Taking sides for freedom
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, Gen. 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 pacify the colonists.
2. They hoped the desertion of slaves would prove to be a significant economic hardship.
3. They hoped 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 backcountry 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 1,000 of these men and women served in the British military, with females typically working as nurses and cooks.
On Nov. 7, 1775, Gov. 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 rebel 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 to freedom as we have.”
George Washington thought Dunmore’s decree, encouraging slaves to fight for the British, made him “the most dangerous man in America.” As a consequence of this decree and some early British victories, on Dec. 31, 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 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.”
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
A list of sources will accompany Part 2 of this series Monday.