Black Americans have a long and distinguished history of military service. They participated in every colonial war from 1690 through the French and Indian War (1754-1763) as soldiers, sailors, laborers, scouts, and spies. Blacks generally served in integrated units and earned the same pay as whites. Even slaves served in the army and were paid although their enlistment compelled them to surrender some portion of this money to their owners.
In the early Revolutionary War battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, free and enslaved Blacks fought shoulder to shoulder with white patriots. However, by the summer of 1775, under pressure from Southern plantation owners, General George Washington and the Continental Congress opposed the further enlistment of free blacks and slaves. Historians James and Lois Horton state that southern planters were “well aware of African-Americans desire for freedom, and most feared insurrection should slaves gain access to guns.”
The British were more willing to accept Blacks both as soldiers and non combatants. Historian Kait Picco notes the British saw at least three advantages to channeling the “enthusiasm for rebellion” on the part of slaves: 1) they hoped the very thought of a slave uprising might pacifiy the colonists; 2) that the desertion of slaves would prove to be a significant economic hardship; and 3) that escaped slaves could be an asset to the British military in its campaign to defeat the rebels. For example, runaway slaves with an intimate knowledge of the back country were invaluable to the British Army.
Historians estimate that during the war between 75,000 and 100,000 slaves sought freedom via going over to the British. Most came from Virginia (at least 30 from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation), South Carolina, and Georgia. Approximately one thousand of these men and women served in the British military with females typically working as nurses and cooks.
On November 7th, 1775, Governor John Murray of Virginia (whose title was Lord Dunmore) issued a proclamation stating that he would free black and white “bondsmen” (slaves) who would fight for the British. A slave owner himself, Dunmore offered freedom only to those slaves belonging to rebels planters. Within a month approximately 300 men had joined Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment” and wore uniforms inscribed with “Liberty to Slaves.” By the summer of 1776, the regiment had grown to 800 men, most of whom would die of disease (primarily smallpox) on Gwynn’s Island where they were stationed.
Historian Robert Selig argues the slaves who responded to Dunmore’s offer “were not necessarily pro-British; first and foremost they were pro-black, prepared to support the side that held out the greatest hope for them to improve their lot. That side was the British…” No doubt many of the slaves who fought for King George asked themselves the same question the great English writer Samuel Johnson posed: “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”
This contradiction between the goal of political freedom for the colonies and the reality of black slavery was recognized by many individuals, including Abigail Adams. In 1774 the future First Lady wrote to husband, John: “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right o freedom as we have.”
George Washington thought Dunmore’s decree encouraging slaves to fight for the British could mak him “the most dangerous man in America.” As a consequence of this decree and some early British victories, on December 31st, 1775, Washington partially reversed his stance and stated that he was permitting the enlistment of free blacks but not slaves. By 1777, most states either as result of specific legislation or the reversal of existing policies, began to enlist both free blacks and slaves. A 1776 New York law permitted blacks to take the place of whites who had been drafted.
In 1778, Rhode Island was having difficulty meeting its quota of troops set by the Continental Congress. The state Assembly voted to allow “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” to enlist, and “immediately upon discharge from the service of his master or mistress, be absolutely free…” Slave owners would be compensated by the state for the market value of the slave. Approximately 140 of the 225 men who enlisted in the First Rhode Island Regiment (FRIR) under this statute were black. This was one of the few racially segregated military units during the Revolutionary War.
In service for five years, the FRIR was part of Continental forces at the battles of Fort Oswego, Red Bank, Saratoga, and Yorktown among others. At the Battle of Newport in 1778, reinforcements failed to arrive and the Continental Army retreated under a fierce enemy attack. The FRIR positioned itself between retreating American units and advancing Hessian mercenary forces repelling three enemy charges. The all black unit inflicted five casualties upon Hessian forces for every one casualty its members suffered.
When the FRIR was demobilized in Saratoga in June, 1783, its commander, Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney praised his troops for their “valor and good conduct.” Olney stated that he regretted these men for whom he felt “the most affectionate regard and esteem” would leave the military without the pay still owed to them. After the war Olney fought attempts to re-enslave some of his former soldiers. He also supported claims for the recovery of their back pay and pensions.
Other all black units included two companies from Massachusetts (one called the “Bucks of America”) and one from Connecticut. These black units were commanded by white officers. The distinguished African-American historian, John Franklin Hope, notes that by 1778 George Washington had “completely accepted the idea of blacks as soldiers…”
Historians James and Lois Horton note that while the enlistment of slaves was generally accepted in the North, Southern states were opposed to this policy. The Continental Congress urged South Carolina and Georgia to raise a slave army of 3,000 “able bodied men” to be commanded by white officers. The soldiers were to be “standard size” males under 35 years of age for which slave owners would be compensated at a rate of $1,000 per man. Black soldiers would not be paid, but receive $50 and gain their freedom at the end of the war. South Carolina refused to raise a black battalion with the legislature stating: “We are much disgusted here at the Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves, it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step.”
General Washington was equally disgusted with Georgia and South Carolina for refusing to allow blacks to enlist. “That spirit of freedom which at the commencement of this contest,” he wrote, “would have sacrificed everything to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place.”
During the course of the war almost 400,000 men enlisted in the Continental Army and state militias. However, because of thousands of deaths from disease, high rates of desertion, and short periods of enlistment (sometimes only three months) there were never more than 35,000 men on active duty at one time. Although military rosters from that period have been destroyed (and did not indicate race), historians estimate that at least 5,000 African-American soldiers served in the Revolutionary War. Black soldiers froze, starved, and died along with their white colleagues during the winter of 1777-78 as Washington’s 11,000 man army endured a brutal winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Blacks fighting along side whites was so common that a Hessian officer stated: “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied, strong and brave fellows.” Glenn Williams, Senior Historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, notes that African-Americans served in almost every unit in every Revolutionary War battle from Concord to Fort Ticonderoga to Trenton and Yorktown.
Unlike the army, the Continental Navy recruited both free and enslaved blacks from the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Historian Jonathan Sutherland states that if given the choice, blacks opted to serve in state navies or on privateers rather than the Continental Navy as the former paid better and were more egalitarian. Blacks were among the crews of ships that defended the coastal waters of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Many slaves who sided with the British served on ships with the Royal Navy. Kait Picco states that blacks on both sides of the war served as pilots, ordinary seamen, gunner’s mates, and carpenters.
With the end of the war and a provisional peace treaty signed in 1782, Sir Guy Carleton, the acting commander of British forces, refused to abandon black loyalists to a life of slavery in the newly independent nation. In New York, the British created a “Book of Negroes,” a registry that included details of the enslavement, escape, and service to the British of 3,000 blacks. If a claim was believed, an individual received a certificate granting passage from New York City. In 1788, most of the blacks on this registry along with 27,000 white loyalists were transported to Nova Scotia where they began a new life.
Few blacks received the land promised them and were forced by economic necessity to work as farm hands and domestics for white loyalists, many of whom were former slave owners. After seven years of scratching out a living in an often bitterly cold and socially hostile environment, approximately one-third of the black settlers accepted an offer from a British company and relocated to the west African country of Sierra Leone where they helped establish the community of Freetown.
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War about 15,000 black men, women, and children sailed from New York, Charleston, and Savannah. While free blacks who had served the British Army were taken to Nova Scotia and England, most former slaves were sent to Florida, Jamaica, and Nassau where they would be re-enslaved under new masters.
Many blacks who fought in the Continental Army and state militias were granted freedom after the war. However, others were returned to involuntary servitude by slave owners who reneged on promises to exchange military service for freedom. In 1792, the lone institution in American society – the military – that offered anything close to racial equality, now limited service exclusively to white males. Kait Picco notes Blacks discovered that both the American and British armies enlisted their service for the sole purpose of winning the war and “not to enact social change.”
While social change may not have been a goal of the Continental Army and naval forces in recruiting black soldiers and sailors, the Revolutionary War gave a significant boost to fledgling anti-slavery movements. Historian John Hope Franklin states “that it was no mere coincidence” that when the Battle of Lexington was fought some of the first anti-slavery organizations were formulating plans for action.
Even before the end of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania made provisions to gradually abolish slavery. After the conflict anti-slavery groups were formed in every state from Massachusetts to Virginia. Some of these organizations sought to abolish the slave trade while others worked to prevent the deportation of blacks from their states. In Boston, white families received city funds to educate their children; blacks asked for equal treatment. In 1780, seven blacks petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for the right to vote stating that taxation meant representation.
In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance – which created the Northwest Territory and later the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin – stated: “There shall be neither slavery not involuntary servitude in said territory.”
Recalling the struggle with England for independence, Pennsylvanians said that as gratitude for the colonists victory they were extending a measure of their freedom to others “who though of a different color, are the work of the same Almighty hand.”
Illustration: Portrait of a black American Revolutionary War sailor by an unknown artist, c.1780 (Original in the Newport Historical Society).