A ‘Heavenly Harvest’ of Vulnerable Women in North Carolina: Tory Troops as Sexual Predators

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 27, 2017
by Hershel Parker Also by this Author


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Strong in the memories of North Carolina veterans of the Revolution were images of Tory (Americans loyal to the British government) terrorists, mounted on horses (some stolen from Patriots) and flourishing guns and swords.[1] Few of these soldier veterans had been at home during a Tory raid. More often, what the men said in their pension applications in 1832[2] was a mixture of what they had witnessed in their own ranging through North Carolina counties, what they had been told, and what they had imagined. In the 1830s E. W. Caruthers heard of pillaging and molestation by the occasional single Tory or pair of Tories,[3] but the aged veterans, many of whose unprotected women and children had been victimized, remembered “bands of Tories,” “bodies of Tories,” “herds of Tories,” an “assemblage of Tories,” “forces of Tories,” or a “party of Tories.” The veterans recalled “a company of Tories,” “corps of Tories,” “troop of Tories,” “regiment of Tories,” “set of Tories,” “guard of Tories,” “collection of Tories,” “great masses of Tories,” a “parcel of Tories,” a “passel of Tories.” They used still other terms – “a number of Tories,” “gang of Tories,” “detachment of Tories,” even “banditti of Tories.” These mighty predators could descend as a handful of mounted men or as hundreds. The veterans seem to have remembered these Tories not as opponents sometimes met in battle or more often glimpsed in skirmishes. Instead, they visualized legendary marauders thundering up to isolated farm houses to do their worst, much the way surviving eighteenth century Jews remembered Cossacks in Ukraine, a comparison current in the colonies during the Revolution.[4]

Rebel soldiers away in service heard horrifying stories about the Tories marauding in their own counties and sometimes attacking their own homes and families. In his pension application, Daniel Merrell told of being “repeatedly” called out to stop “some outrage & cruelty perpetrated” by Tories, “or upon some apprehension that they were organizing a force to do mischief; it was indeed a tory warfare, when the summons to arms, might be & was often, the light of a dwelling house on fire, or women & children flying for safety, from tory cruelties.”[5] After the fall of Charleston and Horatio Gates’s defeat at Camden, Jacob Little returned home to Pitt County, North Carolina, only to find that “the Tories and Loyall party” had become “very bold & Troublesome and it became absolutely necessary for us to be out almost constantly to protect the women & children from their plunder & ravages.”[6] John Hill claimed that captured letters showed that Cornwallis had threatened to “Slaughter the Women and Children on his March” through North Carolina in 1781.[7] William Husbands remembered that Tories burned houses, plundered property, and molested women and children.[8] My uncle Benjamin Murrell, who joined in Henry County (on the Virginia side) as a volunteer furnishing his own arms, ammunition, and horse, marched into Rowan County “against the British and Tories” to “protect the defenseless women & children from the insults of the enemies of the Country.”[9]

If they were to focus on their military duties, Patriot soldiers simply had to convince themselves, hour by hour, that their women and children would not be burnt out of their homes, starved, tortured, raped, or murdered while they were away. Sometimes they felt they had to help their families, regardless. John Bishop, before Huck’s Defeat (July 12, 1780), “went on with the Women & Children, & left them with some friends near Charlotte North Carolina; & then returned & joined Gen. Sumter” in South Carolina.[10] Thomas McCuistin explained: “a few days before he reached Ramsay’s Mill on Deep river, the declarant was released from service by his father, who came down . . . and told General Green[e] that . . . Lord Cornwallis had marched up to his house conducted by a parcel of Tories, some of whom now live in the neigh’hood, and expelled his family out of the house & kitchen, & gave to this Declarant’s mother & the small children, a Loom-house which stood in the yard and stationed his army on the plantation who burnt up nearly all the fencing & left his plantation wholly unfit for a crop, & his family without the necessary means of subsistence & beds furniture &c was taken away or destroyed.” Greene let McCuistin return with his father.[11] William Albright recalled that during Nathanael Greene’s march towards Virginia in 1781 “his Capt (Whitesell) hearing of ravages being committed at home among his [Albright’s] neighbours he was permitted and marched home to put them down: but found they had fled the Country,” so he went back to duty.[12]

Even between tours of duty, Whig men could not work crops in the field lest they be shot by Tories, and they were often afraid to sleep in their own houses. The Tories, Henry Yarborough said, “were so enraged against me that I could not stay at home in Safety.”[13] “So obnoxious” had James Shipman “become to the Tories that there was but a small portion of his time when permitted to retire from active service, that he could sleep in his own house, and was under the necessity of removing from it all his valuable effects.”[14] William Drake said the Tories in Chatham County were so brutal that “it was extremely perilous for him to remain at home and when he returned home it was with great caution and for a great part of the war he was afraid to sleep in his house.”[15] Having made his way home to Rowan County, Robert Brevard was compelled by the approach of the British “to abandon home and secrete himself for some time.”[16] Alexander Gray, an attentive auditor in Randolph County, “was told by many of those who had served in the militia, that they were afraid to sleep in their dwelling houses of nights, those who were not serving in some militia Company, generally slept out in some private place, least they should be murdered by the Tories before morning.”[17] Whether they were away in service or near home but not daring to sleep in their houses, many Whig men left their women and children vulnerable at night in the hope of saving their own lives. They thereby became (in their own minds) to some extent unmanned.

In the North Carolina pension applications, “depredations” covered a multitude of crimes but not specifically rape, and the questionnaire for the application system was not designed to evoke responses about that subject. David Ramsay in his pioneering History[18] indicted the Hessians for their especially brutal campaign of rape in New Jersey, and Nathanael Greene charged Tories with guiding Hessians to their prey.[19] Hessians were never loosed on the populace of North Carolina, and Cornwallis restrained his redcoats.[20] North Carolina was never a “conquered country” like New Jersey, although during Tory attacks “Infants, children, old men and women were stripped of their blankets and cloathing,” just as Ramsay said about Whig households in New Jersey.[21] Tories in all parts of North Carolina throughout the war, behaved like the Hessians in Ramsay’s account: “Furniture was burnt or otherwise destroyed. Domestic animals were carried off, and the people robbed of their necessary household provisions.”[22]

On April 18, 1777, Congress had made public a report by the “Committee appointed to inquire into the conduct of the enemy.”[23] Newspapers from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland treated the report as the leading story of the moment.[24] The fourth topic in the report was “the lust and brutality of the soldiers in abusing of women.” The Committee had received “authentic information of many instances of the most indecent treatment, and actual ravishment of married and single women, but such is the nature of that most irreparable injury, that persons suffering it, and their relations, though perfectly innocent, look upon it as a kind of reproach to have the facts related, and their names known.” The committee had “procured some affidavits” to be published in an appendix, with the originals “lodged with the Secretary of the Congress.” The appendix was also published in newspapers, sometimes portioned out over two or three issues.[25] How widely it was distributed in North Carolina is not known; only scattered 1777 issues survive of the New Bern Gazette, the last paper being printed in North Carolina.

On July 19, 1777, Congress ordered “That the report of the committee appointed to enquire into the conduct of the enemy, with the affidavits annexed, be published in a pamphlet, and that 4000 copies in English, and 2000 in German, be struck off and distributed through the several states.”[26] Even if copies were not directly sent to North Carolina, word would have gotten to the state. Folded into pockets or knapsacks of rebel soldiers, the little pamphlet might well have made its way even into the back country. The report may have been wartime propaganda, or a mixture of facts and elaboration, but it contained language that was credible and information that echoed what people heard from other sources.

The term “Ravished” was used in the appendix. Gen. Nathanael Greene also used the term when he wrote to Gov. Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island on December 21, 1776 about what he saw in the Jersies after the British Commander-in-Chief William Howe’s “ravages:” “Men slaughterd, Women ravisht, and Houses plundered, little Girls not ten years old ravisht, Mothers and Daughters ravisht in presence of the Husbands and Sons who were obligd to be spectators to their brutal conduct.” Howe’s army’s ravages exceeded “all description,” Greene wrote.[27] In 1846 at 100 years of age Thomas Folkner recalled riding in Chatham County “in pursuit of the Tories who was ravishing Murdering and plundering the Country.”[28]

The word “rape” does not appear in any of the transcribed pension applications used for this study, but a few men brought up the subject obliquely. Richard Whitaker, a young Halifax County man, was in central North Carolina after the battle at Guilford Court House. As Cornwallis meandered toward Wilmington, Whitaker’s officers kept men from Halifax, Edgecombe, Nash, and Guilford in that area because they knew the terrain.[29] In those counties, Whitaker said, “at this time it was a heavenly harvest for the tories and traitors to country [because] all the men were from home and the women & children were left in a wretched condition and nothing to hope for but mercy from the unmerciful.”[30]

Whitaker’s company “marched as spies to edgecomb county” only to learn that Cornwallis had gone, and there found “that the tories were playing a high handed gamon in Halifax Cty.”[31] Whitaker then was marched into “Halifax County to suppress the Tories and to defend the women children & property.” At that time, he said, “the Tories were robbing, killing and stealing doing more serous mischief to the country than the Brittish” had done. News “came that the tories were playing the same game in Edgecomb,” and Whitaker was kept ranging round and round the same counties “until the close of the war.”

When Whitaker said Cornwallis’s invasion had created “a heavenly harvest for the tories and traitors to country,” he used a phrase that he knew, whether from religious books and sermons, descriptions of rural fairs, or inspirational poems,[32] but he infused it with miserable irony, seeing in the vulnerable Patriot women a diabolical harvest for troops of libertine Tories. Even if veterans knew that any of their womenfolk had been raped, the semi-public circumstances of making their pension applications, if not shame, made them keep silent. The congressional committee was right in saying that victims and their families looked upon rape “as a kind of reproach to have the facts related, and their names known.” Samuel Gordon, in South Carolina, said that the Tories “had become very troublesome” (meaning something like “violent”) “and ill treated the women & children.” He went on: “The conduct of the tories to the women and children in the absence of the men was more outrageous than could now be believed.” Gordon’s “more outrageous than could now be believed” like Whitaker’s “more serious mischief” conveys just how vulnerable women were in both Carolinas and how eager Tories were to take advantage of their helplessness. Roving bands of Tories in North Carolina were under no such restraints as Cornwallis had imposed in Halifax. They came out of nowhere, did their worst in households (usually where no one knew them), loaded up whatever plunder they had not destroyed, and rode away, sometimes after setting houses afire.

By 1832 many old Patriot soldiers, at least those not living with chronic pain from war wounds, had left the Revolution behind them. The application process forced the men to organize their memories as best they could. Just as well that the official form pushed for the recovery of dry facts about locations, dates, names of officers and military actions, and the fate of any discharge papers, for when they spoke of Tories bitterness suffused the affidavits of the old men.


[1] In contrast to South Carolina, after the first months of the war British troops were seldom in North Carolina until Cornwallis was back there briefly in 1780 then longer in 1781. No North Carolina pension applicant recalled a raid on a household by a “troop of redcoats” (but see what I quote later from Thomas McCuistin). Nor did any North Carolina applicant blame a loyalist colonel such as Samuel Bryan for raiding homes of Whigs. In fact, the applicants very rarely blamed particular raids on even notorious marauding Tory thugs such as William Coyle. The raiders were recalled simply as Tories.

[2] Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters, transcriptions by Will Graves and C. Leon Harris, http://revwarapps.org/. Quotations are checked against the original documents using http://Fold3.com, with a few insertions in square brackets to keep the sense clear. All pension depositions cited in this article are from these sources, using the pension application number.

[3] E. W. Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents: Chiefly in the “Old North State” (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1856), 269, 289 (not to be confused with Caruthers’s 1854 book with a nearly identical title).

[4] The London Public Advertiser on 4 October 1775 facetiously printed a “List of the Forces prepared to pour Vengeance into that devoted Country” (the rebellious American colonies, “devoted” meaning “doomed”). Among the “Forces”: “Four thousand Zaporavian Cossacks being just unkennelled from their Islands in the Dnieper, and now distressed for an Habitation, may be happily accommodated by our Extermination of our own Countrymen.” The Norwich, Connecticut Packet of July 8, 1776 compared the Hessian mercenaries in the colonies to the Cossacks who robbed, stripped, and burned a “man of God” they found dressed meanly and hidden in a “farmers hutt.”

[5] Pension application of Daniel Merrell, S7222.

[6] Pension application of Jacob Little, R6383. More extreme than “bothersome,” the term “troublesome” involved severe distress.

[7] Pension application of John Hill, S2615.

[8] Pension application of William Husbands, S31768.

[9] Pension application of Benjamin Murrell, R7527.

[10] Pension application of John Bishop, S9279.

[11] Pension application of Thomas McCuistin, S8885.

[12] Pension application of William Albright, S6492.

[13] Pension application of Henry Yarborough, S1607.

[14] Pension application of James Shipman, W17810.

[15] Pension application of William Drake, S8375.

[16] Pension application of Robert Brevard, R1181.

[17] Pension application of William Clark R1968, Alexander Gray’s supporting affidavit. See my “Fanning’s Bloody Sabbath as Traced by Alexander Gray,” Journal of the American Revolution (May 4, 2015): during Fanning’s raid William Millikin was “from home, (for in those days no man thought himself safe in his own house).”

[18] History of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: R. Aitken, 1789), 1.327-328.

[19] Greene, in a letter to his wife on December 16, 1776, denounced Tories as “the cursedest rascals” who would guide Hessians to the houses of their neighbors “and strip the poor women and children of everything they have to eat or wear; and after plundering them in this sort, the brutes often ravish the mothers and daughters, and compel the fathers and sons to behold their brutality; many have fallen sacrifices in this way.” The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, eds. Richard K. Showman, Margaret Cobb, and Robert E. McCarthy (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1976), 1.414.

[20] Robert M. Dunkerly in Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, revised edition (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 121, cites Cornwallis’s swift punishment of two British rapists in Halifax in May 1781.

[21] See Caruthers, Interesting Revolutionary Incidents (1856), 236-237.  Colin McRae’s baby brother was wrapped in the only sheet they still possessed, but a Tory yanked on it until the baby rolled out onto the floor.

[22] Ramsay, 1. 327.

[23] https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjclink.html Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), 7.276-279.

[24] See the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Packet (April 29, 1777); the Annapolis Maryland Gazette (May 8, May 15, 1777); Norwich CT Packet (May 26, 1777); Boston Independent Chronicle (June 5, June 12, 1777).

[25] See the Philadelphia Evening Post (April 26 and May 3, 1877); the New London Connecticut Gazette (May 30, 1777); the Boston Independent Chronicle (June 29, 1777).

[26] https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjclink.html Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: GPO, 1907), 8.565.

[27] The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1976), 1.370.

[28] Pension application of Thomas Folkner, S4289.

[29] Daniel Merrell testified that after Cornwallis entered North Carolina “there was a general insurrection of the Tories in the State, particularly in the Counties of Guilford & Randolph & the adjacent counties, who spread consternation throughout the whole country by their barbarities, burnings, & murders.”

[30] Pension application of Richard Whitaker, S3596.

[31] The meaning of Whitaker’s phrase is debatable. A 1788 dictionary of slang included the phrase “Gamon and Patter” defined as “Common place talk of any profession, as the gamon and patter of a horse dealer, sailor, &c.;” the 1811 edition added this definition of Gamon: “To humbug. To deceive. To tell lies.” But if he was using gamon as the term from the popular board game, Whitaker could be indicating that the Tories were ruthlessly exercising their power to win at sexual backgammon without allowing their victims any measure of resistance from start to the end of the “game.” Francis Grose, Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1788 and 1811 editions); Edmund Hoyle, A Short Treatise on the Game of Back-Gammon (Dublin, 1744).

[32] As in William Sewel’s History of the . . . Christian People called Quakers (London: Darton & Harvey, 1834), 2.175, or (an eloquent 1819 use) Selections from the Newspaper Articles of Thurlow Weed (Albany: Weed, Parsons, 1877), 6.


  • I found this article to be affirming of my opinion that the Tory Loyalist Raiders were a ubiquitous scourge throughout the war and in all the colonies. My introduction to these travesties was in researching “The Neutral Ground” above New York City [Westchester County] where DeLancey’s Raiders pillaged, tortured ravished and burned the families, homes and villages of suspected Rebel Sympathizers. The Rebels were not without recourse, however, because the Tories and Loyalists in Westchester County were treated similarly. The Loyalist Raiders were known as “Cowboys” and the Rebel Raiders as “Skinners”.

  • Historians really need to present more than one side of a story, which, unfortunately, this article doesn’t do.

    For every tale of Tory atrocity, there was a corresponding tale of whig/rebel atrocity against Tories. As I note in my book, After Yorktown, the British commander in Wilmington, NC, reported, “This country is in a glorious situation for cutting one another’s throats.” British General Charles O’Hara was appalled by the brutality: “I cannot even hint…upon the scene before me, which are beyond description wretched, every misery which the bloodiest cruel war ever produced … The violence of the passions of these people are beyond every curb of religion and humanity. They are unbounded, and every hour exhibits, dreadful, wanton mischiefs, murders, and violence of every kind, unheard of before.”

    Another British officer reported that “Goths and Vandals…murdered every loyalist they found whether in arms or at home.”

    When rebel soldiers burned a hospital in South Carolina, the British complained to General Francis Marion about rebel troops forcing injured British soldiers to “expire in the swamps … a species of barbarity hitherto unknown in civilized nations.”

    One whig officer conceded, “Scarce a day passes but some poor deluded tory is put to death at his door.”

    Rebel General Nathanael Greene acknowledged that the barbarity wasn’t one-sided: “With us, the difference between whig and tory is little more than a division of sentiment; but here they persecute each other with little less than savage fury.”

    As for rape, scholars agree that American rebel troops were more than eager to rape Native American women, while the Indians east of the Mississippi avoided raping white women.

  • In 1783, of course, there were limits to “pardon and oblivion” in North Carolina: “nothing herein contained shall extend to pardon Peter Mallette, David Fanning and Samuel Andrews, or any person or persons guilty of deliberate and wilful murder, robbery, rape, or house burning, or any of them, anything herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding.” I don’t think it is accurate to say of North Carolina that for every tale of Tory atrocity there is a tale of Whig atrocity. A difference between some other states and North Carolina is that we have less information about what happened in the early enforcement of “pardon and oblivion.” Much of the evidence is anecdotal and does not involve rape, as when we are told that Jacob Forney visited the neighbor who had told Cornwallis to look for the buried silver and jewelry and suggested that he might want to move farther west. Today I am working with a report that the Mecklenburg blacksmith Isaac Price after the war went to Burke County to avenge the murder of his brother-in-law by the last unpunished of 4 Tories who had deserted from Col. Bryan. In NC newspapers, once they were re-established, I failed to find stories of retribution. I’ll try again. Caruthers at the end of his 1856 book (not the 1854 one) has a neglected section called “Closing Scenes of the War” where he gives examples of how Tories were treated after the war. Isn’t it true that what we have is very little from ordinary people for half a century then a mass of information in pension applications under the 1832 law–and no such corresponding record from NC Tories, most of whom did not file Loyalists claims.

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