The history of the King's American Regiment is presented in 8 parts. Click below to skip to:
Part 1 - Introduction & Recruiting a Regiment
A History of the King's American Regiment - Part 1 of 8
During the course of the American Revolution, over one hundred different Loyalist regiments, battalions, independent companies or troops were formed to fight alongside the British Army against their rebellious countrymen. Among the most distinguished and prominent of these was a mostly New York corps named the King's American Regiment.
Led by Colonel Edmund FANNING, this one regiment served in six major campaigns across the length of the eastern seaboard. They fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, ending their service by being placed on the regular British Establishment, an honor bestowed on but a handful of Loyalist units.
Recruiting a Regiment
With the close of the New York Campaign of 1776, thousands of Loyalists made their way into the British lines. Warrants to raise corps were immediately given to several of the leading Loyalists by Sir William HOWE, the British commander in chief. One to receive such a warrant was Edmund FANNING.
FANNING was a native of New York but lived for a time in North Carolina, where he was colonel of the Orange County Militia, Register for the same county, and judge of the superior court. In 1772 he followed Governor William TRYON from North Carolina to New York, where FANNING was appointed private secretary to the governor (TRYON), surrogate, and later surveyor general of the province.
FANNING was able to maintain his presence in rebellious New York City until 12 February 1776, when he was finally forced to flee on board HMS Asia in the harbor.1 FANNING soon after removed to the Duchess of Gordon, where he was reunited with TRYON.
Among the Loyalists who joined them on board was a free born black by the name of John THOMPSON, a Long Islander who was a servant to FANNING.2 THOMPSON was employed in keeping open a correspondence between TRYON and David MATHEWS, the Loyalist mayor of the city.
In the execution of this duty he was eventually taken prisoner and held in different jails until he made his escape to British held Staten Island sometime in late 1776.3 THOMPSON would become one of the first black soldiers in the new King's American Regiment.4
This fledgling regiment was raised by warrant to FANNING from HOWE dated 11 December 1776.5 The warrant was undoubtedly similar to those issued to others, specifying a regiment of about 600 officers, non–commissioned officers, drummers & privates, divided into ten companies.
To raise these companies, additional warrants were issued to prospective captains and junior officers. Their rank would be contingent upon how many men they raised. These warrant officers ranged far and wide in the attempt to collect recruits.
Among the first of the new officers was Captain John McALPINE. McALPINE's Company was formed as early as 3 January 1777.6 He soon after ventured out of the lines to recruit men in Dutchess County, New York, where he was captured and lodged in Poughkeepsie Jail.
Nineteen of his recruits in the countryside armed themselves and effected his rescue before a capital trial could be held. After a twenty six day journey through the countryside they made their way safely to the regiment on Long Island.7
Other officers would never complete their companies. Archibald McKENDRICK unsuccessfully tried to recruit a company in Newport, Rhode Island.8
Another was Bemslee PETERS, a Hebron, Connecticut Loyalist, who crossed over to that colony from Long Island on or about 30 March 1777 in the company of one FAIRBANK, possibly another warrant officer, a private or a servant.9 After passing to the western part of the colony, he returned to Long Island, not having enlisted enough men for a commission.10
The most unlucky of the new officers was Captain Moses DUNBAR of Connecticut. DUNBAR's Company was actually formed and serving with the regiment when he was captured, probably while recruiting more men.11 He was tried by the Connecticut Superior Court for high treason against the state and sentenced to death.
Early in March another Loyalist, Elisha WADSWORTH, attempted to free DUNBAR but was arrested, tried and convicted of treasonable practices against the state for his trouble.12 DUNBAR was accordingly hanged to death at Hartford on 19 March 1777.13
While New England was attempted for recruits, the vast majority came from Long Island, New York City and the counties along the lower Hudson River. Hundreds successfully joined the regiment in the first few months of 1777, but many never made it.14
One large party of men under Jacobus ROSE (or ROSA) was typical of the groups trying to make their way to the British. ROSE was listed as a private in Captain John FUGE's Company in 1777.15 He was engaged by Lieutenant Daniel McGUIN in the countryside, and they went together to New York to join the regiment. ROSE was sent back into the Hudson Highlands shortly afterwards, where he piloted seventeen men to New York City, five or six of whom enlisted under FANNING.
Early in April, 1777 he went back to lead a party of fifty or more from their homes or hiding places to the army. The party started their route to New York from Ulster County. They were in a unique area of the province that provided Loyalist soldiers for both the army in New York City and that headquartered in Quebec. The men were collected by word of mouth mostly. Fathers and sons would enlist and serve together. Brothers would go secretly, the one to the other, to make their way off quietly together.
ROSE's party proceeded to Wallkill, where he personally disarmed a Rebel sentry, leaving him with the promise to remain quiet. They soon after encountered two mounted militia, and in the scuffle, both were apparently dismounted and one, a Lieutenant Terwilliger, was shot in the arm. A Major Strang and his brother were likewise wounded at some point by ROSE's party.
They marched from one Loyalist's house to the next, hiding in the woods by day, traveling through creeks and trails by night. One evening they were even joined by a mysterious one eyed five foot ten inch British officer, making his way from Niagara or Quebec to New York with a bundle of dispatches.
News of such a large and dangerous body of Loyalists sent the alarm through the Rebel posts and households in the countryside. Brigadier General James Clinton at Fort Montgomery reported on 29 April 1777 that Colonel Woodhull had caught up with the Loyalists somewhere near New Paltz.16 After a few shots were fired the Loyalists were entirely captured or dispersed.
The following day the captives started the process of being tried for their lives by court martial at Fort Montgomery, with no hope of counsel or favorable witnesses. At the first sitting, ten were sentenced to death by hanging, with just one recommended for mercy.17 Between the 2nd and sixth of May twenty more members of the party, their families, and some who had simply aided them were also tried.
Four were acquitted for want of evidence; eleven were found guilty of "levying war against the United States of America;" and five others guilty of "aiding and assisting [and] giving Comfort" to the enemy. All sixteen found guilty were sentenced to death by hanging, however seven were recommended for mercy.18 There were so many more prisoners to be tried that the guard house could not contain them.19
All the sentences being confirmed by the Convention of York (with the exception of one death sentence being commuted to prison for the duration of the war), Clinton ordered the prisoners sent to Kingston, recommending the sentences be speedily carried out.20
On the east side of the river, under similar circumstances, another warrant officer, Lieutenant Thomas GIBSON, was killed while trying to recruit his men.21 Similar tales could be told in almost every Provincial regiment then raising, such were the extreme dangers of not only enlisting but being enlisted for the Crown.
1 "Evidence in the Case of Colonel Edmd. Fanning Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Nova Scotia, 14th December 1785." Treasury, Class 79, Volume 70, folios 31–34, Great Britain, Public Record Office.
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