The war divided families and communities in North America and Britain. The split between Benjamin Franklin and his Loyalist son William symbolized this division. At the start of the war loyalties were not always clear-cut. Many Loyalists, like the rebels, were critical of British actions such as the introduction of the Stamp Act, but wanted to pursue peaceful forms of protest. By no means all of the rebels wanted to break completely from Britain, but as time went on the lines between pro-British 'Loyalists' and American 'Patriots' became clearer. In Britain, there were many who sympathised with the colonists and opposed the war. Others fiercely resisted any loss of territory or British prestige.
It has been estimated that the Patriots had the support of about 40 per cent of the colonial population. The rebels came from all sections of society and included farmers, lawyers, tradesmen and merchants. Most were doing well as the economy of the 13 Colonies was thriving. The Americans had the highest standard of living and lowest taxes in the Western World. In 1763, the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes whilst a Massachusetts taxpayer contributed one shilling. Despite this, the Patriots were convinced that their prosperity and liberty were at stake.
About 15 to 20 per cent of the population, around half a million colonists, supported the Crown and were known as Loyalists or Tories. They included small farmers as well as large landowners, royal office-holders and members of the professions, especially the Anglican clergy. The number of Loyalists in each colony varied greatly. Half the population of New York was Loyalist and there were also large Loyalist communities in Georgia and the Carolinas. The remainder of the population tried to remain neutral; hedging their bets until it was clear which side would come out on top. When the war ended in 1783, at least 80,000 Loyalists went into exile, many of them to Canada.
At the start of the war the revolutionaries did not have a standing army. Each colony had a small militia formed to provide local defence against the French and Native Americans. These units were gradually taken over by Patriots. They started arming and drilling in the months leading up to the outbreak at Lexington. Most militiamen served for only a few months at a time. They were often reluctant to leave home and thus unavailable for lengthy operations. Militia lacked the training and discipline of regular soldiers. The Continental Congress therefore organised the 'Continental Army' in June 1775. George Washington was appointed its Commander-in-Chief. His force improved as the war progressed, largely thanks to French and Prussian instructors, but he still had to augment it with the militia. Although as many as 250,000 men may have served as regulars or militiamen during the war, there were rarely more than 80,000 men under arms for the Americans in any year.
In 1775 the British regular force in North America was fairly small. Commanded by Major-General Gage, it consisted of 11 battalions of foot in Boston, one in New York and six others spread through North America; 7,000 men in all. There was no cavalry; few guns and no field supply system. Reinforcements were immediately sent to America, but the British always struggled to field enough men. There was a recruitment drive in the colonies and at home, but lacking proper depots, British units in the field struggled to replace casualties and losses caused by desertion.
Many Loyalists preferred to join locally recruited units instead of becoming Redcoats. At least 20 Loyalist regiments were raised. These included the British Legion, commanded by Banastre Tarleton, and Robert Rogers’ Queen’s Rangers. Around 50,000 Loyalists served in both regular and irregular units during the war. The British also hired about 30,000 German mercenaries, known in the colonies as ‘Hessians’ because many were from Hesse-Kassel. Some were direct subjects of King George III, who was the Elector of Hannover. Germans eventually made up about 30 per cent of the British strength. By 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed in North America was over 60,000.
In 1775 there were around 400,000 African-Americans in the colonies. They served on both sides. Free black soldiers served in northern militias from the outset, but this was forbidden in the southern militias, where the slave plantation owners feared arming blacks. Congress initially decided against allowing blacks into the Continental Army, as it wanted southern support. But Washington was short of men and he lifted the ban on black enlistment in January 1776. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought for the cause of independence.
Many African-Americans saw more opportunity on the British side. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, declared the British would guarantee the freedom of slaves who fought for them. General Sir Henry Clinton issued a similar declaration in New York in 1779. Unsurprisingly, thousands of slaves escaped to the British Army. They served as infantry, orderlies, labourers, servants, scouts and guides.
The fate of Loyalist blacks varied. Some escaped slaves were captured and returned to their masters. Other African-Americans were treated as loot and sold into slavery. Nearly 20,000 blacks remained with the British at the end of the war. Washington demanded that former slaves be returned. The British refused, but agreed that the Americans should receive financial compensation. Many of these men settled in Nova Scotia, the West Indies, and Europe. Others joined the West India Regiments that were raised in the 1790s and continued to fight for Britain.
Although some Native Americans, especially in New England, supported the colonists, most joined the fight against the United States as their lands were threatened by expanding American settlements. In 1763 the British government had given Indian lands some measure of protection and restricted colonial expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains (the Proclamation Line). This alienated many colonists who wanted to push westward.
An estimated 13,000 warriors fought on the British side. Always short of regular troops, especially after Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in 1777, the British made great efforts to recruit them. The largest group were the Iroquois Confederacy that included the Mohawk tribe. In the aftermath of the war many Americans believed that all the Indians had backed the British. They thus felt little remorse about expelling them from their lands in the years that followed.