Modern history

Choosing Sides

Probably no more than half of American colonists actively supported the patriots. Perhaps a fifth actively supported the British, including many merchants and most officials appointed by the king and Parliament. The rest tried to stay neutral or were largely indifferent unless the war came to their doorstep. Both patriots and loyalists included men and women from all classes and races and from both rural and urban areas.

Recruiting Supporters

Men who took up arms against the British before independence was declared and the women who supported them clearly demonstrated their commitment to the patriot cause. In some colonies, patriots had organized local committees, courts, and assemblies to assume governance should British officials lose their authority. White servants and enslaved blacks in Virginia who fled to British ships or marched with Lord Dunmore made their loyalties known as well. Some Indians, too, declared their allegiance early in the conflict. In May 1775, Guy Johnson, the British superintendent for Indian affairs for the northern colonies, left Albany, New York, and sought refuge in Canada. He was accompanied by 120 British loyalists and 90 Mohawk warriors. The latter were led by the mission-educated chief of the Mohawks, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), who had translated the Anglican prayer book into Mohawk and who had fought with the British in the French and Indian War.

The Continental Congress, like Johnson, recognized the importance of Indians to the outcome of any colonial war. It appointed commissioners from the “United Colonies” to meet with representatives of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in August 1775. While Brant’s group of Mohawk warriors had already committed to supporting the British, some Oneida Indians, influenced by missionary and patriot sympathizer Samuel Kirkland, wanted to support the colonies. Others, however, urged neutrality, at least for the moment.

Once independence was declared, there was far more pressure on all groups to choose sides. The stance of political and military leaders and soldiers was clear. But to win against Great Britain required the support of a large portion of the civilian population as well. As battle lines shifted back and forth across New England, the Middle Atlantic region, and the South, many civilians caught up in the fighting were faced with difficult choices.

Many colonists who remained loyal to the king found safe haven in cities like New York, Newport, and Charleston, which remained under British control throughout much of the war. Loyalist men were welcomed as reinforcements to the British army. Still, those who made their loyalist sympathies clear risked a good deal. When British troops were forced out of cities or towns they had temporarily occupied, many loyalists faced harsh reprisals. Patriots had no qualms about invading the homes of loyalists, punishing women and children, and destroying or confiscating property. Grace Galloway was denounced by former friends and evicted from her Philadelphia home after her loyalist husband, Joseph, fled to New York City in 1777.

Many loyalists were members of the economic and political elite, but others came from ordinary backgrounds.

Tenants, small farmers, and slaves joined the loyalist cause in defiance of their landlords, their owners, and wealthy planters. The Hudson valley was home to many poorer loyalists, whose sympathy for the British was heightened by the patriot commitments of their wealthy landlords. When the fighting moved south, many former Regulators (see chapter 5) also supported the British as a result of their hostility to patriot leaders among North Carolina’s eastern elite.

Perhaps most importantly, the majority of Indian nations ultimately sided with the British. The Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga nations in the North and the Cherokee and Creek nations in the South were among Great Britain’s leading allies. Although British efforts to limit colonial migration, such as the Proclamation Line of 1763, had failed, most Indian nations still believed that a British victory offered the only hope of ending further encroachments on their territory.

Choosing Neutrality

Early in the war, many Indian nations proclaimed their neutrality. The Delaware and Shawnee nations, caught between British and American forces in the Ohio River valley, were especially eager to stay out of the fighting. The Shawnee chief Cornstalk worked tirelessly to maintain his nation’s neutrality, but American soldiers killed him under a flag of truce in 1777. Eventually the Shawnees, like the Delawares, chose to ally with the British side after patriot forces refused to accept their claims of neutrality.

Colonists who sought to remain neutral during the war also faced hostility and danger. Some 80,000 Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, Shakers, and Moravians considered war immoral and embraced neutrality. These men refused to bear arms, hire substitutes, or pay taxes to new state governments. The largest number of religious pacifists lived in Pennsylvania. Despite Quakerism’s deep roots there, pacifists were treated as suspect by both patriots and loyalists.

In June 1778, Pennsylvania authorities jailed nine Mennonite farmers who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the revolutionary government. Their worldly goods were sold by the state, leaving their wives and children destitute. Quakers were routinely fined and imprisoned for refusing to support the patriot cause and harassed by British authorities in the areas they controlled. At the same time, Quaker meetings regularly disciplined members who offered aid to either side, disowning more than 1,700 members during the Revolution. Betsy Ross was among those disciplined when her husband joined the patriot forces and she sewed flags for the Continental Army.

Committing to independence

After July 4, 1776, the decision to support independence took on new meaning. If the United States failed to win the war, all those who actively supported the cause could be considered traitors. The families of Continental soldiers faced especially difficult decisions as the conflict spread across the colonies and soldiers moved farther and farther from home. Men too old or too young to fight proved their patriotism by gathering arms and ammunition and patrolling local communities.

Meanwhile some female patriots accompanied their husbands or fiancés as camp followers, providing food, laundry, sewing, and other material resources to needy soldiers. Most patriot women remained at home, however, and demonstrated their commitment to independence by raising funds, gathering information, and sending clothes, bedding, and other goods to soldiers at the front. The Continental Army was desperately short of supplies from the beginning of the war. Northern women were urged to increase cloth production, while farm women in the South were asked to plant crops to feed the soldiers. The response was overwhelming. Women in Hartford, Connecticut, produced 1,000 coats and vests and 1,600 shirts in 1776 alone. Mary Fraier ofChester County, Pennsylvania, was one of many women who collected clothing door-to-door and then washed and mended it before delivering it to troops stationed nearby. Other women opened their homes to soldiers wounded in battle or ill with fevers, dysentery, and other diseases.

Some African American women also became ardent patriots. Phillis Wheatley of Boston, whose owners taught her to read and write, published a collection of poems in 1776 and sent a copy to General Washington. She urged readers to recognize Africans as children of God:

Remember Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train

Rewarded with freedom by her master, Wheatley was among a small number of blacks who actively supported the patriot cause. Of course, the majority of black Americans labored as slaves in the South. While some joined the British in hopes of gaining their freedom, most were not free to choose sides.


• How did colonists choose sides during the Revolutionary War? What factors influenced their decisions?

• Why did so many Indian tribes try to stay neutral during the conflict? Why was it so difficult for Indians to remain neutral?

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