- “That Ever Loyal Island”: Staten Island and the American Revolution
In 1775 the 3,000 residents of Staten Island, New York, were among the most loyal of British subjects in North America. Secure on their island, prosperous with farming and trade, and comfortable in a deferential Anglican society, they opposed the rebellion that had broken out in British North America. They refused to support economic sanctions against Britain; sold provisions to the Royal Navy; and instructed their delegates to the New York Provincial Congress to vote against American independence. In the summer of 1776 they welcomed the British army that landed on Staten Island to begin the restoration of royal government in New York—burning George Washington in effigy, enlisting in Loyalist units to serve as auxiliaries with the king's forces, and punishing the few rebel sympathizers left on their island.
But they soon suffered for their loyalty. When the British army moved on to capture New York City and mount offensives along the Atlantic seaboard from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, Staten Islanders were [End Page 565] caught up in a bitter civil war. Their provincial units and a small British garrison were unable to protect them against attacks by the rebel forces that controlled New Jersey through most of the war. Beyond that, they were vulnerable to their friends—to the British, Hessian, and Loyalist corps that used their island as a staging area, commandeering supplies, spreading diseases, imposing martial law, plundering private and public property, and abusing individuals. Gradually, the residents of Staten Island began to question their allegiance to the crown. By the time that the rebels had won their independence, Staten Islanders were ready to celebrate the withdrawal of British forces and to resume their lives as citizens of the new United States. Few emigrated to Canada or the British Isles.
This is an admirable history—thoroughly researched, clearly written, and persuasively argued. It adds significantly to what we have known about the identity of Loyalists and the intensity of the hostility that they faced during the Revolutionary War in the middle colonies. Papas might have done more to locate Staten Island in the larger history of the war: to explain where the provincial forces raised on the island served and what place they had in British strategy, to consider the impact of skirmishing around the island on rebels as well as Loyalists, and to continue the story of the island as a British staging area beyond 1776 (including Sir William Howe's incursions into New Jersey and invasion of Pennsylvania in 1777 as well as Sir Henry Clinton's attempts to surprise Washington in New Jersey in June 1780, exploit the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line in January 1781, and relieve Cornwallis at Yorktown in September 1781). But if tightly focused, this is a most readable and valuable book: about the most intimate account we are likely to have of Loyalists in the Revolutionary War.