Loyalists in Virginia During and After the American Revolution

Loyalists who fled Virginia had their property confiscated
Loyalists who fled Virginia had their property confiscated
Source: Howard Pyle blog, Tory Refugees on their way to Canada (by Howard Pyle, 1901)

Most members of the House of Burgesses and the Governor's Council became radicalized between passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the First Virginia Convention in 1774. The elite clique of white men who controlled the economy and enjoyed high social status in the colony risked their power and position to rebel against the authority and military capacity of Great Britain. In the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the revolutionaries pledged:1

...to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Not everyone felt that revolution was an appropriate solution to the political disputes with officials in London. Scottish storekeepers throughout the colony, but especially in Norfolk, closed down their businesses and migrated home. A few key leaders in the Virginia gentry remained loyal to King George III and moved to London. Others managed to stay in Virginia without committing to support revolution, and some even joined the British military forces.

A significant part of the white farmers who did not belong to the gentry were unwilling to enlist in the Continental Army and evaded militia service, as they recognized another "rich man's war but a poor man's fight." Quakers chose to suffer economic punishment from Virginia county governments in order to avoid providing militia enlistees or supplies for war. Enslaved people scaped to British warships or armies when the opportunity presented itself, choosing actual liberty rather than support a change in regime leadership that claimed to fight for liberty - but only for whites.

In late 1775, Lord Dunmore raised the Queen's Own Loyal Virginia Regiment. Loyalist Virginia whites fought in it for a year, until Dunmore sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay in 1776 and the regiment was incorporated into the Queen's American Rangers.

Over a century ago, historian Carl Becker highlighted that the American Revolution involved more than a war to end the role of Parliament and the King of England in control of the colonies. The was was a fight for home rule, but also a fight to determine who would rule at home once the colonies gained their independence.

Enslaved people in Virginia viewed the revolution though their own unique lens. The white gentry claimed that a war was necessary to ensure no taxation without representation, but the rebel leaders had no intention to grant political or social freedoms to their "property." The best path for the enslaved to get freedom and the opportunity for a better standard of living was for the British to win the war; "freedom wore a red coat."

At the beginning of military conflict, Lord Dunmore sought to recruit the men among the 400,000 enslaved Virginians to join his new Ethiopian Regiment. The colonial governor created racially-separate military forces because he assumed few white Loyalists would be willing to serve alongside men who had just escaped from slavery.

When Lord Cornwallis marched through Virginia in 1781 before ending up at Yorktown, enslaved men and women provided intelligence about available supplies and served as guides through the unmapped areas. Cornwallis's troops took advantage of the information provided to decide where to camp, and how to move swiftly along country roads.

The British troops encouraged the enslaved people on plantations to run away and follow the army. The soldiers put some of the former enslaved people to work, using them as personal servants as well as laborers. Black Virginians provided support to the army that was most likely to provide them freedom.

The thousands who fled Virginia plantations joined with British and German troops who seized supplies while on the march. The pillaging at small farms and large plantations caused economic damage to the rebel leaders, and weakened the ability of the Marquis de Lafayette and General "Mad Anthony" Wayne to obtain food, horses, and other supplies for the American forces. The British fortifications at Yorktown were dug largely by Virginians who had fled their white masters.2

formerly enslaved Virginians who desired a British victory dug many of Lord Cornwallis' fortifications at Yorktown
formerly enslaved Virginians who desired a British victory dug many of Lord Cornwallis' fortifications at Yorktown
Source: National Park Service, British Artillery Position (painting by Sidney E. King)

After the American Revolution, some Loyalists who had fled Virginia sought to return. In a debate at the General Assembly Patrick Henry strongly encouraged increasing the state's population through immigration and allowing the Loyalists to move back to Virginia. New residents would spur economic growth by bringing money to invest, and by purchasing goods and services in the state. As portrayed in an 1881 biography by William Wirt, Henry pontificated:3

Sir, I feel no objection to the return of those deluded people - they have, to be sure, mistaken their own interests most wofully, and most wofully have they suffered the punishment due to their offences. But the relations which we bear to them and to their native country are now changed - their king hath acknowledged our independence - the quarrel is over - peace hath returned, and found us a free people. Let us have the magnanimity, sir, to lay aside our antipathies and prejudices, and consider the subject in a political light. Those are an enterprising, moneyed people - they will be serviceable in taking off the surplus produce of our lands, and supplying us with necessaries, during the infant state of our manufactures.

Even if they be inimical to us in point of feeling and principle, I can see no objection, in a political view, in making them tributary to our advantage. And as I have no prejudices to prevent my making this use of them, so, sir, I have no fear of any mischief that they can do us. Afraid of them! - what, sir, said he, rising to one of his loftiest attitudes, and assuming a look of the most indignant and sovereign contempt, - shall we, who have laid the proud British lion at our feet, now be afraid of his whelps?

However, Henry opposed proposals to return assets confiscated from the Loyalists.

Did Enslaved Virginians Choose to Be Loyalists or Revolutionaries in the Revolutionary War?

an English cartoon showed rebellious colonists (as Native Americans) murdering six loyalists
an English cartoon showed rebellious colonists (as Native Americans) murdering six loyalists
Source: Library of Congress, The savages let loose, or The cruel fate of the Loyalists (by William Humphrey, 1783)



1. "Declaration of Independence: A Transcription," National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript (last checked March 22, 2021)
2. Donald J. Gara, "Loyal Subjects of the Crown: The Queen's Own Loyal Virginia Regiment and Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, 1775-76," Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Volume 83, Number 333 (Spring 2005), https://www.jstor.org/stable/44231142; Gregory J. W. Urwin, "'Abandoned to the Arts & Arms of the Enemy:' Placing the 1781 Virginia Campaign in Its Racial and Political Context," 2014 Harmon Memorial Lecture, p.14-17, https://www.usafa.edu/app/uploads/Harmon57.pdf; "'Why Does it Have to Be Slaveholders That We Unite Around?'," New York Times, October 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/19/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-woody-holton.html (last checked October 23, 2021)
3. William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, E. Claxton and Co., 1881, p.253, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Sketches_of_the_Life_and_Character_of_Pa/j0xLAAAAYAAJ (last checked March 23, 2021)

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