The invitation arrived with a question: “Since we’ll be dining in the 18th century,” it read, “would you mind wearing a British Redcoat? Also, you’ll be expected to swear loyalty to King George. I hope this won’t be a problem.”
A week later, I found myself inside a drafty Gothic church in the center of Saint John, New Brunswick, surrounded by dozens of costumed historical reenactors, each channeling the personality of a long-dead Tory or Hessian. They had come from all over Maritime Canada—the Atlantic Seaboard provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island—to celebrate the 225th anniversary of DeLancey’s Brigade, one of 53 Loyalist regiments that fought alongside the British during America’s Revolutionary War. Up from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, came the Prince of Wales American Regiment. The Royal American Fencibles crossed the Bay of Fundy from Yarmouth. So did officers from the Kings Orange Rangers in Liverpool. Amid the rustle of women’s petticoats and the flash of regimental swords, they greeted a cast of characters straight out of Colonial America: a quietly earnest parson garbed in black, wearing the swallow-tailed collar of an Anglican cleric, and a buckskinned spy with the British Indian Department, who confided he was busy organizing Iroquois raids on the Continental Army.
Seated at a table groaning under the weight of 18th-century-style comestibles—a tureen of turnip soup made from a 1740 recipe; a bowl of heirloom apples not sold commercially in more than a century; and a marzipan dessert shaped to resemble a hedgehog—it was easy to slip into a parallel universe. At this regimental gathering, there was no discussion of the war on terrorism. Instead, we lamented General Burgoyne’s blunder at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and congratulated ourselves on how well Loyalists were fighting in the Carolinas. “These clothes just feel right,” whispered military historian Terry Hawkins, a red-coated lieutenant colonel, amid a chorus of huzzahs offered to George III. “I belong in this scene.”
Unlike many Civil War aficionados, who even today bear the burden of the Confederacy’s lost cause, Canadian Tories are sanguine about the outcome of their war: the British defeat, to their way of thinking, ensured that they escaped the chaos of American democracy. “After Harold and I participated in a reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill, we took the kids out to Cape Cod for a swim,” remembers a smiling Wendy Steele, who wore a voluminous, hoop-skirt gown of the kind popular in the 1780s. “They paraded along the beach shouting, ‘George Washington is rebel scum.’ What a marvelous vacation it was!”
When the minstrels had finished singing “Old Soldiers of the King” and launched into “Roast Beef of Old England,” I returned the borrowed trappings of empire and strolled down Charlotte Street through the late summer twilight. Ahead lay the old Loyalist burial ground; the corner where Benedict Arnold once lived; and King’s Square, whose diagonal crosswalks are arrayed to resemble a Union Jack. To the right loomed TrinityChurch, spiritual successor of the Lower Manhattan structure abandoned by its Anglican congregation following Britain’s defeat in 1781.
Inside the silent church, gray stone walls covered with chiseled plaques commemorate those “who sacrificed at the call of duty their homes in the old colonies.” The plaques told a story of loss and removal. Somewhere inside the sacristy lay a silver communion chalice bestowed upon Saint John’s founders by George III. But high above the nave hung what is surely the church’s most highly valued treasure: a gilded coat of arms—the escutcheon of Britain’s Hanoverian dynasty—that once adorned the Council Chamber of the Old State House in Boston.
“We grew up with the knowledge that our ancestors were refugees who had been robbed and tortured because of their loyalty,” says Elizabeth Lowe, a fifth-generation descendant of Benedict Arnold’s cousin Oliver. “We may have learned to accept the Americans, but we will never forget our history.”
Schools teach American children that our revolutionary struggle was a popular uprising against heavy-handed taxes and self-serving imperialism. But the fight for independence was also a bloody civil war in which perhaps one out of five Americans preferred to remain a British subject. Massachusetts and Virginia undoubtedly were hotbeds of revolt, but New York, Georgia and the Carolinas contained sizable populations loyal to the Crown. “Rebels gained control of New England early in the war,” says historian John Shy, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. “Americans who mistrusted New England never embraced the Revolution, and neither did Indians on the frontier who thought independence would lead to further encroachment on their land. The bloodiest fighting occurred in the Carolinas where the populations were equally divided.”
Divisions within Colonial society extended into even the founding fathers’ families. Benjamin Franklin’s son William defied his father and remained Royal Governor of New Jersey until his arrest in 1776. (After his release in 1778, William eventually fled to England; he and his father were forever estranged.) George Washington’s mother and several of his cousins, not to mention Virginia’s influential Fairfax family, were Tory. John Adams and John Hancock both had in-laws outspokenly loyal to King George. Several delegates to the Continental Congress were related by marriage to active Tories. “All families are liable to have degenerate members,” declared New Jersey delegate William Livingston upon the arrest of his nephew. “Among the twelve apostles, there was at least one traitor.”
To keep Tories (a derisive 17th-century term first applied by English Puritans to supporters of Charles II that came to define people who disagreed with the Revolution) in line once the Declaration of Independence was signed, most states enacted restrictive “Test Acts” that required their citizens to formally denounce the British Crown and swear allegiance to his or her resident state. Those who failed to take the oath were subject to imprisonment, double and triple taxation, confiscation of property and banishment. Neither could they collect debts, buy land or defend themselves in court. Connecticut made it illegal for these Loyalists to criticize Congress or the Connecticut General Assembly. South Carolina required supporters of the Crown to make reparations to victims of all robberies committed in their counties. Congress quarantined the entire population of Queens County, New York, for its reluctance to join patriot militias.