The American Revolution as Civil War

Advisor: Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University
, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2011

How was the American Revolution a civil war that turned neighbors into enemies?


Before becoming a war against the British, the American war for independence was a civil war, a street-level conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor.

Tarring and Feathering, 1774.


Janet Schaw, account of Patriot–Loyalist conflict in North Carolina, 1775 (excerpts).

[For more primary sources on the American Revolution, see Making the Revolution: America, 1763-1791.]

Text Type

Literary nonfiction (travel letters) with moderately complex purpose, structure, language features, and knowledge demands.

Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.2 (Determine two or central ideas of a text and analyze their development.)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 3.1 (IIB) (arguments about rights of British subjects, the rights of the individual,…)

Teacher’s Note

In this lesson students will explore excerpts from two letters by an educated young woman from Edinburgh, Scotland, named Janet Schaw, in which she describes a 1775 visit she made to her brother, a plantation owner, in southeastern North Carolina. A Loyalist, Schaw reports on the deep anti-British sentiment in the region. Her letters vividly illustrate ways in which the American Revolution caused people who knew each other well to resort to violence and intimidation against each other.

In the first passage Schaw describes how a group of Patriots turn on a “poor English groom” because he has, in her words, “smiled on” a Patriot regiment as they drilled. When you discuss this passage, set the scene. It is a hot day. The Patriots are probably drunk; they’ve been drinking grog, watered down rum, throughout their maneuvers. They are a rag-tag but potentially deadly bunch of ill-disciplined men. They believe the groom — an Englishman, not a local — insults them, and they decide to inflict a punishment that could kill him. Eventually, cooler heads, friends of the groom’s boss, prevail, and the crowd decides merely to banish the groom from town. This is a non-lethal punishment, but because it exiles the groom from his livelihood and sets him adrift in the unforgiving backcountry, it is still severe.

In the second passage Schaw encounters a group of her friends, Loyalists, some of “the first people in the town,” corralled in the middle of a street by a detail of armed Patriots. The soldiers are holding them because they have refused to sign an anti-British pledge. Like the display of military force in the first passage, the imprisonment in this one is an act of public intimidation. Note the powerful message it sends. Everyone in town knows the prisoners, and everyone can see that even the “first people” will not escape the Patriots’ wrath. Everyone knows the soldiers, too; in fact, Schaw just dined with one of the officers. When one of the prisoners asks by what authority the Patriots are holding them, the chilling reply indicates the brute force of arms. And it is that same force, or at least the threat of it, wielded by the Patriots’ Loyalist neighbors, that sets the prisoners free. At this stage the Revolution is a civil war that has turned friends into enemies. At the conclusion of the lesson, ask your students if these passages have changed their image of the American Revolution and the people who waged it.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. Two excerpts with accompanying close reading questions provide an analytical study of the texts. An optional follow-up assignment enhances the lesson. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, and the optional follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive PDF, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions

Teacher’s Guide


Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

Janet Schaw was a young, well-educated Scottish woman who, in March of 1775, traveled to North Carolina to visit her older brother Robert, the owner of a plantation on the Cape Fear River near the town of Wilmington. While there she witnessed, among other things, land clearing through controlled burning and the killing of an alligator. More important, she observed a society that was splitting asunder under the stress of revolutionary politics.

Resistance to the British crown was strong in the region. In 1765 Wilmington residents launched the first successful armed resistance to the Stamp Act. By 1775 anti-British sentiment had intensified. Wilmington had established a vigorous Committees of Safety that demanded allegiance to the Continental Congress and enforced the Congress’s call to boycott British goods. Decisions of the Wilmington Committee forced men and women along the Cape Fear to take sides. Patriots employed violence and intimidation and, Schaw suggests, even faked a slave revolt to unite their countrymen in opposition to the British.

Schaw recorded her experiences and observations in a series of travel letters, which were published in 1921. As the editor of Schaw’s journal reminds us, “such contemporary evidence makes us realize that our forefathers, however worthy their object, were engaged in real rebellion and revolution, characterized by the extremes of thought and action that always accompany such movements, and not in the kind of parlour warfare, described in many of our text books.” [Journal of a Lady of Quality, eds. E.W. Andres and C.M. Andrews, 1921]

Text Analysis

Excerpts from Janet Schaw’s travel journal: North Carolina, 1775

Close Reading Questions

1. Where are the maneuvers held? Why might the Patriots have chosen this space?
Apparently, the maneuvers are held on two fields, one “covered with… scrubby oak,” the other a “plain” field, which seems to have been an open field for marching. What matters, however, is that both are quite public, visible from balconies. The Patriots mean for these maneuvers to be seen; with them they are sending a message.

2. What messages do the Patriots intend to send with the maneuvers?
To their fellow Patriots the maneuvers are a show of strength. To Loyalists they are a warning and an act of intimidation.

3. How does Schaw’s account reveal the militia’s strength? Cite specific language.
She notes that “heated with rum,” the militia is “capable of committing the most shocking outrages.” She further points out that it is a force of 2,000 men, a large contingent, and that while those men are “unmartial” in many ways, they can still “shoot from behind a bush” and kill even the highest British officers.

4. What did the groom do to anger the Patriots? How does Schaw characterize his offense?
He apparently indicated in some way that he did not take the militia seriously. Schaw characterizes this as a minor, trivial act: he merely “smiled at the regiment.”

5. What does it suggest about the Patriots that they found the groom’s behavior offensive?
Allowing for the fact that many of the militiamen may be drunk and incapable of exercising the soundest judgment, their reaction to what appears to have been a minor insult suggests their hair-trigger sensitivity to any slight offered by someone of British sympathies or even presumed British sympathies. The severity of their ultimate response, banishment, also suggests the tension that has seized the Wilmington community.

6. Is Mr. Neilson, the groom’s master, a Loyalist of a Patriot?
We cannot be sure either way, but there are suggestions that he is a Loyalist. He employs an English groom, something that the Patriots would not look upon kindly, and Schaw expresses his friendship with the officers who rescue the groom in the past tense, they “had been Neilson’s friends,” suggesting that his British sympathies may have ended those friendships.

7. What does the action of the officers suggest about relations in the town?
The officers’ rescue of the groom may illustrate the conflicting lines of friendship and allegiance that run throughout the community. As noted above, Mr. Neilson may be a Loyalist. Thus for the officers, rescuing the groom from tarring and feathering may have pitted their friendship with Neilson, however weakened, against their patriotic sentiment, however strong.

8. What makes the groom an especially likely and vulnerable target?
He is English and of “humble station,” that is, working class.

9. What message does the groom’s punishment send to the community, and how do the Patriots make sure the message is widely heard?
The Patriots signal their intolerance for any behavior that suggests disloyalty to the cause of the Revolution. They emphasize that message with the groom’s public humiliation — they force him to mount a table and beg for pardon — and his very public and presumably very noisy banishment from town.

1. We came down in the morning in time for the review [of the local Patriot militia] which the heat made as terrible to the spectators as to the soldiers, or what you please to call them. They had certainly fainted under it, had not the constant draughts of grog [watered-down rum] supported them. Their exercise was that of bush-fighting, but it appeared so confused and so perfectly different from anything I ever saw, I cannot say whether they performed it well or not; but this I know, that they were heated with rum till capable of committing the most shocking outrages. We stood in the balcony of Doctor Cobham’s house and they were reviewed on a field mostly covered with what are called here scrubby oaks, which are only a little better than brushwood. They at last however assembled on the plain field, and I must really laugh while I recollect their figures: 2000 men in their shirts and trousers, preceded by a very ill beat-drum and a fiddler, who was also in his shirt with a long sword and a cue at his hair, who played with all his might. They made indeed a most unmartial appearance. But the worst figure there can shoot from behind a bush and kill even a General Wolfe [British general killed in the French and Indian War].

Before the review was over, I heard a cry of tar and feather. I was ready to faint at the idea of this dreadful operation. I would have gladly quitted the balcony, but was so much afraid the Victim was one of my friends that I was not able to move, and he indeed proved to be one, tho’ in a humble station [lower social class]. For it was Mr. Neilson’s poor English groom [stable man; caretaker of horses]. You can hardly conceive what I felt when I saw him dragged forward, poor devil, frighted out of his wits. However, at the request of some of the officers, who had been Neilson’s friends, his punishment was changed into that of mounting on a table and begging pardon for having smiled at the regiment. He was then drummed and fiddled out of the town, with a strict prohibition of ever being seen in it again.

10. Why have the Patriots decided to hold their prisoners in the middle of a street?
Just as the Patriots sent a message by holding the militia maneuvers in a public place and publicly shaming the English groom, here, too, they want to send a message by putting prisoners on public display in the middle of a street.

11. What message does this public punishment send to the town?
It indicates that everyone in town, even “the first people,” will be subject to the Patriots’ wrath if they sympathize with the British.

12. Why do the Patriots not punish these Loyalists as they did the English groom?
They may have considered the groom a foreigner. Moreover, he was of a “humble station,” not one of the “first people,” and thus he was far more vulnerable than these better known and better connected townspeople. So well known and connected are they that some residents along the Cape Fear River are ready to take up arms to rescue them. Apparently, no one was ready to defend the groom.

13. How does this passage illustrate how tight-knit the community of Wilmington is? Cite specific evidence from the text.
Schaw’s relationships illustrate how close friends and foes are. Not only does she know “most” of the prisoners, she recently had dinner with one of the officers guarding them.

14. How does Schaw indicate that the rebellion is sustained only through violence and intimidation? Cite specific language.
When one of the prisoners asks by what “authority” the Patriots are imposing the loyalty “Test” upon them, an officer simply points to the armed soldiers with him and asserts “There is my Authority… dispute it, if you can.”

15. Compare the image of the militiamen in this excerpt with the description of them Schaw offers in the first.
In the first excerpt Schaw presents them as rag-tag backcountry men, dangerous but undisciplined. Here the danger only mentioned in the first excerpt is illustrated concretely. In the first excerpt the Patriot soldiers were largely comic; here they are threatening. The seriousness and intensity of the rebellion are made plain.

16. Compare Schaw’s response to the Patriots in the first excerpt with her response to them in the second. Cite specific language.
In the first excerpt Schaw was patronizing and contemptuous of the Patriots, but she was wary of them, too. In the second she still looks down on the Patriots, calling them “ragamuffins” and noting that “not five men of property and credit are infected” by the “unfortunate disease” of revolutionary fervor. However, now that she sees what they are willing to do, she is “petrified with horror” at the threat they represent.

17. How does these two passages illustrate the way in which the American Revolution was a civil war?
They show how the Patriot–Loyalist divide split communities and turned people who presumably had been getting along for years against each other. Neighbors who had once dined together now face off in the streets and confront each other with guns. The passages indicate that local Patriots and Loyalists battled each other well before the Continental Army squared off against British troops.

2. I went into the town, the entry of which I found closed up by a detachment of the soldiers; but as the officer immediately made way for me, I took no further notice of it but advanced to the middle of the street where I found a number of the first people [elite, highest class] in town standing together, who… seemed much impassioned. As most of them were my acquaintances, I stopped to speak to them, but they with one voice begged me for heaven’s sake to get off the street, making me observe they were prisoners, adding that every avenue of the town was shut up, and that in all human probability some scene would be acted very unfit for me to witness. I could not take the friendly advice, for I became unable to move and absolutely petrified with horror. Observing however an officer with whom I had just dined, I beckoned him to me. He came, but with no very agreeable look, and on my asking him what was the matter, he presented a paper he had folded in his hand. If you will persuade them to sign this [a pledge to support anti-British actions] they are at liberty, said he, but till then must remain under this guard, as they must suffer the penalties they have justly incurred. “And we will suffer everything,” replied one of them, “before we abjure [reject] our king, our country and our principles.” “This, Ladies,” said he turning to me, who was now joined by several Ladies, “is what they call their Test, but by what authority this Gentleman forces it on us, we are yet to learn.” “There is my Authority,” pointing to the Soldiers with the most insolent air, “dispute it, if you can.”…

The prisoners stood firm to their resolution of not signing the Test, till past two in the morning, tho’ every threatening was used to make them comply; at which time a Message from the [Patriot’s] committee compromised [ended] the affair, and they were suffered [allowed] to retire on their parole [responsible for themselves] to appear next morning before them. This was not a step of mercy or out of regard to the Gentlemen; but they understood that a number of their friends were arming in their defense, and tho’ they had kept about 150 ragamuffins still in town, they were not sure even of them; for to the credit of that town be it spoke there are not five men of property and credit [men of wealth] in it that are infected by this unfortunate disease [support for anti-British action and independence].

Follow-Up Assignment

From the perspective of a Patriot, retell the groom incident. Be precise. Schaw describes him as a “poor English groom” [caretaker of horses]. How would a Patriot describe him? Schaw says he “smiled at” the regiment. How would a Patriot describe his behavior? Schaw was horrified at his treatment. How would a Patriot have felt? Justify the original intended punishment of tarring and feathering. Describe why you and your comrades decided on the alternative punishment. Describe and justify it.

Describe the second incident from the point of view of the officer in charge of the prisoners. Again, be precise. Schaw describes the Loyalists as “much impassioned.” How would the officer describe them? Remember, the officer had dinner with Schaw just recently. In light of that, how might he respond to her questions? Justify holding the Loyalists in the street. Imagine how you felt when one of the Loyalists challenged your authority to hold them. Describe why you let them go.


  • unmartial: unmilitary, unprepared for war
  • tar and feather: an attack in which a crowd strips the victim, pours hot tar over his/her body, and then rolls the victim in feathers that adhere to the tar, after which the victim might be paraded around in a cart; done to intimidate and threaten the victim and others like him/her
  • prohibition: ban

Text: Journal of a Lady of Quality: Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the Years 1774 to 1776, eds. Evangeline Walker Andrews & Charles McLean Andrews (Yale University Press, 1921), 189-194. Full text online in Documenting the American South, Internet Archive, and Google Books.

Image: A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston, colored aquatint, British print, 1774. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, PAF3919. Reproduced by permission.