Historian Rebecca Brannon tells the story of brutal fighting between Loyalists and Patriots in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, and how the two sides were eventually able to put the past behind them.
***This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this show. There may be minor changes to the audio version you hear above.***
PETER: But first, a story about reconciliation in the wake of the American Revolution. Now this is not a story about Yankee Patriots and British Redcoats, but rather about Americans who sided with the Revolution and other Americans who sided with the enemy. Those Britishsympathizers were known as Loyalists and amounted to as much as one fifth of the population.In many senses, the War for Independence was a civil war, with neighbors taking up armsagainst neighbors.
And nowhere was the brutality more pronounced than in the South, where militiamen on bothsides roamed the back country looking to settle personal scores in a virtually lawlessenvironment. In many cases, these men were acting more out of camaraderie with their localleaders than out of any deep ideological commitments. But still, the violence was real.Homesteads were destroyed, women were attacked, and prisoners of war were murdered, allwithout a Redcoat in sight.
And so you might expect that when the war ended in 1782, retribution for atrocities committedby Loyalists would be swiftly meted out by the Patriot victors. But this was not the case.Historian Rebecca Brannon has written about the reintegration of Loyalists in South Carolina.She told me what that state’s leaders did with the men who had taken up arms against them.
REBECCA BRANNON: For 200 and some unlucky men, they confiscated all their property, andthey banished them forever from the state. They withdrew their citizenship.
PETER: Ooh, that sounds pretty severe. Yeah.
REBECCA BRANNON: That’s pretty severe. And for another 62, I believe the number is, those62 have to pay a one-time levy or tax on the entire value of their estate. And it ranges betweenabout 12% and 25%, depending on how punitive the legislature wanted to be.
PETER: Well, this is legislation that pretends to be punitive but actually offers terms. (LAUGHS)Let’s talk.
REBECCA BRANNON: Yes.
PETER: Let’s negotiate.
REBECCA BRANNON: And then, most of the people named on those lists petitioned, andthose petitions are usually successful. The few who don’t manage to get away from thispunitive legislation, it’s usually because there’s very specific damaging information about thingsthey did. Like one cooper who deliberately made bad barrels so the meat to defend Charlestonfrom the British would go bad. And then he bragged about it.
PETER: Whoa. Foolish man.
REBECCA BRANNON: Foolish man, yes.
PETER: You know, this legislation really only sounds punitive in retrospect. Everybody in 1784agreed that had it been applied, it would’ve been punitive for the few people to whom itapplied. (LAUGHS)
REBECCA BRANNON: Right.
PETER: That doesn’t sound like a nasty, and vicious, and vengeance-driven Reconstruction.
REBECCA BRANNON: And then in the next two years, the Loyalists themselves really decide tomake a case for reintegration. And they apologize. Even if they’re not very good at it– even ifthey find it painful, (LAUGHS) they apologize to their neighbor.
PETER: Tell us about these apologies. It sounds extraordinary. I’m sorry that we pillaged yourplantation and–
REBECCA BRANNON: Oops.
PETER: –killed various relatives.
REBECCA BRANNON: (LAUGHS) To be fair, they don’t usually admit to anything criminal–
PETER: Oh, OK.
REBECCA BRANNON: –in their apologies.
PETER: So they don’t really apologize, do they?
REBECCA BRANNON: Some of them don’t really apologize. You get these occasional letters.So you’ll get 50 neighbors who will sign a petition to the legislature saying, this former Loyalist,he’s a good guy. He’s made up with us. We think he’s a really good, dependable neighbor. And50 of us are willing to sign our name to this.
PETER: (LAUGHING) Rebecca, why–
REBECCA BRANNON: (LAUGHING)
PETER: –would 50 neighbors who identify with the revolution be willing to forgive some jerkwho pillages the neighborhood and kills people? Explain it.
REBECCA BRANNON: At its heart, they decide that a society that’s obsessed with punishingpeople is a society that’s not what they want.
REBECCA BRANNON: There’s this 1784 story where William Drayton is traveling through theback country. And he stays with a local landlord, who casually tells him, well, you know, I’mactually packing to move. And Drayton asks why. And he says, well, the neighbors are still madat me. Uh, why?
And then he starts talking to Drayton, this hardened Loyalist (INAUDIBLE). Oh, but I could havegotten a lot more shots. I should have. I mean, I really didn’t do well that battle. If you get thisidea, this incredibly battle-hardened man.
PETER: Unrepentant, yeah.
REBECCA BRANNON: Unrepentant. And you could tell this story one way, and say, oh, god, ofcourse they’re going to threaten him with lynch law. And they threatened, we’re going to killyou if you don’t leave. But the other way to understand this is they gave him until 1784 toapologize for what they thought of as war atrocities.
PETER: Rebecca, let’s step back now and–
REBECCA BRANNON: Sure.
PETER: –see if we can get the moral of the story. And what happened after 1782, very quickly,is that neighborhoods, in effect, forgave the transgressors. The winners declared a peace. Andthose people who had been identified as neighbors were forgiven. What do you draw fromthat?
REBECCA BRANNON: That a sense of neighborliness and a citizenship as lived obligation toother people that you have to demonstrate over time has been part of the United States a longtime, that it’s part of the vision. For every great word the Founding Fathers spoke aboutindividual rights, they also had in mind the individual obligation to the whole.
REBECCA BRANNON: That’s what Loyalists were able to use to convince the victoriousPatriots to let them back in. And then it has staying power.
PETER: Right. So it’s the forgiveness, which you’ve suggested is kind of a model forreconciliation. But could it also be argued that it’s a sense that the entire community had fallenapart, that there was no order, and there was a desperate need for order? Is that the samething as reconciliation? Or is that, everybody has, in effect, a bad war in South Carolina. Thesooner you put it behind, the better?
REBECCA BRANNON: I certainly think there are moments where they are all haunted by therealization of just how thin the veneer of civilization can be.
REBECCA BRANNON: I certainly think that they worked very hard to excise any mention of theLoyalists and any mention, therefore, of disunity in the Revolution. And they do it by not talkingabout it. It’s not talked about in public.
And it’s remarkable. When they choose the battles to commemorate, they don’t necessarilychoose the battles that were most militarily interesting or were the hardest to win. They choosethe ones that seemed to emphasize unity.
REBECCA BRANNON: And this works. Because then the next generation, and the generationafter it, have forgotten that there were Loyalists. And occasionally, the descendants of Loyalistsare, themselves, aware of this fact. But it’s not clear the people they interact with every day areor think about it.
PETER: Invoking that contemporary idea of truth and reconciliation, modeled in South Africa, inSouth Carolina, you have reconciliation without truth.
REBECCA BRANNON: Yes. Absolutely, and it appeared to work really well.
PETER: Right, until it didn’t.
REBECCA BRANNON: Until it didn’t. (LAUGHS)
REBECCA BRANNON: I do think there’s a way in which– and I should emphasize, this is whiteSouth Carolinians.
PETER: Yes, of course.
REBECCA BRANNON: For those black people who chose the British cause, they had to leave.But for white South Carolinians, they do a really, really good job of, as you say, (LAUGHS)forgetting, and forgetting the truth while they’re at it.
REBECCA BRANNON: So much so, that they actually used the American Revolution and thelegacy of the American Revolution to talk themselves into the American Civil War. Obviously,there’s other reasons for the American Civil War. But when you read what they wrote, theyalways see themselves as preserving the true legacy of the American Revolution, that they areall the Patriots now.
And it’s hard for me not to find chilling echoes of the way that they’ve managed to forget whathappens when you rip the top off Pandora’s box.
PETER: So you sound deeply conflicted to me and ambivalent–
REBECCA BRANNON: Yes. (LAUGHS)
PETER: About (LAUGHS) your subject. And that is on the one hand, you admire the speed withwhich apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation healed– or at least put a big bandage– over thewounds of war in South Carolina. But then you say, down the line, there may be a price youpay for that kind of a speedy reconciliation.
REBECCA BRANNON: I think I am, because I think that they lost the chastening voice thatreminded them why you don’t court civil war.
PETER: Rebecca Brannon is a history professor at James Madison University. Her book, due out soon, is Burying the Hatchet in South Carolina– Healing the Wounds of Revolutionary CivilWar. Earlier in the segment, we heard from Karen Van Lengen. She’s a professor of architecturehere at the University of Virginia.