Even though during the American Revolution, African Americans made up about 20 of the entire population, there have been few texts written to explain the role of African Americans in the war for that searched for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the consequences of said war on those most deprived of such “unalienable rights.”
Since the arrival of the first African slaves to the 13 colonies until de 1970’s, the black population increased significantly. The population grew steadily during most of the seventeenth century, yet the growth accelerated between 1690 and 1720, where it began to outnumber the white population. By 1720 the black population compromised 10% of the regional population increasing most drastically in South Carolina. With such a big black population in America during the Revolutionary War, it is inevitable to wonder: What part did African Americans partake in the Revolutionary War and how did this Revolution affect slavery?
Historians estimate that around 5000 blacks serviced in the Revolutionary War. (Kusmer, 1991). Before the revolution began, in individual colonies, blacks (free and enslaved) were included in militia laws. Due to the ties with England, by law, a community was obligated to maintain a small militia force of men between 16 and 50 years old. Therefore, all people (blacks, Indians and white) were forced to join training for the militia. Later in colonial history, blacks were prohibited from joining the militia due to the increase in number and a fear of rebellion. (Kusmer, 1991).
After the Massacre that occurred in Boston, the relations between Britain and the colonies worsened at a tremendous rate. The Intolerable Acts against Massachusetts were preceded by the Boston Tea Party and later, finally, the rebellion began. During the opening battles of the war (Lexington and Concord) blacks were present. Their prescience led the leaders of the Revolution to re-think the situation regarding black enlistment. Said leaders were divided among too major groups: some believed African Americans were “too stupid” to be included in the military and some felt anxious about arming them (Holton, 1997). However, when the command of troops in Boston was ceded to George Washington, he gave clear and precise orders to his enlisting officers. African American enlistment was prohibited, unless they had family and were settled as residents. Despite his efforts to allow African Americans into the battle ground, On October 8, 1775, the Committee Council of Massachusetts Bay, voted to reject black enlistment in the army. (Quarles, 1961). During the six months subsequent to the opening battles, the war was fought mostly in Northern territory. Until, on October 26, 1775, British naval vessels attacked Hampton, Virginia. The Battle of Hampton was the turning point for Virginian against their king.
Virginia’s last royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore in April 1775, moved all the ammunition from the magazine and out of reach of patriot militiamen. Virginians believed this was intentional, and he had done to leave them with no weapons and at the mercy of their own slaves. Governor Dunmore was forced to flee to a British warship on the James River after Williamsburg’s countrymen wanted to force him to give back the powder. Later, Dunmore announced that if any high-ranking British official were injured, he would declare the freedom of the slaves (emancipation), and reduce the city of Williamsburg to ash (Holton, 1997). People were fearful of a slave revolt and tried to persuade volunteer companies (including the one led by Patrick Henry) not to march and make demands to the Governor. James Madison described the situation as “tampering with the slaves”, which was “the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable â€¦ we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.” Henry did not turn back and as he marched toward Williamsburg, slaves volunteered their service to Dunmore. The assembly of militias like the one led by Patrick Henry at Kemp’s landing to counter Dunmore’s forces made up of former slaves resulted in the defeat of the militias and the death of several men. After this battle, Dunmore understood the values of fugitive slaves as allies and published his emancipation proclamation. About 1,000 slaves fledtheir owners and joined Dunmore (Holton, 1997; Frey, 1983).
For most of slaves who did not escape to Dunmore, his emancipation proclamation was a disappointment. Those who chose to fight did not mostly reach British lines and ended up worse off than before, since they were killed in battle or died of disease. African Americans indirectly helped colonists declare independence from Britain by seeking their own independence (Horton, 1999).
George Washington did not disregard the British use of blacks in the war. After Dunmore’s declaration, Washington wrote to the president of Congress in Philadelphia, in order that he would allow him to enlist free blacks because they “are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended, that they may seek employ in the ministerial army” (Reiss, 1997, Pp. 237). Even though Washington was conscious of the necessity to use African Americans, the colonies still declined to allow blacks to enlist.
Because of the tremendous loss of men during the war, leaders advocated the use of African Americans in war. Samuel Hopkins believed if slaves were freed and allowed to join the patriot armies, this would prevent them from joining the British in their efforts. Alexander Hamilton supported emancipation while James Madison wanted to free and arm the slaves (Reiss, 1997).
As the army continued to shrink, the congress and the states were forced to reconsider the slave potential. After a long process, the Rhode Island legislature decreed the formation of a black regiment in the Patriot army. These regiments had the same numbers as the white regiment, but they were led by white officers. Slaves needed permission from their masters to join the army, would receive bounties and wages and if recruited, would become free. The master received compensation by the state depending on the value of the slave (Reiss, 1997). Those who opposed the legislature’s decree propagandized the measure. They told slaves that they would be placed in the most dangerous places and also that they would be used as shock troops. If taken prisoner, they would be brought back to the West Indies and sold as slaves again. Despite the efforts of the opponents, many slaves enlisted.
On land, few African Americans were soldiers. They were mainly used as laborers used build fortifications; chop down trees to setback a pursuing army, repair roads, drive wagons, and many other duties that allowed white soldiers to fight. In combat they acted as fifers and drummers, some became cavalrymen or served in artillery regiments, and some even became spies (Berlin & Hoffman, 1983).The British promised freedom to those blacks who arrived at their lines. The South lost over 65,000 blacks during the war. Those slaves that enlisted in the Continental Army got their freedom as pledged. In some cases it took almost ten years to achieve this end. (Reiss, 1997).
The Revolution set the ball rolling for the abolition of slavery in the north. African Americans hopes and fears both were justified as it became clear that there would be no national victory over slavery since the issue was still in question. Slaveholders’ rights were protected and this allowed slaves to be claimed as property. The Congress debated prohibiting slave importations, but this trade would go on for another twenty years. The slavery debate always centered on the issues of compensation for loss of slave property. By the late 1700’s states had developed gradual emancipation plans. These plans minimized disruptions to the labor system and did provide some compensation to slaveholders. The laws promised slaveholders a lifetime labor of slaves in their possession (Bradley, 1998). Slaveholders argued that they needed this unpaid labor to allow them to recover the cost of caring for children born to their slaves.
African Americans were not treated as full citizens which limited their economic prospect. African Americans were thought to be dumb and useful only for manual labor. As for southern slaves, struggle for power would rage on between them and their masters. Slave organized resistance was greatly feared by southern white slave-owners since throughout the south, slaves made up a huge portion of the populace. Southern leaders passed laws which made illegal the education and reunion of slaves (Horton, 1999). In the North, whites controlled the fate of blacks: where they could live, what types of jobs they could hold and their pay. Freedom was closer for Northern blacks, yet the fight for slave freedom and the elimination of discrimination and racial distinctions had to continue for many years (Horton, 1999).
The subject of Slavery in American history is almost always introduced during the Civil War Era, yet the influence of the actions of slaves in the Revolutionary war would set the ball rolling for the Civil War. Slaves played a huge role in helping obtain American freedom and setting a fire that would spread throughout the world for the freedom of both slaves and imperial control. It is now clear what the roles of African Americans was during the Revolutionary War, what their motivation was to runaway and fight during the war for either side and the influence the slave efforts during this time to fins freedom had upon society.
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