BOOK REVIEW: Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution by H. W. Brands (New York: Doubleday, 2021)
Thanks to his many television appearances, H.W. Brands is a familiar face to many. The Jack S. Blanton, Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas Austin, Brands is also a prolific writer whose numerous works of history and biography are noteworthy for both the variety of topics and smooth, engaging prose. In his latest offering Brands returns to one of his favorite eras, the American Revolution. The title, Our First Civil War promises to give an exploration of the conflict between Whigs and Tories, Patriots and Loyalists or Revolutionaries versus traditionalists. Unfortunately, it does not.
Rather, Brands delivers a narrative history of the Revolutionary era viewed through the experiences of prominent individuals he has chosen to represent Loyalist and Patriot stances. Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams serve as the primary as exemplars of the revolutionary cause, with William Franklin, Joseph Galloway, Benedict Arnold, and Joseph Brant their Tory counterparts. This is problematic as Arnold’s personal arc was hardly that of a typical Loyalist, and Brant, a Mohawk chieftain, had an agenda that aligned with Loyalists but for different reasons and ends. Additionally, the reliance on key players leads into lengthy explorations of their personal, and diplomatic activities, that often have little bearing on the Revolutionary-Loyalist divide.
Following a quick introduction starting with a rare depiction of Tory-Patriot conflict in the Carolina backcountry, Brands turns back to the onset of the French and Indian War and traces the road to resistance and independence for 170 pages (out of 441 not counting notes). The course of events is propelled by the experiences and occasionally intersecting paths of Washington and Franklin, who, in turn, connects with Galloway, and John Adams (Samuel never emerges from the background) and his selected counterpart, Thomas Hutchinson.
Brands makes extensive use—often quite lengthy—of letters and diaries. This produces uneven results. The letters between Franklin and his son, William, who remained loyal to the crown, dramatize the price the revolution might extract from families and friends. But often much space is devoted to aspects of the war that have little connection with the topic in the title. For example, many pages describe John Adams’ defense of British soldiers following the Boston Massacre and Ben Franklin’s increasing unhappy experiences in Britain. Likewise, Brands spends several pages discussing Franklin’s social life in Paris during the war and, uses John Adams’ censorious observations to illustrate the esteem in which Franklin was held by the French, especially the ladies, and how much the Yankee Puritan disapproved. All interesting and well-presented, but little that involves the struggle between independence and empire forces in the field.
Brands follows the course of the war chronologically, tracing Washington’s command from Boston to New York, to Jersey, and ultimately on the Philadelphia campaign and beyond. Benedict Arnold’s career as an officer and later traitor is laid out neatly, though it is an oft-told tale. Arnold’s post-Saratoga appointment as military governor of Philadelphia opens the way for Brands to present the plight of Tories under Continental Army and Congressional control, again through the prism of selected elite figures.
In Brands’ most significant departure from his concentration on elite figures he contrasts the very different experiences of two Black men, Boston King and Jeffrey Brace. King, born a slave in South Carolina, took advantage of the British offer to emancipate slaves of rebel masters and joined the Royal Army. He eventually made it to New York and was evacuated with approximately 5,000 former slaves who were part of the exodus of 50,000 Loyalists from their former homes. King was settled in Nova Scotia, but later moved to Sierra Leone, a British colony in west Africa. Brace was enlisted in the Continental Army as a slave in Connecticut but was manumitted at the war’s end for his service. He relocated to Vermont, married and, old and blind, dictated his memories of the Revolution before dying in 1827.
Brands writes with his customary felicity and many of his summations are apt and to the point. Regarding Arnold he writes that he “internalized setbacks and affronts and more readily than most people, spun rationales of principle to justify actions based on self-interest.” On the other hand, “Saratoga confirmed … that Arnold was the best battlefield general the Continental Army possessed.”
Our First Civil War’s weakness lies in the absence of any focused analysis of Patriots and Loyalists in toto. This is particularly true in the case of the Tories. The questions of their political organization and lobbying in Britain and America, methods of communication, and areas of geographic concentration are never touched. Likewise, Brands never examines the ethno-religious component in the decisions to support or oppose the Revolution. The question of why the British were so slow to effectively organize Tory military units is unaddressed, as is any consideration of their effectiveness; their contributions to the British war effort merit some consideration. Basic questions such as the size of the Loyalist population and number of men in Tory regiments are unaddressed.
One theme Brands might have pursued is the success of rebel militias in suppressing loyalism in the early stages of the war. He could also have spent some ink on analyzing the nasty, ruthless struggle between revolutionary and Loyalist units in southern New York, Long Island and Connecticut. Benjamin Tallmadge, dragoon and intelligence officer who played a prominent role in the area, found himself fighting almost entirely against Tory units from 1778 to the war’s end.
Some names, especially on the losing side of the internal civil war, are conspicuous by their absence. Banastre Tarleton appears once in the introduction. His command (the British Legion) is unnamed, and its organization and composition unexamined. John Graves Simcoe, Oliver and James DeLancey, men who raised units which were feared and loathed by their patriot opponents, appear nowhere.
For those who are unfamiliar with the course of the Revolution, Our First Civil War provides a one-volume overview, though that is a crowded genre. Those lured by the title and expecting a thorough discussion of the duel between American Loyalists and American Revolutionaries are likely to be disappointed.