British Loyalists in the American Revolution: Help or Hinderance?

Michael G. Stroud

British Loyalists in the American Revolution: Help or Hinderance?

The raising, expected use, and performance of Loyalist provincial troops and militia were a large factor in Great Britain’s Southern Strategy during the American Revolution. The assumption by the British high command was that the southern colonies were generally much more predisposed to their affection and leaning toward the crown as opposed to the patriot and Whig cause, so there was a natural assumption that by injecting British regulars into the South, that they would be able to rally, raise and deploy significant numbers of Loyalist troops. These troops would then in turn assist the British effort in quelling and confronting patriot forces in the key (mostly major) cities and especially in the backcountry of the South. What the British would soon realize with this segment of their Southern Strategy was that the leadership, number, and overall fighting quality of these Loyalist forces was generally suspect at the best of times and soon proved detrimental to the entire British plan for the South. There were examples of effectively led and successful units of Loyalist forces such as those of the British Legion under the command of the British officer Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833). The fiery and oft described brutal Banastre led his green jacketed force to successes at Lenud’s Ferry on 6 May 1780, the crushing of Colonel Buford’s Virginia infantry (which many considered a massacre) at Waxhaws on 29 May 1780 and the deliverance of the final blow at the Battle of Camden on 16 August 1780.
British Loyalists in the American Revolution: Help or Hinderance?
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, nicknamed "Bloody Ban" by Patriots, led the most effective and infamous Loyalist unit in the British Southern campaigns of the Revolution.

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British Loyalists in the American Revolution: Help or Hinderance?
The gathering of the Patriot "Overmountain Men" that would go on to route the British-led Loyalists at the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780.
Tarleton, a British officer placed in command of these provincial Loyalist troops was indicative of the seeming reality that Loyalist troops generally performed better when led by an officer of the crown as opposed to that of the local, Loyalist variety. The problem for the British, was that they did not have enough British officers to lead the thousands of Loyalist troops and therefore had to rely on Loyalist officers to do so, which ultimately hurt the British war effort in the South due to their general ineptitude and on some occasions, misplaced zeal that worked against them. The ‘militant Scotch-Irish loyalist’ Thomas Fletchall (1725-1789) is such an example. On the orders of the Lord William Campbell, governor of Charleston in 1775, Fletchall set about raising loyalist troops as well as getting those loyal to crown to sign various resolutions countering the claims of the patriots that King George had ‘acted inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution of the British Empire.’ Soon after, Colonel Fletchall and his loyalist troops had seized and taken control of a store of gunpowder at the Ninety-Six courthouse, which helped to draw more British-leaning people to his ranks. However, real authority and influence from Fletchall and those like him, especially in the backcountry where patriot emissaries were having an effect in swaying support to their side soon proved that Fletchall and others like him were not the leaders that the British were hoping for and needed.
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Another example of Loyalist troops greatly hurting the British strategy in the south was the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780. Here, British Major Patrick Ferguson (1744-1780), tasked by General Sir Henry Clinton to turn the South Carolina Loyalists into an effective fighting unit with little to no time or resources while venturing into the Carolina backcountry to recruit more Loyalist troops, soon came head-to-head with patriot Overmountain men on a hilltop called King’s Mountain. Miscalculating the coordinated efforts of his opposition while overestimating the fighting ability of his men, resulted in the death of Major Ferguson and nearly 300 of his men and significantly stifled further Loyalist recruitment in the Carolinas. The British Loyalists and their recruitment in numbers was a significant component of the British Southern Strategy. However, their failings in training, supply, and especially in leadership adversely affected the overall British strategy in the South thus making them ineffective while demonizing them among the local populations for their pro-British stance.
British Loyalists in the American Revolution: Help or Hinderance?
National Park Service plaque at the Cowpens Battlefield reflecting unit information from the British under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton and the British would be defeated at Cowpens by Daniel Morgan and 1,000 Patriots.
British Loyalists in the American Revolution: Help or Hinderance?

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a U.S. based Military Historian that has published many military history articles in various mediums from print magazines to academic journals, and military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He completed his undergrad degree from American Military University, Summa Cum Laude in Military History and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Military History with the same university. Michael has been an invited guest on various history themed podcasts from the UK and the US and maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/michaelgstroud) and Twitter (@StroudMichaelG) where he can be reached and followed.
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