Redcoats were not the only enemies of American Independence.

The Declaration of Independence said that by July 1776 the time had come “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” But the signers knew they did not speak for “one people” but for a people including Americans who opposed the Revolution. The latter called themselves Loyalists; the Patriots called them Tories. Thousands of them armed themselves and began a civil war whose savagery shocked even battle-hardened Redcoats and Hessians. That war all but vanished in the glory that enfolds the grand story of the American Revolution. But those men and women who fought for the king were Americans, and they live on as reminders that within the tapestry known as “We the People,” there will always be strands of a defiant, fervent minority.

There were truly and clearly two Americas—one governed by the British military operating from New York and the other a group of colonies in rebellion but not quite governed. Every American now had a choice: to remain a subject of King George III and thus a traitor to a new regime called the United States of America or to support the rebel lion and become a traitor to the Crown.

Loyalists by the thousands signed oaths administered by Royal Governor of New York William Tryon, who traveled to territory occupied by British troops. Few refused to swear allegiance to the Crown.

And those who chose the king had another way to show their choice. In taverns and meeting halls throughout New York City, Tryon’s recruiters signed up wealthy, well-connected young men for commissions in Loyalist regiments. The Loyalist recruits were issued weapons and uniforms, usually designed by their regimental commanders. Ultimately, New York would send more men into Loyalist regiments than into the Continental Army.

As soon as the British army took root on Long Island, scores of young Connecticut men sailed across the sound to enlist. Many described themselves as churchmen, Anglicans who equated service to the king with their religious beliefs. Their names appeared on the musters of the Queen’s Rangers, the King’s American Regiment and the Prince of Wales’ American Volunteers.

The latter unit was the creation of Montfort Browne, former governor of His Majesty’s Bahamas. Browne fell into enemy hands in March 1776 at Nassau, New Providence, when Esek Hopkins, commander in chief of the fledgling Continental Navy, led its first amphibious operation, landing some 270 Marines and sailors from whaleboats. No one offered resistance when the Continentals cleared the island’s fort of military stores—including dozens of cannon and a ton of gunpowder—and took Browne prisoner.

Despite being placed under house arrest in Middletown, Conn., Browne managed to raise the Prince of Wales’ Volunteers by smuggling out invitations to Tory friends, much as he might have arranged a dinner party on New Providence. Freed in a prisoner exchange that September, Browne set up his headquarters in Flushing, Long Island, and began issuing warrants to recruiters.

In New Jersey, Cortlandt Skinner, a member of one of the state’s oldest and wealthiest families and a longtime spy for the British, accepted a brigadier general’s commission from British Commander in Chief William Howe. Skinner raised four 400-man battalions of volunteers. Outfitted in green—a common color choice for Loyalist units —his men became known as Skinner’s Greens. They would fight battles from New Jersey to Virginia.

In Hackensack, N.J., Continental Commander in Chief General George Washington was racing time as well as British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, for the enlistments of many Continentals would soon expire. With the addition of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s men—who had abandoned Fort Lee and moved down to Hackensack—Washington had a force of about 3,000 troops. But they were “much broken and dispirited men.”

Washington bid farewell to Peter Zabriskie, a Patriot in whose mansion the American general had been staying. According to family tradition, Zabriskie asked the general where he was heading. And, the story goes, Washington leaned down from his saddle and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?” Zabriskie assured him that he could, and Washington replied, “I can, too.”

The story underlined the Patriots’ distrust of New Jersey people. “A large part of the Jerseys,” Washington bitterly observed, “have given every proof of disaffection that a people can do.”

As soon as Washington’s troops left Hackensack, young men from local homes and outlying areas began to converge on the village green. They were Loyalists, who had secretly enlisted in the 4th Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers. Formed in 1776, it was the state’s first Loyalist regiment and one of New Jersey’s three major Loyalist units. Most enlisted men were Scotch-Irish; the officers scions of old Dutch families, known as the Tory Dutch.

Local Patriots, especially farmers, led worrisome lives, trying to earn a living while wondering where and when Tory raiders might strike. Sometimes the latter staged small-scale raids, picking up some cattle here, a few horses there. Or they might launch a major foraging expedition, with several hundred British troops and members of the 4th Battalion, who would first jail the Patriots and then plunder their homes and farms. The Patriots retaliated by ambushing the smaller foraging parties. Each side lost men to sudden skirmishes on this strange, unexpected battlefield called the “Neutral Ground.”

As Washington retreated into New Jersey, taking the war westward, citizens’ allegiance also began to turn. In parts of New Jersey, as Washington would learn, Tories were in the majority and in control. Back in New York, there were so many Loyalists in some areas that they pinned down Patriot militiamen who otherwise might be aiding Washington in New Jersey. New Jersey’s government was under Patriot control, but its population included thousands of Tories.

In flight with Washington’s army across New Jersey was Tom Paine, whose Common Sense had stirred the Rebels and thrust them toward independence. Now, in a dark December of defeats, in “times that try men’s souls,” when the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot…shrink from the service of their country,” he looked around and began to envision what he soon would write in The Crisis. He noted an infestation of Tories and realized the time had come when Rebels and Tories would fight each other, regardless of whether the British army was present.

Loyalists in Bergen County, New Jersey, provided the British in New York City with not only food but also spies and recruits, many of whom Tryon secretly signed up aboard the ship of the line HMS Duchess of Gordon, where he sought refuge in the fall of 1775 when Rebels controlled the city. Those shipboard enlistees were instructed to return home and tell no one about their enlistments until British troops arrived in New Jersey. This was an unprecedented move, going beyond usual British military doctrine by setting up advance Loyalist units in places the British army had yet to invade.

Volunteers for Loyalist regiments were given equipment and paid in British money, not in the ever-declining currency printed by the Continental Congress. Some Loyalist recruiters promised prospective soldiers a 5 guinea signing bonus, rather than the advertised 40 guineas, but added the lure of 200 acres of land, with an extra 100 acres for his wife and 50 for each child. A Patriot enlisting in a Rebel militia typically had to provide his own musket and bayonet, a sword or tomahawk, cartridge box and belt, 23 cartridges, 12 flints, a knapsack, 1 pound of gunpowder and 3 pounds of bullets in reserve. All this was an expensive outlay for a poor farmer.

Each Tory battalion had, in addition to its commissioned officers, a surgeon and a chaplain, all drawn from New York and New Jersey. The most distinguished of the chaplains was the Rev. Charles Inglis, assistant minister at Trinity Church, New York City’s most esteemed Anglican congregation. Inglis was a passionate Loyalist who, after the occupation of the city, became an eloquent propagandist.

Loyalists who enlisted or were commissioned in areas under Patriot control had to make their way to safe ground in New York City or Long Island. Patriots regarded these traveling new soldiers of the Provincial Corps (as the British army collectively termed the Loyalist units) as either spies or armed foes.

New York’s Ulster County fielded one of the largest Loyalist units, numbering about 50 men. In April 1777, Patriots spotted this group at Wallkill, about 85 miles north of New York City. In the brief firefight that followed, the Loyalists wounded three Rebels before slipping away. Patriots spread the alarm through the countryside, so the recruits, aided by local Loyalists, hid out in the woods or in the cellars or barns of sympathizers by day and traveled by night. They had not gone far before a militia patrol caught up to them and captured about 30. Eleven were charged with “levying war against the United States of America,” five for “aiding and assisting [and] giving comfort” to the enemy. They were brought before a court-martial ordered by Brig. Gen. George Clinton, a former member of the Continental Congress and soon to become governor of New York.

The court-martial, after listening to Patriots who told of encounters with the armed Tories, resolved that “an immediate example was necessary and requisite to deter intestine enemys [sic] from continuing treasonable practices against the state.” Fourteen men “were adjudged to suffer the pains and penalties of death by being hanged by the neck until they are dead.” After hearing petitions and statements, the Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York, the provisional state government, ruled that only the leader and his assistant were to be executed. The others received various sentences, ranging from parole to confinement through war’s end.

In October 1775, the New York Provincial Congress had described widespread Tory recruiting as a “conspiracy from Haverstraw [New York] to Hackensack [New Jersey],” roughly encompassing what became known as the “Neutral Ground.” It stretched along both banks of the Hudson River from above the New York–New Jersey border south to Sandy Hook. In Westchester County, the term referred to the land between the British-held Bronx and American-held Peekskill. The label was ironic, for on this so-called Neutral Ground both sides would fight, not to gain territory but to forage for food and firewood, demand loyalty oaths, kill each other in skirmishes—and spy.

James Fenimore Cooper made famous the label “spy” in his Revolutionary War novel The Spy, published in 1821 with the subtitle A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Cooper wrote the book while living in Scarsdale, a Westchester County town that had been part of the Neutral Ground. Cooper’s hero, Harvey Birch, was based in part on Enoch Crosby, a true spy of the Neutral Ground. Crosby, masquerading as a Tory recruiter, secretly worked for John Jay, chairman of the New York State Committee and Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. Jay had the power to send Tories to the notorious “fleet prison,” a string of former privateer ships anchored off Kingston, N.Y.

Cooper never publicly linked the real Crosby and the fictional Birch. But he did say that Jay had told him spy stories, and presumably Cooper learned about Loyalist activities from his wife and in-laws, descendants of a powerful Tory family. In his petition for a federal pension, Crosby told his own story, which began in the summer of 1776, when his eight-month enlistment in a Connecticut regiment ended and he found himself in the Neutral Ground. On his way to join another regiment, he met a stranger who took him to be a Tory. Realizing the stranger “intended to go to the British,” Crosby instantly decided to string along the Tory. The talkative stranger told Crosby where and by whom a Loyalist regiment was secretly being raised.

Crosby took his information to a member of the Westchester County Committee of Safety. Once vetted by the committee, Crosby became an agent. Among the Tories he exposed were some 30 men recruited by Lt. Col. Beverley Robinson, son of the Tory commander of the Loyal American Regiment.

Patriot officials withheld Crosby’s true status from Captain Micah Townsend of Westchester, commander of Townsend’s Rangers and the principal hunter of Tory spies in the area. Townsend later detained Crosby on suspicion of spying, and Crosby genuinely escaped, risking his life to preserve his secret identity. The escape helped secure his reputation among Tories.

Crosby’s real and staged escapes, under various names and in various Neutral Ground locales, did not raise suspicion. In the Neutral Ground war, many real Tories were captured and later able to escape from inept Rebel guards. But the ruse could not last forever, and after nine months as a secret agent, Crosby enlisted in a new regiment and served as a sergeant on regular service.

While Crosby was hunting Tories in the Neutral Ground, a small but brutal civil war was heating up between New Jersey’s Dutch Tories and Dutch Rebels. British forces, Loyalist volunteers and Patriot militiamen took turns at hit-and-run raids, keeping residents jittery. No one knew when a Tory or a Rebel might shatter the night. Bergen County was particularly divided due to a schism in the Dutch Reformed Church—some congregations supporting American-trained clergy and the Rebels, others backing more conservative factions and the Loyalists.

In New York’s Orange County, which bordered New Jersey on the north, a militia leader reported that “matters are come to such a height that they who are friends of the American cause must (for their own safety) be cautious how they speak in public” and that some of those “who have been active in favor of our cause, will soon (if an opportunity offers) be carried down to New York.” Patriots carried down to New York City faced confinement in a prison ship or in the Sugar House, a sugar refinery turned dank stone prison.

At anchor in a small Brooklyn bay rode several British prison ships— dreaded dungeons for thousands of captured Continental Army soldiers, Rebel militiamen and Patriot civilians. Joshua Loring, commissary of American prisoners, showed little interest in his captives, except as a source of income from contractors’ kickbacks. Prisoners were jammed into holds, where so many died of disease or starvation that each day guards would open the hatches and yell down, “Turn out your dead!” The British either tossed the bodies into the sea or buried them ashore in shallow graves. Estimates of the total death toll ran as high as 11,500.

The Sugar House, although less notorious than the prison ships, was as horrifying. “Cold and famine were now our destiny,” a survivor wrote. “Not a pane of glass, nor even a board to a single window in the house, and no fire but once in three days to cook our small allowance of provision. There was a scene that truly tried body and soul. Old shoes were bought and eaten with as much relish as a pig or a turkey; a beef bone of 4 or 5 ounces, after it was picked clean, was sold by the British guard for as many coppers.”

Thomas Jones, who lived in New York and knew Loring, wrote that “[he] was determined to make the most of his commission and, by appropriating to his own use nearly two-thirds of the rations allowed the prisoners, he actually starved to death about 300 of the poor wretches before an exchange took place.” Noting General Howe’s fondness for Mrs. Loring, Jones wrote, “Joshua made no objections. He fingered the cash; the general enjoyed Madam.”

As Cornwallis pursued Washington across New Jersey, guerrilla war was declared. In a special order, Howe empowered his own troops, including Loyalist forces, to treat their retreating foes as outlaws: “Small straggling parties, not dressed like soldiers and without officers, not being admissible in war, who presume to molest or fire upon soldiers, or peaceable inhabitants of the country, will be immediately hanged without tryal [sic] as assassins.”

Vicious little actions, hardly noticed in the chronicles of the Washington– Cornwallis saga, took uncounted lives. Kidnappings were all too common. One claimed a famous Patriot as its victim: Richard Stockton, a member of Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

As the British set their sights on Princeton in late 1776, Stockton fled with his family to a friend’s house in Monmouth County, N.J., where Loyalists soon betrayed him to the British. A descendant of an old and distinguished Quaker family and a member of Princeton’s first graduating class, Stockton was a prize catch. The British jailed him as a criminal, mistreating him until he broke under duress and signed an oath of allegiance to the king —an act that disavowed his signature on the Declaration.

Sometime around mid-March, 1777, Stockton was released without any public explanation and returned to his magnificent Princeton home. The mansion—Cornwallis’ headquarters during his occupation of Princeton— lay in ruin. Tories blamed Hessians for making firewood of fine furniture, drinking their way through the wine cellar, bayoneting family portraits and stealing Stockton’s horses and livestock. But the Tories had led looters to hastily buried silver plate and other treasures. Stockton had returned from captivity under a cloud, as congressmen possessed unpublicized knowledge that he had foresworn the Declaration. Later, an ailing Stockton tried to recant his oath to the king by signing oaths of adjuration and allegiance prescribed by the New Jersey legislature as a way to redeem tainted citizens.

Tryon, New York’s provincial governor, participated in the Neutral Ground guerrilla conflict by organizing a troop of Westchester County cavalry raiders under the command of Colonel James De Lancey. The cavalry soon became known as De Lancey’s Cow-boys, a dubious term with origins in cattle and horse rustling.

A typical raid, as reported in an October 1777 edition of the Loyalist New-York Gazette: “Last Sunday Colonel James De Lancey, with 60 of his Westchester Light Horse, went from Kingsbridge to the White Plains, where they took from the Rebels 44 barrels of flour, two ox teams, near 100 head of black cattle and 300 fat sheep and hogs.”

The following month Patriots savagely retaliated against De Lancey’s Cow-boys by attacking Oliver De Lancey’s country home at Bloomingdale, about seven miles up the Hudson from New York City. As victims later recounted, strange noises awakened De Lancey’s teenage daughter Charlotte and her friend Elizabeth Floyd, daughter of a Long Island Loyalist. They ran to a window, opened it and shouted, “Who is there?” From below a gruff voice answered, “Put in your heads, you bitches!”

Men entered the house from front and rear and, prodding the teenagers with muskets, ordered them out of the house. The girls fled to a swampy wood and spent the night “sitting upon their feet to keep a little warmth in them” and watching the house burn to the ground. The elder Mrs. De Lancey managed to hobble from the house and hid in a dog kennel beneath the stoop.

De Lancey’s horsemen also foraged on Long Island, the site of frequent clashes between mounted Tories and amphibious Rebels. Earlier that year, in one of the biggest whaleboat attacks, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs led 170 Patriots across the Sound to Sag Harbor and pounced on the foragers, killing six of them. After burning the Tory boats and forage, Meigs returned to Connecticut with 90 prisoners. The entire operation took 25 hours. Congress rewarded Meigs with a commendation and a sword.

Governor Tryon, commissioned a major general of provincials, waged what he called “desolation warfare,” sending the Cow-boys and Emmerich’s Chasseurs, another mounted Loyalist unit, to torch the homes of leading Patriots. In the fall of 1777, during one of the horsemen’s harshest raids, they burned down sections of Tarrytown, a Hudson River community split between Loyalists and Patriots.

German native Andreas Emmerich’s chasseurs unit added a European element to Loyalist guerrilla forces. Emmerich had emigrated to England, then to America, where he secured a lieutenant colonel’s commission and raised the corps of light troops named after himself. About half of his officers were Europeans and did not get along with their American counterparts.

Mutinous American officers asked Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton (brother of Governor George Clinton) to court-martial Emmerich “for employing soldiers, negroes, and [Tory] refugees, to robb [sic] and plunder the inhabitants of Westchester County” and for taking a cut of the loot from the looters. The officers also accused him of “imprisoning, whipping and cruelly beating the inhabitants without cause or tryal [sic],” selling British army horses and stealing from the army payroll. Clinton sidestepped the court-martial by transferring the officers into other regiments. Emmerich somehow managed to keep his colonelcy.

For a time Continental Army Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam kept his headquarters at Peekskill, N.Y. Putnam tried to rein in Tory raiders by sending Colonel Meigs down the Hudson to attack the pillagers. Rumors circulated that, in retaliation, Tryon planned to kidnap Putnam. Coincidentally, Patriots reported a sudden surge of Tory spies in the area. One of them, a Loyalist lieutenant named Nathan Palmer, managed to infiltrate the headquarters encampment. Soldiers discovered him, and Putnam brought him before a court-martial to be tried as a spy. Tryon tried to intercede, threatening Putnam personally if he did not release Palmer.

Putnam replied:

Sir—Nathan Palmer, a lieutenant in your king’s service, was taken in my camp as a spy, he was tried as a spy, he was condemned as a spy, and you may rest assured, sir, that he shall be hanged as a spy.

I have the honor to be, &c,

Israel Putnam

P.S. Afternoon. He is hanged.


For further reading, Tom Allen recommends: The Price of Loyalty, by Catherine S. Crary, and Divided Loyalties, by Richard M. Ketchum.

Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here