Historians James and Lois Horton note that while the enlistment of slaves was generally accepted in the North, Southern states were opposed to this policy.
The Continental Congress urged South Carolina and Georgia to raise a slave army of 3,000 “able bodied men” to be commanded by white officers. The soldiers were to be “standard size” males under 35 years of age, for which slave owners would be compensated at a rate of $1,000 per man. Black soldiers would not be paid but would receive $50 and gain their freedom at the end of the war. South Carolina refused to raise a black battalion, with its legislature stating, “We are much disgusted here at the Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves, it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step.”
Gen. George Washington was likewise disgusted with Georgia and South Carolina for refusing to allow blacks to enlist.
“That spirit of freedom which at the commencement of this contest,” he wrote, “would have sacrificed everything to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place.”
During the course of the war, almost 400,000 men (out of a total population of approximately 2.5 million) enlisted in the Continental Army and state militia. However, because of thousands of deaths from disease, high rates of desertion and short periods of enlistment (sometimes only three months), there were never more than 35,000 men on active duty at one time. Although military rosters from that period have been destroyed (and did not indicate race), historians estimate that at least 5,000 African-American soldiers served the colonial cause in the Revolutionary War. Black soldiers froze, starved and died with their white colleagues during the winter of 1777-78 as Washington’s 11,000 man army endured a brutal winter at Valley Forge, Pa.
Blacks fighting alongside whites was so common that a Hessian officer stated, “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied, strong and brave fellows.” Glenn Williams, senior historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, notes that African-Americans served in almost every unit in every Revolutionary War battle, from Concord to Fort Ticonderoga to Trenton and Yorktown.
Unlike the Army, the Continental Navy recruited both free and enslaved blacks from the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Historian Jonathan Sutherland states that if given the choice, blacks opted to serve in state navies or on privateers rather than the Continental Navy, as the former paid better and were more egalitarian. Blacks were among the crews of ships that defended the coastal waters of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Many slaves who sided with the British served on ships with the Royal Navy. Historian Kait Picco states that blacks on both sides of the war served as pilots, ordinary seamen, gunner’s mates and carpenters.
With the end of the war and a provisional peace treaty signed in 1782, Sir Guy Carleton, the acting commander of British forces, refused to abandon black loyalists to a life of slavery in the newly independent nation. In New York, Carleton created a “Book of Negroes,” a registry of 3,000 blacks that included details of the enslavement, escape, name of the slave’s owner and service to the British. If a claim was believed, an individual received a certificate granting passage from New York City. The freed slave’s owner was to be compensated for his loss, although historians doubt the British government made good on this commitment. In 1788, most of the blacks on this registry, along with 27,000 white loyalists, were transported to Nova Scotia, where they began a new life.
In Nova Scotia, few blacks received the land promised to them and were forced by economic necessity to work as farmhands and domestics for white loyalists, many of whom were former slave owners. After seven years of scratching out a living in an often bitterly cold and socially hostile environment, approximately one-third of the black settlers accepted an offer from a British company and relocated to the west African country of Sierra Leone, where they helped establish the community of Freetown.
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, about 15,000 black men, women and children sailed from New York, Charleston and Savannah. Of those, free blacks (and their families) who served the British Army were taken to Nova Scotia or England. However, blacks who had been slaves of Loyalist plantation owners were sent to Florida, Jamaica and Nassau, where they were re-enslaved under new masters. Thousands of other blacks who sought freedom with the British during the war died of disease, especially smallpox.
Many blacks who fought in the Continental Army and state militias were granted freedom after the war. However, others were returned to involuntary servitude by slave owners who reneged on promises to exchange military service for freedom. In 1792, the lone institution in American society that offered anything close to racial equality – the military – limited service exclusively to white males. Kait Picco notes blacks discovered that both the American and British armies enlisted their service for the sole purpose of winning the war and “not to enact social change.”
While social change may not have been a goal of the Continental Army and naval forces in recruiting black soldiers and sailors, the Revolutionary War gave a significant boost to fledgling anti-slavery movements. Historian John Hope Franklin states “that it was no mere coincidence” that when the Battle of Lexington was fought, some of the first anti-slavery organizations were formulating plans for action.
Even before the end of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania made provisions to gradually abolish slavery. After the conflict, anti-slavery groups were formed in every state from Massachusetts to Virginia. Some of these organizations sought to abolish the slave trade while others worked to prevent the deportation of blacks from their states.
In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance – which created the Northwest Territory and later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin – stated, “There shall be neither slavery not involuntary servitude in said territory.”
Recalling the struggle with England for independence, Pennsylvanians said that as gratitude for the colonists’ victory, they were extending a measure of their freedom to others “who though of a different color, are the work of the same Almighty hand.”
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
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