Comparing Civil War memory to Revolutionary War memory

Posted on February 23, 2008 by


In one of my classes last spring at William & Mary, I had Engraving showing the American treatment of loyalists, who were denied freedom of speech and often; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.the opportunity to examine how former Loyalists and Tories from the American Revolution had been treated in historic memory. Now, some think that the two are one in the same, but even I came to realize that this is not the case. However, that was not my point in writing this paper. More importantly, it was written to satisfy my curiosities about potential parallels that might be with Southern Unionists from the American Civil War. In the end, I was not disappointed.

The manner in which Loyalists have been portrayed in the early histories of the United States and Canada is contradictory; one side vilified Loyalists while the other portrayed the same group as almost “Christ-like.” In all likelihood, most people won’t find this surprising. I do think however that there can be a bit of surprise and appreciation for strikingly familiar instances relating to the manner in which different aspects of the Civil War have been “remembered.” I would love to write about this at length, but I will just bring a couple of things to light in order to give a taste of the parallelism.

Loyalists were vilified in historical writings of the United States. In Connecticut, for example, stories were told well into the mid-eighteenth century of Loyalists who attacked children and of the public humiliations “that were meted out” to the Loyalists in Victoria Bynum's Free State of Jonesthe wake of such instances. Likewise, because of popular memory, it was not unusual for people in the United States to forget any possibility that people from their localities could have even been Loyalists [this reminds me of Victoria Bynum’s discussion of the “Free State of Jones.” In her analysis of Jones County, Mississippi, she wrote that former Confederates insisted that every Southern man, woman and child had been loyal to the Confederacy, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary]. In Litchfield, Connecticut, a claim was made that “this country never furnished the enemy with any Tories,” and yet, the famous (or infamous, depending on whether you were an early historian of Canada or the U.S.) Loyalist Colonel Joel Stone claimed Litchfield as his hometown before the Revolution.

Timothy J. Campeau's website focuses on Colonel Joel Stone

Conversely, it could be said that earlier Canadian historians looked at Loyalists in just the opposite fashion as early historians in the United States. Timothy J. Campeau stated, “for a century or more after their arrival in Canada, the Loyalists were venerated as the true embodiment of all that was good in the British Constitution. In local lore they were regarded as Christ-like martyrs who stood up against anarchy and upheaval” (Campeau, Joel Stone Homepage – Historiography). More importantly, with the prevalence of these misperceptions, writers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “produced a fair amount of hagiographic retelling their stories.”

Over time, illusions created about Loyalists and Tories in the Revolution have dissipated and because we have finally been able to get beyond popular memory, we can finally begin to see the American Revolution for the many complexities that made up that conflict. Considering the tremendous battles that historians deal with regarding Civil War memory (including “Lost Cause” mythology and, as what I prefer to call, a brand of“Won Cause” mythology as well), and the different levels of loyalties and indifference found in the South (and North) during the American Civil War, historians of both wars might gain a great deal from each other when comparing loyalism in the two conflicts.