Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Meeting Notes: September 21, 2016

"Tories in the Shadows: Loyalism, Society, and Warfare in Virginia during the American Revolution," Stephanie Seal Walters

Frequently hated and persecuted by their fellow Virginians during and after the American Revolution, Virginia’s loyalists also ceased to exist in most Virginia history textbooks and classrooms for nearly 200 years.

“Their story is a side in Virginia that very few people have paid any attention to,” said historian Stephanie Seal Walters at the September 21, 2016 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond.

In fact Walters’ research shows where very few historians wrote anything about Virginia’s loyalists prior to the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. At that time many historians began to study the whole story of the American Revolution, not just the battles and political activities of the famous Founding Fathers.

“During the Bicentennial, historians began researching and writing about women, blacks and other groups such as loyalists and the neutral population,” said Walters.

A few years later Hollywood produced a very popular movie called The Patriot, which told the fictitious story of a Mel Gibson character who fought against an evil character who was loosely based on British Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the commander of a loyalist cavalry regiment.

“The Tarleton-like character was the most interesting character in the movie. For example, he ordered his loyalist troops to burn down a church with the people still in it. He was a wonderful villain,” laughed Walters.

Over the years historians struggled and disagreed over how to identify people as loyalists during the American Revolution. While conducting her research, Walters used five criteria to identify loyalists. If anyone met at least one of the five criteria, she regarded that person as showing serious loyalist tendencies.

Her first category was whether a person tried to submit a postwar claim to the Loyalist Claims Commission concerning property that was allegedly stolen or destroyed during the war. Virginia’s loyalists were frequent targets for theft and vandalism. Two other criteria which Walters used to identify Virginia loyalists were whether a person was ever imprisoned for alleged loyalist views, or whether a person ever joined the British army or a loyalist militia unit.

Walters said that her fourth criteria was “somewhat of a gray area” because it involved “neighbors hating neighbors”. During the American Revolution, people wrote to public newspapers, charging people with loyalist beliefs. Routinely, the accused would promptly reply in writing to the newspaper, and deny the charges of being a loyalist. However Walters classified people who didn’t promptly deny the accusations as being most likely loyalists.

Her fifth and final criteria covered the actual writings of people who wrote either publicly or privately about their loyalist views. Examples of private writings were diary entries and personal letters to family members and close friends. 

After applying her five criteria to Virginia writings and public records from the American Revolution years, Walters identified approximately 2,500 Virginians as loyalists. This was a much larger number than previous estimates by historians who placed the number of Virginia loyalists at approximately 500 people.

As for the geographical breakdown of Virginia’s loyalists, Walters said that by far the heaviest concentration was in Norfolk, Portsmouth and the Eastern Shore. Many of Virginia’s merchants were loyalists, especially the wealthy ones who had extensive trade deals with Great Britain.

Virginia’s first problems with open rebellion against British authority took place on November 7, 1774 at what was called the Yorktown Tea Party. Approximately 10-15 protesters dumped tea into the York River in a similar manner to the more famous tea party that took place in Boston one year earlier.

“The Revolution hit Virginia really late,” said Walters. “They stayed out of the patriot versus loyalist disputes when compared to New York, Massachusetts and the Carolinas. However, Yorktown opened up a first-time debate. Even though the Yorktown Tea Party was very small, its significance was important in starting a discussion.”

One of Virginia’s earliest and prominent loyalists was John Agnew, the Anglican rector of the Suffolk parish. According to Walters, he was “a grumpy man who sued his own church to get paid more money.” Agnew’s attorney was none other than Thomas Jefferson.

In March 1775 Agnew called a meeting where he invited only the women parishioners, and spoke on rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and unto God what was God’s. When some of the male parishioners learned about the secret women-only meeting, they stormed into the church and ordered Agnew to shut up. They accused the loyalist rector of having “a master in Heaven and a master in England”. A few days later Agnew was imprisoned but he escaped, and soon joined the Queen’s Rangers loyalist regiment as their chaplain.

Tensions steadily increased across Virginia in 1775 between Virginia patriots such as Patrick Henry and Virginia loyalists who supported Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s royal governor. When Dunmore feared for his safety in Williamsburg and felt compelled to move his base of operations, he chose Norfolk because it included many residents who were loyal to the British crown.

Dunmore set off a firestorm across Virginia in November 1775 when he declared that any slaves who ran away from their masters and joined his all-black Ethiopian regiment would be considered free people under British law. Dunmore also enraged Virginia patriots by creating an all-white Virginia loyalist regiment.

Shortly after Dunmore’s forces abandoned Norfolk in January 1776, Virginia patriots reoccupied Norfolk and sought revenge against the city’s loyalist population. Most loyalist homes were set ablaze, and the fires spread to the point where they burned down most of the city.

After Virginia and the other 12 American colonies declared their independence most of the state’s newspapers, including the widely-read Virginia Gazette, became strong promoters of independence. They quit covering stories about Virginia loyalists, especially any patriot atrocities committed against them. For example, a Virginia loyalist stole the Great Seal of Virginia and when he got caught in the Fredericksburg area, a crowd tarred and feathered him. No news of the event appeared in the Virginia Gazette, which basically censored the incident.

“Virginia’s newspapers covered loyalist stories outside Virginia but they didn’t cover those within the state. It was as if there were no loyalists in Virginia,” said Walters.

Stephanie Seal Walters is a first-year digital history fellow at the Roy Rosenzweig Digital History Center at George Mason University, where she is also pursuing a PhD in U.S. history. Her research interests include Colonial America, digital history, war and society and loyalism during the American Revolution.

She received her BA and MA in history at the University of Southern Mississippi where she was also a graduate fellow for the Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South and the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society.

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:

1. President Bill Welsch welcomed approximately 50 members of the University of Richmond’s Osher Institute to the Round Table for what was an annual joint meeting between the two organizations.

2. Osher member Donna Callery thanked ARRT-Richmond for the invitation and urged ARRT-Richmond members to join the Osher Institute and to register for Osher’s upcoming mini-courses and tours which begin later this semester.

3. President Welsch also announced the dates and locations of several upcoming lectures and tours across Virginia that relate to the American Revolution.

--Bill Seward

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