America’s fight for independence from British rule broke out into armed conflict in 1775 and lasted for eight years. While the thirteen colonies were all fighting for the same broad goal of self-determination, the Revolutionary War played out differently from state to state.
South Carolina survived a particularly vicious fight that pitted immediate family members against one another.
On this edition of CoastLine, we explore how South Carolina found a path to reconciliation between Patriots – those fighting for American independence -- and Loyalists – who fought for the British crown. We'll learn how they found their unique path to peace – despite profound divisions that led to violent atrocities during the war.
Rebecca Brannon is an Associate Professor of History at James Madison University and she is the author of From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists – published in 2016 by the University of South Carolina Press.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Rebecca Brannon, welcome to CoastLine.
Rebecca Brannon: Thank you. So glad to be here, Rachel.
RLH: Rebecca Brannon, you open the book with two quotations. And for me these were unexpected, about healing and forgiveness from On Revenge by Francis Bacon: "This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well." Why that quotation?
Rebecca Brannon: Because it spoke to me. First of all, it's from the same period—roughly, you know, a century away—and it spoke to me of the genius that South Carolinians discovered, which is that, if you become obsessed with revenge, you only hurt yourself and your society, and it's better to focus on the future. It's better to heal. And so it’s the best thing to do, even if you've been hurt, if you've been wounded, if you've been the victim and justly feel yourself to be the victim of something unfair. Francis Bacon was right. It only stops yourself from healing.
RLH: You call it a genius that South Carolinians found.
Rebecca Brannon: In some ways, and I talk about this at the end of the book too: Stereotypically, we say Americans are obsessed with the future. All we care about is the future. You know, historians are always annoyed because we care about history, and Americans stereotypically don't. We're only concerned with the future whereas Europeans often seem steeped in their history, even obsessed with their history. We have areas like the Balkans where people seem to still be obsessed with things that happened 500 years ago. Has that helped their societies be more stable, prosperous places where people really want to live? No. Has thinking about the future, caring about the future, planning for the future made America the kind of place people want to live? Yes. And so I think the genius of South Carolinians is the genius of Americans to decide the future is more important than the past.
RLH: And you also added a quotation from Christopher Gadsen, one of the principal leaders of South Carolina's Patriot movement. And this is something he said to General Francis Marion: “He that forgets and forgives most is the best citizen.” Why was that so striking for you?
Rebecca Brannon: At first I stumbled over it and didn't think that much of it. And then as I continued the research for the book, I continued to find these themes about deliberately choosing to forget that which was not helpful. And I was particularly struck by Christopher Gadsden saying if you want to be a good American citizen of this new nation, it is your duty, obligation, and your best choice to forgive and forget. So it's not just that it's the Christian thing to do. It's that it is part of being a citizen. And so I was struck by that idea and the way it epitomized how South Carolinians actually acted after the Revolution.
RLH: And yet I want to be clear that we're not talking about whitewashing history or pushing the truth under the rug. I want to save that for a little bit, put that off to the side. Why South Carolina in particular? There were all these other states involved in the Revolutionary War. What was it about South Carolina that made you say, “Hmm, I need to look at the post-Revolutionary War period there?”
Rebecca Brannon: Absolutely. So, I was a nerdy graduate student. I was looking for a dissertation topic. I'd had to dump one already, and I was just doing reading and thinking. I knew I loved the Revolution, and I saw this footnote that talked about the fact that most of what historians have written about American Loyalists was about American Loyalists who had to leave the United States at the end of the war and had to get on British ships and go to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, or London and start over. But the refugees of the war were no more than 30,000 people, while some 500,000 people in the thirteen colonies were Loyalists. Everybody agreed the majority of Loyalists had stayed after the war, but very little was written about how they pulled that off. You know, how do you convince people that even though you chose what was ultimately the losing side of a civil war to forgive you and let you stay and reintegrate? And that's how it started. And then the reason I chose South Carolina is I knew the Carolinas and Georgia in general had suffered the biggest extremes of guerrilla civil warfare, and they had been brother-against-brother, father-against-son, killing each other. And I thought, if they can let people stay and reintegrate after that, then I have a story. And that’s why South Carolina.
RLH: And in the book, you allude to the fact that this isn't widely documented as being a particularly bloody and vicious war, but it was in South Carolina.
Rebecca Brannon: No, and historians are rediscovering the fact that the Civil War wasn't just all of Americans against all of Britain, but that Americans themselves didn't agree. Lots of Americans were not at all sure this was a good idea. Some of them were really what we might generally call Loyalists. They thought the remaining part of the British Empire was a better bet. Some of them just wanted to stay neutral. They didn't want to stick their neck out. You know, they were not the people who usually make history books, but that's probably what I would have done in their shoes, tried to remain neutral. Only maybe a third of the people in the colonies were committed to independence, to the Patriot cause.
RLH: You actually talk about a particular family in the book, a father who was willing to sacrifice his son.
Rebecca Brannon: Isn't it an unbelievable story? It's the Lacey family. Edward Lacey is in the prime of life, leading a Patriot militia, and he comes to his own family home for the night with his militia because at dawn the next morning they've got a raid planned on a nearby Loyalist militia who are holed up, and the only problem is Edward Lacey's father is a Loyalist. He's also an old man, but he's a Loyalist, and they catch him in the middle of the night trying to sneak out of the house to go warn the Loyalist militia, which was essentially down the road. I have to say, if he'd been younger, he probably would have been executed—family or no family. But because he was an old man and because he was the commander's father, they tied him to a bedstead and there he was for the rest of the day and throughout the battle the next morning, tied to the bedstead so he couldn't go rat them out.
RLH: Now, just to be clear, when you say Patriots and Loyalists, and you use the term American Loyalists, what you're referring to are the people who are fighting for the British monarchy.
Rebecca Brannon: [When I use the term American Loyalists], I am absolutely referring to people who are fighting for the British monarchy even though they are usually born and raised in what's now the United States.
RLH: So you've illustrated through the Lacey family how often neighbors were pitted against neighbors, family members against family members. What were some of the atrocities committed during the Revolutionary War in South Carolina that we don't hear about very often?
Rebecca Brannon: Well, some of them were pretty terrible, and some of them may or may not have actually happened. So, if you've ever seen Mel Gibson's The Patriot, no, they didn't really lock people in churches and burn them down. That was going way beyond anything the British or the Loyalists ever contemplated. But what they do during what's routine warfare— And they are, to be fair fighting at dusk, fighting at dawn, fighting at times with really low visibility where they can't see very much. They're fighting in two small guerrilla bands using the element of surprise and low light. It's pretty easy to not be able to see what's really going on. Your own life is at risk. So what starts to happen is they stop taking prisoners. If you lose that battle, you'll probably just be killed in the battle. You can't really surrender. And it's made worse by an episode with Banastre Tarleton, who is this British commander—and for the record, he's British, not a Loyalist, but he's commanding some Loyalist troops. It’s alleged that they ignored a white flag of surrender and just butchered Patriots on the field. They later claimed they literally couldn't see it. But after this episode, both sides gradually stopped taking any prisoners. So that's one thing that I would call an atrocity. You can't even surrender in this war. So you'd better fight to the last because otherwise you're going to be butchered. They also stop trying people. If you're caught as a spy, if there's any element of suspicion, they'll just hang you in the backwoods. And they did.
RLH: I want to hear about this seeming paradox that you've already raised about forgiving and forgetting. And not whitewashing history or sweeping the truth under the rug. In the epilogue of your book, you sound almost as though you're offended or at least pretty disturbed by the thought that tourists in Charleston today would imagine what you call an idol of antebellum white prosperity and an honorable civil war. So and there is that sort of mythological, rosy tint over the whole thing. Why is whitewashing this part of American history so offensive to you, even though you're kind of talking about forgiving and forgetting as a path to healing?
Rebecca Brannon: I guess I really have mixed feelings more than I would say offensive. I would say I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think they were right to willfully, carefully forget. And what I talk about is, I don't know whether the first generation actually forgot in their own memories, but they chose not to talk about it in public. They chose not to make it part of the way they commemorate battles. They chose to first commemorate the battles that didn't involve Loyalist and Patriot militias. And they present this wall of unity. Some of them must have known there were former Loyalists sitting in the audience for these. By the way, to your lucky audience: Nineteenth-century orations were three to four hours in the hot summer sun, listening to somebody talk. Right? And there must have been Loyalists there. Nobody talks about it. So it was the elephant in the room for the first generation.
But I think the effect of choosing not to talk about this publicly is that our children and grandchildren genuinely don't know. And so they whitewash history in that way by choosing not to talk about it, by choosing not to teach it. In many ways, you're right. I think that was smart. I think that focusing on the future, refusing to constantly relive the burdens or pains of the past was more productive. Yet as a professional historian, I do think that, while it was positive, they didn't learn any lessons. So they didn't learn the lesson that civil wars are terrible. There is no way to enter a civil war without it being terrible. War is terrible, and a war where you're pitted against your own means you're pitted against people of equal ability, funding, and access to arms. It's terrible in every way. It is destructive to your family, and so I think the downside is they didn't learn to be chastened about wars and civil wars.
RLH: And so how do you bridge that gap then between remembering history and— You know when I think of other world conflicts for which we have memorials. I think of WWII or the Vietnam War Memorial and the history that is still coming out of that conflict. How do you walk that line?
Rebecca Brannon: It's so hard. And I think sometimes a great analogy is WWI for Europeans. We Americans remember it as a good, short war. Europeans remember it as the war that killed a generation, where just millions of people died in WWI. And how do you commemorate something that seems so senseless, that has so much loss, and yet you desperately want to avoid doing that again? I do think it's hard. I do think it's a hard line to walk. And I think South Carolinians could maybe explore how to do it a little better. It's particularly hard because as a professional historian, I see everything in shades of gray. It's not a shock to me that humans can be terrible, that war can be bad, and yet good things can come out of it. But I see when I teach undergraduates sometimes they look like I just took candy from a baby and part of me wants to be like, “Grow up. To be human is to be complicated. Accept it.” But it's hard because we seem to want this history that's beautiful and shiny and not full of moral quandaries. And we also seem to be unable to accept that Andrew Jackson, for example, could have been a great president while he also helped participate in genocide against Native Americans. Right? We have trouble embracing that people can be complicated.
RLH: That's very true. We want them to wear the black hat or the white hat.
Rebecca Brannon: Yes.
RLH: So we've been talking about forgiveness as a way to reintegrate the Loyalists with the Patriots in South Carolina.
Rebecca Brannon: Absolutely.
RLH: But forgiveness was hardly the first order of business for the Patriots.
Rebecca Brannon: Punishment was the first order of business.
RLH: Yeah, they went after the Loyalists, both publicly and privately. Tell us about that.
Rebecca Brannon: They went after them in many ways. They literally threatened some with violence and convince them to leave with the British, drove them out, and then they took a survey of all the farms that were sitting empty: “Okay. Those must all belong to Loyalists. We're going to confiscate them after the war.” They met in the legislature after the major fighting was done but before the peace treaty for the war was actually signed, and they drew up these lists, and they go back and forth between the House and the Senate of this new legislature, in this new independent nation, asking, “Who are we going to punish?” And what they do is they confiscate their property—
RLH: So they had lists of names of people. “Are we going to go after this guy?” That was the debate.
Rebecca Brannon: Absolutely. The debate was, “Oh, I don't know about that guy. He's not so bad. But this one is, let me give you another name.” And they ultimately come up with a list of about 350 Loyalists who are explicitly, by name, subject to confiscation and banishment from the state. Their citizenship is revoked. Their property is forfeit, not only for themselves, but for their dependent wives and children. And of course, it goes into state coffers, so the state benefits from it.
RLH: Right. Even the legislation passed to punish the Loyalists sort of faded. It wasn't really repealed, was it? Or was it at some point?
Rebecca Brannon: The fascinating thing is, even though on the face of it— It's in 1782, this confiscation act seems so harsh. And by the way, North Carolina had a similar act in 1782 as well. Even though it seems harsh, when I actually delved into it, they’re essentially meeting and sending announcements to the Loyalist newspaper in Charleston, saying, “Hey, we're meeting. We’re trying to decide who to confiscate, but you can still take advantage of the Governor's offer to come back to the Patriot side and serve in a militia that almost nobody is actually shooting at. We will embrace you if you come back now. Come back now.” So even what seems harsh on the face of it, they're offering a carrot and a stick. The stick is, if you don't act, we'll confiscate your property. The carrot is, but you can come back, you still have a way back in.
RLH: It almost sounds like the legislators or whoever was enforcing this didn't really want to confiscate property or punish people.
Rebecca Brannon: That’s the amazing thing. They are so angry. I don't want to downplay how angry they are. I mean, they'd had a talk about Henry Laurens in the book, and he's also interesting because he's actually one of the negotiators for the peace treaty. He's in Europe negotiating the peace treaty, but he's a South Carolinian. He loses his beloved son in a routine engagement in 1782. And if anybody out there is a Hamilton fan, his son is John Laurens, who's in the show Hamilton because he was friends with Alexander Hamilton, and they were both associates to George Washington. John Laurens is killed. Henry Laurens has lost his beloved son. He's getting these reports of the damage to his plantations or the number of his slaves who've run away to the British for freedom, and he is thinking about all his losses and he's angry. He's so angry, and they're all enraged at what's happened to them. Yet they say, “I hate Loyalists. I hate Loyalists, but I commiserate with the few.” While the legislature is deciding confiscation, one of them is writing, trying to save one of his friends. They’re trying to save Charles Drayton, but they can’t save him because even though they keep writing him letters—“If you'll just come to camp, we won't put you on the confiscation act”—he just doesn't come. And so, on the one hand it looks like they're trying to punish and they are very angry, and yet they keep trying to throw bones to their friends, lifelines.
And I thought about that a lot, and I started reading some modern psychological research just to just give me some other ideas about what is going on. And I was fascinated to learn that we humans love justice and we seek justice at least for other people. And revenge sounds fabulous, but it turns out that if you put our brains in an MRI and you make us think that we're going to watch somebody get punished for a just reason, then literally the pleasure centers in our brains, the same ones that like caffeine and drugs and good times, the pleasure centers light up. It is literally pleasurable to our brain to imagine somebody getting punished. But the corollary is—and this, I thought was amazing—it’s only the anticipation that's pleasurable. The reality is a letdown. It's more fun to anticipate than to actually see it. And then I started thinking about how South Carolinians rehearsed their anger endlessly, in chit chat at dinner parties and in letters, and I thought, “Oh, it's like getting the fun part.” They're working it out and they're smart enough not to carry it through all the time.
RLH: So that was part of the genius. You call it rehearsing their anger. They vented in lots of harmless ways—dinner parties, fiction, as we’ll hear about later, novelists—but when it came to actually exacting vengeance, they didn’t as much.
Rebecca Brannon: Yes, they choose a few and then they step back.
Jim (caller): So my story is that I’m an episcopal clergyman, and I worked in the state of Virginia for a long time. I was doing a service in a church in southern Virginia, and while I was waiting for this service to start, I was rooting around in a desk drawer in one of the back offices that was unused, and I found a document that had been framed—the glass had been broken, but it had been framed—and it was from the 1770s. And at that time, the clergy was part of the Church of England, and it had three lists on this document. It had those in favor of staying in the Church of England, those in favor of leaving the Church of England, and then on the bottom in red, it had those clergymen who were undecided. And it sent chills down my spine because it seemed to me that that what was happening was that those who were undecided were being in some way singled out. I don't know which side put the document together, but there was this the whole list of these men’s names. So there was some coercion going on within the clergymen in Virginia at that time as to which side of this conflict they were going to fall down on.
Rebecca Brannon: That’s fascinating, and I think you can actually drop “some” from the phrase “some coercion.” I think you're right. There was a lot of coercion. It's really hard to stay neutral as a civil war heats up, and they, like many, were in the middle trying to claim neutrality.
Jim (caller): They certainly were. Thank you for taking my call. It was an electric moment for me to find that document.
RLH: Jim, I'm just curious: Have you given the document over to any kind of archivist or museum, or is that in your possession?
Jim (caller): No, no, no, I left it with the pastor of the church. It was their property. I said, “Gosh, do you know this document was here? Look at this. It was in this desk drawer.” And he took it without comment, and that was the last I heard of it.
Corey (caller): I just finished another interesting book, The Creature from Jekyll Island. And my question is more just a statement, and if you wish to respond to it, I would love your answer, but do you think that there truly was a separation between the British Empire and the United States of America after the Revolutionary War? Was it truly a reunion, or do we just not know our true masters?
RLH: So I guess what he's asking is— I see a look of puzzlement on Professor Brannon's face.
Rebecca Brannon: I wasn’t quite sure. I have, unfortunately, not read the book yet. I've got a large stack of things I should be reading.
RLH: I think most mainstream folks would say Americans are not under the control of the British Empire.
Rebecca Brannon: I would say that we absolutely became an independent nation. In 1783, we're not a very strong independent nation. We were a struggling independent nation, and all the European countries were waiting for us to fail so they could scoop us up as colonies. It was certainly not predestined in 1783 that we would be the world's superpower one day.
Scott (email): How much new primary-source history is being written on the Revolutionary War? Any unexpected revelations?
Rebecca Brannon: Well, I love primary sources. I guess I would turn it a slightly different way and say that what some of the audience might not know is that digitization has changed the way we can write history. And when I started this book project several years ago, I moved to South Carolina, and I immersed myself in the South Carolina archives. And I just read and read and read, and you can still do history that way today, but you can answer some questions with the incredible number of digitized sources that were not available even ten years ago. So if you're interested in history, there are these databases that many public libraries subscribe to that have newspapers from other periods that are digitized and you can read on your computer screen. You can read books and pamphlets and broadsides from the 18th century all at your own home on your computer screen. If you're interested in genealogy, you used to have to go to archives and read microfilm after microfilm to read about Revolutionary War soldiers. Now, I think it's $60 a year subscription to Ancestry.com, and they've digitized all that so you have it at your fingertips. So the primary sources are still crucial to writing history, but you have access to so many more and I have access to so many more than not even a decade ago.
RLH: Going back to the beginning of the Revolutionary War, how did people in South Carolina decide which side they were on? Was this an ideological choice or was it something else?
Rebecca Brannon: The amazing thing is, for the vast majority of people, it wasn't an ideological choice at all, even though we think of it as one. There were a small number of committed early Loyalists who took up arms in this sort of ill-fated campaign in 1775. But most people chose for sort of pragmatic or unclear reasons. Some people chose the side that didn't plunder them first. So they get plundered by one side or another from the militia, and they ride off to get their cow back and they elect the side that can help them get their cow back or help them get revenge. In some cases, it has nothing to do with religion. With the exception to our earlier caller, most clergy of the Church of England end up being Loyalists and end up going back to England, but for the most part, you can't tell whether somebody will be a Loyalist by their religion, by where they live, by their class, by whether they're an artisan or an elite or an ordinary person. The one predictor is that this is a society of what we might call noblesse oblige. It's still a society that's very hierarchical in some ways, very un-American. And once the local leader has chosen a side, men in the community follow their local leader.
RLH: Did people ever switch sides?
Rebecca Brannon: Some of them switched sides with the best of them, and that's one of the reasons I say these are often not very ideological, and it helps to understand the reality of the war. There are a few brief, ill-fated expeditions in 1775, but most of the fighting is actually in Massachusetts, and then the broader war moves from New England to New York and Philadelphia and to the hinterlands of the mid-Atlantic. Nobody is really fighting in the Carolinas. There are local militias and the Patriot militia kind of trying to keep the population from openly espousing Loyalism, AKA harassing them. But the British aren't there. There was no actual heat.
Then the British, in an attempt to win the war, decide they're going to come to the South. And here's the humorous part—they came back because they thought there were lots and lots and lots of Loyalists who were just going to rally. There probably were a lot of Loyalists, but here's the crucial flaw in the plan: The British think all of these Loyalists are just dying to take up arms for the British and march north with the British and that they're going to get a whole new army out of the South and they're going to take them and they're going to solve their problems in Pennsylvania and New York and New England. There were a lot of people who wanted revenge on their neighbors, but there were not a lot of people who were eager to actually fight for the British, let alone outside of their own state.
And this brings the British to Charleston, to Wilmington in 1780, where they gradually invade and take all of these coastal cities in the Carolinas and Georgia. And when you take the cities, you control most of the area around them, and so there are all of these people in Charleston who had been Patriots or nominal Patriots in many cases. Then the British say, “If you welcome us, if you make nice with us, we will let you stay neutral for the rest of the war, and you can keep your property and you can continue living where you've always lived.” Lots of people take this as a really attractive offer. And then the British change the terms on them retroactively and say, “Oh, but now you have to take up arms and march with us because that was our real purpose the whole time.” There's a lot of South Carolinians who say, “Absolutely not. I was willing to sit at home and be neutral, but I'm not willing to go march on Virginia for you. You've got to be kidding me.” And they became ardent Patriots.
RLH: And so, how can the Patriots accept them then? You come to me and you say, “I know I've been fighting for the other side, but I want to join you now.” I'm going to look at you and go, “Come on.”
Rebecca Brannon: Part of it is they all take these terms because they were all defending Charleston, and when Charleston falls— The way eighteenth-century armies actually work is, instead of taking thousands of prisoners of war, they give them something called a parole. You sign the parole, and it's an honorable agreement to go home and be neutral. If you’re wondering what the advantage is to not taking prisoners of war, it’s that you have to feed prisoners of war. It’s much better to just send them home from the perspective of an eighteenth-century army.
Barbara (caller): This really caught my attention because I am writing the story of my Carolinian ancestors. They were Quakers, two families that came from Pennsylvania and settled in North and South Carolina. The Revolutionary War in the back country of the Carolinas was more like the Civil War. It was people fighting against each other rather than against the British, as I think your guest has said. But as it turns out, my six-time great-grandmother, whose father was a Loyalist, married David Smith, who fought for the Patriots. They all lived in the same general area there, they got tired of letting him [the father] go and they hung him at Fort 96 in South Carolina. But at the end of the war, she still married David Smith, and the way they dealt with it was there was no getting back to being a peaceful community there. They moved to Georgia. And I think maybe a lot of people did that. You know, they just maybe went somewhere else to start anew.
Rebecca Brannon: I think you're right. The problem for me is that's even harder to prove than the other stuff because nobody slapped GPS on everybody's back at the time. That would have been wonderful.
Barbara (caller): Well, I have the proof because I had to follow my lineage all the way back to there to become a member of the DAR, and there are records there.
Rebecca Brannon: Quakers had an especially difficult time because most of them were pacifists. So if they chose to fight, they were usually kicked out of their Quaker community, but if they didn't, everybody else suspected them of Loyalism simply for trying to remain neutral and pacifist.
Barbara (caller): That is true because the forebears that moved South— Actually there was a battle fought in North Carolina at [unintelligible] who would then would have been my seventh great-grandfather, and I visited their lives last year. It was awesome just to walk in a place where your ancestors worked or walked all that time. But I understand that some of them fought for and against. I guess it's really hard to not take a side even if you are a Quaker. You know? When it's that serious of business, I don't think there were just a few Quakers who fought. I probably think there were probably more than we might imagine.
Pete (email): Can you recommend a good historical text that covers the revolution in the Carolinas?
RLH: Yes, Pete: From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists. He’s saying, “Most histories of the Revolution concentrate on Virginia and the North. People don’t even know about battles such as Moore’s Creek Bridge and Ramsour’s Mill.”
Rebecca Brannon: Well, of course I want to plug my own book, From Revolution to Reunion, but of course there's some other interesting military histories, and it sounds like you might like a military history. There's a fascinating book just about the Cowpens Battle that I would recommend, The Battle of Cowpens, and I always like John Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas.
RLH: How did people who were brought to American soil as slaves fare during the Revolutionary War? Which side did African people choose and why?
Rebecca Brannon: In the South, people who were African or of African descent overwhelmingly chose the British. In 1775, Governor Dunmore, who was the last royal governor of Virginia, has the sort of last minute Hail Mary-pass idea where he flees to the warship in the harbor and says, “I will offer freedom to any enslaved man who comes to me and agrees to fight for the British.” And even though the British kind of back away from this because they're profiting from slavery in the Caribbean as well, they do not want to upset their most profitable colonial possessions. Nonetheless in the South, people of African descent identify freedom as being the British side, not the American side. And in South Carolina, 28 percent or so of the enslaved population flee to British lines during the war, and then suddenly the British camps are filling up with formerly enslaved people. And the logic of war is such that even British commanders who are racist, who are perfectly in support of slavery don't want to send them back because that just helps the enemy, so they live in these camps.
At the end of the war, the British essentially decide they should live up to the agreements they made, and they at least transport these now-free black people out of the Carolinas. Because if they stay, they'll just be re-enslaved or executed for their role in the war. And they get onboard ships and they say goodbye to Charleston Harbor because everybody from this part of the South was shipped out to Charleston, pretty much. Off they go to Nova Scotia, Canada, where it is cold and windy and white and black Loyalists look at each other in Nova Scotia and ask, “What have we done? We have to restart our lives here.” And it's actually a kind of bittersweet story because even though the British ultimately guarantee their freedom, white Loyalists don't want black Loyalists to get a foothold in Nova Scotia, and they resist British attempts to give black people land in Nova Scotia. And even though there is a free black community in Canada that descends from these blacks, these African-Americans who fled for freedom, it's so discouraging that about a thousand of these early settlers leave for Sierra Leone and this sort of back-to-Africa nineteenth-century colonization movement.
RLH: How many people did you say?
Rebecca Brannon: Just over a thousand are so discouraged with their fate in Nova Scotia that they voluntarily get onboard a ship again and go to a place in Africa they’ve never seen before.
RLH: What effect did fear of slavery rebellion have on the Patriots? How did that dynamic play into their thinking?
Rebecca Brannon: It's a great question. It's always a problem. South Carolina has a black majority in the low country. The only way South Carolina actually has a white majority is if you add in everybody in the back country. And so they're always aware of the possibility of slave rebellion, and there's this idea in southern culture that 18th and 19th century white people should not show disunity or fight too much about anything openly because slaves will see it as an opening, a time for rebellion. So we must clamp down, and yet that doesn't stop them from a civil war. They open it up. Then after the war, they're still fighting with each other. They choose to punish some Loyalists. And then in 1784, they give them their property back. All this disunity, right in front of the slaves.
RLH: So we've talked about how immediately after the war ended, there was legislation that was passed in the South Carolina General Assembly. There was the Confiscation Act. There was the Immersement Act. And you explained—and this is played out in South Carolina—how our ideas about revenge are much more pleasurable to us than actual revenge, and modern neurological research bears that out. But first of all, how did this ultimately fade away and how did South Carolinians wind up coming together?
Rebecca Brannon: So, as I talk about in the book, in 1782, they take away, and 1784, after a series of individual petitions, they give it almost all back.
Rebecca Brannon: These Loyalists have to petitions, and more importantly, they have to get their neighbors to sign these petitions in support. And it doesn't even really matter—although I looked at it—what kinds of claims did they make in these petitions. The most important thing was, if you as a Loyalist could convince your neighbors to sign their name—and more than one—saying, “Oh, he's a good guy, he's a good character. Give him back. We like him now. We're okay with them. We're not going to kill him in the middle of the night,” then in 1784, the legislature rubber stamped it in a mass clemency. But if you couldn't get that support as a Loyalist, if you didn't have that kind of community backing, then the legislature certainly wasn't going to do what your neighbors wouldn't do for you.
RLH: So very briefly, maybe in one sentence—yeah, I'm asking this of an academic—what's the lesson from this?
Rebecca Brannon: Revenge is not nearly as much fun as you think, and the American genius is to realize that.
RLH: Rebecca Brannon, it's been a pleasure having you on.
Rebecca Brannon: Thank you, Rachel. I had fun.