The British Empire relied on the support of tens of thousands of Loyalists throughout the American Revolutionary War. With no exit strategy “other than victory,”the defeated British scrambled to meet the great challenge of evacuating remaining troops and determining the fate of their Loyalists, whose future in the newly-recognized United States would be grim.
Loyalists are the American Revolution’s guilty secret: rarely spoken of, hauntingly present. At least one in five Americans is believed to have remained loyal to Britain during the war. The expressed their opinions passively and actively: refusing to forswear allegiance to the king, signing petitions or joining loyalists military regiments – as nearly 20,000 men did – to defend their vision of British America. In retaliation, they faced harassment from their peers, most vividly…by tarring and feathering.
A recent article by Stanley Weintraub describes the final period of the Revolution and the mechanics of the withdrawal:
The Treaty of Paris called for the British departure to be accomplished “with all convenient speed,” but the major remaining enclave of New York was held by Carleton until he had confirmation of acceptable guarantees for withdrawal of his troops and local loyalists. About three thousand slaves within British lines were permitted to leave with owners who certified them.
For Carleton, getting out was a logistic nightmare. It had taken 479 vessels to bring the first 39,000 troops to New York in July 1776. Re-embarking the occupiers and their equipage required much more—several months and hundreds of sailings and return sailings through early December 1783, as frantic sympathizers by the thousands…along with their most prized goods, were assured accommodation.
What ensued was astonishing by today’s standards: throughout 1783, the British Empire dispatched hundreds of ships to evacuate tens of thousands of Loyalists from America. 29,244 Loyalists were evacuated by boat in a few months from New York to Nova Scotia alone. 227 years later, that figure still dwarfs what the United States has been capable of for our Iraqi allies.