The southern people … have got to the highest pitch of raving madness. The best friends of Great Britain are in the back parts of the Carolinas and Georgia.
Lieutenant Governor John Moultrie of East Florida1
Nearly a month after the evacuation of Boston, Alexander MacDonald, a Loyalist recruiter, wrote to his wife, Susey, from Halifax, to assure her that the fight to quell the rebellion would go on. He knew that a new phase of the war had begun: the mustering of Loyalist military units. They would fight for King George III against fellow Americans who had traitorously turned against their monarch.
MacDonald had left Susey and their children on Staten Island in the fall of 1774 when he set forth to raise soldiers for the Crown. Now he was in Halifax, an eager ally of the British Army, which, he wrote, had “embarked on board their transports with all their baggage stores and artillery and every thing that was worth the Carrying without the Least hindrance or Mollestation, or the Loss of one Single Man… .”2 What MacDonald did not say was that Susey soon would see those Redcoats, for they would land on Staten Island to begin fighting to turn New York City and Long Island into Loyalist strongholds.
No one knew how many Tories remained in Boston after the evacuation. The city had lost many Loyalist leaders—men like Ned Winslow, Brigadier Ruggles, and Colonel Gilbert—who had been the architects of a Tory militancy. Ruggles’s three sons also went to Canada, but his wife and their four daughters stayed behind.3
In Massachusetts and beyond, “Friends of the Government,” as they once were known, now preferred the label “Loyalist,” an assertion that they staunchly supported British rule. But few openly proclaimed their allegiance to the Crown. Most of them kept covert faith in the ultimate triumph of the British Army.
Those who chose the boldest role were the Loyalists who volunteered to shoulder arms in the numerous military units that began to appear in the colonies soon after the evacuation of Boston. MacDonald was one of the recruiters of those militant Loyalists, who would be seen by some British strategists as the key to squashing the rebellion. In that view the rebellion was a civil war, and the Loyalists had to be mobilized to fight the Rebels.*
MacDonald, born in Scotland, had been a lieutenant in a Highland Scots regiment eventually named the 77th Regiment of Foot, a proud unit that went to war in Highland kilt and sporran, with dirk and broadsword. He had served with the 77th in the French and Indian War and later in the French West Indies and Havana. Rather than return to England or Scotland, MacDonald and many other veterans decided to stay in America. He retained his commission as a senior lieutenant and was put on half pay, a status analogous to a ready reservist today. Some of the ex-soldiers chose to settle on the Canada—New York frontier, in the Mohawk Valley above Albany. There Sir William Johnson, Britain’s superintendent of Indian affairs, reigned like a feudal lord over an immense realm and welcomed newcomers, who added to his legion of tenants.4
MacDonald instead decided to live on Staten Island, where Susey had inherited property. She had been born into a branch of the Livingstons, one of the two powerful New York families then engaged in a political struggle. The leaders of the Patriots were Livingstons, the colony’s richest landed gentry. The De Lanceys, whose wealth came from trade, led the Tories. The families’ well-known religious affiliations added to the “hott & pepper on both Sides,” as a Livingston referred to the rivalry. The De Lanceys were Anglicans and the Livingstons were Presbyterians, like most outspoken opponents of British policy toward the colonies.5
As the New York political rivalry escalated toward rebellion, MacDonald’s Patriot in-laws urged him to join their side. But having dabbled in trade and become friendly with Tory merchants, MacDonald remained pro-British and retained his army ties, winning a promotion to captain in 1772. As a soldier and a Highlander he could not merely support the Loyalists. He wanted to raise a regiment of Highland immigrants recruited to fight alongside the British Army.
MacDonald started outlining his idea in letters to veterans in the Mohawk Valley and to an old army friend, Maj. John Small, who was on the staff of General Gage. MacDonald also wrote to his cousin, Allan MacDonald in North Carolina, a leader of that colony’s growing population of Highland immigrants. MacDonald called his recruiting drive “a beating,” evoking the traditional image of a military conscription party seeking militiamen by marching through the town with a drummer steadily beating a summons.
A recruit had to be at least seventeen years old (drummers could be as young as ten), appear healthy, possess all limbs, be no shorter than five feet three inches, have no ruptures or be troubled by fits, and have at least two teeth that met (so he could bite through the paper that wrapped the gunpowder and the ball of a musket cartridge).6 Men recruited in North Carolina were promised two hundred acres of land, to be confiscated from Rebels, and a twenty-year tax exemption. A married man received an extra forty acres for his wife and each child.7
When he had recruited more than one hundred men, MacDonald journeyed to Boston and formally presented his prospective musterroll to Gage. To his surprise MacDonald learned not only that a similar suggestion had come from Lt. Col. Allan Maclean but also that the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment already existed and was commanded by Maclean. Gage had divided the regiment into two battalions, one to be commanded by Maclean and the other by Major Small. MacDonald was made a captain in Small’s battalion.8
Expecting regimental command, MacDonald seethed. While Maclean went off with his battalion to defend Quebec and win glory, MacDonald and Small spent most of their time in Nova Scotia training recruits and begging for supplies. In a typical appeal MacDonald wrote: “Here I am with above 300 Men and Officers, the Most of the Men almost Naked and all of them bare footed… . P.S. We have formed a Mess and a poor one it is without a drop of any kind of wine or Spirits, only Spruce beer… . I beg you would send us a pipe of Good Madeira also a hogshead of good port wine.”9
Eventually MacDonald’s men of the Mohawk Valley were joined by volunteers from Boston, New York City, North Carolina, Nova Scotia, and other parts of Canada. To get more recruits Small and MacDonald received permission to intercept immigrant ships on the high seas, go aboard, and recruit the male passengers. The New York—bound immigrant ship Glasgow, for instance, was redirected to Boston. Somehow—coercion seems probable—Small enlisted and diverted to Nova Scotia one hundred men who had expected to settle in North Carolina.10 The women and children who accompanied them were issued army rations and put in the care of the garrison at Fort Edward in Windsor, Nova Scotia.11
After Maclean’s victory in Quebec, dozens of Continental Army prisoners of war enlisted in his battalion, though they were neither Highlanders nor emigrants. Some of them, enlisting only to end their prisoner status, deserted and made their way back to America. Deserters who were captured were given the choice of severe and potentially lethal flogging or lifelong exile as Redcoats deployed to protect slave dealers and other British subjects in western Africa.12
• • •
Andrew MacDonald’s kinfolk included Flora MacDonald, who had saved Bonnie Prince Charlie after his defeat on the moors of Culloden. The prince, pursued by British soldiers to the Outer Hebrides, made a daring escape later celebrated in Scottish poetry and song. Flora disguised him as an Irish maidservant and took him from her island to the Isle of Skye on his way to safety in France. Arrested by the British, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London and released under a general amnesty in 1747.13 Three years later she married Allan MacDonald, another member of Clan MacDonald and supporter of the Jacobite cause.
Life in the Highlands, which encompassed Scotland’s Western Isles and northern mainland, had become a struggle for survival. No longer sustained by the land, bankrupted by ever-rising rents, denied their culture and even their native language by harsh British edicts after the Battle of Culloden, Highlanders headed for America. They were seeking what had become a dream, conjured up by letters from kin and friends.
Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, traveling on the Scottish mainland and the islands of the Highland realm in the fall of 1773, were entertained on the Isle of Skye by a group of couples doing a complex dance. “Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions” Johnson wrote, “successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.” The islanders called the dance “America.”14
The migration of thousands of Highlanders—the exact number is unknown—had begun about 1732, surging in the late 1760s and peaking in 1774 and 1775.15 Among the emigrants were Flora and Allan MacDonald, who sailed across the Atlantic in 1774, just in time to find themselves again choosing sides in a conflict between Rebels and the king. This time they chose the king.
Many Highlanders made the same choice, even though they could recite a long litany of mistreatment by the British: They had cleared the Highlands of farmers to make way for sheep, a better investment. They had, through blandishments and power dispensing, co-optedthe clan chiefs and shattered the clans. They had banished nearly one thousand Highland men, women, and children to America, where they were sold as indentured servants.16 The banishment was a variation on “transportation,” the euphemistic term for a judicial order that exiled a convicted felon to America. By 1776 about fifty thousand men and women, many of them guilty only of minor crimes, had been sent to America in transportation from England and Scotland.17 Still, fighting for the Crown had become a Highland tradition. The Highlanders drawn to America had sailed through a complex history that tugged many of them toward the Crown rather than toward the Rebels. Their political differences of the recent past were eclipsed by the new reality that Highlanders discovered in America.
New England was far away, geographically and politically, from the part of North Carolina where Flora and Allan MacDonald settled. An estimated twelve thousand former Highlanders lived in the colony, most of them occupying the upper Cape Fear River in Cumberland County. Overwhelmingly they were Loyalists.18
For the Highlanders who migrated at the beginning of the Revolution, the choice of the Loyalist side was pragmatic: The Rebels were losing. By fighting for the British the Highlanders assured their position in this promising colony of the powerful British Empire.19 The king rewarded army service with land grants; the Patriots offered nothing.
Highlanders had been welcomed into the British Army since the first Jacobite rebellion, in 1715, when warriors from loyal clans were stationed in the Highlands as peacekeepers between clans. In 1739 King George II authorized the formation of a regiment consisting of “natives of that country and none other.” The regiment was known as the Black Watch—” black” for the dark colors of the soldiers’ tartans and “watch” for the regiment’s original mission to keep watch over the Highlands.20 Impressed by the Highlanders’ soldierly qualities, British Army commanders continued to recruit men from the land that Robert Burns would call “The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth.”
Additional Highland regiments were raised in 1756, 1757, and 1777.21 Officers and enlisted men who fought in the French and Indian War received land grants as large as twenty thousand acres in Canada and northern New York. When recruitment of the Royal Highland Emigrants began, many of those veterans joined, resuming army life.22
The recruitment of American Highlanders was so well known to the people of Scotland that a Scotswoman traveling to America in 1774 noted in her journal the military significance of the Highlander immigration. Aware of looming trouble in America and seeing hardy America-bound Highlanders aboard her ship, she wrote, “Should levys be again necessary, the recruiting drum may long be at a loss to procure such soldiers as are now aboard this Vessel, lost to their country for ever, brave fellows, who tho’ now flying from their friends, would never have fled from their foes.”23 She was right. The lack of recruits for the British Army at the beginning of the Revolution had been the principal reason that Britain hired Hessians.
In America, Highlanders usually retained their Gaelic language and Highland dress. And they dwelled apart from another, distinctly different immigrant group, the Scotch-Irish, who overwhelmingly joined the ranks of the Patriots. As for Highlanders, Thomas Jefferson often referred to them as “Scottish Tories.”24 In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote a phrase denouncing the British for “permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our own blood, but Scotch and other foreign mercenaries.” The phrase was struck out at the urging of John Witherspoon, a Scots-born delegate from New Jersey. He was a Presbyterian minister, an eloquent champion of independence, and a signer of a Declaration that, thanks to him, was not blemished by a libel on Scots.25
Jefferson’s distrust of the Scots stemmed from common knowledge that in the many parts of the southern colonies a “Scot” and a “Tory” were almost always one and the same. In and around Norfolk, Loyalists were often referred to as members of “the Scotch Party,” and, when the Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment was raised, most of its men were Scots merchants and their employees. Virginia’s tartan-clad royal governor Dunmore had served as a page to Bonnie Prince Charlie.26 His fellow Scots were merchants and placemen whose influence extended from Alexandria, Virginia, to St. Augustine, the principal city of the East Florida Colony.27 Dunmore spoke the warrior language of many a Tory Scot when he said, “I once fought for the Virginians. By God, I would let them see that I could fight against them.”28
* A full description of the units of the Provincial Corps, the Loyalist equivalent of the Continential Army, can be found at ToriesFightingForTheKing.com.