We Americans tend to forget that there are two Civil Wars in our past. The one we remember was, of course, the War Between the States, also styled "The War of Northern Aggression" by some in the defeated South and the "War of the Rebellion" by others in the North. Yet that earlier rebellion that ultimately won Independence for thirteen United States was terribly divisive within those former colonies, pitting neighbor against neighbor and splitting families. No less a Patriot than Ben Franklin had a Tory son, and the war had a decidedly internecine character in the southern colonies and on the New York Frontier.
In one branch of my family tree at the time of the Revolution, there was a family named Currie living in Radnor, Pennsylvania, not far from Valley Forge. Reverend William Currie had married Margaret Ross, whose brother George signed the Declaration and whose niece by marriage Betsy Ross was the flag-maker of legend. Reverend Currie faced a crisis of faith as well as of loyalty when war came, for his ordination vows included a prayer for the King and his congregation would have none of it. His letter of resignation on May 16, 1776 pleads "age and infirmity" but also extols his parishioners to
"let the Devotion Chamber be your Sanctuary till these troublesome times be overpassed: flee for refuge to the horns of the Alter, the throne of Grace, there offer up the Incense of your prayers and let the lifting up of your hands be as the even Sacrifice. Thus, my dear little flock, I bid you heartily farewell and am with great love and affection, your faithful pastor till death."
His position was clearly untenable, yet he tried to maintain an honorable neutrality. As it happened, the Ratification Treaty between England and the United States in 1783 freed him of the obligation to pray for the King and he returned as pastor to St David's in Radnor and is buried there in the old churchyard, next to the family plot of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne.
Things were harder for other members of his family who chose sides in the war. My direct ancestor Richard Currie (1750-1776) joined the 1st Militia of Pennsylvania, and leaving a wife and three small children he marched with his company to join the "Flying Camp" guarding East Jersey from the British and Tories on Staten Island and in New York. He made it as far as Amboy, New Jersey, but took sick and was send home, dying that September. His wife Hannah Potts died during the winter of 1777-1778, and the children were raised by their grandparents. The graves of Richard and Hannah Potts are alongside Reverend Currie's in Old St. David's Churchyard. Fortunately for me, their daughter Margaret Currie lived to a ripe old age and had children of her own, for otherwise I would not be here to write this account. She was my Gr-Gr-Gr-Gr-Great Grandmother.
Another son, William Currie, was a physician and commissioned Surgeon in Colonel Atlee's Musketry battalion in the spring of 1776 and served at the Battle of Long Island but had to resign because of ill health that September. There was also a younger son, Ross Currie, and he followed a different path that I might never have known about, had not one of his descendants living in Canada found this blog and shared the story of the Tory in the family.
It was not something that later generations in America chose to commemorate. I have a copy of The Genealogy of the Walker Family (Lewis Walker of Chester Valley PA and his Descendants 1686 - 1896 (Priscilla Walker Streets: 1896) that contains a great deal of material pertaining to the Curries, but it only records the colonial service of Ross Currie, and not his subsequent desertion to a loyalist regiment raised in Pennsylvania by the British.
Ross Currie was born in 1754, and like his older brothers enlisted in 1776. In fact, he was the first of the Currie family to join the patriots in arms, commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on January 5th of that year in Captain John Huling's Company, 2nd Pennsylvania Battalion. The 2nd was a new regiment, raised by Col. Arthur St. Clair, pictured at right, and Huling's was one of six companies taken by St. Clair that Spring to relieve the patriot forces bogged down in Canada, reaching the American army in Quebec on April 11th, 1776. The situation had deteriorated so greatly in Canada that the Siege of Quebec City had been abandoned and the American forces were withdrawing toward Montreal when the reinforcements arrived.
Boatner's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution describes how the troops of Arthur St. Clair were in the vanguard of an effort to seize Trois-Rivières - thought to be lightly defended - in an effort to regain ground lost in the retreat from Quebec. Lost in a swamp, they attacked a well entrenched position defended by 6,000 men under Simon Fraser. The outnumbered colonial troops attacked and were repulsed. 1,100 survivors eventually ran a gauntlet of mosquitoes, swamps, Indians and Canadian irregulars, but the expedition suffered 400 casualties including 236 captured. One of these was Ross Currie.
Whether he was exchanged or escaped is not clear. The 2nd battalion reorganized in the 3rd Pennsylvania Line in October, 1776 and in mid-November, Lieutenant Currie received a promotion in Captain John Reese's company. What happened to him in the year that followed remains to be discovered. I do not know whether Currie continued to serve with the 3rd Regiment, fighting in 1777 at Germantown. What is clear is that on December 1, 1777, with the British in Pennsylvania and Washington withdrawing toward winter quarters at Valley Forge, Ross Currie switched sides and enrolled as a Lieutenant in the Provincial Corps of Pennsylvania Loyalists. The following April he was promoted to Adjutant.
The Corps had in reality little more than battalion strength, authorized for just 8 companies with 24 sergeants, 24 corporals, 8 drummers and 400 privates in addition to its commissioned officers. Desertions and poor recruitment kept its actual strength far lower. The Corp's Colonel was General Howe, but this was largely ceremonial. It was actually lead by Lieutenant-Colonel William Allen, who had served in the same capacity in Ross Currie's old unit the 2nd Pennsylvania Battalion. Allen joined the British side at Trenton in the end of 1776, having resigned his commission in the American forces on July 24, 1776. The officers of the Pennsylvania Loyalists were selected by Allen, and he would have known Ross Currie from their prior service together. To receive a commission in the Corps, a Loyalist lieutenant was required to recruit 15 men for his company, though in fact several companies had no rank and file at all in the beginning. The first officers were not local men and may have had difficulty bringing along recruits, but the next batch included Currie and several other Pennsylvanians. I don't know if Lieutenant Currie won any of his neighbors over to the Tory cause, but clearly he was expected to do so. A recruiting notice for the Pennsylvania's Loyalists during this period promised that at the close of the war, each soldier would receive "50 Acres of Land, where every gallant Hero may retire, and enjoy his Bottle and Lass." The odds were long that any of them would see this promised land.
The service of the Pennsylvania Loyalists is a strange Odyssey. Like Kentucky's Confederate Orphan Brigade which could never go home while their state remained in the Union, the deserters and Tories in the Pennsylvania Loyalists were exiles. When the British evacuated Philadelphia, they marched away from their homes not knowing if they could ever return. They defended the army's baggage train at Monmouth, losing two men captured, but 170 officers and men of the regiment plus 8 women made it to the Jersey Shore and evacuated to New York.
They did not stay in New York long, for the widening conflict with France and the threat of war with Spain compelled the British to disperse their armies in North America to defend other vulnerable parts of the Empire. 10,000 troops left New York for Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Georgia, and West Florida. The Pennsylvania Loyalists were among three regiments sent to this latter place. After a stopover in Jamaica, a total of 13 officers and 145 other ranks arrived in Pensacola. The Maryland and Pennsylvania Loyalists on the expedition were combined into a single Corps of six companies in 1780, but higher powers opposed giving command to Lt. Col Allen because of his prior service with the patriots and the units were separated the following year.
War with Spain, meanwhile, came in the Fall of 1779 and most of the British holdings on the Gulf Coast fell to the Spanish. The Pennsylvanians and Marylanders of the United Loyalist Corps were part of a force which failed to retake Mobile, losing 13 captured and one man deserted on the fruitless march. The garrison at Pensacola expected to be attacked by the Spanish and for a long time its only reinforcements were 600 Choctaw and Creek Indians who had sided with the British. After a second sortie against Mobile failed, the garrison at Pensacola was in fact besieged, and while the Pennsylvania Loyalists (no longer part of a United Corps) distinguished themselves in an assault on the Spanish works, their victory was short lived and disaster followed hard on its heels. As an on-line history history of the Pennsylvania Loyalists recounts:
"Tuesday the 8th of May started routinely. Early in the morning the Pennsylvania Loyalists relieved the 16th Regiment of Foot in the advanced redoubt, ready to take their tour of duty.
Without warning, a shell thrown from one of two Spanish howitzers, arced into the redoubt and exploded just as the door of the powder magazine was opened to issue cartridges to the troops. The result was horrific.
The exploding shell ignited the powder in the magazine, blowing up over fifty of the Pennsylvanians and almost fifty sailors. The redoubt lay in ruins, open to assault. Seizing the moment, the Spanish immediately moved forward, leaving the stunned Loyalists just enough time to spike up the remaining cannon and bring off their wounded.
The surrender terms permitted the loyalists to give their parole and sail for New York, but a transport carrying some of the Pennsylvania Tories was taken by two American privateers and ordered to make for Philadelphia, where those like Ross Currie who had deserted from the American side would have faced a very hard time and possible execution. Much to their relief, their ship was retaken by two Loyalist privateering vessels, one of which was named the General Arnold after the notorious traitor, and they reached New York with 9 officers, 4 staff officers, 3 sergeants, 2 corporals, and 43 privates.
In 1783, they were evacuated to New Brunswick. Ross Currie was among those allotted land in Canada, where he appears on a 1785 list of 48 men, 11 wives, 9 children, and 1 widow from the Pennsylvania Loyalists granted lands there. He lived in St. Ann's Parish, New Brunswick, married Mary Almira Clarke who was almost half his age and started a family. After all he had endured, one hopes he realized at least some of the recruiting poster's promise that he might "retire, and enjoy his Bottle and Lass" but if so it did not last long. In 1790 at the age of 36, he drowned in the swift waters of the St. John's River. Reverend William Currie provided for his three young grandchildren in Canada in his will, so maybe there was some reconciliation possible in this family after the Revolution, our first American Civil War.