Search this site:

African Americans In The Revolutionary Period

Blacks In The Revolution

Blacks, who understood the literal meaning of patriot rhetoric, eagerly took up the cause of American freedom, fighting bravely in the early confrontations with the British. Though the revolution freed some blacks and set the country on a course toward the abolition of slavery, political accommodation to plantation owners forestalled emancipation for many blacks in the south for 90 more years.

A black man was one of the first martyrs of the patriot cause. Crispus Attucks, apparently a slave who had run away from his owner 20 years before, died in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Though facts were disputed at trials then as now, witnesses said Attucks hit a British officer with a large piece of firewood, grabbed a bayonet and urged the crowd to attack just before the British fired. Attucks and two others were killed while eight were wounded, two mortally.

Blacks served at the battles of Lexington and Concord. Peter Salem, a freed slave, stood on the green at Lexington facing the British when the first battle broke out with the shot that was heard around the world. One of the last men wounded in the battle as the British escaped to Boston was Prince Estabrook, a black man from West Lexington.

At least 20 blacks, including Peter Salem, were in the ranks two months later when the British attacked an American position outside Boston in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Salem has been honored for firing the shot that killed Major John Pitcairn, the British officer who led the Redcoats when they had attacked his small unit at Lexington.

Unable to venture outside Boston and then threatened with cannon surrounding the city, the British left Boston for New York. As the war changed from a Massachusetts endeavor to a broader conflict throughout the colonies, the politics of race changed dramatically.

Blacks had been welcomed in the New England militia, but Congress initially decided against having them in the Continental army. Congress needed support from the South if all the colonies were to win their independence from England. Since southern plantation owners wanted to keep their slaves, they were afraid to give guns to blacks.

Congress ordered all blacks removed from the army, but black veterans appealed directly to George Washington, who took up their cause with John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Blacks serving in the army were allowed to stay, but new enlistments were forbidden.

Though the Declaration of Independence declared that "all men were created equal," many blacks soon saw more opportunity on the British side. The British governor of Virginia promised immediate freedom and wages to any slave who would join the Kings army. Hundreds flocked to the standard of the governor, Lord Dunmore, but he was denied a base on the land by the American forces and many of the blacks who joined him died of smallpox on overcrowded ships.

The loyalties of blacks was a serious issue for the American leaders because blacks made up one-fifth of the two million people in the colonies. With the British soldiers already outnumbering the American troops, and recruitment difficult for the patriots, the northern colonies soon again began to enlist blacks. Rhode Island made up a regiment almost entirely of blacks. As the war continued, colonies as far south as Maryland and Virginia were recruiting free blacks for the American cause.

As the war spread into the South, Congress found it needed to recruit slaves. It offered to pay South Carolina slave owners $1,000 for able-bodied male slaves. The slaves would receive no pay, but would be given $50 and their freedom at the end of the war if they served "well and faithfully." The South Carolina Assembly threatened to leave the war, dooming the plan in the southernmost colonies.

Recruitment of blacks to the American cause continued further north, but the patriots had less success than the British. The offer of immediate freedom extended by Virginias unfortunate loyalist governor was eventually made by the British throughout the colonies. Slaves joined the British by the tens of thousands.

The fate of the loyalist blacks varied considerably. Some were captured by Americans and either returned to their masters or treated as war loot and sold back into slavery. Approximately 20,000 were with the British at the end of the war, taken to Canada or the Caribbean. Some became the founders of the British colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Even though the British offered slaves a better deal, many blacks served on the American side. They made up a sizeable share of the men in the Continental navy, state navies and the large force of American privateers. Blacks had long been in the labor force on ships and at seaports. On the water, then as now, skill counted for more than politics.

Among the blacks fighting on the American side were a large number of troops brought to the continent by the French. These included Henri Christophe, a 12-year-old who was wounded in the fight before Savannah. He later become the liberator and then king of Haiti. Other blacks in the French force who would later gain fame included Martial Besse, who was promoted to general by the French, and Jean-Baptiste Mars Belley, another government leader in Haiti.

The precise role of blacks in the revolution is difficult to quantify. Blacks in those days, generally did not write. The people who did write early histories of the revolution were whites and concentrated on the efforts of white men. Also, many participants in the revolution were not specifically identified by race in the documents of the time and historians now have no way of knowing whether they were black. The owner of Fraunces Tavern was known as "Black Sam," but no one has been able to establish whether he was a black man or whether the nickname was given to him for other reasons.

When blacks were allowed to serve in the American military, they often did work as laborers, sometimes in addition to regular soldier duties. Usually they were privates, though a few rose to command small groups of men.

The words of the Declaration of Independence were taken literally by blacks and some whites. In, 1780, Pennsylvania became the first colony to pass a law phasing out slavery. Children born to slaves after that date were granted their freedom when they reached 28. Other northern states followed. The Superior Court of Massachusetts held in 1783 that slavery violated the state constitution, and New Hampshire also ended slavery by a court ruling. Vermont outlawed slavery and Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation laws. New York outlawed slavery in 1799 and New Jersey followed in 1804. The international slave trade was outlawed in 1808.

Progress then came to a stop. A boom in cotton production spread the slave economy into the lower Mississippi Valley. Slave states were careful to control at least half the political power in the federal government, blocking any national movement against slavery until the Civil War.

Of the blacks who fought in the Revolution, a number of stories of individual heroism have survived. Here are some of them:

JAMES ARMISTEAD LAFAYETTE was an American black who first volunteered to spy on the traitor Benedict Arnold then-serving as a British general. When Arnold left Virginia, Armistead moved to the personal staff of the British general, Lord Cornwallis. Armistead sent a steady stream of intelligence to the Marquis de Lafayette, helping Lafayette to keep Cornwallis bottled up at Yorktown until Washington and the French fleet could arrive to capture the British army and win the war. He was freed and took Lafayettes name for his own after the war.

LAMBERT LATHAM was present as a tiny American fort near Groton, Conn., was overrun by the British. After the American commander surrendered, he was murdered by a British officer. Latham killed the British officer and was in turn killed as the British stabbed him 33 times with their bayonets.

PRINCE WHIPPLE, a black man shown in famous pictures of Washington crossing the Delaware, was the son of a wealthy family in Africa and had been sent to America to get an education. He was enslaved by a dishonest sea captain. In addition to crossing the Delaware with Washington, Whipple successfully fought off two robbers while carrying a large sum of money from Salem to Portsmouth. He was given his freedom after the war.

WILLIAM FLORA, a black freeman, was with a small American force holding Great Bridge near Norfolk. He gained fame for standing his ground and firing eight times as the British overwhelmed the position. Long after the other Americans had fled, Flora made his retreat. He became a leading businessman in Portsmouth after the war.

JAMES FORTEN, a 15-year-old free black, served as a powder boy on the Royal Louis, preying on British shipping. On his second cruise, his ship was battered by three British naval vessels and forced to surrender. As a prisoner, Forten struck up a friendship with the British captains son, who persuaded his father to offer the captured teen-ager a life of ease in England. Forten refused, declaring he would not be a traitor to his country. He was held with 1,000 other prisoners in the ship Jersey anchored near New York. Several prisoners died every day from the horrible conditions. Forten was offered a chance to escape in a chest when an American officer was exchanged for a British prisoner. He gave up his place to allow a younger white boy to escape. After seven months Forten was set free in an exchange of prisoners and walked home to Philadelphia. He became a successful businessman and a leader of the abolition movement.

Thousands of black Soldiers, both slave as well as free, from all 13 coloniesand later, statesfought in the Continental Army during Americas war for independence from Great Britain. Many also served in state militias. Black Soldiers served in every major battle of the war, mostly in integrated units. A notable exception was Americas first all-black unit, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. The regiment defeated three assaults by the British during the battle for Rhode Island in 1778 and later participated in the victory at Yorktown in 1781. About 20 percent of the tens of thousands of blacks who served were manumitted as a result of their service. Many blacks also served on the British side.

Crispus Attucks

On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, an African American, and several other patriots from Boston protested the British curbing of civil liberties in their Massachusetts colony. During a scuffle with British soldiers, Attucks and then several others were shot and killed. Although independence had not yet been officially declared, many consider Attucks the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. The Boston Massacre so incensed the colonist that it greatly helped to foster their spirit of independence from Great Britain. More than 5,000 blacksboth slave and freewould later take up the cause and fight for Americas independence. Unfortunately, freedom for most African Americans would have to wait.

Black Minutemen in Massachusetts

Black Minutemen fought at Lexington and Concord as early as April 1775, but in May of that same year, the Committee for safety of the Massachusetts Legislature presented a resolution that read: "Resolved that it is the opinion of this Committee, as the contest now between Great Britain and the Colonies respects the liberties and privileges of the latter, which the Colonies are determined to maintain, that the admission of any persons, as soldiers, into the army now raising, but only such as are freemen, will be inconsistent with the principles that are to be supported, and reflect dishonor on the colony, and that no slaves be admitted into this army, upon any consideration whatever."

1st Rhode Island Regiment

In July of 1778, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the first all-Black military unit in America, was assembled into service under the commanded of white officers. On August 29, 1778, they fought in the battle of Rhode Island on Aquidneck Island. They successfully held their line for four hours against British-Hessian assaults, enabling the entire American Army to escape a trap. The regiment saw further service during the Revolutionary War, including Yorktown. At Yorktown, on the night of October 14, 1781, they took part in the assault and capture of Redoubt 10. Unfortunately, unlike their white counterparts, these Black American soldiers did not receive any compensation for their service after the war. Some Americans realized the irony of enslaved Blacks fighting under the banner of the Declaration of Independence. As Henry Laurens of South Carolina stated, "(I am not) one of those who dare trust in Providence for defense and security of their own liberty while they enslave and wish to continue in slavery thousands who are as well entitled to freedom as themselves." A monument to their courage was erected in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

American Revolution - Slavery was practiced in every colony in 1775."How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" Samuel Johnson, the great English writer and dictionary maker, posed this question in 1775. He was among the first, but certainly not the last, to contrast the noble aims of the American Revolution with the presence of 450,000 enslaved African Americans in the 13 colonies. Slavery was practiced in every colony in 1775, but it was crucial to the economy and social structure from the Chesapeake region south to Georgia. Slave labor produced the great export crops of the South-tobacco, rice, indigo, and naval stores. Bringing slaves from Africa and the West Indies had made settlement of the New World possible and highly profitable. Who could predict what breaking away from the British Empire might mean for black people in America?

The British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, quickly saw the vulnerability of the South's slaveholders. In November 1775, he issued a proclamation promising freedom to any slave of a rebel who could make it to the British lines. Dunmore organized an "Ethiopian" brigade of about 300 African Americans, who saw action at the Battle of Great Bridge (December 9, 1775). Dunmore and the British were soon expelled from Virginia, but the prospect of armed former slaves fighting alongside the British must have struck fear into plantation masters across the South.

African Americans in New England rallied to the patriot cause and were part of the militia forces that were organized into the new Continental Army. Approximately 5 percent of the American soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) were black. New England blacks mostly served in integrated units and received the same pay as whites, although no African American is known to have held a rank higher than corporal.

It has been estimated that at least 5,000 black soldiers fought on the patriot side during the Revolutionary War. The exact number will never be known because eighteenth century muster rolls usually did not indicate race. Careful comparisons between muster rolls and church, census, and other records have recently helped identify many black soldiers. Additionally, various eyewitness accounts provide some indication of the level of African Americans' participation during the war. Baron von Closen, a member of Rochambeau's French army at Yorktown, wrote in July 1781, "A quarter of them [the American army] are Negroes, merry, confident and sturdy."

The use of African Americans as soldiers, whether freemen or slaves, was avoided by Congress and General Washington early in the war. The prospect of armed slave revolts proved more threatening to white society than British redcoats. General Washington allowed the enlistment of free blacks with "prior military experience" in January 1776, and extended the enlistment terms to all free blacks in January 1777 in order to help fill the depleted ranks of the Continental Army. Because the states constantly failed to meet their quotas of manpower for the army, Congress authorized the enlistment of all blacks, free and slave, in 1777. Of the southern states, only Maryland permitted African Americans to enlist. In 1779, Congress offered slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provided to the army, but the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Thus, the greatest number of African American soldiers in the American army came from the North.

Although most Continental regiments were integrated, a notable exception was the elite First Rhode Island. Mustered into service in July 1778, the First Rhode Island numbered 197 black enlisted men commanded by white officers. Baron von Closen described the regiment as "the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers." The regiment received its baptism of fire at the battle of Rhode Island (Newport) on August 29, 1778, successfully defeating three assaults by veteran Hessian troops. At the siege of Yorktown, on the night of October 14, 1781, the regiment's light company participated in the assault and capture of Redoubt 10. On June 13, 1783, the regiment was disbanded, receiving high praise for its service. Another notable black unit, recruited in the French colony of St. Domingue (present-day Haiti), fought with the French and patriots at the Battle of Savannah (October 9, 1779).

When the British launched their southern campaign in 1780, one of their aims was to scare Americans back to the crown by raising the fear of massive slave revolts. The British encouraged slaves to flee to their strongholds, promising ultimate freedom. The strategy backfired, as slave owners rallied to the patriot cause as the best way to maintain order and the plantation system. Tens of thousands of African Americans sought refuge with the British, but fewer than 1,000 served as soldiers. The British made heavy use of the escapees as teamsters, cooks, nurses, and laborers. At the war's conclusion, some 20,000 blacks left with the British, preferring an uncertain future elsewhere to a return to their old masters. American blacks ended up in Canada, Britain, the West Indies, and Europe. Some were sold back into slavery. In 1792, 1,200 black loyalists who had settled in Nova Scotia left for Sierra Leone, a colony on the west coast of Africa established by Britain specifically for former slaves.

The Revolution brought change for some American blacks, although nothing approaching full equality. The courageous military service of African Americans and the revolutionary spirit ended slavery in New England almost immediately. The middle states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey adopted policies of gradual emancipation from 1780 to 1804. Many of the founders opposed slavery in principle (including some whose wealth was largely in human property). Individual manumissions increased following the Revolution. Still, free blacks in both the North and South faced persistent discrimination in virtually every aspect of life, notably employment, housing, and education. Many of the founders hoped that slavery would eventually disappear in the American South. When cotton became king in the South after 1800, this hope died. There was just too much profit to be made working slaves on cotton plantations. The statement of human equality in the Declaration of Independence was never entirely forgotten, however. It remained as an ideal that could be appealed to by civil rights activists through the following decades.

American Revolution - Slaves assemble wooden barrels.Salem Poor: "A Brave and Gallant Soldier"

In the Massachusetts State Archives is a petition to the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, stating that in the "late Battle at Charlestown," a man from Colonel Frye's Regiment "behaved like an experienced officer" and that in this man "centers a brave and gallant soldier." This document, dated December of 1775, just six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, is signed by fourteen officers who were present at the battle, including Colonel William Prescott. Of the 2,400 to 4,000 colonists who participated in the battle, no other man is singled out in this manner.

This hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill is Salem Poor of Andover, Massachusetts. Although documents show that Poor, along with his regiment and two others, were sent to Bunker Hill to build a fort and other fortifications on the night of June 16, 1775, we have no details about just what Poor did to earn the praise of these officers. The petition simply states "to set forth the particulars of his conduct would be tedious." Perhaps his heroic deeds were too many to mention.

Few details of this hero's life are available to us. Born a slave in the late 1740s, Poor managed to buy his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds, which represented a year's salary for the typical working man. He married Nancy, a free African American woman, and they had a son. Salem Poor left his wife and child behind in May 1775 and fought for the patriot cause at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Monmouth. We can only speculate about the motives for Poor's sacrifice: was it patriotism, a search for new experience, or the prospect of a new and better life? The Battle of Bunker Hill was a daring and provocative act against established authority; all who participated could well have been hanged for treason. Shut out from many opportunities in colonial society, Salem Poor chose to fight for an independent nation. In the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the bravery of Poor and other African American soldiers "has a peculiar beauty and merit."

To learn more:

Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).

Related Topics

Home | Site Map

Visit our other sites: African Americans | American Revolution | American Indians | Bill of Rights | Buffalo Soldiers | Congressional Gold Medal | Defense of Freedom Medal | History Hotline | Historical Documents | Homework Hotline | Iraqi War | Korean War | Medal Of Honor | Medal of Freedom | Medal of Valor | Native Americans | Outlaw Women | 1st Amendment | Spanish American War | Terrorism Medal | U S Constitution | Vietnam War

© 1996-2005 Americans.net. Privacy Policy - Disclaimer