African Americans in the Revolutionary War

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Continental soldiers at Yorktown; on the left, an African-American soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment

In the American Revolution, gaining freedom was the strongest motive for black slaves who joined the Patriot or British armies. The free black may have been drafted or enlisted at his own volition--Nash says they enlisted at higher rates than did whites.[1]

Additional motives for those who joined the rebel American forces may have been a desire for adventure, belief in the goals of the Revolution, and the possibility of receiving a bounty. Monetary payments and freedom were given or promised to those who joined. Free blacks in the North and South fought on both sides of the Revolution; slaves were recruited to weaken those masters who supported the opposing cause. Gary Nash reports that most blacks fought on the patriot side; recent research concludes there were about 9000 black Patriot soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy, and state militia units, as well as privateers, wagoneers in the Army, servants to officers, and spies.[2] Ray Raphael notes that while thousands did join the Loyalist cause, "A far larger number, free as well as slave, tried to further their interests by siding with the patriots."[3] Crispus Attucks, shot dead by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre in 1770, is an iconic martyr to Patriots.

African-American Patriots[edit]

Engraving of Crispus Attucks being shot during the Boston Massacre. (John Bufford after William L. Champey, c. 1856)[4]

Prior to the revolution, many free African Americans supported the anti-British cause, most famously Crispus Attucks, believed to be the first person killed at the Boston Massacre. At the time of the American Revolution, some blacks had already been enlisted as Minutemen. Both free and enslaved Africans had served in local militias, especially in the North, defending their villages against attacks by Native Americans. In March 1775, the Continental Congress assigned units of the Massachusetts militia as Minutemen. They were under orders to become activated if the British troops in Boston took the offensive. Peter Salem, who had been freed by his owner to join the Framingham militia, was one of the blacks in the militia. He served for seven years.

In April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, blacks responded to the call and fought with Patriot forces. Prince Estabrook was wounded some time during the fighting on 19 April, probably at Lexington.[5] The Battle of Bunker Hill also had African-American soldiers fighting along with white Patriots. Many African Americans, both enslaved and free, wanted to join with the Patriots. They believed that they would either achieve freedom or expand their civil rights.[6] In addition to the role of soldier, blacks also served as guides, messengers, and spies.

American states had to meet quotas of troops for the new Continental Army, and New England regiments recruited black slaves by promising freedom to those who served in the Continental Army. During the course of the war, about one fifth of the northern army was black. [7] At the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Baron Closen, a German officer in the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, estimated the American army to be about one quarter black.[8]

African American sailors[edit]

Because of manpower shortages at sea, both the Continental Navy and Royal Navy signed African Americans into the navy. Even southern colonies, which worried about putting guns into the hands of slaves for the army, had no qualms about using blacks to pilot vessels and to handle the ammunition on ships. In state navies, some blacks served as pilots; South Carolina had significant numbers of black pilots.[9]

Some African Americans had been captured from the Royal Navy and used by the Patriots on their vessels. Throughout the war, blacks served as seamen on British vessels, where they generally proved to be much more willing and able than their press-ganged white counterparts.[citation needed]

Patriot resistance to using African Americans[edit]

Revolutionary leaders began to be fearful of using blacks in the armed forces. They were afraid that slaves who were armed would rise against them. Slave owners became concerned that military service would eventually free their people. In May 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, punched slaves in the armies of the colony. This action was adopted by the Continental Congress when they took over the Patriot Army. George Washington in July 1775 issued an order to recruiters, ordering them not to enroll "any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro or vagabond".[10] unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be enlisted."[11] Most blacks were integrated into existing military units, but some segregated units were formed,

Lord Dunmore's proclamation[edit]

Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, was determined to maintain British rule in the southern colonies. On November 7, 1775, he issued a proclamation: "I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops." By December 1775 the British army had 300 slaves wearing a military uniform. Sewn on the breast of the uniform was the inscription "Liberty to Slaves". These slaves were designated as "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment."

The British regular army had some fears that, if armed, blacks would start slave rebellions. Trying to placate southern planters, the British used African Americans as laborers, skilled workers, foragers and spies. Except for those blacks who joined Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, only a few blacks, such as Seymour Burr, served in the British army while the fighting was concentrated in the North. It was not until the final months of the war, when manpower was low, that blacks were used for fighting for Britain in the South.[12]

In Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, when threatened by Patriot forces, the British filled gaps in their troops with African Americans. In October 1779, about 200 Black Loyalist soldiers assisted the British in successfully defending Savannah against a joint French and rebel American attack.[13]

Patriot military response to Dunmore's proclamation[edit]

Dunmore's Black soldiers aroused fear among some Patriots. In December 1775, Washington wrote a letter to Colonel Henry Lee[disambiguation needed] stating that success in the war would come to whatever side could arm the blacks the fastest. [14] Washington issued orders to the recruiters to reenlist the free blacks who had already served in the army. He worried that these soldiers might cross over to the British side. Congress in 1776 agreed with Washington, and free blacks who had already served could be reenlisted. Patriots in South Carolina and Georgia resisted enlisting slaves as armed soldiers. African Americans from northern units were used to fight in southern battles. In some Southern states, southern black slaves were allowed to substitute for their master in patriot service.[citation needed]

Black Regiment of Rhode Island[edit]

In the year of 1778, Rhode Island was having trouble recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress, and the Rhode Island Assembly decided to pursue a suggestion made by General Varnum and enlist slaves in 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Varnum had raised the idea in a letter to George Washington, who forwarded the letter to the governor of Rhode Island. On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of "every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave" that chose to do so, and that "every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free..."[15] The owners of slaves who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an amount equal to the market value of the slave.

A total of 88 slaves enlisted in the regiment over the next four months, as well as some free blacks. The regiment eventually totaled about 225 men; probably fewer than 140 of these were blacks.[16] The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers.

Under Colonel Greene, the regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. The regiment played a fairly minor—but praised—role in the battle, suffering three killed, nine wounded, and eleven missing.[17]

Like most of the Continental Army, the regiment saw little action over the next few years, since the focus of the war had shifted to the south. In 1781, Greene and several of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Loyalists. Greene's body was mutilated by the Loyalists, apparently as punishment for having led black soldiers against them.[18]

Aftermath of the war for African Americans[edit]

On July 21, 1781 , as the final British ship left Savannah, more than 5,000 enslaved African Americans were transported with their Loyalist masters for Jamaica or St. Augustine. Because they were the property of Loyalists, they never gained their freedom from slavery. About 300 blacks in Savannah did not evacuate, fearing that they would be re-enslaved. They established a colony in the swamps of the Savannah River. By 1786, many were back in bondage.

The British evacuation of Charleston in December 1782 included many Loyalists and more than 5,000 blacks. More than half of these were slaves still belonging to Loyalists; they were taken by their masters for resettlement in the West Indies, where the Loyalists started or bought plantations. Freed slaves were also settled in Jamaica and other West Indian islands. Another 500 slaves went to east Florida.[citation needed]

Many of the Loyalist slaves who left rebels to side with the British were promised their freedom. In New York City, which the British occupied, thousands of refugee slaves had crowded into the city to gain freedom. The British created a registry of escaped slaves, called the Book of Negroes. The registry included details of their enslavement, escape and service to the British. If accepted, the former slave received a certificate entitling transport out of New York. By the time the Book of Negroes was closed, it had the names of 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children, who were resettled in Nova Scotia. They were known in Canada as Black Loyalists. About 200 former slaves were taken to London with British forces as free people.[19]

Blacks living in London and Nova Scotia struggled with discrimination and, in Canada, with the more severe climate. Supporters in England organized to establish a colony in West Africa for the resettlement of Poor Blacks of London, most of whom were former American slaves. Freetown was the first settlement established of what became the colony of Sierra Leone. Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia were also asked if they wanted to relocate. Many chose to go to Africa and on January 15, 1792, 1,193 blacks left Halifax for West Africa and a new life. Later the colony was supplemented by Afro-Caribbeans from Jamaica, as well as Africans who were liberated by the British in their intervention in the slave trade, after Britain prohibited it in 1807, followed by the United States in 1808.

The African-American Patriots who gave loyal service to the Continental Army found that the postwar military held no rewards for them. It was much reduced in size and state legislatures, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1784 and 1785, respectively, banned all blacks, free or slave, from military service. Southern states banned all slaves from the militias, but some states, such as North Caroina, allowed free people of color to serve in their militias. In 1792, the United States Congress formally excluded African Americans from military service, allowing only "free able-bodied white male citizens" to serve.[20]

At the time of the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, free black men could vote in five of the thirteen states, including North Carolina. This made them citizens not only of their states but of the United States.[21]

Many slaves who fought did gain freedom, but many others did not. Some owners reneged on their promise to free them for service in the military.

Some African-American descendants of Revolutionary war veterans have been able to document their lineage. Professor Henry Louis Gates and Judge Lawrence W. Pierce, as examples, have joined the Sons of the American Revolution based on documenting male lines of ancestors.

In the first two decades following the Revolution, numerous slaves were freed. In the US as a whole, by 1810 the number of free blacks reached 186,446, or 13.5 percent of all blacks.[22] Northern states abolished slavery by law or in their new constitutions. By 1810, 75 percent of all African Americans in the North were free. By 1840, virtually all African Americans in the North were free.[22]

But in the Upper South, especially, numerous slaveholders were also inspired by the revolution to free their slaves, and Methodist, Baptist and Quaker preachers also urged manumission. The proportion of free blacks in the Upper South increased markedly, from less than one percent of all blacks to more than 10 percent, even as the number of slaves was increasing overall.[23] More than half of the number of free blacks in the United States were concentrated in the Upper South.[23] In Delaware, nearly 75 percent of blacks were free by 1810.[24] After that period, few were freed, as the development of cotton plantations featuring short-staple cotton in the Deep South drove up the internal demand for slaves in the domestic slave trade.[25]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Gary B. Nash, "The African Americans' Revolution," in Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2012), edited by Edward G Gray and Jane Kamensky, pp 250-70
  2. ^ Nash, "The African Americans' Revolution," at p 254
  3. ^ Ray Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution (2001) p 281
  4. ^ Thomas H. O'Connor, The Hub: Boston Past and Present (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001), p. 56 ISBN 1555535445.
  5. ^ "SALEM, April 25". Essex Gazette (Essex, Massachusetts). 25 April 1775. Retrieved 19 April 2015. 
  6. ^ Foner, 43.
  7. ^ Liberty! The American Revolution (Documentary) Episode II:Blows Must Decide: 1774–1776. ©1997 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. ISBN 1-4157-0217-9
  8. ^ The Revolution's Black Soldiers by Robert A. Selig, Ph.D., 2013-2014
  9. ^ Foner, 70.
  10. ^ Foner, 44.
  11. ^ Foner, 47.
  12. ^ Lanning, 145.
  13. ^ Lanning, 148.
  14. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=46syptKcoUUC&pg=PT116#v=onepage&q&f=false
  15. ^ Foner, 205.
  16. ^ Foner, 75–76.
  17. ^ Lanning, 76–77.
  18. ^ Lanning, 79.
  19. ^ Lanning, 161–162.
  20. ^ Lanning, 181.
  21. ^ Abraham Lincoln's Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857.
  22. ^ a b Peter Kolchin (1993), American Slavery, p. 81.
  23. ^ a b Peter Kolchin (1993), American Slavery, pp. 77–78, 81.
  24. ^ Kolchin (1993), American Slavery, p. 78.
  25. ^ Kolchin (1993), American Slavery, p. 87.

Bibliography[edit]

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  • Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011)
  • Foner, Philip. Blacks in the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976 ISBN 0837189462.
  • Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Gilbert, Alan. Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (University of Chicago Press, 2012)
  • Lanning, Michael. African Americans in the Revolutionary War. New York: Kensington Publishing, 2000 ISBN 0806527161.
  • Nash, Gary B. "The African Americans' Revolution," in Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2012) edited by Edward G Gray and Jane Kamensky pp 250-70.
  • Piecuch, Jim. Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (Univ of South Carolina Press, 2008)
  • Quarles, Benjamin.The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961 ISBN 0807846031.
  • Whitfield, Harvey Amani. "Black Loyalists and Black Slaves in Maritime Canada." History Compass 5.6 (2007) pp: 1980-1997.
  • Wood, Gordon. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2002 ISBN 0679640576.
  • Kearse, Gregory S. "The Bucks of America & Prince Hall Freemasonry". Prince Hall Masonic Digest Newspaper, Washington, D.C. ( 2012): 8.