Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Civil War in the British Empire

Violence and Terror in the American Revolution

Holger Hoock, PhD


My project investigates the practices and representations of violence and terror in the American Revolutionary war. I conceptualize the war as not only a colonial rebellion, but also as a civil war among ‘fellow nationals’ in the British Empire, and as an American civil war between patriots and loyalists. Contemporary British commentators, both supporters and opponents of the war, and American loyalists, widely referred to the conflict as a civil war. Yet few British or American historians have studied this conflict as a civil war. Recognizing the nature of the war as a violent civil war sheds light on some important yet under-explored dimensions. Among the broader issues that this project will illuminate are notions of violence, the nature of states, and military-civilian relations. 

The American Revolution was probably the most nationally divisive event in eighteenth-century Britain. It also prompted extensive discussion over how a war with rebellious “fellow nationals” in the empire ought to be conducted. In the British army, officers advocating a conciliatory approach were outnumbered after 1778 by hard-liners who urged ‘to Carry devastation and terror on the Point of your Sword’. To what extent did irregular conduct by the British contribute to the loss of American hearts and minds?

As for the Revolutionary war as America’s first civil war, among the perhaps one fifth of the population that remained loyal to the British Empire, thousands suffered verbal abuse, arbitrary arrest, and confiscations; many were subjected to violent rituals and some to torture and rape. Yet, loyalists remain marginalized by most American historians and by the wider American public as elite, reactionary, un-American losers. Historians of British involvement in the war and of British identity have not engaged in a sustained manner with Loyalist studies either. This is notwithstanding the fact that the British state treated Loyalists as British subjects entitled to protection of life and property. Civil wars also circumscribe the space for neutrality and I will investigate the precarious neutrality of Quakers and other pacifist communities. 

Much writing about the American Revolution and the war has downplayed the sheer scale and pervasiveness of violence among and between combatants and civilians, which are so manifest in contemporary accounts. Yet, the high ideals associated with America’s War for Independence notwithstanding, it was also a protracted, eight-year war that was messy, dangerous, and deadly, not only for combatants but also for numerous civilians. The memory of Revolutionary violence has been partly superseded by acute consciousness of the violence involved in the American Civil War. In examining various types of violence that were deployed by, and impacted on, civilians and fighters, I hope to illuminate similarities and differences in relation to specific military, political, demographic, and geographic contexts. 

Violence and its (il)legitimate uses are, to an extent, socio-cultural constructs. Cultures both encourage and limit political violence. In the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, violence was at once socially functional and feared: norms circumscribed the acceptability and the limits of violence – from judicial punishment via shaming to riots and war. I investigate the vocabulary of violence and its legal, judicial, and political contexts. I am interested in the processes that make people move from holding ideas which promote violence to committing violent acts. For instance, political polarization in the Revolution promoted collective violence as a means of enforcing loyalty. I will analyze the incidence and impact of violence and terror tactics on loyalists across regions and ethnicities. Patriots subjected political dissidents to violence based on suspicion or evidence ranging from word crimes to actively supporting the British war effort. The endurance of intimidation and mob mistreatment helped forge loyalist identities within local and Revolutionary contexts. 

The American Revolution is a watershed in Western understanding of how violence is marshalled and controlled (or not) by states and non-state actors, and how it is represented. A modern state commands a monopoly of legitimate violence; state institutions in turn need to work within accepted rules (M. Weber). Government sponsorship or repression affects the character of collective violence (C. Tilly). During the regime transition, lines of revolutionary authority were often tenuous or confused. Did the state define what constituted legitimate and illegitimate violent political acts and collateral violence in war? To what extent was collective political violence against loyalists state- authorized, community-initiated, or the product of vigilantism? How widespread were marauding and physical violence against non-combatants by refugee bands, banditti, and other semi-private freelancers in the business of opportunistic violence, and how did the revolutionary state relate to them? And how and to what extent did the British state define violent acts and coordinate responses to illegitimate violence? 

Revolutionary violence raises intriguing questions about military-civilian relations. Among my case studies are prisoners of war. Both for the British Empire and for the newly independent United States, this war posed legal, political, and ethical challenges for the treatment of prisoners. The British refusal to treat captive Americans as Prisoners of War (but instead as traitors) allowed only for partial, ad hoc exchanges rather than European-style cartels. Patriot prisoners suffered by far the highest death rates. British prisoners of war are least well researched. A comparative analysis of the treatment of prisoners will probe the common assumption that loyalists experienced most non-lethal violence and:

Finally, I will analyze the representation of violence in American, British, and German songs, newspapers, atrocity and prison narratives, and visual culture. Both sides referred to the threat of the other’s terror tactics and demonized the enemy to legitimate what often turned into a spiral of violence. If war between people of a shared culture is often limited by cultural norms, how did the barriers break down to make this civil war in many areas so savage among competing groups of ‘white’ European Americans? Two tropes of cruel warfare intended to instill ‘terror’ deserve particular attention. First, the fear, threat, and use of ‘Indian-style’ war. Second, the practices and myth of the barbarity of the ‘Hessians’ (the umbrella term for German mercenaries), who supposedly plundered and brutalized non- combatants regardless of their political affiliations. 

As a study in an imperial and national civil war and its aftermath, my project sheds light on the cultural foundations, mechanisms, and mediations of both disintegration and integration. By exploring the construction of ‘loyalism’ as individual and collective identity, my project also speaks to ‘cultures of identity’; the interface of narration and culture is central to my analysis of atrocity and prison narratives and of visual representations of violence, and, more widely, to the emphasis on the historical semantics and discourse of ‘violence’; and by studying the relationship between state-formation and revolutionary violence, I consider a fundamental parameter of trans-cultural hierarchies.