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African Americans Roles In The Revolutionary War History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

At the time of the Revolutionary War, the African American population in the colonies was approximately 500,000, which was about 20 percent of the total population. The history of the military roles of African Americans in the War for Independence is one that was rarely acknowledged until several decades after the war was over. The documents detailing how many African American men served, whether they were free or slave, where they served, and what their duties were are incomplete. What research has shown is telling about the culture of the time period and especially telling about the better part of the century that followed. It is difficult to estimate the number of African Americans who fought for both the Continental Army and the British Royal Army. The numbers people get are a general estimate given by what was actually documented and what historians have acquired through analysis of letters, diaries, and similar sources. African Americans participated in the War for Independence from the beginning to its conclusion, they did so in hopes that the freedoms their white counterparts would gain would also apply to them. Even though many knew that would not be the case they still fought praying that one day their efforts then would get them freedom. The right to fight was given and taken away at several points throughout the war. However, when African Americans were granted the right to fight, those willing to fight were never in short supply. Historians have estimated that at least 5,000 black soldiers fought for independence during the Revolutionary War. Among those African Americans that fought for independence would have undoubtedly been Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave living in Massachusetts in 1770. However, years before the first shots of the Revolution were fired, on March 5, 1770, five people were shot and killed, including Crispus Attucks, at the hands of the British Royal Army during what became known as the “Boston Massacre.”

Just over a month before the first shots of the war were fired, on March 5, 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren spoke about the Boston Massacre and how the ideology of liberty was not only thought by whites but by all people:

That personal freedom is the natural right of every man, and that property, or exclusive right to dispose of what he has honestly acquired by his own labor, necessarily arises therefrom, are truths which common sense has placed beyond the reach of contradiction. And no man, or body of men, can, without being guilty of flagrant injustice, claim a right to dispose of the persons or acquisitions of any other man or body of men, unless it can be proved that such a right has arisen from some compact between the parties, in which it has been explicitly and freely granted. [1] 

However, it must be noted that Dr. Joseph Warren was from Massachusetts, a “hotbed” for Patriots and also where only four percent of the population was African American. [2] Yet even in Massachusetts the legislature agreed to reject all African Americans from enlisting when the chances of an uprising occurring were extremely slight. Connecticut and Rhode Island followed suit and agreed to reject African Americans, at least for the first years of war. [3] 

For the first part of the war, many citizens operated under the ideology of staying true to their prejudices rather than realizing the practicality of using African American soldiers. Prejudice towards African Americans came from many citizens, including the President George Washington. Early on in George Washington’s life he believed that “white blood not only lightened the skin but enlightened the mind, and he preferred to employ “yellow-skinned” servants within his home.” [4] Unfortunately, his beliefs mirrored that of many others in the area. Others saw African Americans as “savages,” and as property so how could they possibly fight alongside actual people? [5] On the other side of the coin there were people who saw African Americans as humans but with the conflict at hand taking up so much energy, they did not believe that it was the time to discuss slavery which could cause fighting among the states. Regrettably, that divisive issue only gave the British a leg up in the conflict. Even though remaining true to one’s prejudices was widely practiced, it never stopped African Americans from wanting to fight for the cause.

African Americans fought on both sides for many of the same reasons. Freedom was the number one driving factor for the African American slave in which side they fought for, either the Continental or Royal Army. Free African Americans, at times, were recruited but many chose to enlist. African American men, free or enslaved, chose which side to fight on based on what each side offered. The side was chosen by who offered them a better life after the war in many cases.

In Massachusetts, “the Committee of Safety reported to the Provincial Congress in May 1775 that … Admission of any persons but freemen as soldiers would be inconsistent with principles being supported and would reflect dishonor on the colony.” [6] That report, however, made no mention of what they would do with free African Americans. “However, when George Washington was given command of the troops around Boston, he issued orders to recruiting officers that prohibited enlistment of any Negro. … In the Continental Congress in September 1775, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina demanded that Washington discharge all blacks…but failed to receive the necessary votes from other representatives.” [7] On October 8, 1775, the Council of War convened to discuss several issues concerning the Continental Army. Those in the council included such men as Commander in Chief, George Washington, several Major-Generals: Ward, Lee, and Putnam, as well as many Brigadier-Generals: Thomas, Spencer, Heath, Sullivan, Green, and Gates. Among the issues discussed was whether or not to allow African Americans to enlist or re-enlist in the Continental Army, and if they were to allow them to do so, would free men as well as slaves be allowed to enlist. The council’s decision: “Agreed, unanimously, to reject all slaves, and, by a great majority, to reject Negroes altogether.” [8] However, there were some dissenting opinions in the council, as was the case with General Thomas. In a letter from General Thomas to John Adams, written in the same month the Council of War convened, Thomas wrote: “We have some negroes; but I look on them, in general, as equally serviceable with other men for fatigue; and in action many of them have proved themselves brave.” [9] Approximately twenty days later, George Washington issued a General Order stating: “Any person therefore (Negroes excepted, which the Congress do not incline to inlist again) coming with a proper Order and will subscribe the Inlistment, shall be immediately supplied.” [10] Again, on November 12, 1775, Washington issued another General Order to make sure all recruiters were aware of his previous decision. The Order stated: “Neither Negroes, Boys unable to bare Arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be inlisted.” [11] 

Several whites in the Southern colonies held a deep opposition to African Americans (free or enslaved) enlisting in the Continental Army, because they feared the idea of them being armed. Whites in the South also feared armed African American men because of the possibility of a slave rebellion and the possibility of losing their slaves which they saw as property. The British Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore of Virginia, readily saw the weakness in the colonies of slaveholders in the South. In November 1775, he issued a proclamation stating:

I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given, by his majesty, determine to execute martial law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this colony; and to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms, to resort to his majesty’s standard, or be looked upon as traitors to his majesty’s crown and government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offences… And I do hereby further declare all indentured servants, negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his majesty’s troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty to his majesty’s crown and dignity…. [12] 

Lord Dunmore promised freedom to any slave of anyone the Majesty would consider a “rebel.” However, similar to the colonies, allowing African Americans to enlist in the British Royal Army was not completely unanimous. Many of the free or runaway African Americans who had joined the loyalists, at least those who had not already died, were discharged from their positions.

However, a month and a half after Washington’s General Order was issued and Lord Dunmore’s “game changing” proclamation was issued, Washington wrote a letter to the President of Congress, John Hancock:

It has been represented to me, that the free Negroes who have served in this Army, are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial Army, I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them and have given licence for their being enlisted, If this is disapproved by Congress I shall put a stop to it. [13] 

In September of 1776, the Continental Congress required states to come up with 88 battalions to assist the Continental Army. At that point their resources where almost completely exhausted and when the Continental Congress requested another 16 battalions, recruiting African American became a crucial necessity. The Revolutionary War set a precedent for allowing African Americans to enlist or be recruited only in times of dire need. As the war went on officers easily recognized the need to enlist African Americans, otherwise their troops would continue to dwindle and that would ultimately mean the war would be lost to the Tories. Clearly, that was not an option.

African Americans, for the most part, took on the beliefs of the cause as their own. Just because the color of their skin was different did not mean they did not believe in liberty, quite the contrary in fact. Lemuel Haynes, a free African American man from New England, who was also one the minutemen at Lexington and Concord, wrote to Congress in 1776 on the matter of liberty. In his letter, Haynes writes:

To affirm, that an Englishman has a right to his Liberty, is a truth which has Been so clearly Evinced, … But I query, whether Liberty is so contracted a principle as to be Confin’d to any nation under Heaven; nay, I think it not hyperbolical to affirm, that Even and affrican, has Equally as good a right to his Liberty in common with Englishmen… Consequently we may suppose, that what is precious to one man, is precious to another,… Therefore we may reasonably Conclude, that Liberty is Equally as precious to a Black man, as it is to a white one. [14] 

Haynes, like many other African American men, hoped that his faithful service to the Continental Army would prove to whites who were in disbelief that they, too, deserved the unalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence. [15] Haynes later went on to become the first African American clergymen to be formally ordained, as well as marry a white woman and have nine children. [16] 

African Americans experienced greater racial equality while serving in the Continental Navy than they did while serving in the army. That being the case, many African American men served in the navy during the Revolutionary War, doing so for several reasons. The ever present manpower shortages of the time, not only on land but also at sea, caused both the Continental Navy and Royal Navy to enlist African Americans into the navy. Different from the Continental Army, the Navy recruited both free and enslaved African American from the start of the war. The Navy did this mostly because they were in need of sailors, no matter what color they were. To both the enslaved and free, privately owned ships were more attractive than the Continental or state navies. For runaway slaves, there was less chance of being caught, and in general, the pay was much better than the army. However, African Americans still served in and on both because the pay was good, being roughly equal to the pay for white sailors. Not only was the pay generally equal, the majority of the Navies ships had crews that were integrated. [17] On ships African Americans gratefully accepted roles whites were not willing to accept. Some of their duties included cooking, cleaning, managing the ships sails, mending any damages the ship sustained in battles. [18] However, there were also African American sailors that served in marine units from Pennsylvania and Connecticut for example, and as ship pilots, mainly coming from Maryland and Virginia. [19] 

The First Rhode Island regiment …

Peter Salem was born into slavery; however, one of his owners freed him so he could enlist in the Continental Army. [20] He became one of the Minutemen; he fought at Concord, Bunker Hill where he was credited for firing the shot that killed a British Major, Saratoga, and Stony Point. (CITE)

Salem Poor who was born free, is another excellent example of bravery and willingness to fight on the part of African Americans. Salem Poor fought at Bunker Hill where he shot a British Lieutenant. It was there at Bunker Hill where Poor earned the respect of several white officers who stated:

That a negro called Salem Poor, of Col. Frye’s regiment, Capt. Ames’ company, in the late battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier, to set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious, we only beg leave to say, in the person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to Congress. [21] 

Without a doubt there are many other stories expressing great examples of gallantry and courage from African Americans that served in the Revolutionary War, unfortunately, the color of their skin, at the time, dictated what and how much was documented about them.

Public acknowledgment for their service to the country did not come out until well over half a century after the war had concluded and while another war was in full swing. The Army and Navy Journal published an article in September of 1863 on “Negro Soldiers in the Revolution.” The article stated:

The record is clear, that from the beginning to the conclusion of the war of the Revolution, Negroes served in the Continental armies with intelligence, courage, and steadfastness; and that important results in several instances are directly traceable to their good conduct. [22] 

For their service in the military, only a few African Americans received some kind of acknowledgment. The great majority, even though serving their country with courage and bravery, stayed out of the spotlight.

Without the participation of African Americans in the Revolutionary War, especially on the side of the Patriots, the outcome may have been drastically different. African American soldiers of the Revolution served with the same bravery and courage as their white brothers. They served that way even knowing that they might not be able to enjoy the freedoms over which the war was fought.

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