives: vol. 97, ff. 237-239. Hereafter I will set out the series, volume, and folio sections with slashes (so the last example would be: Petition, A.O. 13/97/237-239. During the eighteenth century, Scotlandwell was also a prominent home of the weaving trade (which, it can be assumed, meant Chichester’s father was some sort of merchant). Thomas Bruce of Arnot (he spoke in Cheyne’s defense to the Commission) is mentioned on the “roll of Freeholders … held at Kinross on 25th July 1811” (James Bridges, View of The Political State of Scotland, at Michaelmas 1811; with a supplement, Exhibiting the Votes at the General Election, in 1812 [Edinburgh, 1813], 90.) For the Virginia Constitution, see Final Draft of the Virginia Constitution of 1776, June 29, in Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 288.

[2] Petition, A.O. 13/97/237-239. Cheyne’s capture aboard the John by the privateer Marlborough is corroborated in the Remarks for Sunday May 10th 1778, Log of Rhode Island Privateer Ship Marlborough, Captain George Wait Babcock, in Michael J. Crawford (with Dennis M. Conrad, E. Gordan Bowen-Hassell, and Mark L. Hayes), ed., Naval Documents of The American Revolution, vol. 12 (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2013), 323. The Continental Congress issued 1,697 Letters of Marque, and around 58,400 men served on board Patriot privateers during the war (Jack Coggins, Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution [Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969), 74). For the threat of armed takeovers on the high seas, see Ibid., 68.

[3] Petition, A.O. 13/97/237-239. The General Mifflin was originally a twelve-gun brig under the command of Captain J. Hamilton in 1776; but, when Cheyne came on board the ship in 1778, the Mifflin had expanded to a twenty-gun vessel under Daniel McNeil. Apparently the ship raided around France and Britain, and then engaged in a “severe action with a British privateer” which cost the lives of the English commander and twenty-two men killed or injured (see Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of American Privateers [New York: Burt Franklin, 1968], 74, 88-89).

[4] Petition, A.O. 13/97/237-239; Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 178-182; Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 343-344. Cheyne served on the Richmond, a thirty-two-gun frigate.

[5] Petition, A.O. 13/97/237-239. Hood was a mentor to Horatio Nelson, Britain’s hero at the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805).

[6] Welcome contributions to the ‘rank-and-file’ Loyalist literature can be found in Todd Braisted, “A Patriot-Loyalist: Playing Both Sides”, Journal of the American Revolution, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/a-patriot-loyalist-playing-both-sides/, accessed 10 December 2015; and Aaron Sullivan, “In But Not Of the Revolution: Loyalty, Liberty, and the British Occupation of Philadelphia” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 2014). For studies of the loyalists as a mostly elite phenomenon, see William H. Nelson, The American Tory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961); Wallace Brown, The Good Americans: The Loyalists in the American Revolution (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1969; and Robert M. Calhoon, The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760-1781 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973). The notion that the “Founding Fathers” were the key drivers of the narrative can be found in William Huntting Howell, “’Starving Memory’: Antinarrating the American Revolution,” in Michael A. McDonnell et al, eds., Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 93.

[7] For the Patriot numbers see Howard H. Peckham, ed., The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 132. Even though his work focused on the American Civil War, William Blair’s chapter on Confederate identity has been especially instructive (Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 [New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998], 152). For this same point with regards to the American Revolution, see Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 16. Mercy Otis Warren was a political writer and wife of James Warren, the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and a noted Anti-Federalist (see her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution [Boston, 1805]). David Ramsay, a politician from South Carolina, described the Revolution thus: “a sense of common danger extinguished selfish passions … and local attachments and partialities were sacrificed on the altar of patriotism.” (The History of the American Revolution, vol. 1 [Lexington, 1815], 150). Hutcheson and Tarleton were vilified following the war; for more on this point, see Bernard Bailyn, “Thomas Hutchinson in Context: The Ordeal Revisited,” American Antiquarian Society, (October 2004), 284; and Howell, “’Starving Memory’,” 93. The “Rank Tories” comment comes from the “Historical Notes of Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1777,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 27 (1903): 143; and the Adams quote can found in Wallace Brown, “The View at Two Hundred Years: The Loyalists of the American Revolution,” American Antiquarian Society (1969): 25-47.

[8] These figures, though, can only be an approximation of the number of colonists who served on the British side during the American Revolutionary War. See Paul H. Smith, “The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organisation and Numerical Strength,” The William and Mary Quarterly 25 (April 1968): 269. For the Gordon Wood quote, see The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 176-177.

[9] For the Virginia figure, see Rhys Isaac, “Dramatising the Ideology of Revolution: Popular Mobilisation in Virginia, 1774 to 1776,” The William and Mary Quarterly 33 (July 1976): 362. Kenneth Lockridge has found that white male literacy, outside New England, stood at or below two-thirds (the same as in England); Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975), 77-81.

[10] The Loyalist Claims Commission was enacted in July 1783 by the British government, “to enquire into the Losses and Services of all such persons as have suffered in their Rights, Properties, and Professions … in consequence of their Loyalty to His Majesty, and Attachment to the British Government.” John Raithby, ed., The Statutes at Large of England and of Great Britain: From Magna Carta to the Union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 17 (London, 1811), 100. Its main job was to save the Treasury money after they spent £40,820 on pensions in 1782 for just 315 Loyalists (John Eardley Wilmot, Historical View of the Commission for Enquiring into the Losses, Services, and Claims of the American Loyalists, at the Close of the War Between Great Britain and Her Colonies in 1783, intr. and pref. by George Athan Billias [Boston: Gregg Press, 1972], 15-16).

[11] For the three questions posed, see Alfred F. Young, “Why Write the History of Ordinary People,” in Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 4.

[12] Historians usually refer to colonists who had no interest in the war as “disaffected.” See Thomas Verenna, “Disarming the Disaffected”, Journal of the American Revolution, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/08/disarming-the-disaffected, accessed 10 August 2015; and Ronald Hoffman, “The ‘Disaffected’ in the Revolutionary South,” in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), 273-316.

[13] Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 10; Petition, A.O. 13/97/240.

[14] Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: First Vintage Books, 2012), 357; Wilmot, Historical View, 90-91; Cheyne, Chichester in Peter Wilson Coldham, American Migrations, 1765-1799: The Lives, Times, and Families of Colonial Americans Who Remained Loyal to the British Crown (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000), 543; Memorial, A.O. 13/96/507.

[15] Michael G. Kammen, “The American Revolution as a Crise de Conscience: The Case of New York,” in Michael G. Kammen et al, eds., Society, Freedom, and Conscience: The American Revolution in Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York (New York: Norton, 1976), 188; Petition, A.O. 13/97/239.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events: Chichester Cheyne’s Revolutionary War, 1778-1783

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3 Comments

  • Outstanding article! As you demonstrate, historical interpretations are significantly richer when they include the different voices of Whigs, Tories, Native American, French and many others. I particularly enjoyed the historiography contained in your footnotes.

  • Thoughtful article. One topic about the American Revolution that I believe is under-explored is the question of the circumstances which led to a person choosing one side or the other in the conflict. In Cheyne’s case, the answer seems obvious, but for people who were born and raised in the colonies this could not have been an easy decision in many cases. Historians tend to focus on the ideologues on either side of a dispute because it makes for a more coherent narrative about the “meaning” of it all, but as the author suggests these were undoubtedly a minority among the masses of people who were driven by personal circumstances, personal loyalties, familial relationships, and economic considerations to make what had to be a very uncomfortable choice in many cases, not to mention those whose religious doctrines compelled them to resist enlisting or supporting either side, often to their substantial detriment. Pension and Claims Commission records would seem to me to be a good place to start looking for the answers to these questions.

  • I enjoyed this article thoroughly, and then curiosity got the better of me, wondering what happened to the title character; as Paul Harvey used to say “the rest of the story”. Given the unique name of the young adventurer, I thought it might be possible to track him. Turns out that there’s a potential match for Chichester “Cheyne” or “Chinn”; with a highly correlating story backed by a wealth of genealogical work that’s been written on this family in the US. Without identification of another “Chichester”, it’s highly probable that what follows is “the rest of his story”.
    Chinn is the immigration-morphed phonetic spelling of the ancient English-Scots family name that descended from the Norman-French title ‘De Cheyne’. It is variously written in ‘Nesbett’s Heraldry’ and other heraldic works as Chein— Cheyne—Chinn—the last being adopted as the spelling of the name in America. Thomas Cheyne was a minister who first visited to Virginia with Sir Walter Raleigh. His son, John “Chinn” (b 1640), was the original permanent Chinn immigrant, settling in 1657 at Rappahannock, Lancaster County Virginia, not far from George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm. In 1700 John’s son, Raleigh Chinn, married Esther Ball, the sister of Mary Ball, who married Augustine Washington and was mother to George Washington. Raleigh and Esther Chinn’s son “Chichester” married Angela Thornton. This Chichester died young and Henry Lee, father of “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, was assigned as guardian his young son Thomas Chinn (1). Thomas married Jennette Scott in 1762 and their second son was named Chichester Thornton Chinn. Chichester’s birth year is predominantly stated as 17 Oct 1771 (slight confusion exists because of the death at birth of a boy child who may have been the twin of Chichester’s oldest sister, Jennette, born in 1764). (2)
    By the time Chichester Chinn was born the Chinn family owned at least 2,000 acres in Virginia (3). His mother, Jennette Scott, was granddaughter of Walter Scott “Old Beardie”, making Chichester the cousin of Sir Walter Scott, the Scots poet, playwright, and novelist who was also born in 1771. “Chichester began his education under private tutor in his father’s Virginia home, but was sent at an early age to his mother’s ancestral home to complete it. He attended school in Kelso [Scotland] and later at the University of Edinburgh with his second cousins Walter (1771–1832) and Thomas Scott.”(4)
    Chichester’s father died in 1773; a death that likely propelled him to relatives Scotland. There’s no indication why he attempted to return to America in 1778. His father’s estate was not endangered as property titles had passed with guardians appointed to administer it on the behalf of his mother, brother and two sisters. Apparently none of the crewmen he served with for the next four years realized the hostage potential of their powder monkey.
    “Chichester was adopted by his maiden aunts in Scotland. Upon his graduation from the university, they bought him an ensign’s commission in the British Navy. He served [briefly] in the War between France and England, and was captured. When he was paroled he was returned to Virginia and resigned his commission whereupon his very patriotic aunts disinherited him.” (5)
    At the ripe old age of 18, with a university degree and an incredible war story, “Chichester married Susanna Sukey Withers on 9 June 1789. She was born in Fauquier County, Virginia on 20 August 1767 and died in Woodville, Mississippi c.1819. She was the daughter of Thomas Withers and the sister of Enock Keene Withers (1760–1818) who married Chichester’s sister Jennett Chinn.” (6)
    After their marriage, in 1790 Chichester, his wife Susanna (“Sukey”) and his mother sold major tracts of their Lancaster and Faquier County, Virginia property and moved to Kentucky.(7) Their eight children prospered, and his fifth child, Agatha, married George Poindexter and became the second “First Belle” of Mississippi. Chichester himself became a wealthy and prominent citizen, a founding father of Kentucky, elected as a state representative in 1799 then elected and re-elected to multiple terms in the Kentucky State Senate. Sadly, while attending the legislature in Frankfort, Chichester Chinn contracted Yellow Fever and died on 7 February 1814.
    I cannot explain the age discrepancy evident between Mr. Bell-Romero’s citation and the dates evident in the official US records. Perhaps the age of 15 applied at the time his wartime petition for compensation was filed, though one must wonder what he claimed. I was not able to pull his compensation petition from the UK archives. Even if they should prove to be two different people, clearly they share the same “Loyalist” story. Although Chichester Cheyne appears as an example of the harsh dangers loyalists suffered during the ARW, in the end Chichester Chinn became a far greater example of the opportunities available, even to loyalists, in the new nation.
    1. Prince William Co. O. Bk.1761-1763, p.1 Oct. 3, 1761: Henry Lee vs. Agatha and Thomas Chinn in Chancery, “Thomas Chinn, the heir, being of full age…”).
    2, 4, 5, 6 et. al., primarily sourced, paraphrased or quoted from “Saunders Family History, Chapter 11: The Chinn Family”, pgs. 1-11 and 22-28 (last accessed 1/20/2016 at http://www.saundersfamilyhistory.com/images/Chapter%2011%20-%20The%20Chinn%20Family.pdf )
    3. See also the Faquier and Prince William county rentals records for 1752, 1753, 1754 which show Chichester (mis-entered as “Christopher”) Chinn’s heirs holding 1449 acres.
    7. Chichester Chinn, on July 20, 1790, along with his wife Susannah and his mother Jennet Chinn, deeded to John Robinson lands granted to Timothy Thornton (an error for Thomas Thornton) and devised by him to his daughter Agatha, whence it descended to Thomas Chinn and from him to Chichester Chinn (Fauquier Co. D. B. vol 10, p. 276).
    I also accessed several publicly available published genealogical sources for information on the Chinn, Ball, and Washington families, but will avoid a bibliography for space reasons.

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