Remembering the Revolution

The Chesney family, aside from Alexander, did not play much of a role in the American Revolution, at least not one that is recognized or remembered today.  The memory of the characters Robert Chesney and Margaret Hodge lies only in the remembrance of Alexander and his legacy set forth through his journal.  The only link showing that this family existed at all outside of Alexander lies solely in the journal of Alexander which barely touches on characters outside of Alexander.  There are no monuments, or plaques, or books, or anything of the sort in memory of this family; not even a gravestone for anyone other than Alexander could be found (and it proved quite difficult to find Alexander’s too).  In memorial of this family, there are only three items that I have been able to locate that somehow recognize this family’s history and existence at all, the journal of Alexander Chesney, the gravestone of Alexander Chesney, and a painting of Alexander Chesney.  The journal is free to public access and can be seen in a variety of ways and gives a history of Alexander’s experiences in America throughout the American Revolution and continues into Ireland when Alexander moved back after the war.  This first hand source is the most living example of their history, and recognizes the existence of more than just Alexander which the other two objects do not.

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That is a photo of the cover of a copy of the Journal that Alexander wrote, the full text can also be found online at

The Gravestone and the Painting are both slightly different, they required a slight bit more digging, the gravestone being by far the hardest to uncover.  The painting of Alexander Chesney was done by a man named Charles Grey who lived from 1808-1892.  The painting does not give much of a look into the life of Alexander, but it does show his worn face at 86 years of age, but still with a look of inquiry on his wrinkled face.  The painting was made in Ireland near Alexander’s death and it currently resides at the Ulster museum in Northern Ireland.  

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This is Grey’s painting of Alexander Chesney at 86 years of age.

The third “monument” is the gravestone of Alexander Chesney.  Located in  Mourne Presbyterian of Northern Ireland, Alexander was buried here after his death.  This location was fairly difficult to find because of the lack of a trail that was left behind by Alexander after he concluded writing his journal.  Located as grave number B39 Chesney’s grave can be seen here.  


This is a link to a map of the graveyard that Chesney is buried in, if you look for B39 which is a large rectangle just north of the Mourne Presbyterian Church, you can see exactly where the grave is located.

I believe that like memory of anything, the memory of the American revolution changed dramatically over time.  There is no way for people of today to be able to understand and grasp what it was like over 200 years ago in the American Revolution the same way that the people that lived through it in one way or another understand it.  Just like those who lived through an experience like 9/11 have reactions and first hand experiences to it, those who were either not alive or at a very young age can not feel the same even now with video and photography that captured those moments as they happened, and 9/11 hasn’t even had its 20th anniversary yet, much less 200th.  The only recollections we have of the event are the writings of the people that lived during those times, and because of individual biased and just how different society was than as compared to now, there is only so much that we can truly grasp to understand what it was like back in the American Revolution.  Our memory of the American Revolution is also shaped by the advances in technology that exist today.  Due to the extensive technological advances and the development of various resources available today such as digital archives and digital documentation of the American Revolution, access to a broader scope of the American Revolution is available.  George Washington was unable to swipe a finger or click a hyperlink and read what Patrick Henry had to say about the constitution, King George couldn’t click on a powerpoint presentation to describe the feelings of the colonists about the taxes he imposed; the connection between people at that time was limited so much more, and there was no way for anyone to be able to read whatever anyone else believed at that time like is available now.  If I was in South Carolina and wanted to see what was happening in New York at the continental congress, I wouldn’t need to worry that a newspaper might trickle down to my small town or farmland miles from any neighbor, I just type a few words and click a few buttons and then I can know.  This accessibility allows for people of today to be much more informed about the various sides and opinions of all the events leading up to, during, and after the Revolution. 

A place called home

I jumped the gun a bit last week and gave spoilers as to John Phillips final destination after the war. Therefore, rather than rehashing his departure from America to Ireland I’d prefer to explore the climate he likely found himself in upon his return to Ireland – all based on previous assumptions made as to his personal background developed over the course of the past several weeks. I realize that the further I stray from primary source materials and the more I build up from conjecture the further I am apt to stray from the truth. As such, this post will branch if different directions as separate lenses are applied to my understanding of his person. However, for the moment, let us reuse our portrait of John Phillips as a man of some means who is seeking a greater fortune, a Scottish resident of Ireland, who is not of the Catholic majority. We have established through his actions that he is a man of unwavering loyalty to the British Crown, but we lack source material to clarify why.

Upon looking into the feeling of Ireland at the time of John Phillips’ return it was surprising to see that the Irish were pushing back against the British at this time as well, and comparing themselves to the Americans in the process. However, where the American revolution was ostensibly ‘by the people, for the people’ the Irish rebellion was more clearly ‘by the ruling class, for the ruling class’. The ‘revolutionaries’ did not wish to risk allowing Catholicism in and a firm line was drawn in the sand to that regard. It was also less a case of colonists rebelling against authority as it was the colonists striving to regain political footing which they had lost. America lacked such cohesion in its rebellion — the conflict of personal opinions and political agendas in America allowed novel ideas like freeing slaves from bondage or making peace with native peoples to trickle into the discourse both during and after the war.

It is easy to see John Phillips as being more comfortable in this climate, even with the political unrest. As he was neither Gaelic nor Catholic he would have had preferential treatment in society. Adding onto this his quick departure across the Atlantic (even after his home and plantation were destroyed during the conflict) draws again to the question of just how well of he truly was. The only solid fact on this point is that he received £860 for his loss of property and a yearly pension of £84 from the British government. I did not find a clear translation of that monetary value in todays’ currency, but it would appear to a modest amount to live on if he did not earn in any other capacity. I find it unlikely that a man of such political energy would be content to rest on his laurels and simply subside on a small pension. Thus I find it likely that he was on top, and the ‘revolution’ at home was for his own benefit.

But, recall we are dealing with a man built out of assumptions. There is a chance ‘home’ was not so pleasant upon his return. While doing some background reading for this particular blog post I found it interesting the broadly the Ulster Scots – the group to which John Phillips belongs – were in support of the revolution in America. Per this blog post (which in turn references T. H. Breen’s “An Irish Revolution in Eighteenth Century America”), the arrival of 55,000 Protestant Irish (so ‘Scottish Irish’ for our purposes) between the years of 1763 to 1775 helped turn the tide against the British. I wonder if returning home as a Loyalist to the crown was politically unfavorable. I tried to ascertain his age at the time of his death in 1809, but I did not find a birthdate for him. He immigrated in 1770 and by that point already had 7 children. As we do not need exact numbers, let us refer to the average age of matrimony for men in England in the eighteenth century to be 30 and assume that his wife produced no twins and bore one child every 1.5 years – this would mean he moved to America at approximately the age of 40. This would place his time of death at nearly 80, and return to Ireland in his mid 60s. Maybe with his reduced family size (some deceased and at least one son is assumed to have stayed in America) and his age he was finally contented to simply stay out of politics.

A More Perfect Union

Sadly, Alexander Chesney doesn’t spend much time writing about America after he left for London and Ireland. Therefore, this essay will reflect the likely view of a South Carolinian.

Unlike in many of the other states, landed white men in South Carolina cared more about the protection of slavery than the formation of a strong union. In order to support ratification, South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler stated that the Southern States would not support the new Constitution unless provisions were made which prevented the North from emancipating or taxing slavery. They also wanted slaves to count as a portion of the population in order to ensure that the North does not control Congress. Finally, they wanted to continue the slave trade, and they wanted the ability to recover fugitive slaves from free states.


South Carolina Delegate, Pierce Butler

Northern delegates initially objected to each of these demands. However, a desire to protect and strengthen the union eventually overruled any moral disagreements. Included in the new Constitution would be each of the previously mentioned demands, though the delegates attempted to avoid their implication by omitting the words “slave” or “slavery.” Instead, they referred to “any person bound to service or labor.” Everyone realized the new implication, but it sounded less unpleasant than slave. The hopes were that the change in terminology would lead more to support the new government.

When it came time for ratification, there were still some doubts about the ability of the Constitution to prevent tyranny.

In South Carolina, an Anti-Federalist asked his constituents, “What have you been contending for these ten years past? Liberty! What is liberty? The power of governing yourselves. If you adopt this Constitution, have you this power? No: you give it into the hands of a set of men who live one thousand miles distant from you.” In rural South Carolina, farmers staged a funeral for a coffin labeled “Liberty.” (Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750 -1804 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2016), 385.)

The protests of these Anti-Federalists lead to the promise of a Bill of Rights once the Constitution was ratified. This gained the support of some crucial delegates.

By February of 1788, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had all ratified the Constitution. It seems odd that Georgia, who had stood with South Carolina and threatened to leave the union, was one of the first to ratify the document. Whether it was a signal that they were appeased by the inclusion of their demands, or whether they knew that they needed a strong government to defend the state from Native Americans, Georgians voted unanimously to ratify. With their closest ally in the earlier Constitutional Convention now gone, many South Carolinians switched their support to that of the Constitution.

In South Carolina, the ratifying convention was swayed more in favor of the coastal counties and against the backcountry. 22 delegates districts voted in favor of the new Constitution, 11 against, and 6 were divided. The 11 districts which voted against were all located in the backcountry. Apparently, these frontiersmen were more sure in their ability to defend the border than their counterparts in Georgia. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Native American resistance in this region had been crushed during the Revolution, and they believed that they could do so again. Anyhow, South Carolina ratified the Constitution in April of 1788.

The Chesney family, which lived in the backcountry of South Carolina, likely would have been opposed to the Constitution. Of course, they were loyalists, so they would have rejected the idea of an American government from the beginning. Aside from that, Alexander Chesney was also a slave owner, soldier, and frontiersman, so he would have likely agreed with the changes brought about by South Carolinian and Georgian delegates at the Convention but still sided with the voters in the 11 districts which opposed ratification for similar reasons.


Signing of the U.S. Constitution (by Junius Stearns)

The Economy After The War

 There is no known journal kept by Robert Chesney and all of the information we know of his comes from the journal of his son, Alexander Chesney, whom is not around his father enough of the time to give word of his actions.

(Link to Alexander Chesney’s journal)

 Especially after the war because in 1781, Alexander goes back to Europe making stops in London, Manchester, Dublin and many other European cities without once returning to America.  The only word we have of what is happening in America is a small phrase from Alexander’s journal, which notes that in February of 1818, he received a letter saying that in 1817 when the letter was written, Robert Chesney was still alive.  The other bit of news is Alexander’s eldest son, William, is alive and living in Tennessee, but he is not doing well economically.  As Alexander says “William is still alive and residing though not in flourishing circumstances in the State of Tennessee”.  Due to his loyalty to the crown however, Alexander was reimbursed for the property that he lost during the war, either to rebel destruction, theft, or other causes.  He ended up being given £1998 which partially could have been due to a letter of recommendation written for Chesney by General Cornwallis who Chesney ended up becoming rather close to once both back in Europe.

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(General Cornwallis, a highly regarded British General during the American Revolution)

 As far as trade within the newly governed country of America goes, they were very limited due to the obvious discourse with Britain who at this time was still a worldwide powerhouse.  American merchants were unable to trade with the British controlled West Indies or other colonies such as in Africa or Ireland, much less with the motherland herself.  This prompted merchants to shift their focus to the Caribbean and China, but neither were very reliable.  The Caribbean had a high population of pirates which made it difficult and not worth the risk of trading with Caribbean merchants.  

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(An example of what a Caribbean pirate may have looked like, Captain Bartho Roberts pictured)

 For China, trade was strong at first, but as time progressed specifically into the early nineteenth century, China became saturated with American goods and the price of these goods fell so the trade died off slowly.  One benefit of the new economy and one that likely benefited Robert Chesney, is that with the British gone, so was their style of economy when it came to farming and plantations.  Families no longer passed down their farms to their eldest sons, property was distributed more and large plantations that were owned by loyalists who left America after the war, were killed, or whose plantations were stolen, was divided up and given out to others.  These two factors gave way to benefit small, independent farmers of which Robert Chesney was one.  Lastly, due to the rejection of British ideas in America, Americans rejected the idea of Mercantilism for an economic strategy.  This prompted Adam Smith, a Scotsman, to come up with the idea of Capitalism and spread this idea that would become America’s economic system.

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(Adam Smith, father of Capitalism, America’s economy of choice)



[Image Source]

We have already established that John Phillips’ actions showed him to be fiercely loyal to the crown. Compounding this is the fact that he personally suffered at the hands of Patriots and lost one son to them. Given these facts in hand, I am inclined to think that his view of the disloyal American rebels would be less than charitable. I do not have clear indications from primary sources as to Phillips’ temperament, but his actions speak of someone who is very firm in his opinions on loyalty and perhaps more than a little bit ‘fiery’ given his extensive service and personal intervention and disruption of Patriot activity in his township.

I do not know if during the thick of the war John Phillips would have personally thought about the long term consequences for a multitude of treasonous citizenry — common punishment for treason is of course death, but those fighting against him in the war faced this penalty already. There have also been numerous references throughout the readings to the fact that often people were caught in the crossfire so to speak, with incoming armies forcing their hand from neutrality to ‘allegiance’ (however shallow). Extrapolating from this, I wonder if John Phillips would have viewed the Patriots as a small, but virulent, strain of fanaticism. Perhaps he wished them all to be hung for treason, or in another light, he may have viewed the majority of them to be Patriots by circumstance who would, if given the chance and circumstances, have gladly remained loyal to the crown.

For context on Phillips’ view on the rebels, I feel it relevant to note that he moved back to Ireland after the war (passing away in 1809). After the fighting ended and America ‘became’ America, he probably felt the roles quite flipped – suddenly he was the treasonous party, disloyal and a new citizen of a state he had refused to recognize. In contrast to this, he was well regarded in Britain, with several endorsements being given of him by other men attesting to his honesty, suffering at the hands of the rebel forces, and unwavering service to the empire. I can only imagine how uncomfortable the colonies must have felt for him after he realized the cause really was lost and do not fault him for moving back. By modern estimates he was one of perhaps 80,000 to depart the nation during and after the war. [Source]

I should note that some sincere new Americans did favor integrating the Loyalists into American society. Alexander Hamilton argued quite eloquently for moderation and rational action for the greatest gain.

                While some kingdoms were impoverishing and depopulating themselves by their severities to the non-conformists, their wiser neighbors were reaping the fruits of their folly and augmenting their own numbers, industry, and wealth, by receiving with open arms the persecuted fugitives…there is not an enlightened nation which does not now acknowledge the force of this truth – that […] men will not…be enemies to a government that affords them protection and security. [A Pamphlet War on the Postwar Treatment of Loyalists]

What an idea! By behaving in a protective and just manner (rather than by expelling or persecuting) former Loyalists they could ensure themselves a more cohesive nation. Stockholm Syndrome or just ‘killing with kindness’ – there is no doubt that such a method reaps more benefits than drawing out further bitterness and animosity. Not to mention, the fleeing Loyalists were noted as being typically wealthy and educated; losing a large number of this class would doubtless have an impact on the economy. Such an ideal of unity and solidarity of course, was not to be. While it is not surprising that after a bloody conflict Americans may be more drawn to punitive justice rather than restorative,  it is interesting to think how setting such a tone for American culture could have changed future generations.

This does not mean to be overly harsh towards Americans, human nature does not err towards forgiveness and empathy. Doubtless, had the British won there would have been similar behavior from the Loyalists aimed against the rebels. And throughout this is is necessary to remember that what defines ‘disloyal’ appears to be largely a matter of ‘who won?’ and ‘where are you now?’. Driven out of the colonies by a newly nationalistic American republic, John Phillips fled as a traitor. When he docked in Ireland he arrived as a loyal and honorable man. So — what is to be done with the disloyal? I suppose what history decided was simply to find a place where that was not the case.

Questioned loyalties?

As war broke out, Alexander and his family felt that siding with the British was the obvious choice. As recent immigrants from Ireland, they did not feel quite the same animosity towards the Stamp and Townshend Acts as the other North American colonists. (See last blog post). The British also seemed more than likely to win any war in the colonies due to their superior numbers and training.

His first act when war broke out was to join other loyalists and capture Fort Ninety-Six. This provided them with a decent supply of ammunition, but they were soon taken by an army under a Col. Richardson. This is where everything got a bit troublesome for the Chesney family.

Temporarily captured by the patriots, Chesney made light of his situation, and soon managed to leave the patriot camp. This gave him plenty of time to help other loyalists make their way south by first taking them to his father’s house, and then providing them with directions and guides to reach Florida. He was soon discovered, and in 1776, was captured again by Col. Richardson. This time, he was given an ultimatum. Either be tried in a military court, or join the rebel army. To protect his father, who was also imprisoned, he chose the latter. This provided Chesney with multiple opportunities of escape, many of which were foiled. At Charleston, he and a few others attempted to reach the British lines, but they were blocked by water. He also came extremely close to being killed by British shells raining down upon the patriot army. After this, his regiment was sent south to attack the Native Americans, and we begin to see Chesney’s true colors. He writes about marching against the Natives, “I had no objection.” Even when fighting for the rebel army, he almost delighted in waging war against the “uncivilized” Native Americans. However, for a second time, he was almost killed. Luckily for him, his enlistment was just about over.

Upon returning home, he willingly joined the American militia in protecting Bailis’ Fort on the Proclamation Line. A few months later, he joined yet another American militia! This time, he was sent to Georgia to fight the Cherokee once again. Was Alexander’s loyalty to the crown faltering? Or was it simply a case of uniting against a common enemy? While there is no evidence in his journal to suggest his motives, the latter seems to be true. It was simply in his best interest to help suppress the Natives and protect his land. John Phillips was with him on this expedition.

Returning home for a second time, Alexander married Margaret Hodge. Her father and brother served in the South Carolina militia under Whig general, Thomas Brandon. Perhaps due to Alexander’s new status as a lieutenant in the rebel army, Margaret’s father permitted the marriage? Otherwise, I don’t see how this would have been permitted by her family since it was known that earlier in the war, he supported the loyalist cause. Anyhow, Charleston soon fell to the British, and Chesney jumped at the chance to join the British army. He was involved in numerous skirmishes, and wounded at the Battle of King’s Mountain. However, he managed to escape being captured, and made his way home. Upon arrival, he found that his wife had bore him a son, “whom I named William which was all the christening he had.” For an Irishman, not having his son baptized would have been extremely heartbreaking. This was one of Chesney’s many losses during the war.

After finding a British group to join, he returned to the army, and soon found himself in Charleston as the Americans managed to gain control of South Carolina. While in the army, his wife died, and Chesney was not there with her in her final days. This seems to have been the final straw, for soon after, his health began to deteriorate, forcing him to send his family to Ireland. He would soon join them…..

While Alexander Chesney’s loyalties were seemingly questioned at the outset of the war, every move had a purpose. It was like Chesney was playing a game of chess. First, move to protect his land by waging war on the Natives. Only after that was assured would he be able to wage war against the rebels. But his time in the army led to his inability to have his son baptized, and to miss the final moments of his wife. If this was not bad enough, his own health began to fail and he had to leave everything behind and flee to Ireland.

Upon his arrival in Ireland, he sought to claim the loss of his property in the Americas. However, he had to convince the Loyalist Claims Commission of his loyalty. To do so, he argued that he had stayed loyal, and he had only supported the rebels to help defeat the Native Americans. I, for one, believe Chesney. During the war, he tried to escape the rebel army multiple times and was willing to return to Ireland after the war. If he had truly supported the Patriot cause, Great Britain is the last place that he would’ve wanted to go.


“Death of Ferguson at King’s Mountain.” Image Source