Fighting Their Way to Freedom

Fighting Their Way to Freedom

In addition to filing freedom petitions and writing pamphlets advocating for the abolition of slavery, African Americans fought for their freedom during the colonial and revolutionary era by serving in the military. African and African American men, enslaved and free, from the South and the North, served in every war of consequence during the colonial period. Sometimes slaveholders sent enslaved men to the front to fight in their place or to do the menial labor entailed in building fortifications and supporting fighting troops. In other cases, African runaways posed as free persons in order to serve on ships or to enlist as soldiers. The newspapers of the colonial period often mention these facts in their advertisements of fugitive slaves.

Before the Revolution, between 1675 and 1739, the southern colonies were almost constantly involved in fighting Native Americans or the Spanish. Southern planters were hesitant about arming Africans, as evidenced by the legislation they passed prohibiting “Negro[es], mulatto[s] or Indian[s] from the military or bearing arms.”

However, expedience required that equally as often the Virginians and South Carolina planters recruited black men to fight in a militia or serve as “pioneers”, or “slave cowboys” to protect their settlements. In 1703, the South Carolina assembly offered to free any slave who captured or killed hostile Native Americans. Beginning as early as 1705, free blacks became eligible for enrollment in the militia. Unlike white persons, they were required to muster for service without bringing arms. Several acts passed by the colonial assembly between 1723 and 1757, said that black men could serve as drummers, fifers, trumpeters, or “pioneers,” but not as regular soldiers (Jackson 1942:251). The rank of “pioneer” gave them a special place as laborers and menial servants. Many were freed for their services, but not all.

During the Revolutionary War some Africans and African Americans fought on the side of the patriots while others fought on the side of the Loyalists. All enslaved people fought in order to gain freedom. (3)

Black Loyalists in the Revolutionary War

Drawing of a single black man dressed in leggings and a frock that is belted at the waist. The words 'Liberty to Slaves is blazed onto the top of the frock. The man also wears a brimmed hat, and is carrying a coat in one hand and a sword in the other.
A member of Dunmore’s “Ethiopian” or black regiment that fought for the British or loyalist side during the Revolutionary War.Figure 4-5: Ethiopian Regiment Uniform by Bantarleton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The British made the first move to enlist black soldiers. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the British colonial governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that all slaves belonging to rebels would be received into the British forces and freed for their services. African Americans ran away to fight with the British in search of promised freedom for their services. Dunmore organized an “Ethiopian” regiment of about 300 African Americans, who saw action at the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775. (4)

The hope of freedom in return for service led many enslaved African Americans to leave the plantation to follow the British Army. No exact statistics are available on the number of enslaved people who reached British sanctuaries, but Thomas Jefferson estimated the number at 30,000 in 1778 alone (Tate 1865:119). In South Carolina, some 5,000 enslaved people left the plantation to follow the British. The British confiscated other enslaved people from patriots. The British organized the Africans following them as laborers, paying them small sums in principal, although they charged them for clothes and upkeep, thus leaving them with little actual monetary gain. The act of paying for labor defused the potential for rebellion and led to many courageous acts on the part of black people.

During the final months of the British Occupation of South Carolina, in 1781, General Leslie Clark formed black men into unit called Leslie’s “Black Dragoons.”

From the patriots’ point of view, one historian comments, “The knowledge that hundreds of self-liberated slaves were in possession of weapons caused resentment and detestation (Frey 1991:125–167).” The British went on to form autonomous “Negro” units for service in Florida and the West Indies. Their service convinced others that the best solution to British military problems in the West Indies was to enlist slaves by offering them freedom. The British subsequently sent black regiments for service in Saint Domingue during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (Frey 1991). (3)

At the war’s end in 1783, some 20,000 blacks left with the British, preferring an uncertain future elsewhere to returning to their old masters and plantations. (4) They hoped that the British government would uphold the promise of freedom and help them establish new homes elsewhere in the Empire. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, demanded that British troops leave runaway slaves behind, but the British military commanders upheld earlier promises and evacuated thousands of freedmen, transporting them to Canada, the Caribbean, or Great Britain. They would eventually play a role in settling Nova Scotia, and through the subsequent efforts of David George, a black loyalist and Baptist preacher, some settled in Sierra Leone, in Africa. Black loyalists, however, continued to face social and economic marginalization, including restrictions on land ownership within the British Empire. (2)

Black Patriots in the Revolutionary War

In the 1850s, the free black abolitionist, William C. Nell of Boston, published the nation’s first histories of African Americans that addressed the military service on the Patriot side during the American Revolution. In his 1855 publication, Colored Patriots of the American Revolution , he singled out Crispus Attucks, a black man of African and Native American ancestry who worked on whaling ships in Massachusetts, as the first man to die in the American fight for independence. Five years before war broke out between colonists and Britain, Attucks had been one of five Americans killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Attucks became something of martyr and a symbol of British oppression. A century after the massacre, a Massachusetts poet honored and memorialized Attucks in a long poem that praised him as the “first to defy, and the first to die.” (Carson, Lapansky-Werner & Nash, 2019, p.98) (1)

Scene of a fight between colonists with clubs on the left and British soldiers with long guns and bayonets on the right. A black man (Attucks) falls backward while griping a British soldier's long gun at the center of the image.
A lithograph created by John Bufford made during the mid-nineteenth century depicting the Boston Massacre of 1770. Crispus Attucks is shown in the center foreground of the image after being shot by a British solider.Figure 4-6: Boston Massacre by John H. Bufford is in the Public Domain .

Despite the patriotic fervor Attucks’s death may have inspired, far fewer black people fought alongside the Americans against the British during the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, some black men 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 none held a rank higher than corporal.

Historians estimate that about 5,000 black soldiers ultimately fought on the patriot side. 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 black men as soldiers, whether freemen or slaves, was avoided early in the war by Congress and George Washington, General of the Continental Army. The prospect of armed slave revolts proved more threatening to white American 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 black 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). (4)

In Maryland the other part of the Chesapeake region, black men were not considered to be among the optional sources for filling quotas in the Continental Army or the militia units until enlistment shortfalls made it expedient to broaden the base of eligible persons. A “Return of the Negroes in the Army, August 24, 1778” indicates there were about 95 “Negroes” among the Maryland troops. However, finding the identification of these men is difficult because they were rarely identified by race on muster rolls. By 1780 Maryland was ready to accept enlistments from any source and more “negroes” enlisted. In 1781 Charles Carroll wrote his father “we shall pass a law tomorrow for raising a Negro regiment of 750—every person having six Negroes between fourteen and forty-five years of age may have a Negro taken from him if the Negro should be willing to enlist for the war (Maryland State Archives, 84:297 as cited by Kreinheder and Schmidt 2001:121).

The North Carolina General Assembly initiated a draft in 1777 providing “that all men within the ages of 16 and 50 were liable to serve…[in the Continental Army]…or find an able bodied man to take their place” There were no color qualifications made in the act. The fact that men of “mixed colors” participated in North Carolina military units is evident from many sources (Schmidt 2001:159).

Georgia, not even 50 years a colony at the onset of the War, had about 18,000 enslaved people in its population even though they declared their “abhorrence of the unnatural practice on slavery,” in their 1775 declaration of support for the patriots in Boston and Massachusetts and for the Revolutionary War to come. Georgia used the conflict to try to improve relationships with Native Americans in the colony. The Georgia records of minorities’ service in the military are not always clear. The National Society of the daughters of the American Revolution authenticated records identify four “Black” soldiers and one “Indian” soldier from Georgia (2001:1181–182). The Revolutionary War was not exclusively a “Man’s World.” Four women have been authenticated in southern colonial records of Africans and Indians serving in the Revolutionary War. Sarah, a “Black” woman, worked in the lead mines of Virginia, Catherine the Grenadier, also known as the Shawnee woman, served in the Continental Army as did Nancy Ward another Native American woman from North Carolina. Patty was a “Black” seamstress, whose name is found in the papers of Henry Laurens, performed military service for South Carolina (African American and American Indian Patriots of the American Revolution, 2001:148, 153,166, 182).

After the war, the black soldiers and seamen of Virginia were liberally rewarded in money, land bounties, and granted them pensions. In common with other states, Virginia also provided for the manumission of some slaves who fought. However, they had to petition the courts to gain freedom and were not successful until ten or more years after the struggle. In the next century, the children of African American Revolutionary War veterans who did not receive land, petitioned the State of Virginia for land, and received it (Jackson 1942). (3)