- From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists by Rebecca Brannon
Loyalists, South Carolina, American Revolution, Reconciliation
In the civil war within the American Revolution, neighbors killed neighbors, destroyed property, and violently harassed former friends’ families. [End Page 701] In heavily affected areas, like South Carolina, one would expect a tense reconstruction and long-term animosity to follow. But despite its import at a critical juncture in American history, reconciliation has mostly slipped past historians. Professor Rebecca Brannon’s new study of loyalist reintegration in South Carolina begins to remedy this neglect, and she determines that the aftermath of revolution was surprisingly congenial. After years of violence and hostility, she argues, reintegration had more bluster than bite. Hostile rhetoric and demands for revenge quickly gave way to the reunion of neighborly relationships. South Carolinians “embraced the redemption of forgetting, and let the painful memories die with the Revolutionary generation” (34).
Brannon’s timely book augments a burgeoning interest in loyalism. Most scholars thus far have analyzed more clear-cut loyalist categories: loyalist military activity, which is well documented; or loyalist exile, which is recorded through ship manifests and the oft-cited Loyalist Claims Commission papers. Brannon instead tackles a new and important challenge: assessing the loyalists—or the “disaffected” as she often calls them—who remained in South Carolina. Since many of these individuals are not listed on loyalist rosters or similar records, they often slipped through the cracks of the historical narrative. Brannon sifted through archival collections and state records to analyze how the disaffected—at least the white male disaffected—became American citizens. She convincingly claims that South Carolinians achieved full reunion and forgiveness through cooperation between former loyalists, state leaders, and neighbors.
Brannon sets the stakes of reconciliation by breathing life—and death—into the violence that racked the southern state. In one vivid vignette, Thomas Robertson, a South Carolinian patriot, brutally killed his long-time neighbor in the heat of battle and later bragged about it. Plunder, intimidation, and destruction of property were used to enforce political conformity, and combat morphed into a “militia war for revenge” (28). While she states that civil war occurred throughout America, existing social and racial strains caused it to explode into uniquely personal violence in South Carolina, making this case a compelling focus for a reunion study.
The end of the war brought the need for emotional catharsis, which Brannon argues was achieved through superficially harsh legislation and vitriolic threats in the press. These, however, were mainly threats with little action, aimed to appease an angry populace and give the feeling of [End Page 702] revenge, but ultimately pave the way to forgiveness. The state passed confiscation acts, but targeted fewer than 240 individuals. This created a system that “was generous from the beginning and got steadily more generous over time” (35). Only those who remained with the British or continued to spout loyalist rhetoric were singled out for official punishment. This was in part, Brannon shows, to draw wavering individuals back into the patriot fold and encourage their contributions—financial and otherwise—to the new republic. Local justice through the court system and unofficial pressure would separate the few irredeemable loyalists.
The harsh rhetoric and initial aggression also aided in the emotional reunion of South Carolina citizens. “Revenge talk,” she argues, “could serve as a bridge to more positive feelings about Loyalists—feelings that ultimately enabled Patriots to empathize with and then reintegrate Loyalists” (39). While there were extra-judicial acts of revenge against former loyalists, these, Brannon argues, were “few and far between” (39).
Loyalists developed reintegration strategies, although it is clear from Brannon’s narrative that there was not a collective body of returnees working together. Individuals followed the traditional use of petitions to the government and the face-to-face quest for neighborly support. Their arguments were supported by the practical and not ideological basis of South Carolina loyalism. Many became loyalists “due to nothing more than a desire...