James Moody: American Soldier

The traditional lore of the American Revolution holds that small groups of Patriot citizen-soldiers using unconventional tactics defeated a superior foe, who was using European tactics unfit for combat in the wilderness of North America. The lesson modern strategists are led to take from the experience of British operations during the American Revolution is that imposing one’s military doctrine in an alien environment is a recipe for disaster. Founding lore, however, overlooks a class of colonists lost in the clamor to understand to what transpired in 1776: Loyalists. Loyalist provincial units formed in 1776 were led and staffed individuals who shared similar North American experiences with their Patriot opponents. This included the frontier mentality that has come to define the Early American way of way of war. The wartime experience of Tory Lieutenant James Moody provides a vignette of a British High Command that attempted to incorporate the methods and tactics that American Revolutionaries later became famous for. Modern strategists would do well to learn from the full picture.

James Moody’s wartime experience comes to us from a narrative he produced for the Loyalist Claims Commission in 1784, where he sought compensation for the loss of his 500 acre farm in New Jersey and expenses incurred while levying volunteers for his regiment, the New Jersey Volunteers. Moody’s narrative was reprinted as a pamphlet in London to include supplementary documents provided by former Tory officials and his commanders attesting to the veracity of his claims.[1] He was transformed from wealthy landowner to an enemy soldier by his rebellious neighbors. George Washington would note in his postwar correspondence that he regretted choosing not to hang Moody when he had the chance.[2] Mixing classic espionage methods with raiding operations that targeted prominent members of local Committees of Observation, Moody struck at the very core of the Revolutionary movement under the supervision of the New Jersey Volunteers’ British and Hessian theatre commanders. Not quite the story we have been led previously to believe.

James Moody owned a large farm in a fertile valley located in Sussex County, in northern New Jersey. By his own admission, he remained wary but uninvolved in the growing revolutionary tumult. Privately he held a negative opinion of revolution and the revolutionaries. Once known, his stance earned him the ire of his neighbors. When revolution came to Sussex County in December of 1776, the Sussex Committee of Safety ordered the Sussex Militia began sweeping the county for Loyalists with the intention of jailing them.[3] Moody remained free until February of 1777, when he fled his farm under fire from the militia. James Moody then gathered 70 other Sussex Tories and led a fighting retreat to Staten Island. From there, he promptly enlisted in the New Jersey Volunteers—Skinner’s Greens, a loyalist line infantry provincial unit commanded by New Jersey’s former Attorney General, Cortlant Skinner.

"Moody Effecting Rescue in Sussex County, NJ Jail." Donated by the Sussex County, New Jersey Public Library.

After becoming impatient while waiting for an officer’s commission, Moody volunteered to begin infiltrating Patriot-held areas of New Jersey to recruit more men for his regiment. This in turn, earned him his commission, but instead of being sent to the line, he was kept in his role as a “partizan.”[4] Among his most notable missions were: attempting to create a Loyalist uprising in the Delaware valley ahead of Howe’s invasion of Pennsylvania in 1777, undertaking a mission to kidnap the Patriot governor of New Jersey, Robert Livingston, for purposes of prisoner exchange, and intercepting Washington’s communications with Rochambeau in Connecticut. In between, he penetrated New Jersey numerous times to cultivate a network of Tory informants.[5] Though he was captured in 1780 and held at West Point, he escaped custody after his transfer to Washington’s army. Moody only retired from military service after a failed mission to steal documents from Constitution Hall in Philadelphia resulted in the capture and hanging of his brother, who also participated in the raid. A broken James Moody fled New York for London on Evacuation Day, November 23, 1783.[6]

Historian John Shy observed that the years predating 1812 were a period in the history of the United States that was intrinsically tied to warfare. The hallmark of this period was a strategy of annihilation in relation to the colonists’ Native and European enemies derived from years of frontier warfare. The Mystic Massacre of 1637, The Great Swamp Fight of King Philip's War, and the small raids that marked Queen Anne’s War between 1702-1713 exemplify Shy’s interpretation. The experience of two hundred years of utilizing such forceful solutions caused these methods to become a tradition because they worked so well.[7] While reading The Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieutenant James Moody, one notes the violence of his operations. Moody targeted and nearly kidnapped a New Jersey judge infamous for seizing land from and jailing Tories. Upon his return to Sussex County, James Moody methodically raided the homes of his former neighbors. In direct confrontation with Continental troops, Moody tenaciously attacked numerically superior units on three separate occasions. In one of these actions, Moody summarily executed a wounded Continental officer. Aside from war’s casual brutality, Moody’s actions, at least anecdotally, reflect an understanding on the part of the British High Command of the need to eradicate the rebellion from its grassroots origins in a way simply hanging the movement's leadership would not accomplish.

Historian Don Higginbotham qualified Shy’s “Annihilation Theory.” With the exception of his foray into the Delaware Valley in 1777, James Moody conducted his covert operations in his green provincial uniform. Despite his contemporaries identifying him as a “partizan,” Moody considered himself first and foremost a soldier. Following his capture and imprisonment at West Point in 1780, Moody objected to being shackled with irons as a violation of the laws of war.[8] Shackling in such a manner, traditionally, was the treatment of a spy and Moody was captured in uniform. The episode points to Higginbotham’s interpretation of how war was experienced in early America. Different opponents required separate rules of war. Higginbotham noted that American colonists sought to wipe out Native tribes yet waged relatively civilized campaigns against the French and Spanish.[9] While to some the American Revolution resembled a civil war, fighting white Europeans demanded certain protocols of the day be followed. The fact that James Moody saw a clear distinction between a spy and a uniformed officer tells us he viewed his special activities as legitimate forms of warfare. So too did the commanders who deployed them.

Each time James Moody returned to the New Jersey countryside he did so in support of the main army’s campaign. Both the British and Continental armies strove to defeat one another through conventional battle, not total destruction. Despite his heroics, Moody’s operations were complementary in nature. Eminent Early American Historians Douglas Edward Leach and Howard H. Peckham would agree with this appraisal, as both abandon Shy and Higginbotham and view the arc of America’s early military history as bending decisively towards European-style warfare.[10] Fearful as Washington was of Moody’s disruptions, he was even more worried about what intelligence Moody was supplying to British regulars. Moody drew Washington’s ire in March of 1781 when he positioned himself near the Continental Army, then stationed in New Jersey, and began intercepting couriers running Washington’s communications with Rochambeau, stationed in Connecticut.[11] He did so under the orders of Adjutant General of the British Army in America Colonel Oliver DeLancy, who had succeeded Major John Andre after the latter’s capture. Moody’s knowledge of the mountains of northern New Jersey and southern New York and covert Ranging tactics made Moody an ideal choice over British regulars for such work. With the war in its ending stages, any information the British could obtain was critical.

James Moody

Through the deployment of James Moody and other Tory provincials like him, it is indisputable that the British saw usefulness in embracing the colonists’ frontier mentality of warfare though small unit tactics and raids to complement the operations of the main army. American Tories provided a built-in solution to “North Americanizing” the conflict due to their familiarity with these customs. As James Moody’s wartime experiences show, British commanders recognized the value of a way of war learned over a bloody century on the frontier, however small his operations were in the grand scheme of the conflict. Far from slavish dedication to European style warfare, Moody show us that British commanders were not averse to fusing conventional operations with the unconventional and putting an emphasis on the desire for lethal solutions with a respect for marital norms dependent upon a given enemy.

The account of James Moody’s wartime experience is invaluable. Understanding the ways Britain attempted to “North Americanize” its otherwise Europe-centric military doctrine with the American colonies through unconventional tactics of its own, however small in scale, adds a level of complexity to the conflict for historians. In understanding the full picture of British operations, modern strategists might take alternative lessons from the British experience during the American Revolution, namely being flexible enough to install a concept of warfare familiar to allies within an area of operations in support of one’s overall objectives. Despite the Europeanization of the Continental Army and the entirely justified effort to debunk founding myths, James Moody shows us that frontier style unconventional tactics must remain part of the overall conversation if we are to truly understand how the British fought the American Revolution.

Kyle Gaffney earned his master’s degree in History from William Paterson University in New Jersey. He has a passion for connecting the local history of his native New Jersey to the broader themes that have shaped our world.

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[1] McNutt, W. Stewart. “The Narrative of Lieutenant James Moody.” Acadiensis Journal of The History of the Atlantic Region. Vol. I, No. 2 Spring/1972 pg 72. Text is a reprint of original pamphlet published in 1783 as The Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieutenant James Moody. McNutt provides a brief introduction.

[2] The Writings of George Washington. Vol 23, pg 444.

[3] “A Tory Roundup in Sussex County, New York Journal: or General Advertiser, December 28, 1775.” Http://www.njstatelib.org. Though this order was passed down in 1775, it provides a glimpse into the activities of the Sussex Committee of Safety that eventually led to Moody’s attempted arrest in 1777.

[4] “Partizan” or partisan, in this context referred to activities other than traditional battlefield actions. The term in the context of James Moody is interesting because Skinner’s Greens participated as regular line infantry in battles ranging from Staten Island, NY to King’s Mountain in South Carolina.

[5] Shenstone Burgess, Susan. So Obstinately Loyal: James Moody, 1744-1809. Mcgill-Queen’s Press, MQUP, 2001. Pg 73.

[6] As opposed to Evacuation Day recognized in Massachusetts, March 17, November 25, 1783 marked the occasion of the British Army’s exit from New York City. Thousands of Tories in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were offered passage.

[7] Shy, “American Military Experience,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, I (1970), 205-228.

[8] Moody to Lamb, West Point August 11th 1780. New York Historical Society, Lamb Papers, Reel 2, folio 94.

[9] Higginbotham, “The Early American Way of War: Reconnaissance and Appraisal,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol 44, No. 2 (Apr., 1987), 230-273.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Moody, James. The Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieutenant James Moody as reprinted in Acadiensis, pg 86.