Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution


November 25, 2020
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution by Donald F. Johnson (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

Several cities in Revolutionary America were taken by British forces and the residents found themselves in an unexpected predicament. Many welcomed the return of law and order and a stable economy under British rule; the British were embraced as liberators. There were others who found themselves to be hostages in their own homes, constantly worrying about their safety and the availability of food. Still other people blew with the wind in order to survive, supporting whoever could meet their needs. Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution  by Donald F. Johnson is an interesting chronicle of the experiences faced by Americans in several cities held by the British. The argument Johnson makes is that the connection many people had to the Crown was abandoned because of occupation.

The cities that had the honor of unwillingly opening their doors to British forces were Boston, Newport (Rhode Island), New York City, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston (South Carolina). Johnson begins by describing the plight of Dr. William Tillinghast, who treated sick British soldiers in Newport. Intimately involved with the community, Tillinghast witnessed how the city dealt with the new guests and ended up very disillusioned: “Frustrations, privations, threats and humiliations at the hands of the British military caused people like Tillinghast to question and ultimately discard their allegiance to the only form of government most had ever known.” (p. 4) Occupation at first restored the hope that people would welcome the might of the British Empire, and at first things went well. But the events of the war continued to weaken imperial authority.

Occupied America’s chapters each tackle the issues that affected British occupation: urban administration, supplying residents and soldiers with food and fuel, social life, collaborators and the roles of loyalists, the problem with allegiances, and how the final peace shaped the future of the liberated cities. The circumstances of occupation in each city are described, beginning with Boston in 1775. The efforts of Gen. Thomas Gage to subdue the city intensified the tensions that had been brewing for years, finally leading to open conflict at Lexington. Newport had been a center of resistance to British naval impressment, but also a loyalist stronghold. Its location made it an important British garrison during the war. New York City was obviously an easy target for occupation, and General Washington was unable to defend the city in 1776. Philadelphia’s capture was more of a psychological victory since it was the meeting place of Congress. The city was quickly abandoned after Gen. Horatio Gates’ victory at Saratoga because the British needed to consolidate their positions due to the French entry into the war as allies of the Americans. Residents of Savannah and Charleston, like those in Philadelphia, had lived for years under armed revolutionary rule. The movement of the war’s focus to the south led to the taking of Savannah and Charleston in 1778 and 1780, respectively. The occupiers were hoping to turn all the southern residents into steadfast loyalists.

There were some common aspects in the stories of each of the captured cities. Some people were desperate for a return to order. They were fed up with the strong-armed tactics of the revolutionary governments. British officials at first took to heart the necessity of winning hearts and minds. British civil administration helped the cities to operate efficiently. How the British ran New York City served as a template in other occupied cities. Johnson explains how residents collaborated, either voluntarily or not, with the British forces. Collaboration often meant survival, but it was an obvious risk. After the Revolution, former collaborators were specifically targeted for persecution and vengeance by the victorious Americans.

The third chapter, “Within the Lines,” is focused on the social opportunities people took advantage of during occupation. The arrival of the British raised the residents’ standard of living, forged valuable social connections, and turned the cities into safe refuges for some. Ex-slaves could remake their lives, while women found empowerment in their roles as tavern keepers and sexual partners to British soldiers. African Americans had the most to gain, and also the most to lose, in the cities which were crucial to either reclaiming their freedom or making sure that their condition was bettered. The unpredictability of the British presence prevented many from taking full advantage.

Chapter 4, “Starving and Plenty,” showed what was probably the most difficult aspect of military occupation, the problem of feeding both an isolated civilian population and an army. The cities were certainly awash with material goods that had been withheld because of the war. However, overcrowding caused severe shortages of food, fuel, and shelter. Many residents were suffering starvation for the first time. Johnson describes what some did to feed themselves and provide for their families. Survival influenced people’s political sentiments and forced them to frequently compromise themselves: “Staying alive in occupied America required complex political calculations, and those who inhabited port cities became adept at espousing different beliefs to different people at different times.” (p. 137)

The peace that ended the war turned the formerly occupied cities into “centers of reconciliation.” People who had fled the occupations returned and helped with the transition of power. Loyalists faced either social alienation from their neighbors or life somewhere else in the Empire. Most jumped on departing British ships and headed towards Halifax, Nova Scotia. Some loyalists faced punishment because of their earlier support of the British, while others lost their property. Peace was made with influential loyalists whose abilities and fortunes would be advantageous to the new government and economies. Johnson provides several anecdotes about individuals who met a variety of endings. Poor loyalists and free blacks went to Nova Scotia to take advantage of land grants, while white slave owners went to Florida and the colony of Jamaica.

Occupied America relies on letters, police board proceedings, petitions, diaries, newspapers and trial records. Johnson’s topic is not typical, but also not entirely original. The book The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia During the American Revolution by Aaron Sullivan focuses entirely on the situation in Philadelphia and provides a much more detailed examination of the consequences of occupation. Occupied America is much more general, covering a variety of topics, but lacks the depth of individual circumstances. It would have been more interesting if Professor Johnson had written about each city individually. For example, devoting a chapter to the occupation of Boston, then the occupation of Newport, New York City, and so on. More stories about people could have been included in such a format. Their experiences were shared on many levels, but occupied Boston was vastly different from occupied Philadelphia and occupied Charleston. Still, Johnson’s first book is certainly worthwhile and has something to offer to its readers.

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  • I agree with you that a “city by city” organization would have provided an easier read. However, Johnson’s compare and contrast approach does identify valuable “big picture” conclusions. For example, except for Georgia, the British could not re-establish civilian control in any area that their army occupied. My one quibble is Johnson’s assertion that “the experience of occupation…played a crucial outcome of the American Revolution. The occupied cities represented only 2% of the population. Further, many of the British deprivations cited by Johnson were also practiced by the Continental Army. Copious contemporaneous diaries indicate that the local populous feared the appearance of both armies.

    I would have rated the book higher for its unique analytic approach. As you mention, there are books devoted to recounting the individual experiences of the British occupied cities.

  • One minor point..the reviewer states that the British “quickly abandoned” Philadelphia after Gates’ victory at Saratoga. Saratoga concluded October 1777 and the Brits did not abandon Philadelphia until June 1778. Perhaps just clumsy sentence structure?

  • Every once-in-awhile / I come across a whole new source of knowledge about the 1776 ERA – and
    this is no exception – written for the expert and for the novice – this is a riveting tale of life- taken
    day by day – in a way that is understandable to novice and expert alike.
    Congratulations to all – who had a portion of this project.
    Henry Paiste

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