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America’s First Black Regiment Gained Their Freedom by Fighting Against the British

America’s First Black Regiment Gained Their Freedom by Fighting Against the British

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, widely regarded as the first Black battalion in U.S. military history, originated, in part, from George Washington’s desperation.

In late 1777 during the American Revolution, the Continental Army, led by General Washington, faced severe troop shortages in its war with the British. “No less than 2,898 men now in camp [are] unfit because they are barefoot and otherwise naked,” Washington wrote to Congress, begging for material support. Disease claimed nearly 2,000 soldiers during the army’s winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. When enough white men couldn’t be persuaded to enlist in the depleting army with bounties of land and money, Congress resorted to the draft. Its mandate: Each state must fill a quota of militias, based on its population.

Rhode Island, the smallest state with a population under 60,000 on the eve of the Revolution, needed to fill two battalions. When the state couldn’t recruit enough white men, its leaders appealed to Washington to allow both free and enslaved Black men to enlist.

As both a slaveowner and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from its formation in 1775, Washington had long opposed the use of Black soldiers, fearing that armed Black men would incite a rebellion among enslaved people and alienate Southern slaveholders. But over time, the harsh realities of a failing war effort called for America’s founding fathers to make some pragmatic decisions to preserve their nation’s future.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, widely recognized as the America’s first Black military regiment, didn’t start out that way. From its inception in 1775 as a part of the Rhode Island Army of Observation to its reorganization as the 1st Rhode Island in 1777 and its recruitment of Black soldiers to their own unit starting in February 1778, the regiment was one of the few in the Continental Army to serve all seven years of war. The unit distinguished itself in battles from the Siege of Boston to the Battle of Rhode Island and beyond to Yorktown.

READ MORE: 7 Black Heroes of the American Revolution

The British Recruited Enslaved People First

For the Continental Army, the use of Black soldiers had proved one of the war’s most controversial issues. Lord Dunmore, Britain’s colonial governor of Virginia, infuriated that state’s slaveholding class when in 1775 he declared martial law and promised freedom to any enslaved person who abandoned his owner and joined the British forces. Owners encouraged their enslaved workers to resist the temptation to “ruin your selves” and promised pardons to those who returned within 10 days of their flight. Still, the promise of freedom inspired an estimated 20,000 enslaved men to flee and enlist with British forces. One of Washington’s enslaved workers, Henry Washington, escaped Mount Vernon to join Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, a group of 300 escaped Black men who were the first to respond to the proclamation.

General Washington feared Lord Dunmore’s work and wanted his efforts crushed. “Otherwise, like a snow ball in rolling, [Dunmore’s] army will get size,” the future first president wrote to his aide-de-camp, Joseph Reed. So shortly after Lord Dunmore’s bold appeal, Washington asked Congress to allow free Black men to enlist in the Continental Army. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation changed Washington’s thinking about employing African Americans in the Continental Army, according to Philip Morgan, professor of early American historian at Johns Hopkins University. “Clearly Washington’s reversal on Black troops had much to do with his fears of what Dunmore might achieve,” he wrote. “Henceforth Washington commanded a racially integrated force.”

READ MORE: The Ex-Slaves Who Fought With the British

‘A Battalion of Negroes can easily be raised there.’

General James Mitchell Varnum, an attorney and one of Washington’s most trusted officers, became the most ardent supporter of forming a Black regiment in Rhode Island. One of his most radical proposals to Washington was to counter the shortfall of white recruits with enslaved men, along with free Black and Indian men. “It is imagined that a battalion of Negroes can easily be raised there,” Varnum wrote to Washington, who forwarded the proposal—without tacit approval or disapproval—to the Rhode Island General Assembly, where it was given the go-ahead.

The Slave Enlistment Act, passed in February 1778, stipulated that any enslaved person accepted to the 1st Rhode Island be “immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free, as though he had never been encumbered without any kind of servitude or slavery.” It also mandated financial compensation for owners who lost their enslaved workers to the new regiment—up to $400 each in colonial dollars. More than 130 enslaved men from all over the state joined the Black regiment in the first several months after the act went into effect. They did so despite propaganda spread by disgruntled slaveholders who, in trying to quell an exodus of enslaved men, asserted that Black soldiers would be placed in the most frequent front-line danger, and, if captured, would be sold into bondage in the West Indies.

READ MORE: Black Heroes Throughout US Military History

The Battle of Rhode Island

Led by all-white officers, the Black regiment saw its first combat experience at the Battle of Rhode Island. On August 29, 1778, the regiment was on assignment at Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay near Newport, where they had been tasked with guarding a defensive position anchoring the Continental Army’s right wing. Over the course of the battle, the regiment drove back three Hessian (German) regiments of the British army. “It was in driving back these furious attacks that our Black regiment distinguished itself with deeds of great valor,” remembered a regiment member. “Yes, this was a regiment of Negroes, fighting for our liberty and independence.” Major General John Sullivan spoke for Washington’s satisfaction at the regiment’s performance when he said, “by the best information the commander-in-chief thinks that the regiment will be entitled to a proper share of the honors of the day.”

Watch 'Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution' on HISTORY Vault.

The First Rhode Island's Legacy

The 1st Rhode Island's courageous performance at the Battle of Rhode Island led to more African Americans being enlisted to the Continental Army, but the Slave Enlistment Act was repealed by the Rhode Island legislature less than half a year later, meaning that most subsequent volunteers to the regiment came from the ranks of white or freed Black men.

According to Cameron Boutin, a scholar of the regiment, Congress and the military leadership never fully embraced the recruitment of enslaved people. “Permitting enslaved African Americans to serve as soldiers in return for their freedom in units similar to the 1st Rhode Island would have alleviated the American forces’ manpower shortages, increasing their operational abilities and boosting their efficiency, especially in combat,” he wrote. “Despite the successful example set by the Rhode Island law of February 1778 and the combat performance of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, many civil leaders across the country maintained their opposition toward recruiting slaves and no large-scale legislation authorizing the enlistment of enslaved individuals was adopted.”

READ MORE: How an Enslaved Man-Turned-Spy Helped Secure Victory at the Battle of Yorktown

Fighting For Freedom: African Americans Choose Sides During the American Revolution

1781 watercolor illustrating Continental soldiers at the Siege of Yorktown which includes a member of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

The biggest misconception is that black Americans were invisible during the American Revolution, and that they did not participate in direct action towards American independence. The reasons for these misconceptions largely stem from nineteenth century efforts to whitewash history as slavery became a far more divisive issue. Efforts continued into the twentieth century as the Lost Cause narrative relegated African American contributions to our history as secondary footnotes when necessary for discussion. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s where a new school of researchers, historians and scholars peeled back the layers of neglect, and rediscovered the impact these early Americans indeed had on significant events during the American Revolution. Since then, hundreds of excellent works have been produced that show and explain just how vital these Americans were and remain to our understanding of how we became a nation through revolution.

A portrait of Crispus Attucks, one of the five men killed in the Boston Massacre. Wikimedia Commons

To be fair, it would not be accurate to suggest black Americans were commanding troops on the battlefield, nor should we sensationalize their actual contributions and place during the Revolutionary War. Participation was largely contingent on several main factors, chief among them the necessity for aiding the existing army in the field. Both the Continental and British armies would employ blacks into the ranks for this reason. Fighting for emancipation or for liberty, particularly in the case of the American Cause, was not the driver for enlisting them into service. But it also would be inaccurate to state that many Continental officers didn’t advocate for their freedoms in the name of liberty. The best we can do is separate the motives of both sides in using black support where it could best aide each army, sometimes at the expense of these individuals, and sometimes to their eventual goal of achieving freedom for themselves.

Looking at the American side, black Americans were in thick of it from the very first minutes of the revolution. Whether we want to point to Crispus Attucks being the first man shot down at the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, or the actions of minutemen assembling from the hills around Lexington and Concord, the evidence is plain and clear that black citizens rallied to defend their mixed communities from the British army. Individuals like Peter Salem, Lemuel Hayes, Barzillai Lew, and Salem Poor, among other noted participants, were eyewitness to events because they were fighting in them. The Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, is of specific importance because Salem Poor was officially recognized by his superiors for mortally wounding British Lieutenant-Colonel James Abercrombie, the highest-ranking officer to die in the battle.

The first calls for suppressing visible black enlistment came with the influx of officers and soldiers from colonies outside of New England. While many of the Massachusetts men were farmers, many more were sailors and port workers accustomed to interracial employment and cooperation. This was not the case with arriving soldiers from Virginia and elsewhere, as those black workers in the South were more likely to be enslaved than those in Boston. Gen. George Washington, himself a slave owner and understanding of these sentiments, also understood the need for a continental force that identified beyond regional differences. This is not to suggest he immediately welcomed black soldiers in the army, but for us to understand that even Washington, as wary as he was with the look of armed black men, was desperate for capable armed men. African Americans who had been fighting in Massachusetts were grandfathered into the army after new rules went into effect on July 10, 1775, which barred both free and enslaved black Americans from enlistment.

This would not last long. As stated, Washington, along with the sentiments of fellow Southern officers and soldiers, was not induced to arm enslaved black Americans as it presented a clear conundrum for the institution of chattel slavery. But Washington was also desperate for men, and as the events of 1776-77 played out, he soon relented and gradually became supportive of arming free citizens, regardless of their skin color. Further prodding by a handful of animated junior officers pushed Washington in the last remaining years of the war. Chief among these officers was John Laurens, son of Continental Congress president Henry Laurens Alexander Hamilton, a skillful aide-to-camp of Washington’s inner circle, and the Marques de Lafayette, the young Frenchman whose zeal for liberty and faith in the commander in chief brought him under the wing of Washington like no other. Along with a handful of others, these officers became vocally supportive of allowing black Americans to fight in the army. And when it came to arming slaves, John Laurens was unequaled in his quest to raise regiments within South Carolina and Georgia in 1780-81. These efforts proved futile against the ruling plantation gentry, but they clearly signaled a contradiction that the American Revolution presented: who was eligible for this liberty and freedom we speak to fight for? Their effect surely spread as even American general Nathanael Greene, himself a slave owner, was advocating the arming of slaves to battle proxy loyalist raiders in South Carolina.

1781 watercolor illustrating Continental soldiers at the Siege of Yorktown which includes a member of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Brown University Library

At the beginning of the war, free black citizens could and did join the ranks of the Continental army. This was when the existence of the army was still coming together there was no official order and decorum established yet of who could join. We also must understand that black soldiers were not segregated from white soldiers. The only instance of segregation came with the raising of the First Rhode Island Regiment under Colonel Christopher Greene. Famed for their bright white dress, they were one of several regiments to participate in the defense of Rhode Island in August 1778. This segregation effort was not done to shun black participation, but rather to prove that blacks could fight as well as whites. Their regiment aside, the vast majority of the remaining black Americans who served in the Continental army did so fully integrated within other regiments and units. But most black soldiers were not armed recruits they were cooks, laborers, craftsman, drummers, flag-bearers, couriers and medical assistants. We can document the instances where individual black soldiers fought in battle under arms, such as the storming of Redoubt 10 at Yorktown in October 1781, but it would not be accurate to claim that every regiment had black soldiers marching with muskets shoulder-to-shoulder with white soldiers. In some cases, regiments did have more black soldiers than others, making them a visible presence for eyewitnesses to account for. This is where we’ve gotten the assumption that one-fifth of the Continental army at Yorktown was black, the observation made by a visiting European officer. Records show that only about 5,000 black soldiers fought for American independence with the army over the eight years of war. But we also must remember that the Continental Army was never larger than 15,000 strong at any given time, and that the army became divided into four separate entities by 1780: northern, main, southern, and western. Having a detachment of three hundred men with less than fifty of whom were black is not insignificant, nor should we assume it was that way for purely racial reasons.

A large portion of black Americans enlisted in the army, but a sizable amount, particularly those who were enslaved, were signed up by their masters to serve in their place. It was not uncommon for wealthy people to pay an individual to be their substitute if drafted into service, as was the case later in the Civil War. Despite the ban of enlisting slaves into the army, those serving in place of their masters were taken. When policies loosened, and individual states began recruiting whoever they could get to satisfy muster rolls for the army, more enslaved people filled the ranks of the army. In some instances, it was difficult to find white Americans willing to enlist it was also far more common that black Americans did not own property to tend to, making them more suited for the military. We also know that many who escaped their plantations also passed as free black Americans. There was some suspicion of this going on, and some states demanded that black enlistees showed proof of their legal status upon registering. But the Continental Congress, Washington, and others generally approved of the enlistments. The same approval can be said of those black Americans who joined the Continental Navy. Whereas the sight of armed black soldiers held a menacing position with many white Americans, no such thought was given to black sailors aboard merchant vessels. Between centuries of employment on the high seas, and the noted presence of black workers in shipyards throughout the continent, it was simply a far more accepted position for them to be in. And the navy, more desperate for men than even the Continental army, literally could not say no.

Turning our attention to how the British coerced black Americans into service, one must begin with Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775 that stipulated all enslaved persons in Virginia who escaped and joined up with the British/Loyalist forces would thereby be legally freed. As much as some of us might want to presume this was done as a motion of pure abolitionism, it was, in fact, a way of creating chaos among the Virginian and southern plantation ecosystem. As Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore was deliberately trying to intimidate rebels from organizing this would hopefully keep them busy. Perhaps nothing stirred fears more among ruling white perpetrators of slavery than the thought of their black slaves rising up and overthrowing their masters with lethal force. A handful of insurrections had already ingrained themselves into colonial memory, so these fears were not entirely unjustified. Nevertheless, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation stoked these embedded nightmares among the ruling elite, and within months of its public debut, hundreds of enslaved black men were joining the British side in support of fighting for their freedom. The immediately effects, though, were far more mixed than hoped. The first regiment of black troops fell victim to smallpox while others who expected to be armed were in fact given laborer positions aiding the British army. Dunmore’s proclamation would later inspire Sir Henry Clinton, the commanding general of British forces in America, to issue his own decree known as the Philipsburg Proclamation. Unlike the Virginian’s move, by 1779, the war was not going well for the British, and Clinton sought to reroute the campaign into the South. Knowing that the enslaved population far outnumbered the free population of white civilians, Clinton sought to destabilize the southern states by offering freedom to any enslaved person who escaped their rebel masters and came to the British side. Rather than being an abolitionist-at-heart, Clinton’s plan hoped to inspire the collapse of rebel support in the South. While this did not happen, it did create the atmosphere for fierce partisan warfare among neighbors and inspired upwards of 100,000 enslaved black Americans to flee their plantations. Throughout the revolution, most black Americans, free and enslaved, believed the British held a better argument for liberty than the Americans did, which explains why so many risked all to flee to them. In some cases, the British army seized slaves for themselves. By war’s end, the British had the logistical nightmare of trying to transport not just their defeated army, but also loyalist citizens who wished to leave the United States, and now freed slaves looking for a new life out of bondage in America.

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (1765) Sir Joshua Reynolds

In many ways, the British army used eager black participants as secondary supporters to the main forces. This is not to suggest there weren’t armed black men fighting within the British ranks. It’s only to suggest that such examples were few and far between, mostly left to loyalist raiding parties that were informal and not part of the regular army. Examples of black regiments within the British army show up during the early years of the war in the northern states, and during the Southern Campaign in 1780-81. As stated, the primary task of military-age black men was not to fight in the army, but to serve as support staff for it. Laborers dug ditches and assembled redoubts for the army, most notably at Yorktown. Others were given a gruesome fate: dying of smallpox, many were intentionally left near rebel farms and routes of the American forces in Virginia. Others, like their counterparts on the American side, spied for the British where possible.

In this brief overview of African American participation during the Revolutionary War, we should be aware of a few things. There were black men who served in the armies as soldiers and black men who served for the armies as support. There were also countless black women and children who aided and supported both armies as well. The role of camp follower is for another discussion, however. Both free and enslaved men fought for American independence and for the British attempt to squash the rebellion. Most black Americans supported the British for reasons we know, but many served with the Continental Army because they believed in what the revolution presumably stood for. Some decided to serve for person reasons, detached from skin color while others served precisely for the color of their skin. The complexities are part of the reason why these stories have remained on the margins of our general knowledge of the time period. The lack of simplicity leaves many to fumble the truth. To see contradiction befall many of these explanations is to first see with clarity how the principles that drove the American Revolution were what would undo slavery’s legitimacy within the United States. Among even those men fighting for liberty, it became difficult to explain how some people were destined for freedom and others were destined for bondage. For African Americans, the choice has always been freedom, and the many who served during the American Revolution is further proof of how much they were willing to sacrifice to obtain it.


Prior to the revolution, many free African Americans supported the anti-British cause, most famously Crispus Attucks, believed to be the first person killed at the Boston Massacre. At the time of the American Revolution, some Black men had already enlisted as Minutemen. Both free and enslaved Africans had served in private militias, especially in the North, defending their villages against attacks by Native Americans. In March 1775, the Continental Congress assigned units of the Massachusetts militia as Minutemen. They were under orders to become activated if the British troops in Boston took the offensive. Peter Salem, who had been freed by his owner to join the Framingham militia, was one of the Black men in the military. He served for nearly five years. [10] In the Revolutionary War, slave owners often let the people they enslaved to enlist in the war with promises of freedom, but many were put back into slavery after the conclusion of the war. [11]

In April 1775, at Lexington and Concord, Black men responded to the call and fought with Patriot forces. Prince Estabrook was wounded some time during the fighting on 19 April, probably at Lexington. [12] The Battle of Bunker Hill also had African-American soldiers fighting along with white Patriots, such as Peter Salem [13] Salem Poor, Barzillai Lew, Blaney Grusha, [ citation needed ] Titus Coburn, Alexander Ames, Cato Howe, and Seymour Burr. Many African Americans, both enslaved and free, wanted to join with the Patriots. They believed that they would achieve freedom or expand their civil rights. [14] In addition to the role of soldier, Black men also served as guides, messengers, and spies.

On April 26, 1777, during Tyron's raid on Danbury Connecticut, a slave named Adams, in an act of reckless daring, was killed when firing upon the British. [15]

American states had to meet quotas of troops for the new Continental Army, and New England regiments recruited Black enslaved people by promising freedom to those who served in the Continental Army. During the course of the war, about one-fifth of the men in the northern army were Black. [16] At the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Baron Closen, a German officer in the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, estimated about one-quarter of the American army to be Black men. [17]

Because of manpower shortages at sea, both the Continental Navy and Royal Navy signed African Americans into their navies. Even southern colonies, which worried about putting guns into the hands of enslaved people for the army, had no qualms about using Black men to pilot vessels and to handle the ammunition on ships. [ citation needed ] In state navies, some African Americans served as captains: South Carolina had significant numbers of Black captains. [18] Some African Americans had been captured from the Royal Navy and used by the Patriots on their vessels. [ citation needed ]

Revolutionary leaders began to be fearful of using Black men in the armed forces. They were afraid that enslaved people who were armed would rise against them. Slave owners became concerned that military service would eventually free their people. [ citation needed ]

In May 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety enrolled enslaved people in the armies of the colony. The action was adopted by the Continental Congress when they took over the Patriot Army. But Horatio Gates in July 1775 issued an order to recruiters, ordering them not to enroll "any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro or vagabond. . ." in the Continental Army. [19] Most Black men were integrated into existing military units, but some segregated units were formed.

The British regular army had some fears that, if armed, Black men would start slave rebellions. Trying to placate southern planters, the British used African Americans as laborers, skilled workers, foragers and spies. Except for those Black men who joined Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, only a few Black men, such as Seymour Burr, served in the British army while the fighting was concentrated in the North. It was not until the final months of the war, when manpower was low, that loyalists used Black men to fight for Britain in the South. [20]

In Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, when threatened by Patriot forces, the British filled gaps in their troops with African Americans. In October 1779, about 200 Black Loyalist soldiers assisted the British in successfully defending Savannah against a joint French and rebel American attack. [21]

In total, historians estimate that approximately 20,000 Africans, composed primarily of escaped, conscripted, or 'freed' formerly enslaved people, fought for the British army. [4]

Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, was determined to maintain British rule in the southern colonies and promised to free those enslaved men of rebel owners who fought for him. On November 7, 1775, he issued a proclamation: "I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops." By December 1775 the British army had 300 enslaved men wearing a military uniform. Sewn-on the breast of the uniform was the inscription "Liberty to Slaves". These enslaved men were designated as "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment."

Dunmore's Black soldiers aroused fear among some Patriots. The Ethiopian unit was used most frequently in the South, where the African population was oppressed to the breaking point. [22] As a response to expressions of fear posed by armed Black men, in December 1775, Washington wrote a letter to Colonel Henry Lee III, stating that success in the war would come to whatever side could arm Black men the fastest therefore, he suggested policy to execute any of the enslaved who would attempt to gain freedom by joining the British effort. [23] Washington issued orders to the recruiters to reenlist the free Black men who had already served in the army he worried that some of these soldiers might cross over to the British side.

Congress in 1776 agreed with Washington and authorized re-enlistment of free Black men who had already served. Patriots in South Carolina and Georgia resisted enlisting enslaved men as armed soldiers. African Americans from northern units were generally assigned to fight in southern battles. In some Southern states, southern Black enslaved men substituted for their masters in Patriot service. [ citation needed ]

In 1778, Rhode Island was having trouble recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress. The Rhode Island Assembly decided to adopt a suggestion by General Varnum and enlist enslaved men in 1st Rhode Island Regiment. [24] Varnum had raised the idea in a letter to George Washington, who forwarded the letter to the governor of Rhode Island. On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of "every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave" who chose to do so, and that "every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free. " [25] The slave owners who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an amount equal to the market value of the man who had been enslaved.

A total of 88 men who had been enslaved enlisted in the regiment over the next four months, joined by some free Black men. The regiment eventually totaled about 225 men probably fewer than 140 were Black men. [26] The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of Black soldiers.

Under Colonel Greene, the regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. The regiment played a fairly minor but still-praised role in the battle. Its casualties were three killed, nine wounded, and eleven missing. [27]

Like most of the Continental Army, the regiment saw little action over the next few years, as the focus of the war had shifted to the south. In 1781, Greene and several of his Black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Loyalists. Greene's body was mutilated by the Loyalists, apparently as punishment for having led Black soldiers against them. Forty of the Black men in his unit were also killed. [28] A Monument to the First Rhode Island Regiment memorializing the bravery of the Black soldiers that fought and died with Greene was erected in 1982 in Yorktown Heights, New York.

On July 21, 1781, as the final British ship left Savannah, more than 5,000 enslaved African Americans were transported with their Loyalist masters for Jamaica or St. Augustine. About 300 Black people in Savannah did not evacuate, fearing that they would be re-enslaved. They established a colony in the swamps of the Savannah River. By 1786, many were back in bondage. [ citation needed ]

The British evacuation of Charleston in December 1782 included many Loyalists and more than 5,000 Black men. More than half of these were enslaved by the Loyalists they were taken by their masters for resettlement in the West Indies, where the Loyalists started or bought plantations. The British also settled freed formerly enslaved people in Jamaica and other West Indian islands, eventually granting them land. Another 500 enslaved people were taken to east Florida, which remained under British control. [ citation needed ]

The British promised freedom to enslaved people who left rebels to side with the British. In New York City, which the British occupied, thousands of refugee enslaved people migrated there to gain freedom. The British created a registry of people who had escaped slavery, called the Book of Negroes. The registry included details of their enslavement, escape, and service to the British. If accepted, the former enslaved person received a certificate entitling transport out of New York. By the time the Book of Negroes was closed, it had the names of 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children, who were resettled in Nova Scotia. They were known in Canada as Black Loyalists. Sixty-five percent of those evacuated were from the South. About 200 formerly enslaved people were taken to London with British forces as free people. [29]

After the war, many freed Black people living in London and Nova Scotia struggled with discrimination, a slow pace of land grants and, in Canada, with the more severe climate. Supporters in England organized to establish a colony in West Africa for the resettlement of Poor Blacks of London, most of whom were formerly enslaved in America. Freetown was the first settlement established of what became the colony of Sierra Leone. Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia were also asked if they wanted to relocate. Many chose to go to Africa, and on January 15, 1792, 1,193 Black people left Halifax for West Africa and a new life. Later the African colony was supplemented by Afro-Caribbean maroons transported by the British from Jamaica, as well as Africans who were liberated by the British in their intervention in the Atlantic slave trade, after Britain prohibited it in 1807.

The African-American Patriots who served the Continental Army, found that the postwar military held few rewards for them. It was much reduced in size, and state legislatures such as Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1784 and 1785, respectively, banned all Blacks, free or enslaved, from military service. Southern states also banned all enslaved men from their militias. North Carolina was among the states that allowed free people of color to serve in their militias and bear arms until the 1830s. In 1792, the United States Congress formally excluded African Americans from military service, allowing only "free able-bodied white male citizens" to serve. [30]

At the time of the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, free Black men could vote in five of the thirteen states, including North Carolina. That demonstrated that they were considered citizens not only of their states but of the United States. [31]

Many enslaved men who fought in the war gained freedom, but others did not. Some owners reneged on their promises to free them after their service in the military. [ citation needed ]

Some African-American descendants of Revolutionary war veterans have documented their lineage. Professor Henry Louis Gates and Judge Lawrence W. Pierce, as examples, have joined the Sons of the American Revolution based on documenting male lines of ancestors who served.

In the first two decades following the Revolution, most northern states abolished slavery, some by a gradual method others such as Vermont and Massachusetts did so during the Revolutionary period. [32] Northern states abolished slavery by law or in their new constitutions. By 1810, about 75 percent of all African Americans in the North were free. By 1840, virtually all African Americans in the North were either free or living in free state jurisdiction. [32]

Although southern state legislatures maintained the institution of slavery, in the Upper South, especially, numerous slaveholders were inspired by revolutionary ideals to free the people they had enslaved. In addition, in this period Methodist, Baptist and Quaker preachers also urged manumission. The proportion of free Black people in the Upper South increased markedly, from less than 1 percent of all Black people to more than 10 percent, even as the number of enslaved people was increasing overall. [33] More than half of the number of free Black people in the United States were concentrated in the Upper South. [33] In Delaware, nearly 75 percent of Black people were free by 1810. [34] This was also a result of a changing economy, as many planters had been converting from labor-intensive tobacco to mixed commodity crops, with less need for intensive labor.

After that period, few enslaved people were granted freedom. The invention of the cotton gin made cultivation of short-staple cotton profitable, and the Deep South was developed for this product. This drove up the demand for labor from people who were enslaved in that developing area, creating a demand for more than one million people to be enslaved to be transported to the Deep South in the domestic slave trade. [35]

In Popular Culture Edit

The 2000 film, The Patriot, features an African-American character named Occam (played by Jay Arlen Jones). He is an enslaved man who fights in the war in place of his master. After serving a year in the Continental Army, he becomes a free man and continues to serve with the militia until the end of the war.

The 2011 young adult novel, Forge, by Laurie Halse Anderson, follows a teenage African-American youth who escaped from slavery to join the war. [36]

While not American-based, a French regiment of colored troops (the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue) under the command of Comte d'Estaing and one of the largest combatant contingent of color in the American Revolutionary War, fought on behalf of the Patriots in the Siege of Savannah.

Resurrecting the Black Regiment

Most Americans today would probably still recognize the stirring words from Ralph Waldo Emerson&rsquos &ldquoConcord Hymn&rdquo: &ldquoBy the rude bridge that arched the flood,/ Their flag to April&rsquos breeze unfurled,/ Here once the embattled farmers stood,/ And fired the shot heard round the world.&rdquo Most of us are still aware that those embattled farmers won for us the freedoms we too often take for granted today.

But how many of us are aware of the extent to which faith motivated those farmers to leave their families and homes and risk their lives for a cause that most would have considered hopeless at the time? How many are aware of the extent to which preachers actively participated in our War for Independence &mdash and not just rhetorically from the pulpit, though the great sermons on behalf of the freedom fight provoked many parishioners to action? How many are familiar with the phrase &ldquoBlack Regiment&rdquo?

That phrase encapsulates what Colonial America possessed in its War for Independence that is sadly lacking today.

The Black Regiment is a moniker that was given to the patriot-preachers of Colonial America. They were called the &ldquoBlack Regiment&rdquo owing to the fact that so many of them had a propensity to wear long, black robes in the pulpit.

According to historian/educator Reverend Wayne Sedlak, in his article &ldquoThe Black Regiment Led the Fight in Our War for Independence&rdquo:

It was British sympathizer Peter Oliver, who actually first used the name &ldquoBlack Regiment.&rdquo He complained that such clergymen were invariably at the heart of the revolutionary disturbances. He tied their influence to such colonial leaders as Samuel Adams, James Otis and others of prominence in the cause. He quotes colonial leadership in its quest to gain the voice of the clergy. In one instance, he disparagingly cites a public plea of James Otis who sought the help of the clergy in a particular manner:

&ldquoMr. Otis, understanding the Foibles of human Nature advanced one shrewd position which seldom fails to promote popular Commotions, that &lsquoit was necessary to secure the black Regiment.&rsquo These were his Words and his meaning was to engage ye dissenting Clergy on his Side…. Where better could he fly for aid than to the Horns of the Altar?… This order of Men &hellip like their Predecessors of 1641 &hellip have been unceasingly sounding the Yell of Rebellion in the Ears of an ignorant and deluded People.&rdquo

So influential were the patriot-pulpits of Colonial America that it was said by Prime Minister Horace Walpole in the British Parliament, &ldquoCousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.&rdquo In fact, America&rsquos War for Independence was often referenced in Parliament as &ldquothe Presbyterian Revolt.&rdquo And during the Revolutionary War, British troops often made colonial churches military targets. Churches were torched, ransacked, and pillaged.

Legendary Exploits

These patriot-preachers were staunchly patriotic, seriously independent, and steadfastly courageous. They were found in almost all of the various Protestant denominations at the time: Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Anglican, Lutheran, German Reformed, etc. Their Sunday sermons &mdash more than Patrick Henry&rsquos oratory, Sam Adams&rsquo and James Warren&rsquos &ldquoCommittees of Correspondence,&rdquo or Thomas Paine&rsquos &ldquoSummer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots&rdquo &mdash inspired, educated, and motivated the colonists to resist the tyranny of the British Crown, and fight for their freedom and independence. Without the Black Regiment, there is absolutely no doubt that we would still be a Crown colony, with no Declaration of Independence, no U.S. Constitution, no Bill of Rights, and little liberty.

The exploits of the Black Regiment are legendary. When General George Washington asked Lutheran pastor John Peter Muhlenberg to raise a regiment of volunteers, Muhlenberg gladly agreed. Before marching off to join Washington&rsquos army, he delivered a powerful sermon from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 that concluded with these words: &ldquoThe Bible tells us there is a time for all things and there is a time to preach and a time to pray, but the time for me to preach has passed away, and there is a time to fight, and that time has come now. Now is the time to fight! Call for recruits! Sound the drums!&rdquo

Then Muhlenberg took off his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Virginia colonel. Grabbing his musket from behind the pulpit, he donned his colonel&rsquos hat and marched off to war. And as he did, more than 300 of his male congregants followed him.

Muhlenberg&rsquos brother quotes John Peter as saying, &ldquoYou may say that as a clergyman nothing can excuse my conduct. I am a clergyman, it is true, but I am a member of society as well as the poorest layman, and my liberty is as dear to me as any man. I am called by my country to its defense. The cause is just and noble. Were I a Bishop &hellip I should obey without hesitation and as far am I from thinking that I am wrong, I am convinced it is my duty so to do &mdash a duty I owe to my God and my Country.&rdquo

Remember, too, it was Pastor Jonas Clark and his congregants at the Church of Lexington who comprised that initial body of brave colonists called Minutemen. These were the men, you will recall, who withstood British troops advancing on Concord to confiscate the colonists&rsquo firearms and arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, and fired &ldquothe shot heard round the world.&rdquo

The &ldquoSupreme Knight&rdquo and great martyr of Presbyterianism was Pastor James Caldwell of the Presbyterian church of Elizabethtown (present-day Elizabeth), New Jersey. He was called the &ldquoRebel High Priest&rdquo and the &ldquoFighting Chaplain.&rdquo He is most famous for the story &ldquoGive &rsquoem Watts!&rdquo It is said that at the Springfield engagement, when the militia ran out of wadding for their muskets, Parson Caldwell galloped to the Presbyterian church and returned with an armload of hymnbooks, threw them to the ground, and exclaimed, &ldquoNow, boys, give &rsquoem Watts! Give &rsquoem Watts!&rdquo &mdash a reference to the famous hymn writer, Isaac Watts.

Not an easy path: Presbyterian minister James Caldwell, who gained fame during the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, when he gathered Watts hymnals from a church for use as rifle wadding and shouted to the troops as he handed them out, &ldquoput Watts into them,&rdquo was killed in the war, as was his wife. Caldwell so angered British commanders that they made martyrs of both him and his wife. General Knyphausen&rsquos expedition took Elizabethtown in 1780, burning Caldwell&rsquos church and shooting his wife. Later Caldwell himself was shot. (Source: Humphrey, Nationalism and Religion in America, 1924)

Then there was the Baptist, Joab Houghton, of New Jersey. Houghton was in the Hopewell Baptist Meeting-house at worship when he received the first information of Concord and Lexington, and of the retreat of the British to Boston with heavy losses. His great-grandson gave the following eloquent description of the way he treated the tidings:

Stilling the breathless messenger, he sat quietly through the services, and when they were ended, he passed out, and mounting the great stone block in front of the meeting-house, he beckoned to the people to stop. Men and women paused to hear, curious to know what so unusual a sequel to the service of the day could mean. At the first words a silence, stern as death, fell over all. The Sabbath quiet of the hour and of the place was deepened into a terrible solemnity. He told them all the story of the cowardly murder at Lexington by the royal troops the heroic vengeance following hard upon it the retreat of Percy the gathering of the children of the Pilgrims round the beleaguered hills of Boston. Then pausing, and looking over the silent throng, he said slowly: &ldquoMen of New Jersey, the red coats are murdering our brethren of New England! Who follows me to Boston?&rdquo And every man of that audience stepped out into line, and answered, &ldquoI!&rdquo There was not a coward nor a traitor in old Hopewell Baptist Meeting-house that day. [Source: Cathcart, The Baptists and the American Revolution, 1876]

Consider, too, Pastor M&rsquoClanahan, of Culpepper County, Virginia, who raised a military company of Baptists and served in the field, both as a captain and chaplain. Reverend David Barrow &ldquoshouldered his musket and showed how fields were won.&rdquo Another Baptist, General Scriven, when ordered by a British officer to give up Sunbury, near Savannah, sent back the answer, &ldquoCome and get it.&rdquo Deacon Mills, of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, &ldquocommanded skillfully&rdquo 1,000 riflemen at the Battle of Long Island, and for his valor was made a brigadier general. Deacon Loxley of the same church commanded the artillery at the Battle of Germantown with the rank of colonel. (Source: McDaniel, The People Called Baptists, 1925)

A list drawn up by Judge Curwen, an ardent Tory, contained 926 names of British sympathizers living in America &mdash colonial law had already exiled a larger number &mdash but there was &ldquonot the name of one Baptist on the list.&rdquo Maybe this is why President George Washington, in his letter to the Baptists, paid the following tribute: &ldquoI recollect with satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members has been, throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously, the firm friend to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious Revolution.&rdquo Maybe it explains why Thomas Jefferson could write to a Baptist church, saying, &ldquoWe have acted together from the origin to the end of a memorable Revolution.&rdquo (Source: Ibid.)

Faith and Conviction

These were not the acts of wild-eyed fanatics they were the acts of men of deep and abiding faith and conviction. Their understanding of the principles of both Natural and Revealed Law was so proficient, so thorough, and so sagacious that their conscience would let them do nothing else. Hear the wise counsel of the notable colonial preacher Reverend Samuel West (1730-1807):

Our obligation to promote the public good extends as much to the opposing every exertion of arbitrary power that is injurious to the state as it does to the submitting to good and wholesome laws. No man, therefore, can be a good member of the community that is not as zealous to oppose tyranny, as he is ready to obey magistracy.

Reverend West went on to say:

If magistrates are ministers of God only because the law of God and reason points out the necessity of such an institution for the good of mankind, it follows, that whenever they pursue measures directly destructive of the public good, they cease being God&rsquos ministers, they forfeit their right to obedience from the subject, they become the pests of society, and the community is under the strongest obligation of duty both to God and to its own members, to resist and oppose them, which will be so far from resisting the ordinance of God that it will be strictly obeying his commands.

This was the spirit of 1776 this was the preaching that built a free and independent nation this is what Colonial America had that, by and large, America does not have today.

Moral underpinnings: Baptist minister David Barrow gave his whole being to causes he joined. He was nearly drowned by vigilantes for preaching as a Baptist in areas dominated by the Church of England, and he took up a gun to fight in the Revolutionary War. In the thinking and preaching of the Black Regiment, freedom and independence were precious gifts of God, not to be trampled underfoot by men human authority was limited and subject to proper divine parameters and the mind of man was never to be enslaved by any master, save Christ Himself.

Membership in the Black Regiment was unofficial and without human oversight. Preachers of the black robes were young and old, loud and soft-spoken, rough and gentle, urban and rural. They differed on secondary doctrines and never surrendered their theological distinctives. Yet they formed an irresistible and indefatigable army that neither King George nor the demons of hell could stop.

As one reads the colonial history of the United States, one must be struck with the observation that the American people, on the whole, seemed to appreciate the courage and independence of their preachers. Even America&rsquos early political leaders shared in this appreciation.

For instance, John Adams once remarked,

It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example, if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, how muchsoever it may move the gall of Massachusetts?

The problem today is that America&rsquos preachers have taken off the black robes and put on yellow ones. Where is the preaching against prevalent sins? Where is the spiritual, scriptural explanation concerning the rights and duties, or limitations and restrictions of civil magistrates from America&rsquos pulpits today?

The famed 19th-century revivalist Charles G. Finney had some trenchant words on this subject. He said,

If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discrimination, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in religion, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it.

Black Regiment Today

Yes, indeed. It was the patriot-pulpit that delivered America from bondage and it is the timid pulpit, on the part of those who do or should know, that is helping to deliver America to the brink of destruction and judgment.

It is for this reason that I took on the task of resurrecting the Black Regiment. In July of 2007, I put out my first appeal to help locate a modern-day Black Regiment. (And my appeal echoes other great Americans&rsquo, such as Professor David Alan Black and Rev. Wayne Sedlak, who called for a resurrection of the Black Regiment even before I did.) I asked readers to help me locate brave and courageous patriot-pastors in the similitude of the Black Regiment of old. The result of this appeal has been truly exciting.

On my Black Regiment website (www.chuckbaldwinlive.com/blackregiment.php), we now have over 200 pastors and evangelists who have signed up to be included in a modern-day Black Regiment. This was done primarily so that people around the country who hunger to attend a church that has a patriot-pastor in the pulpit can find a place of worship. I extend the invitation to readers of this column to further assist me in locating such patriot-preachers.

I am personally convinced that the only thing necessary for God to send another Great Awakening &mdash along with the accompanying reclamation of liberty and independence &mdash is for God&rsquos men in the pulpits to return to their heritage by becoming the champions of freedom: sounding forth the clarion call to resist tyranny and defend liberty, as did our forebears in the Black Regiment.

Chuck Baldwin is a radio broadcaster, syndicated columnist, and pastor. He was the Constitution Party’s nominee for president in 2008.

Black Loyalists Fought for Their Freedom During the American Revolution

The story of the Black Loyalists of the American Revolution is the story of a people stolen into slavery who are given the chance to fight for their freedom, exact revenge on cruel masters, and establish one of the first free black settlements on the continent. It's also a story of broken promises, racial discord and the lengths to which people will go to find a better life. And it's a nearly forgotten chapter in North American history.

When the American Colonies declared independence in 1776, African slaves made up 20 percent of the colonial population. The population of South Carolina was 60 percent slaves, and Virginia was 40 percent, mostly toiling on large plantations. (Slavery was not just a Southern institution then — in some Northern cities like Boston, slaves made up 20 percent of the population.) Even before the War for Independence officially began, the British tried to recruit American slaves to rise up and fight against their "rebel" plantation owners. "Loyalist" was the term given to people in the American Colonies who supported Britain.

In 1775 the British royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a stunning "emancipation proclamation" promising freedom and land to all slaves who would take up arms against their rebel masters. Dunmore was looking for manpower to put down an armed rebellion in Virginia, and he found it. Between 800 and 2,000 slaves and indentured servants fled their plantations and joined with the British, including a hard-fighting militia that would become known as Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. The Ethiopian Regiment marched to battle in uniforms inscribed with the insignia "Liberty to Slaves."

Dunmore's proclamation was the "first mass emancipation in American history," says Isaac Saney, a history professor at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia. It happened nearly 90 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in areas not under the control of the United States government.

When the tides turned against the British in 1779, they issued a second emancipation called the Philipsburg Proclamation, which extended the promise of freedom and land to any slave who would cross the British lines without the requirement to fight. The move, says Saney, was a form of economic warfare against the colonies.

"Escaping Africans would weaken the rebel economy," says Saney. "You'd have this mass emancipation taking place, and the colonists would now have to expend resources to guard the plantations, instead of using them in battle."

An estimated 12,000 slaves of African descent fought for the British, but the war was lost. When the British surrendered in 1783, one of the central points of contention, Saney says, was "the return of what George Washington deems 'U.S. property,' which are the enslaved Africans."

After the Revolutionary War

The British commander-in-chief Guy Carleton kept his word and negotiated "certificates of freedom" for all so-called Black Loyalists who had joined the British ranks before the surrender, under one condition: They had to leave the country. Carleton's men carefully recorded the names of 3,000 newly freed men and women in what's known as the Book of Negroes, and then put them on ships heading to Nova Scotia, then a British-ruled Canadian province.

Nova Scotia in the late 18th century was known as "Nova Scarcity." When 40,000 white and black loyalists fled to Nova Scotia in 1783 — including 1,232 slaves of white loyalists — they tripled the native population and completely overwhelmed the province's meager resources. The newly freed Black Loyalists, far from receiving their just rewards in a new home, found themselves last in line for land, and exploited as cheap labor.

Widespread poverty and underemployment across Nova Scotia brewed distrust among whites, who blamed the cheap African labor for stealing their jobs. Racial tensions erupted into violence, says Saney, when a black preacher named David George baptized a white woman, sparking what many believe is one of the first race riots in North America. The 1784 violence raged for months, claiming many black homes and lives until troops were finally sent in from the capital Halifax.

The Black Loyalists repeatedly petitioned the Crown to keep its promises from the war, eventually sending the emissary Thomas Peters all the way to London to make the case in person. Peters got nowhere with royal officials, but did meet with a group of British abolitionists who were launching a social experiment in Sierra Leone, West Africa, a sanctuary for victims of the slave trade. They convinced Peters that the best place for the freed slaves was back in Africa.

In 1792, 15 ships sailed from Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone carrying 1,196 Black Loyalists who had "voted with their feet against broken promises of land and freedom," says Saney, who calls it the maiden voyage of the "Back to Africa" movement. Those who stayed behind in Nova Scotia largely settled in the village of Birchtown, named for Samuel Birch, one of the British generals who signed the original certificates of freedom.

Black Loyalists Today

Jason Farmer is a ninth-generation descendent of the Black Loyalists who first settled Birchtown. Farmer can trace his roots back to Jupiter Farmer — one of five Jupiters in the Book of Negroes, and an escaped slave from Brunswick, New Jersey. Jupiter married a woman named (yes) Venus and established a continuous line of the Farmer family that has remained in the Birchtown area for more than 230 years.

Farmer is an interpreter at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre & Historical Site in Nova Scotia, where he's proud to share the remarkable story of his ancestors, who dared to escape the plantations and join with an occupying army to win their freedom, only to continue to fight for true freedom and equality in a new land.

"It's an unknown history right here in Nova Scotia," says Farmer, who particularly enjoys telling the story of Black Loyalists to fellow Nova Scotians of African descent. "They're amazed. It's powerful. Some of them can't even sit there and listen to it all. They have to take breaks. Some of them cry." Some 20,000 black people live in Nova Scotia today, most of whom are descended from the Black Loyalists.

Saney the historian says that the legacy of the Black Loyalists is of a persecuted people exercising black agency.

"These are people who took their fate and their destiny into their own hands," Saney says. "Just to get to the British side took a lot of courage, skill and ingenuity. The fact that so many of them chose to fight — and saw themselves as not only defending their freedom, but participating in the liberation of others — speaks the breadth and depth of their conception of agency, but also as part of a collective struggle for freedom."

In 2015, the CBC produced an acclaimed TV mini-series called The Book of Negroes, based on a best-selling work of historical fiction about the Black Loyalists by the author Lawrence Hill.

"I offer freedom to the blacks of all Rebels that join me": Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, 1775-1776

As the Revolutionary War’s first black-centered combat unit the short-lived Ethiopian Regiment merits attention. Like the segregated 1st Rhode Island Regiment (an integrated unit prior to February 1778, and integrated again as of July 1780) it was born of necessity and was centered around freed slaves. This monograph will examine the unit’s career, the events that led up to its formation, and the ripples of its existence even after disbandment.

John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (1765) Sir Joshua Reynolds

John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, became Virginia’s reluctant Royal Governor in 1771. His career to that date had been relatively successful, from military service in the 1750s and 60s, through his 1770 appointment as governor of New York. In Virginia, his good fortune began to crumble. While his summer and autumn 1774 campaign against the Indians in western Virginia gained him some popularity, earlier that year he had dissolved the General Assembly after they passed a resolution supporting the people of the port of Boston, shut down and suffering under the Coercive Acts. To add to his troubles, members of the House of Burgesses reconvened as the First Virginia Convention, again pledged support for Boston, banned British trade, and elected delegates to the First Continental Congress.

Matters worsened the year following, when a Second Convention was convened. The members not only chose delegates for a Second Continental Congress, but Patrick Henry’s “Liberty, or … Death” speech, helped clinch the call for armed resistance. In April, with Virginians actively raising militia companies, Lord Dunmore decided to remove a large quantity of gunpowder from Williamsburg. After some difficulty, the stores were taken aboard the HMS Magdalen, but the confiscation only increased antipathy towards the governor. By early June Dunmore and his family had fled the capital for the safety of the armed ship Fowey in the York River. With that action, and despite any intention to do so, he permanently relinquished his governance of the colony.

Dunmore’s armed forces consisted of seamen and Marines from the few British warships in the area, plus a small number of loyal Virginians. In autumn he was reinforced by the understrength British 14th Regiment (as of 23 October 1775 comprising about five companies, numbering 13 officers and 156 enlisted men). To remedy his predicament more troops were needed and the governor came up with a plan that would add to his little corps, simultaneously hitting the rebellious Virginians materially and financially.

Soldier of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, from a description in the Virginia Gazette, 2 December 1775. Marvin-Alonzo Greer

During the Gunpowder Crisis Dunmore threatened to "declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.” In autumn 1775 he went one step further and created a corps of freed slaves, the Ethiopian Regiment. The British home government and others balked at instituting such measures. In October 1775 a group of “Gentlemen, Merchants and Traders” in Britain proclaimed their unwillingness to unleash the horrors of a slave rebellion on “our American brethren.” Lacking proper instructions British commanders in America proceeded on their own hook. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage took a hesitant lead. On 12 June 1775, he wrote William, 2nd Viscount Barrington, colonial secretary in London, “Things are now come to that crisis, that we must avail ourselves of every resource, even to raise the negroes, in our cause.” (Gage was likely prompted by Governor Dunmore, who two months earlier stated that if forced to react against rebellion, he could rely on “all the Slaves on the side of Government.”) South Carolina Royal governor Lord William Campbell advised Gage to not “fall a prey to the Negroes” and the Massachusetts military governor took no further action on that head.

After quitting Williamsburg for shipboard accommodations in June 1775 Lord Dunmore soon added other vessels to his small fleet. This augmentation, along with a growing force of Loyalists and eventually the 14th Foot, enabled the governor to hit back at the rebels and gather recruits for the Ethiopian Regiment. One Virginian wrote that October, “Lord Dunmore sails up and down the river and where he finds a defenceless place, he lands, plunders the plantation and carries off the negroes.” These moves alarmed the insurgent Virginians, particularly when word spread and escaped slaves began placing themselves under the governor’s protection. An emboldened Governor Murray issued a 7 November 1775 proclamation, declaring martial law and announcing his intention to arm freed slaves: “I do hereby further declare all indented 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 …” On 30 November 1775 Lord Dunmore wrote Major General Sir William Howe, commander-in-chief in America, ‘you may observe by my proclamation that I offer freedom to the blacks of all Rebels that join me, in consequence of which there are between two and three hundred already come in, and those I form into Corps … giving them white officers and non commissioned officers in proportion …’. On 2 December the Virginia Gazette published the following: “Since Lord Dunmore’s proclamation made its appearance here, it is said he recruited his army, in the counties of Princess Anne and Norfolk, to the amount of about 2000 men, including his black regiment, which is thought to be a considerable part, with this inscription on their breasts:- ‘Liberty to Slaves.’” Along with the exaggerated estimate of Dunmore’s army, there is some question whether the use of that motto was true or a bit of Whig rabble-rousing whatever the case, the phrase was extremely provocative.

Map of the area around Norfolk, Virginia, 1775. Kemp’s Landing and Great Bridge are clearly marked, as is Fort Murray, erected by British forces under Lord Dunmore. The map is inverted, with north at the bottom. Library of Congress

On 15 November 1775 Dunmore had gained a minor victory over local Whig forces at Kemp’s Landing, near Norfolk (during this action two black soldiers purportedly captured a Virginia officer). While some black troops participated in that affair, their first real combat was at Great Bridge where Crown and Whig forces had erected fortifications on opposite sides of a causeway. On 9 December Dunmore, in an effort to forestall a Rebel attack, sent his own forces against the opposing breastworks. The assault, led by the 14th Regiment, supported by contingents from the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginians and the Ethiopian Regiment, was a disastrous failure. While the Ethiopians saw little action at Great Bridge, among the casualties were two of Dunmore’s newly-freed slaves, now soldiers: wounded and taken prisoner were James Anderson, hit “in the Forearm – Bones shattered and flesh much torn,” and Casar, wounded “in the Thigh, by a Ball, and 5 shot – one lodged.” As a result of that defeat, Lord Dunmore’s troops were forced to abandon the mainland and return to their small fleet, occasionally occupying remote islands or isolated, defensible land in the area. (As a side note, William Flora, a free black Virginia militiaman, opposed the attack on the bridge, making this the first-known instance in this conflict of African Americans facing each other in battle.)

The following months were spent harassing and plundering waterside Whig properties, foraging for food, and other necessities. By late winter 1776, there was a new foe for Dunmore’s men to reckon with, variola major, otherwise known as smallpox. Compared to Europeans, North Americans were especially susceptible. Even more so were large southern slave populations, usually sequestered in the locale where they lived and worked, rarely traveling far afield. The men of the Ethiopian Regiment were hit hard, as were other former slaves who made their way to British protection. As the disease spread, Dunmore’s forces established an inoculation camp on Tucker’s Island, near Portsmouth. During that lengthy process they needed a more defensible position, so moved to Gwynn’s Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, at the end of May 1776. One British captain claimed most of the black soldiers had been inoculated while still at Norfolk and were felled by an unrelated fever, perhaps typhus, during the spring and summer. Several others noted that inoculations occurred on Gwynn’s Island. Whatever the case, the soldiers died in great numbers. In June Lord Dunmore wrote, “Had it not been for this horrid disorder I should have had two thousand blacks …” By the time the Royal governor abandoned Virginia, roughly 300 black men, women, and children sailed north with him. Approximately 150 were soldiers.

A View of the Great bridge near Norfolk in Virginia where the Action happened between a detachment of the 14th Regt. & a body of the Rebels. A. A stockade Fort thrown up before the action by the Regulars. B. Entrenchments of the Rebels. C. A [illegible word] Causeway by which the Regulars were forc’d to advance to the attack. D. The Church occupied by the Rebels William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Reaching New York in late August 1776, the Ethiopian Regiment disembarked on Staten Island. The corps soon disbanded and its members dispersed. Some may have attached themselves to the “Company of Negroes,” a labor unit formed in Boston in 1775 and evacuated to Nova Scotia in March 1776. Others likely joined the Black Pioneers, the only black corps to be placed officially on the Loyalist establishment: with that recognition, the unit was allotted the same pay, clothing quality, provisions, and other necessaries, and served under the same discipline, as British troops. All other corps partly or wholly manned by African Americans and fighting for the Crown were privately organized or considered militia and did not serve under the same strictures or enjoy the benefits of the officially recognized Provincial Corps. The Black Pioneers were first formed in 1776, mostly with men from the Carolinas and a few from Georgia. The unit went north with Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton’s forces when they abandoned efforts to capture Charleston, South Carolina in late July. Unarmed, the Pioneers did menial work, from building fortifications and cleaning streets, to hauling wood, food, and other goods. They served in New York, Philadelphia (where they numbered 72 privates, 15 women, and 8 children), Rhode Island, and, later in the war, in Charleston. Many other African Americans labored as individuals or in small groups supporting the British war effort.

In the end, the Ethiopian Regiment served only one year, but its mere existence had far-reaching ramifications. First, it must be noted that Lord Dunmore’s notion of freeing enslaved men for military service had nothing to do with the abolition of slavery, but was a pragmatic act designed to strengthen his own small army and to hurt the rebelling Virginians this is evidenced by the fact that the governor not only retained his own enslaved Africans, but allowed loyal Americans to do so as well. Despite any short-term benefit, Dunmore’s acts had a long-term deleterious effect. One historian notes, “His offer of freedom to slaves to fight against white Virginians and his recruitment of a regiment of black soldiers alienated most of the remaining influential planters and political leaders who until then had stayed loyal to the Crown.” And news of a Loyalist regiment formed of freed slaves soon reached the northern colonies. In 1775 some Whig commanders and politicians were having second thoughts about allowing African Americans, free or enslaved, to serve in the Continental Army this despite the fact that numbers of black soldiers had fought during the 19 April Lexington and Concord operations, and again at Bunker Hill that June. By early 1776 the effort to deny black enlistment had failed and African Americans were (with only a few exceptions) accepted into Continental Army and militia service, a practice that continued to the war’s end. While not certainly known, this policy turnaround may have been at least partly due to the existence of the Ethiopian Regiment. Word that Crown military forces promised freedom for enslaved blacks spread quickly and far. In late September 1777, with Sir William Howe’s army about to capture the capital, Reverend Henry Muhlenberg took in “a nursemaid … with three English children of a prominent family which is fleeing from Philadelphia … There were also two Negroes, servants of the English family. They secretly wished that the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom.”

A glaring dichotomy regarding black soldiers existed between Crown and Whig military forces. Despite the early enlistment of African Americans, in 1777 Major General Howe barred them from serving in Loyalist units on the Crown establishment. British army orders, New York, 16 March 1777:

The Commander in Chief being desirous that the Provincial Forces should be put on the most respectable Footing, and according to his first Intention be composed of His Majesty’s Loyal American Subjects, has directed that all Negroes, Mollattoes, and other Improper Persons who have been admitted into these Corps be immediately discharged. The Inspector Genl. of Provincial Corps will receive particular Orders on this Subject to Prevent such Abuses in Future.

By comparison, Continental Army and Whigs states’ militia were, with very few exceptions, integrated the entire war.

African Americans continued to serve as armed soldiers in Loyalist units after March 1777, but those were mostly militia or irregular corps. Perhaps the best known was a band of “refugees” commanded by “Colonel Tye.” Titus, or Tye, is known to have run away from his Shrewsbury, New Jersey master in November 1775, reputedly going on to serve in the Ethiopian Regiment. He later led a group of black and white Loyalists operating from the fortified Sandy Hook lighthouse. Tye and his men (known colloquially as the “Black Brigade”) harassed local Whigs from early 1779 until his death from wounds in autumn 1780. Tye’s “Brigade” disintegrated after his death. but Loyalist African American partisans, with their white counterparts, continued to operate along the New Jersey coast well into 1782.

Afterword: Smallpox remained a problem for the remainder of the war, particularly for blacks who left bondage behind to take their chances with the King’s forces. Historian Gary Sellick argues that the fact and danger of smallpox affected British military policy towards harboring African Americans as the war progressed. Lord Dunmore armed and inoculated ex-slaves in 1775 and 1776, but from 1777 onwards blacks under British protection, especially in the south, were not immunized. Instead, once infected with smallpox they were left without care and either quarantined or expelled from the lines. From Virginia to South Carolina hundreds, if not thousands, of formerly enslaved African Americans suffered and died as a result of this policy. One reason for this neglect was the 1777 British decision to not accept the service of armed blacks in the Loyalist military establishment. Without any military purpose, armed or otherwise, black men and their families were largely neglected. By contrast, African Americans in Continental service were inoculated along with their white comrades when a large-scale immunization program was instituted in spring 1777.

    (an online reading list) By: Todd W. Braisted, in Moving On: Black Loyalists in the Afro-Atlantic World By: James Corbett Davis By: Elizabeth Fenn By: Benjamin Quarles
  • 'They Were Good Soldiers': African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 By: John U. Rees

The author extends his thanks to Todd W. Braisted, Don N. Hagist, Don Troiani, and Gregory J. W. Urwin for their contributions to this work.

African Americans and the War for Independence

This print from 1779, titled "The siege of Rhode Island, taken from Mr. Brindley's house on the 25th of August, 1778," depicts what would be the 1st Rhode Island Regiment’s first military engagement of the Revolution since allowing African-Americans to enlist. Although its ranks were not exclusively African-American, the regiment was well known for having several companies of African-American soldiers.

In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Act, authorizing a memorial to be erected in the nation’s capital, in what is deemed Area 1, “the National Mall and its environs.” The planned memorial will honor the 5,000 enslaved and free African Americans who served the cause of Independence from 1775-1781. As of 2015, the planned commemorative sculpture is referred to as the National Liberty Memorial. The significant role African Americans played in the War for Independence cannot be disputed. African Americans served with distinction for the American cause from the opening engagements at Lexington and Concord to the climactic siege of Yorktown eight years later. Many also served in the nascent American navy or onboard numerous American privateers. In fact, Crispus Attucks, a Bostonian employed in the maritime industries, was one of the first Americans of any race to die for freedom as one of the five victims of the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Historians continue to debate whether more African Americans served the British than the Americans, but what is clear is that the pivotal driving force behind participation was the promise of freedom or that of a better life.

This print from 1779, titled "The siege of Rhode Island, taken from Mr. Brindley's house on the 25th of August, 1778," depicts what would be the 1st Rhode Island Regiment’s first military engagement of the Revolution since allowing African-Americans to enlist. Although its ranks were not exclusively African-American, the regiment was well known for having several companies of African-American soldiers.

It is crucial to understand that at the time of the War for Independence the institution of slavery was practiced in all thirteen colonies. As the public opinion in the colonies moved towards Independence, Congress organized the Continental Army. States were expected to supply troops for the new army and regiments were organized and designated by states after Independence was declared in 1776. Almost immediately they questioned whether or not free blacks living in the states could join the Continental Army. In the early phase of the war they could not, but as fighting continued and men were needed in the ranks, things began to change. In some cases, free blacks who enlisted served side by side with white patriots in the same units, but the Army created segregated units later on.

In July 1775, George Washington, a Virginian and a slave owner, assumed command of the early Continental Army encamped outside of Boston. Like most slave owners, Washington feared guns in the hands of blacks, particularly those enslaved, believing that armed slaves might foment a rebellion. Slave owners also feared that by placing enslaved persons in the army, there would be an expectation that they would be freed based on their service. Therefore he specifically prohibited bringing blacks into the army’s ranks initially. Yet serving by Washington’s side faithfully throughout the war was William Lee, his manservant, who accompanied Washington into battle.

In November 1775, however, Virginia’s British Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation that he would free any slave who left his master to serve alongside British forces. Within a month 300 had joined what Dunmore dubbed his “Ethiopian Regiment.” The action terrified Patriot slaveholders, and Congress and Washington decided to reverse themselves in response, permitting enlisted free blacks to remain in the army and recruitment of free blacks opened up. Eventually, Washington’s initial skepticism about permitting African Americans into the ranks of the Continental Army turned to admiration as he saw black men fighting for the same cause he did along with their white counterparts. Perhaps it was this appreciation for black contributions to the war effort that led to his eventual decision to free his slaves upon his death, becoming the most prominent founder to do so.

The most famous mixed-race fighting unit on the Patriot side was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, organized in 1778, though their role was limited to the Northern Theatre of the war. The organization of this regiment was endorsed by Washington. Enlisting in the regiment were 88 slaves who were guaranteed freedom at the end of their service. The Rhode Island State Assembly promised compensation to their former masters.

In some instances, enslaved African Americans served in partisan bands like those organized in South Carolina by Francis Marion, better known as the "Swamp Fox." Far fewer black men ultimately served in the South than in the North, however, because of the harsher prevailing racial sentiments. Even still, there were black soldiers, including the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, manning the American siege lines at Yorktown as Washington brought a vice grip around General Lord Cornwallis ending the major military actions of the war. They and others helped dig the parallel American siege lines and were engaged in combat when the British attempted a sortie against the American position.

The results of the War for Independence were mixed for African Americans. M any northern states outlawed slavery after the war, with Vermont being the first new state to join the Union whose state constitution prohibited it. In some northern states, free African Americans who lived there were even granted the franchise for a limited time. This did not mean that African-Americans possessed full equality, however. While northern states abolished slavery, black people still could not officially serve in the military. For southern Loyalists who held slaves, when they evacuated America after the war they took their slaves with them, particularly those who chose to resettle in the British colonies in the Caribbean.

Interestingly, the French nobleman who ardently served the American cause, the Marquis de Lafayette, was the most vocal critic in Washington’s army about slavery and the lack of use of black soldiers to serve their cause. After the war, Lafayette personally attended to the manumission of James Armistead, who had been under his command during the Siege of Yorktown. Armistead changed his last name to Lafayette upon receiving his freedom and happily greeted his former commander when in 1824 a sixty-seven year-old Lafayette made his triumphal return and tour of the United States. When Lafayette visited New Orleans on his tour, he greeted African American Revolutionary War veterans who had migrated there. According to historian Jack Kelly, Lafayette “was troubled by the failure of the founding generation to confront the great paradox of a people dedicated to freedom holding others in bondage.” This paradox would not be resolved for another forty-one years when once more guns went silent in Virginia, at a place called Appomattox Court House.

This unit received 21 Medals of Honor and 4,000 Bronze Stars while dealing with America’s mistrust

Posted On September 03, 2020 01:15:02

After Pearl Harbor, Hawaii did not see widespread internment, unlike the mainland where there was a great deal of distrust towards Japanese residents in the face of possible invasion from Imperial Japan. The local Japanese population was too key to Hawaii’s economy to simply round up, but there was still deep fears they posed a sabotage threat, especially since the fears of an invasion by Imperial Japan were very real.

These fears extended to military personnel of Japanese descent. More than 1,300 soldiers of Japanese origin from the Hawaiian National Guard were pulled from their regiments and were formed into the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) or “One Puka Puka.” They were sent to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, as much as to remove them as a security risk as to train them.

The 100th performed well in training, and the War Department decided to form a Japanese-American combat unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Nisei men, composed of the children of immigrants who had American citizenship, could sign a loyalty questionnaire and be registered for the draft, though many refused and hundreds spent time in federal prison.

(Photo: U.S. Army)

The vast majority of the volunteers came from Hawaii, but over 800 were recruited from the internment camps on the mainland. The 100th and the volunteers joined at Camp Shelby, Miss., and formed the 442nd, designed as a self-sufficient combat unit with its own artillery and logistics.

It was almost a given that the 442nd or any other Japanese-American unit would not see service in the Pacific, since there were still widespread suspicions concerning their loyalty, but many of the recruits were assigned to the Military Intelligence Service. They were then trained in language and intelligence skills, and were assigned as an interpreters, interrogators, and spies in the Pacific theatre, playing a crucial intelligence role.

While the rest of the unit trained in Mississippi, the 100th departed to join the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa, which was preparing for the invasion of Italy. After joining the Italian Campaign at Salerno, the 100th participated in the terribly bloody fighting at Monte Cassino in early 1944, site of a famous Benedictine monastery that was destroyed by Allied bombing. The battalion took such heavy casualties that some war correspondents starting referring to them as the “Purple Heart Battalion.” By the time the battalion was pulled of the line, some of the platoons were down to less than 10 men. The 100th later received its first of four presidential unit citations.

(Photo: U.S. Army)

Following further intense fighting at Anzio and assisting in the capture of Rome, the 100th was joined there by the rest of the 442nd, though the 100th was still considered a quasi-separate unit due to its distinguished record. Entering combat together on June 26, 1944, they faced a series of bloody actions conquering Italian towns and strong points, including major actions at Belvedere, Castellina Marrittima, and Hill 140. After months of grinding combat, they were sent to Marseilles in southern France, and the most celebrated episode in the 442nd’s history occurred with the rescue of the “Lost Battalion.”

The 442nd was sent north into the Vosges mountains to seize the city of Bruyere, whose surrounding hills had been heavily fortified by the Germans. They succeeded in taking the city after a bloody series of attacks and enemy counterattacks, but received almost no rest before being sent to the rescue of the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, originally part of the Texas National Guard. It had been cut off and surrounded by German forces after a failed attack near the town of Biffontaine, and all attempts to resupply it by air or break it out had failed.

Faced with heavy fog, steep terrain, dense forests, and heavy enemy artillery, the 442nd saw their most intense combat of the war, suffering more than 800 casualties before linking up and relieving the 211 besieged survivors of the 141st. After the rescue, they continued to press on to Saint-Die until being pulled off the line on Nov. 17. In a little over three weeks, the 442nd had suffered more than 2,000 casualties. The 100th alone was down from a strength of over 1,400 a year prior to less than 300 men. When the commander of the 36th Division called an inspection of the 442nd later, he grew angry over what he saw as soldiers missing formation, only to be told that those present were all that were left.

FIGHTING FOR RESPECT: African-American Soldiers in WWI

As the people of the United States watched World War I ignite across Europe, African American citizens saw an opportunity to win the respect of their white neighbors. America was a segregated society and African Americans were considered, at best, second class citizens. Yet despite that, there were many African American men willing to serve in the nation’s military, but even as it became apparent that the United States would enter the war in Europe, blacks were still being turned away from military service.

When the United States declared war against Germany in April of 1917, War Department planners quickly realized that the standing Army of 126,000 men would not be enough to ensure victory overseas. The standard volunteer system proved to be inadequate in raising an Army, so on 18 May 1917 Congress passed the Selective Service Act requiring all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. Even before the act was passed, African American males from all over the country eagerly joined the war effort. They viewed the conflict as an opportunity to prove their loyalty, patriotism, and worthiness for equal treatment in the United States.

Following the Civil War, the Army disbanded volunteer “colored” regiments, and established six Regular Army regiments of black troops with white officers. In 1869, the infantry regiments were reorganized into the 24th and 25th Infantry. The two cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, were retained. These regiments were posted in the West and Southwest where they were heavily engaged in the Indian War. During the Spanish-American War, all four regiments saw service.

When World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. The men in these units were considered heroes in their communities. Within one week of Wilson’s declaration of war, the War Department had to stop accepting black volunteers because the quotas for African Americans were filled.

When it came to the draft, however, there was a reversal in usual discriminatory policy. Draft boards were comprised entirely of white men. Although there were no specific segregation provisions outlined in the draft legislation, blacks were told to tear off one corner of their registration cards so they could easily be identified and inducted separately. Now instead of turning blacks away, the draft boards were doing all they could to bring them into service, southern draft boards in particular. One Georgia county exemption board discharged forty-four percent of white registrants on physical grounds and exempted only three percent of black registrants based on the same requirements. It was fairly common for southern postal workers to deliberately withhold the registration cards of eligible black men and have them arrested for being draft dodgers. African American men who owned their own farms and had families were often drafted before single white employees of large planters. Although comprising just ten percent of the entire United States population, blacks supplied thirteen percent of inductees.

While still discriminatory, the Army was far more progressive in race relations than the other branches of the military. Blacks could not serve in the Marines, and could only serve limited and menial positions in the Navy and the Coast Guard. By the end of World War I, African Americans served in cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer, and artillery units, as well as serving as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists, and intelligence officers.

Although technically eligible for many positions in the Army, very few blacks got the opportunity to serve in combat units. Most were limited to labor battalions. The combat elements of the U.S. Army were kept completely segregated. The four established all-black Regular Army regiments were not used in overseas combat roles but instead were diffused throughout American held territory. There was such a backlash from the African American community, however, that the War Department finally created the 92d and 93d Divisions, both primarily black combat units, in 1917.

With the creation of African American units also came the demand for African-American officers. The War Department thought the soldiers would be more likely to follow men of their own color, thereby reducing the risk of any sort of uprising. Most leaders of the African American community agreed, and it was decided that the Army would create a segregated, but supposedly equal, officer training camp. In May 1917, Fort Des Moines opened its doors to black officer-trainees. Approximately 1,250 men attended the camp in Des Moines, Iowa.

Two hundred fifty of those men were already noncommissioned officers, and the rest were civilians. The average man attending the camp only had to have a high school education, and only twelve percent scored above average in the classification tests given by the Army.

Run by then LTC Charles C. Ballou, the fort’s staff of twelve West Point graduates, and a few noncommissioned officers from the four original all-black regiments put the candidates through a rigorous training routine. They practiced drilling with and without arms, signaling, physical training, memorizing the organization of the regiment, reading maps, and training on the rifle and bayonet. However, as Ballou noted after the war, the men doing the training did not take the job very seriously, and seemed to consider the school, and the candidates, a waste of time. Consequently, the War Department determined that the instruction at Fort Des Moines was poor and inadequate. Also adding to the poor training was the fact that no one knew exactly what to expect in France, so it was difficult to train as precisely as was needed.

On 15 October 1917, 639 African-American men received their commissions as either captain or first or second lieutenant, and were assigned to infantry, artillery, and engineer units with the 92d Division. This was to be the first and only class to graduate from Fort Des Moines the War Department shut it down soon after their departure. Future black candidates attended either special training camps in Puerto Rico (from which 433 officers graduated), the Philippines, Hawaii, and Panama, or regular officer training facilities in the United States .

The Army had no written policy on what to do if an officer training camp became integrated, so each camp was allowed to decide for itself the manner in which the integration was executed. Some were completely segregated and others allowed for blacks and whites to train together. Over 700 additional black officers graduated from these camps, bringing the total number to 1,353.

Although African Americans were earning higher positions in the Army, that did not necessarily mean they were getting equal treatment. Black draftees were treated with extreme hostility when they arrived for training. White men refused to salute black officers and black officers were often barred from the officer’s clubs and quarters. The War Department rarely interceded, and discrimination was usually overlooked or sometimes condoned. Because many Southern civilians protested having blacks from other states inhabit nearby training camps, the War Department stipulated that no more than one-fourth of the trainees in any Army camp in the U.S. could be African American.

Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps, black soldiers were often treated badly and sometimes went for long periods without proper clothing. There were also reports of blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks. Some were forced to eat outside in the winter months, while others went without a change of clothes for months at a time. Not all black soldiers suffered treatment like this, however, as those who were lucky enough to train at newly erected National Army cantonments lived in comfortable barracks and had sanitary latrines, hot food, and plenty of clothes.

The first black troops sent overseas belonged to service units. Because the work that these units did was absolutely invaluable to the war effort, commanders promised special privileges in return for high-yield results. With such motivation, the soldiers would often work for twenty-four hours straight unloading ships and transporting men and materiel to and from various bases, ports, and railroad depots. As the war continued and soldiers took to the battlefields, black labor units became responsible for digging trenches, removing unexploded shells from fields, clearing disabled equipment and barbed wire, and burying soldiers killed in action. Despite all the hard and essential work they provided, African American stevedores received the worst treatment of all black troops serving in World War I.

Although not nearly as respected as any of the white soldiers involved in the war effort, African American combat troops, in many respects, were much better off than the laborers. The two combat divisions–the 92d and 93d Divisions–had two completely different experiences while fighting the Great War.

The 92d Division was created in October 1917 and put under the command of BG Charles C. Ballou, who had organized the first African American officer candidate school. Organized in a manner similar to the other American divisions, the 92d was made up of four infantry regiments, three field artillery regiments, a trench mortar battery, three machine gun battalions, a signal battalion, an engineer regiment, an engineer train, and various support units.

Although in no case did a black officer command a white officer, most of the officers (up to the rank of first lieutenant) in the unit were African American. Unlike just about every other American unit training to go into battle, soldiers from the 92d were forced to train separately while in the United States. The War Department, fearing racial uprisings, was willing to sacrifice the unit’s ability to develop cohesion and pride. The lack of a strong bond between the men was one of the factors that led to the unit’s poor performance in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

The personal animosity between LTG Robert Bullard, commander of the American Second Army, and BG Ballou was another problem. Bullard was not only a staunch racist, but he also had a rivalry going with BG Ballou. In order to make both Ballou and the black soldiers appear completely incompetent, Bullard spread misinformation about the successes and failures of the 92d.

Even COL Allen J. Greer, Ballou’s chief of staff, was in on the plan to sabotage the reputation of his African American unit, and helped put a negative twist on stories from the front lines. Regardless of how well the 92d Division actually did on the battlefield, it was virtually impossible to overcome the slander from prejudiced officers.

Following some initial successes in Lorraine in mid-August, on 20 September 1918, the 92d was ordered to proceed to the Argonne Forest in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The division reached the front lines just before the first assault. The 368th Infantry Regiment immediately received orders to fill a gap between the American 77th Division and the French 37th Division. However, due to their lack of training with the French, shortages of equipment, and unfamiliarity with the terrain, the regiment did not successfully complete this important assignment. The failure to accomplish this crucial mission blemished the 92d’s combat record, and it was often used by military authorities for more than thirty years to prove the inadequacy of African American soldiers in combat.

After the disaster in the Argonne, the entire division was sent to a relatively quiet area of the front in the Marbache sector. Their primary mission was nevertheless a dangerous one: harass the enemy with frequent patrols. The danger of the assignment was reflected in the 462 casualties sustained in just the first month of patrolling. Although American commanders were dissatisfied with the unit’s performance, the French obviously had a different opinion–they decorated members of the 365th Infantry and 350th Machine Gun Battalion for their aggressiveness and bravery.

By late 1918, the German Army was in full retreat, the Allied Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, wanted to apply heavy pressure for a decisive breakthrough and defeat. The 92d was ordered to take the heights east of Champney, France, on 10 November 1918. Although only lasting one day, the attack was fierce and bloody, costing the division over 500 casualties.

As the 92d Division struggled to clear its reputation, the 93d Division had a much more successful experience. Commanded by BG Roy Hoffman, the 93d Division was also organized in December 1917. Unlike other American infantry divisions, the 93d was limited to four infantry regiments, three of which were comprised of National Guard units from New York, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and Tennessee. Being made up of mostly draftees and National Guardsmen, the 93d lacked any sort of consistency in its experience or composition. The unit also lacked its full number of combat units and support elements, and as a result never attained full divisional strength. Seeming to have odds stacked against it, the 93d fared remarkably well when faced with battle.

National Archives

The situation was desperate in France, and with exhausted and dwindling armies, the French begged the United States for men. GEN John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, promised them four American regiments. He decided to give them the regiments of the 93d Division since the French, who had used French colonial troops from Senegal, had experience in employing black soldiers in combat. The first African American combat troops to set foot on French soil belonged to the 93d Division. Armed, organized, and equipped as a French unit, the 93d quickly adjusted to their new assignment. Although experiencing some difficulties like language problems, the black soldiers were treated as equals.

The 369th Infantry was the first regiment of the 93d Division to reach France. They arrived in the port city of Brest in December 1917. On 10 March, after three months of duty with the Services of Supply, the 369th received orders to join the French 16th Division in Givry en Argonne for additional training. After three weeks the regiment was sent to the front lines in a region just west of the Argonne Forest. For nearly a month they held their position against German assaults, and after only a brief break from the front, the 369th was placed once again in the middle of the German offensive, this time at Minacourt, France. From 18 July to 6 August 1918, the 369th Infantry, now proudly nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” proved their tenacity once again by helping the French 161st Division drive the Germans from their trenches during the Aisne-Marne counter-offensive.

In this three-week period, the Germans were making many small night raids into Allied territory. During one of these raids, a member of the 369th Infantry, CPL Henry Johnson, fought off an entire German raiding party using only a pistol and a knife. Killing four of the Germans and wounding many more, his actions allowed a wounded comrade to escape capture and led to the seizure of a stockpile of German arms. Johnson and his comrade were wounded and both received the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry. Johnson was also promoted to sergeant.

From 26 September to 5 October, the 369th participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and continued to fight well throughout the remainder of the war. The regiment fought in the front lines for a total of 191 days, five days longer than any other regiment in the AEF. France awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, along with presenting 171 individual awards for exceptional gallantry in action.

National Guard Heritage Series.

Although the 369th won much of the glory for the 93d Division, the 370th, 371st, and 372d Regiments, each assigned to different French divisions, also proved themselves worthy of acclaim at the front. The 370th fought hard in both the Meuse-Argonne and Oise-Aisne campaigns. Seventy-one members of the regiment received the French Croix de Guerre, and another twenty-one soldiers received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Company C, 371st Infantry, earned the Croix de Guerre with Palm. The 371st Regiment spent more than three months on the front lines in the Verdun area, and for its extraordinary service in the Champagne offensive, the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In addition, three of the 371st’s officers were awarded the French Legion of Honor, 123 men won the Croix de Guerre, and twenty-six earned the DSC.

The 372d Infantry also performed admirably during the American assault in Champagne, and afterwards assisted in the capture of Monthois. It was there the regiment faced strong resistance and numerous counterattacks, resulting in many instances of hand-to-hand combat. In less than two weeks of front line service, the 372d suffered 600 casualties. The regiment earned a unit Croix de Guerre with Palm, and in addition, forty-three officers, fourteen noncommissioned officers, and 116 privates received either the Croix de Guerre or the DSC.

On 11 November 1918 at 1100, the armistice between the Allies and Central Powers went into effect. Like all other American soldiers, the African American troops reveled in celebration and took justifiable pride in the great victory they helped achieve. It was not without great cost: the 92d Division suffered 1,647 battle casualties and the 93d Division suffered 3,534. Expecting to come home heroes, black soldiers received a rude awakening upon their return. Back home, many whites feared that African Americans would return demanding equality and would try to attain it by employing their military training. As the troops returned, there was an increase of racial tension. During the summer and fall of 1919, anti-black race riots erupted in twenty-six cities across America. The lynching of blacks also increased from fifty-eight in 1918 to seventy-seven in 1919. At least ten of those victims were war veterans, and some were lynched while in uniform. Despite this treatment, African American men continued to enlist in the military, including veterans of World War I that came home to such violence and ingratitude. They served their county in the brief period of peace after the World War I, and many went on to fight in World War II. It was not until the 1948 that President Harry S Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military, although it took the Korean War to fully integrate the Army. African Americans finally began to receive the equal treatment their predecessors had earned in combat in France during World War I, and as far back as the American Revolution.

For more reading on African American soldiers in WWI, please see: The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in WWI by Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri, The Right to Fight: A History of African-Americans in the Military, by Gerald Astor and Soldiers of Freedom, by Kai Wright.

America’s First Black Regiment Gained Their Freedom by Fighting Against the British - HISTORY

The Revolution's Black Soldiers
by Robert A. Selig

Doctor Selig received his Ph.D. in history cum laude from Universität Würzburg, 1988
He has most recently been Visiting Professor of History and German at Hope College in Michigan.
Recipient of many awards and grants, his articles have appeared in American Heritage, Colonial Williamsburg (where this work first appeared in Summer 1997), Military History Quarterly, William and Mary Quarterly, and others. Other fine articles by him include Franz Ludwig Michel , the story of an early visitor to America, Georg Daniel Flohr's Journal, soon to be expanded into a book, and Deux-Ponts Germans, as well as articles on Admiral DeGrasse at Yorktown and Lauzun's Legion.
He is available to lecture on the present topic. He may be contacted by clicking on his name above, or visit Dr. Selig's website by clicking here.

John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, in April 1772 expressed his conviction to Lord Dartmouth, Bntish secretary of state for the colonies, that "in case of a War" the slaves, "attached by no tye to their Master or to the Country" would "join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves by which means a Conquest of this Country would inevitably be effected in a very short time." Dunmore's fears were shared by many white Virginians, though none expected that three years later Dunmore himself would attempt "a Conquest of this Country" with the help of African-American slaves.

The early 1770s were a period of slave unrest in Virginia, prompting the city of Williamsburg to establish a night watch in July 1772 to apprehend "disorderly People, Slaves as well as others." Slave restiveness increased when news of the Somersett case reached the colonies in September 1772. James Somersett, a slave taken to England by his master Charles Steuart, had run away. Recaptured and in chains in the hull of a ship bound for Jamaica, he sued for his freedom. In June 1772, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King's Bench, held that slavery "is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law." As "the law of England" neither "allowed" nor "approved" of slavery, Mansfield ruled that "the black must be discharged."

Mansfield's decision outlawed slavery only in England it did not apply to British colonies. But that was immaterial to American slaves. In January 1773, the General Court in Boston received the first of three petitions in which slaves pleaded their freedom with the argument that Mansfield's decision should indeed apply to the colonies, where they were "held in a state of Slavery within a free and christian Country."

By September 1773, the first of Virginia's 250,000 slaves were also trying to get "out of the Colony, particularly to Britain" - so noted John Austin Finnie's advertisement for runaways Bacchus and Amy - "where they imagine they will be free." The king was on their side - or so slaves thought - and against their masters, who feared a British-instigated slave revolt. Following the discovery in November 1774 of slaves conspiring to desert "when the English troops should arrive," James Madison wrote to William Bradford of his conviction that "If america & Britain come to an hostile rupture I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may & will be promoted" in an attempt to preserve Virginia for the crown of King George III.

When tensions between Dunmore and Virginia's ruling elite increased in early 1775, the ground was well prepared for his lordship to "arm all my own Negroes and receive all others that will come to me who I shall declare free," as he wrote to Dartmouth on March 1. Dunmore could argue that since the colonists were clamoring for English law, they could get a taste of it, Somersett and all. The slaves, on the other hand, considered the government in London and its local representatives to be sympathetic to their cause, and they were only waiting for the sign to take up arms to "reduce the refractory people of this Colony to obedience."

Armed conflict was looming, and Dunmore ordered Royal Marines to seize the gunpowder stored in the Williamsburg Magazine during the night of April 20-21. When Virginia threatened to erupt in open violence, Dunmore backed down. Forced to pay restitution for the powder, Dunmore lost his temper in front of the town leaders. Williamsburg resident Dr. William Pasteur heard the governor say that he would "declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes." He boasted he would have "all the slaves on the side of the government". By mid-May, rumors of Dunmore's plans had spread all the way to Boston, from where General Thomas Gage, Governor of Massachusetts, informed Dartmouth: "We hear that a Declaration his Lordship has made, of proclaiming all the Negroes free, who should join him, has Startled the Insurgents."

Gage was jumping the gun but not by much. On June 8, Dunmore fled Williamsburg for the safety of the man-of-war Fowey at Yorktown. The Virginia Convention quickly assured the governor of his own personal safety but expressed its extreme displeasure of this "most diabolical" scheme "meditated, and generally recommended, by a Person of great Influence, to offer Freedom to our slaves, and turn them against their Masters." But Dunmore felt that he had no alternative. His ranks reduced to some 300 soldiers, sailors, and loyalists, he let it be known that he welcomed supporters of any skin color. As word spread along the coast, about 100 black runaways reached Dunmore's fleet during the fall of 1775. In early November his troops routed a corps of Virginia militia at Kemp's Landing. That was the signal for the publication of Dunmore's long-anticipated proclamation to American slaves.

Dated November 7, it declared "all indented 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" This was not a general emancipation of slaves and indentured servants. Dunmore invited only those slaves to his banner who were owned by rebels, and of those, only males could bear arms.

The response was overwhelming. By December 1, about 300 runaways were carrying muskets and wearing the garb of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, the words "Liberty to Slaves" emblazoned on their chests. During the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, they accounted for about half of Dunmore's 600 men. After losing 17 killed and 49 wounded, he retreated to his fleet.

The Virginia Convention decreed death to "all Negro or other Slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection." Those who laid down their arms and returned within ten days would be pardoned all others would be sold in the West Indies. To set an example, 32 black runaways taken at Great Bridge were ordered sold in the Caribbean in January 1776.

Despite a fever epidemic and reports of "Hungry bellies, naked backs, and no fuel. the most cruel and inhuman treatment," runaways were lured to the coast. On March 30, 1776, Dunmore informed Lord Germain: "I have been endeavoring to raise two regiments here - one of white people, the other of black. The former goes on very slowly, but the latter very well."

By the summer of 1776, at least 800 blacks "willing to bear arms" had joined Dunmore's force now quartered on Gwynn's Island. When he left Virginia for good on August 7, only about 300 were still alive all others had died of fevers. Once Dunmore had cast anchor in New York seven days later, the regiment was dissolved, and the former soldiers left to fend for themselves.

Dunmore's proclamation had been driven as much by political as by military considerations, but his early attempt at using blacks as soldiers never became general policy. Sir William Howe, who had replaced Gage in September 1775, was personally opposed to their use and dismissed blacks wherever he could find them. Provincial forces wore ordered to "be put on the most Respectable Footing [and] all Negroes, Molattoes and other Improper Persons who have been admitted into these Corps be immediately discharged." King George's army would remain a white army.

It is hard to estimate how many free blacks and slaves served in the Royal Army, but whatever the number it is only a fraction of those who were willing to wear red coats-if only the British had let them. It is not that the blacks were 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, as their response to Dunmore's proclamation showed. But freedom, the price for black help in the war, was a price neither the British nor their loyalist allies were prepared to pay.

As black soldiers were becoming a rarity in the British army, their numbers were increasing on the American side. When Congress instructed the states in September 1776 to raise 88 infantry battalions, few African-Americans were left in the Continental Army. Southern opposition had resulted in the exclusion of most black men. However, the realities of war forced Congress and the states to reevaluate their policies.

Despite bonuses and bounties, recruits were slow to sign up. To bring the Continental Army up to strength, Congress ordered the states in January 1777 to fill their units "by drafts, from their militia, or in any other way." As Virginia was unable to meet her quota of 10,200 men with volunteers, a draft based on the existing militia lists had to be considered. The Militia Act of the summer of 1775 had required that "all free male persons, hired servants, and apprentices between the ages of 16 and 50 years . . . be enrolled or forced into companies." This excluded slaves by definition, but free blacks were registered to serve, though "without arms."

Registration on a militia list was one thing, serving in the Continental Army quite another. The militia usually served short-term and hardly ever outside state boundaries. The Continental Army wanted long-term soldiers who served wherever needed, an unappealing prospect for Virginians at a time of heightened slave unrest and the threat of wholesale desertion of their black property to the British.

The lottery-based draft law enacted in May 1777 greatly increased the number of blacks in the Virginia Line. Free blacks were the first to be called up, as Virginia tightened the enforcement of the draft. "It was thought that they could best be spared," Governor Thomas Nelson informed George Washington.

Very few free blacks were as wealthy as James Harris of Charles City County, who was able to afford a substitute to fight in his place in 1780 most had no choice but to join up. But slave owners could afford substitutes and, when faced with a draft notice, many a master presented a slave to the recruiting officer for a freeman and a substitute. Many a runaway told the nearest recruiter that he was a freeman, anxious to fight.

More often than not, he was accepted without too many questions the army was always short of men. General Washington himself had opened the door for African-Americans in his general orders of January 12, 1777, in which he instructed recruiters to "enlist none but Freemen," the implication being that the recruit could be black just as long as he was free. To put an end to such unpatriotic behavior on the part of some masters and to stop the self-emancipation of slaves, the Virginia Legislature amended the 1775 Militia Law in June 1777 by "forbidding any recruiting officers within this Commonwealth to enlist any negro or mulatto into the service of this, or either of the United States, until such Negro shall produce a certificate . that he is a freeman."

During the winter of 1777-78, dozens of black Virginians served in every one of the state regiments, freezing, starving, and dying at Valley Forge. By February 1778, the survivors were marching with white comrades through the snow, practicing Baron von Steuben's as yet unfamiliar drill. When the Steuben-trained army proved its mettle at Monmouth in June, about 700 blacks fought side-by-side with whites. Eight weeks later, an army report listed 755 blacks in the Continental Army, including 138 Blacks in the Virginia Line.

Partially in response to Monmouth, Sir Henry Clinton, who had replaced Howe in May 1778, shifted the theater of war to the South. On June 30, 1779, Clinton promised in his Philippsburg Declaration that "every NEGRO who shall desert the Rebel Standard, [is granted] full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper." In response, tens of thousands of slaves fled behind British lines.

In May 1780 Charleston fell, and most of the Virginia Line were taken prisoners. When General Horatio Gates lost at Camden in August, Virginia lay virtually defenseless before Lord Cornwallis. The military situation was serious enough that a debate concerning the arming of slaves began in the new capital of Richmond. There was ample precedence for such a step.

New Jersey's Militia Act of May 1777 permitted masters to enlist slaves as substitutes. New Hampshire opened the door to the recruitment of slaves to fill the state's Continental quota in the fall of that year, and Connecticut soon followed suit. In October 1780 an all black unit, the 2nd Company, 4th Connecticut Regiment, was formed. That company, some 48 black privates and NCOs under four white officers, existed until November 1782.

In January 1778, General Washington had given his approval to Rhode Island's plan to raise an entire regiment of black slaves. Over the next five years 250 former slave and freedmen served in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Massachusetts' all-black unit, the Bucks of America under Samuel Middleton, the only black commissioned officer in the Continental Army, probably also had its origins early in 1778. Similar to Rhode Island, the state bought and emancipated slaves willing to become soldiers. In October 1780, even Maryland accepted "any able-bodied slave between 16 and 40 years of age, who voluntarily enters into service . . . with the consent and agreement of his master." New York would begin to recruit slaves in March 1781.

Although the white sails of Major General Alexander Leslie's fleet with 2,500 British troops on board had already appeared in Hampton Roads, the Virginia Legislature refused to arm slaves. Instead it voted in October 1780 to grant every recruit who enlisted for the duration of the war 300 acres of land and the choice between a healthy black male slave between the ages of 10 and 30 years or £60 in specie. The slave bonus would be raised by a special tax on planters who owned more than 20 slaves. The use of slaves as bounties later became known as "Sumter's Law," after General Thomas Sumter, who began offering Tory slaves as enlistment bonuses in South Carolina in April 1781.

Military necessity made the Continental Army and the Virginia State Line an integrated force. Observed a Hessian officer: "The Negro can take the field instead of his master, and therefore no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied and strong fellows." What the diarist did not report was that every Hessian regiment contained black soldiers as well.

Britain's German auxiliaries had disembarked in New York during the early summer of 1776 by March 1777 they had hegun to recruit black volunteers. Facing manpower shortages as severe as those of the British, they quickly tapped the labor pool of runaways. Hundreds served as laborers or servants, but the Germans readily put blacks in uniform as well.

Most of the 115 African-Americans on Hessen-Cassel and Hessen-Hanau regimental rosters came from southern states. Many were very young, mere children of 11, 12, 13 years, who served as drummers and fifers, freeing up older, taller whites for service with the musket. Hessian records from 1777 to 1783 show 83 black drummers as well as 3 fifers.

On the eve of departure for Europe, the Hessians discharged some two dozen black men who wanted to stay in America. About 30 soldiers plus an unknown number of officer servants not on regimental rosters, some with their wives and children, crossed the Atlantic for Cassel, where they arrived in late 1783.

A contingent of Brunswick troops under Baron Friedrich Adolf von Riedesel that had been captured at Saratoga spent four years as part of the Convention Army interned around Charlottesville. In February 1781 the exchanged Baron Riedesel encouraged his officers to recruit black soldiers from among the refugees in New York. Among them was James Barkes of Williamsburg, possibly a former slave of Norfolk merchant James Parker and a survivor of Dunmore's regiment.

In France, Africans had served in the armed forces since the late 17th century. When the Comte de Rochambeau's expeditionary corps stepped ashore in Newport in 1780, it counted at least one black soldier in its ranks: Jean-Baptiste Pandoua from Madagascar, who had joined the Bourbonnais regiment as a musician in 1777. He deserted in June 1782, while his regiment was quartered in Virginia . Unlike other participants in the war the French did not, could not, recruit American blacks. After all, they had come to aid the Americans, not to steal their property.

In June 1781, the French and American armies joined forces at White Plains. Baron Closen, a German officer in the French Royal Deux-Ponts, estimated the American army to be about one fourth black, about 1,200 --1,500 men out of less than 6,000 Continentals! On the eve of its decisive victory over Lord Cornwallis, the Continental Army had reached a degree of integration it would not achieve again for another 200 years. Among the troops at White Plains was the Rhode Island Regiment (the two bataillons had been consolidated on 1 January 1781) with its high percentage of African-Americans, which Closen considered the best American unit: "the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvres.

In July it was off for Virginia, where the Marquis de Lafayette had been shadowing Cornwallis for months. His success in avoiding the earl was due partly to James Armistead (portrait at left shows Armistead in later life), the slave of William Armistead of New Kent County. Born around 1760, the young black man had approached Lafayette in Williamsburg or during the journey to Annapolis, where he arrived on April 3, 1781. Armistead had permission from his master to serve with the marquis as a servant. But Lafayette had other plans for him: Use him to gain reliable intelligence about Cornwallis's plans.

Lafayette's attempts at infiltrating British headquarters were futile until the first week of July, when Cornwallis hired James Armistead to spy on the Americans. Though Lafayette had to inform Washington on July 31 that "His lordship is So Shy of His papers that My Honest friend Says He Cannot get at them," the written and oral reports of the unlikely double agent kept the allies apprised of British plans. On August 25, Lafayette could report that Cornwallis had begun "fortifing at York." On September 28, the siege began.

The First Rhode Island Regiment, the only all-black American unit at the siege, formed part of Major General Benjamin Lincoln's division. The soldiers were among the 4,300 men who dug the first parallel on the evening of October 6 about 550 yards from the enemy. They were in the trenches on the 9th, when the first American artillery shells hit Yorktown. And they were in the trenches again on the night of the 15th, when Lord Cornwallis made his only serious sortie against the Franco-American siege lines.

Two days later, surrender negotiations began in the early afternoon of the 19th the defeated British army and German allies laid down their arms. Yorktown lay in ruins. Death and destruction were everywhere. "All over the place and wherever you looked," Private Georg Daniel Flohr of the Royal Deux-Ponts saw "corpses. lying about that had not been buried the larger part of these were Mohren." They were the corpses of black Hessians and black Frenchmen, black Englishmen and black Americans. They all had fought each other at Yorktown.

Among the survivors, a few black Hessians made it to Germany, and a smaller number was spirited away by the French. Black patriots numbering some 5,000, including about 500 black Virginians, soon went home, too.

In 1782, Virginia had passed a law permitting manumission with the stipulation that former owners remain responsible for manumitted slaves unable to support themselves. Between 1782 and 1792, about 1,000 slaves, undoubtedly including some who had fought for their masters, were manumitted by them. But more were returned to slavery, so that even a legislature such as Virginia's, dominated as it was by slave owners, spoke out against the obvious injustice.

In the fall of 1783, the Assembly passed a bill condemning owners who "contrary to principles of justice and to their own solemn promise" kept their soldier substitutes as slaves. They were freed by legislative decree with instructions to the attorney general of Virginia to act on behalf of any former slave held in servitude despite his enlistment. how many slaves received their freedom as a result of this bill is not known, since a slave could not himself initiate legal proceedings for his own manumission.

But if the number of slaves freed by the legislature as a reward for nonmilitary service is any indication, they were few. Eight slaves are known to have been granted freedom by the legislature for service in the Revolutionary War.

Among them was James Armistead, who had slipped out of Yorktown before the siege began and returned to Lafayette's service. When Cornwallis paid a courtesy call on the marquis, he was surprised to encounter a black man there he considered to be in his pay.

In October 1784, Lafayette (in the picture on the left with Armistead holding his horse) penned a certificate declaring that James Armistead had done "Essential Service" in collecting "Intelligence from the Ennemy's Camp" and was therefore "Entitled to Every Reward His Situation Can Admit of." The document in hand, Armistead hurried to the legislature, where his manumission request came up in December. But more than two years would pass until his emancipation on January 9, 1787.

"At the peril of his life" he had "found means to frequent the British camp" and collect information essential to the American cause. Now he was free, while his master was compensated at the going auction-block figure.

In 1816, he bought 40 acres of land in New Kent County, where he raised his family. In 1819, Virginia granted him $60 relief money and put him on the regular pension roll at $40 a year. In 1824, the marquis and James Lafayette - as he now called himself - met one last time in Richmond, during Lafayette's triumphant tour of the United States.

Colonial militias were typically composed of most adult men capable of bearing arms in a community. Unlike a standing army, militias served primarily as a manpower pool from which soldiers were drawn as needed in emergencies and for expeditions against Indians. Originally militias were very inclusive, but as the 17th century neared its end, they became more selective. Indentured servants, free blacks, and slaves were the first to he purged.

Virginia led the way among the colonies in excluding blacks from militia service, when the House of Burgesses required in January 1639 that only white Virginians arm themselves. Yet, in a pattern that was to repeat itself into the 18th century, both sides armed slaves and promised them freedom in exchange for military service in 1676 during Bacon's Rebellion.

The year 1705 brought the first true slave code to Virginia. Under this code, slaves were - and remained - excluded from military service. Skin color rather than legal status determined the role of free blacks as well. In many ways they, too, were subject to the slave code.

The code of 1705 denied the few free blacks living in the colony the right to serve in the militia on an equal footing with whites. The code of 1723, confirmed in 1748, assigned free blacks only a role as drummers or trumpeters. But in emergencies such as invasion, insurrection, or rebellion, they could "march with the militia and . . . do the duty of pioneers or such other servile labor as they shall be directed to perform."

After 1723, "no negro, mulatto, or indian whatsoever" was allowed to carry a firearm under penalty of up to 39 lashes. Only a black slave who lived on the frontier and who had a license from the justice of the peace, or if he was a free man and "enlisted in the militia. may be permitted to keep one gun, powder and shot."

This was the law in 1754, when Virginia prepared for yet another war with France and her Indian allies. In a move that did not endear him to white Virginians, General Edward Braddock seized upon this provision and in mid-March 1755 wrote Robert Napier from Williamsburg: "There are here a number of mulattoes and free Negroes of whom I shall make bat men, whom the province are to furnish with pay and frocks." In July, Braddock's expedition ended in disaster at the Monongahela River, despite last-minute orders that batmen carry firearms and ready themselves for combat.

To ward off the expected Franco-Indian invasion, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie pressured the House of Burgesses for a new militia law. But the assembly only authorized the enlistment of free blacks as drummers, trumpeters, or pioneers. The following year, 1756, the legislature increased the authorized strength of Colonel George Washington's Virginia Regiment to 1,500 men. But when white recruits did not join up in sufficient numbers, free blacks took their places. Yet the Militia Law of 1757 still denied free blacks the right to carry arms. On the frontier, however, military necessity voided legislative intent. Some 36 black soldiers formed part of Washington's force ready to attack Fort Duquesne in October 1758.

What kept crown officials and Virginia planters from using the black manpower potential of the colony was fear. They were afraid that in an insurrection, free and freed blacks might make common cause with their own slaves. In July 1755, Governor Robert Dinwiddie wrote to Charles Carter that "the villany of the Negroes on an emergency of govt is w't I always fear."

Twenty years later, in early 1775, frightened Virginians sold back into slavery a freed black named Sam, "when it was discovered he was attempting to inveigle away a number of negroes to the new or Indian country." Sam had purchased his freedom in 1772 and served with Lord Dunmore against the Indians in the late summer and fall of 1774.

When Sam ran away from his new master in May 1775, a new militia law was being debated in Richmond, which sounded inclusive enough when it assigned the right to serve in the militia to "all free male persons, hired servants, and apprentices between the ages of 16 and 50 years." Blacks, even if free and male, had to register for militia duty but could only serve "without arms." Lord Dunmore's proclamation of November 1775 and the manpower needs of the war on the American side soon rendered that restriction obsolete.

Recommended Further Reading

Aptheker, Herbert. "A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States." New York, 1962.

Buckley, Robert N., "Slaves in Red Coats: The British West India Regiments, 1795-1815". New Haven: Yale U, 1979.

Crow, Jeffrey J. "The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina." North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1996.

Davis, Burke, "Black Heroes of the American Revolution." New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976. Paperback, 82 pages.
Written for high school students, this readable work provides an easily comprehensible summary of some famous black soldiers, army messengers, and other black patriots.

Davis, Lenwood G. and George Hill. "Blacks in the American Armed Forces, 1776-1983: A Bibliography." Forewords by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and Percy E. Johnston. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut. 1985.

Eicholz, Alice and James M. Rose, comps. Free Black Heads of Household in the New York State Federal Census, 1790-1830. Gale Genealogy and Local History Series, vol. 14. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Co., 1981.

Foner, Philip S. "Blacks in the American Revolution." Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut. 1975.
Though there is little new presented here, either in information or interpretations, this book could be helpful in classrooms. There is background material about pre-war abolition movements, the role of black regiments on both sides of the fighting, and the post-war termination of the slave trade in the north. Three useful appendices are attached to what are basically one hundred pages of text that appeared in Foner's previous work on colonial blacks.

Frey, Sylvia R. "Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age." Princeton, NJ, 1991.

Garrison, William L., et al. "The Negro Soldier: A Select Compilation". NY: Negro U, 1970 orig pub 1861. Guide to articles on blacks in American wars, 1641-1815.

Glasrud, Bruce A. and Smith, Alan M. (Eds) "Race Relations in British North America, 1607-1783." Chicago, 1982.

Greene, Robert Ewell. "Black Courage, 1775-1783." NSDAR. 1984.

Guthrie, James M. "Camp-Fires of the Afro-American", Phila: Afro-American, 1899. See Chaps 3-13.

Johnson, Jesse J. (Editor). "A Pictorial History of Black Soldiers (1619-1969) in Peace and War." Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia. 1969.

Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800." New York, 1973.
Though without footnotes or a bibliography, this handsomely illustrated volume may be useful for undergraduates. Kaplan notes that blacks were involved in virtually every major campaign, and that some were Loyalists. The visual material is excellent.

MacLeod Duncan J. "Slavery, Race and the American Revolution." New York, 1974.

McConnell, Richard C. "Negro Troops of Antebellum Louisiana, A History of the Battalion of Men of Free Color." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Pages fifteen to twenty-two contain data about black militia who fought under the Spanish led by Galvez at Mobile and Pensacola.

Moore, Frank. Diary of the American Revolution From Newspapers and Original Documents. 2 vols. NY: Scribner, 1860. See index "Negroes."

Moss, Bobby. "The Patriots at the Cowpens." A roster of the patriots who fought at the Battle of Cowpens. Paperback, 338 pages. Contains entries for several individual free blacks.

Mullen, Robert F. "Blacks in America's Wars: The Shift in Attitudes from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam." Monad Press. 1974.

Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: a History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.

Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution , with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons, to Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans. Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1855. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
This is one of the first scholarly works to document the contributions of blacks in the patriotic cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Wendell Phillips, the famed abolitionists, wrote introductions to this book.

Opinions of the Early Presidents and of the Fathers of the Republic upon Slavery and upon Negroes as Men and Soldiers. Pamphlets, Loyal Publication Society, vol. 18. New York: C. Bryant & Co., Printers, 1863.

Quarles, Benjamin. "The Negro in the American Revolution." Univ. of North Carolina,1961.
This fine study is the first comprehensive treatment of this topic. Although it is now outdated by current scholarship, it clearly indicates how important the participation of blacks was for both sides in the war. The book is particularly useful in explaining why some states were unable to fill their regimental quotas with black slaves or freedmen. The material about the colonial status of blacks is excellent.

Quarles, Benjamin and Fishell, Leslie H. Jr. "The Black American." Glenview, Ill., 1970.

Quarles, Benjamin. "The Negro in the Making of America." Collier Books, New York. 1964.

Smith, James Avery "The History of the Black Population of Amherst, MA, 1728-1870", New England Historic Genealogical Society, 160 North Washington St., Boston, MA 02114-2120

Sterling, Dorothy, ed. Speak Out in Thunder Tones: Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners, 1787-1865. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.

White, David O. Connecticut's Black Soldiers, 1775-1783. Chester, CT: Pequot, 1973.
This is a pedestrian account about the status of slavery in Connecticut. But the tabulation of some 290 black soldiers from the state is useful, for the author has determined the towns the blacks served, their service, and if they were pensioned.

Wilkes, Laura E. Missing "Pages in American History, Revealing the Services of Negroes in the early Wars of the United States of America, 1641-1815." (In "The Negro Soldier: A Select Compilation." Reprint. Negro University Press, New York. Originally Published1861, Robert F. Walcutt, Boston.) 1970.

Williams, George W. "History of the Negro Race in American From 1619 to 1880", 2 vols., See Vol 1, Chaps 26-31, NY,Putnams, 1883.

Wilson, Joseph T. "The Black Phalanx, A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the wars of 1775-1812, 1861-1865." Reprint. Arno Press, New York. (Originally Published1885, Robert F. Walcutt, Boston.) 1968.

Woodson, Carter G. "The Negro in Our History." Washington DC, 1962.

U.S. Army Military History Research Collection. The U.S. Army and the Negro. Carlisle Barracks, Pa: U.S. Army Military History Research Collection, 1971.

Adrien, Claude. "The Forgotten Heroes of Savannah." Americas, 30 (11-12) (1978), 55-57.
This article covers the epic of the Haitian Black Legion which aided the Americans and the French at their aborted siege of Savannah in 1779.

Barnett, Paul. "The Black Continentals." Negro Hist Bull, 33 (1970), 6-10.
Here is a readable treatment of a black regiment serving under Colonel Christopher Greene.

Boatner, Mark M., III. "The Negro in the Revolution." Amer Hist Illus, 4 (2) (1969), 36-44.
Some 5,000 blacks served on the American side, and an unknown number for the British. Many slaves wanted to join the patriot cause, but most colonists feared a slave insurrection.

Bowman, Larry G. "Virginia's Use of Blacks in the French and Indian War." Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 53:57-63. 1970.

Brown, Wallace. "Negroes and the American Revolution." Hist Today, 14 (1964), 556-563.
Brown provides a convenient analysis of blacks used by the Americans and the British in the armed forces and as laborers during the war.

Bull, Lisa A. "The Negro." Hist J of West Mass, Supplement, (1976), 67-74.
The author explains that the prime motivation of blacks who served in integrated and segregated military units was to gain freedom.

Conlon, Noel P. "Rhode Island Negroes in the Revolution: A Bibliography." RI Hist, 29 (1970), 52-53.
Here are some forty citations about Rhode Island blacks during the war.

Cresto, Kathleen M. "The Negro: Symbol and Participant of the American Revolution." Negro Hist Bull, 39 (1976), 628-631.
This summary is useful for high-schoolers.

Farley, M. Foster. "The South Carolina Negro in the American Revolution, 1775-1783." SC Hist Mag, 79 (1978), pp. 75-80.
Carolina slaves were used by both sides as soldiers, sailors, and laborers.

Gough, Robert J. "Black Men and the Early New Jersey Militia." NJ HIST, 88 (1970), 227-338.
Excluding blacks from the pre-war colonial militia, New Jersey permitted freed blacks to serve in mixed regiments in 1777 but the status of black soldiers remained uncertain until 1792.

Greene, Lorenzo J. "The Negro in the Armed Forces of the United States, 1619- 1783." Negro History Bulletin 14:123-127. 1951.

Greene, Lorenzo J. "Some Observations on the Black Regiment of Rhode Island in the American Revolution." Journal of Negro History 37 (1952), 142-172.
In a valuable essay, Greene tabulates the names of 168 men raised for a Rhode Island regiment in February, 1778. Slaves were permitted to join and their masters were compensated.

Hargrove, W.B. "The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution." Journal of Negro History 1:110-137. 1916.
Hargrove examines the debate in Congress about permitting freedmen to enlist in eighteen regiments, and how the states handled the matter.

Jackson, Luther P. "Virginia Negro Soldiers and Seamen in the American Revolution." Journal of Negro History 27:247-287. 1942.
In a sweeping summary, Jackson focuses on the debate about using freedmen or slaves as soldiers. Masters used slaves as substitutes for their own service perhaps 500 Virginia blacks were in uniform during the war.

Jones, George Fenwick. "The Black Hessians: Negroes Recruited by the Hessians in South Carolina and Other Colonies." SC Hist Mag 83 (Oct 1982): pp. 287-302.

Maslowski, Pete National Policy Toward the Use of Black Troops in the Revolution. South Carolina Historical Magazine 73:1-17. 1972.
Despite the efforts of Henry and John Laurens to draft blacks into the services, the South Carolina and Georgia legislators opposed this approach. Yet Benjamin Lincoln and Nathanael Greene had black troops in their commands.

McElroy, Guy C. "Facing History: the Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940". Essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Contributions by Janet Levine, Francis Martin, Jr., and Claudia Vess. Edited by Christopher C. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1990.

Moore, George H. "Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Army of the Revolution." MAG OF HIST, 1 (1907)
This is an early attempt to analyze the number of blacks used as regulars, militia, and as laborers for the Continentals.

Norton, Mary Beth, "The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution." Journal of Negro History, Vol. LVIII, pp. 402-426. 1973.

Porter, Dorothy B. "The Black Role During the Revolution." SMITHSONIAN, 4 (1973), 52-57.
This essay feebly summarizes the role of prominent American black males in the 1700-1800 era.

Quarles, Benjamin. "Crispus Attucks." Amer Hist Illus, 5 (4) (1970), pp. 38-42.
Here is a convenient summary about a black hero of the Revolution killed in the Boston Massacre.

Quarles, Benjamin. "The Colonial Militia and Negro Manpower." MS Valley Hist Rev 45 (Mar 1959): pp. 643-652.

Reddick, L.D. The Negro Policy of the United States Army, 1775-1945. Journal of Negro History 34:9-29. 1949.

Rider, Sidney S. "Historical Inquiry Concerning the Attempt to Raise a Regiment of Slaves By Rhode Island During the War of the American Revolution." RI Hist Tracts, 10 (1880), pp, 1-86.
Rider wrote a good account of slaves who enlisted in Continental regiments, with comments about their owners and their market value.

Walker, James St.G. "Blacks as American Loyalists: The Slave War for Independence." Hist Reflections, 2 (1975), pp.51-67.
Under Dunmore and Clinton, the British recruited black troops who were not pro-British but were "pro-black," hoping that military service would lead to freedom. This is a very thoughtful article and perhaps the best on the subject.

Additionally, The Journal of Negro History from the 1910's through the 1970's has a number of articles on the subject from all over the colonies.

Ansel, Colonel Raymond. "From Segregation to Desegregation: Blacks In the U.S. Army 1703-1954." Thesis, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. 1990.

Aptheker, Herbert. The Negro in the American Revolution. NY: International, 1940. 47 p.

Moore, George H. Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Army of the Revolution. NY: Evans, 1862. 24 p.

U.S. Army War College. Hist Sec. The Attempts of Rhode Island to Raise a Regiment of Slaves for Service in the War of the Revolution - The So-Called "Rhode Island Black Regiment" of 1778. Report, 10 p. File #127-23F/W, Arch. Incl 2 clippings.

The Clements Library at the University of Michigan is a nationally renowned archive of American Military History. This archive specializes in Early Americana with extensive holdings on British Military correspondence. Within these documents, researchers can find accounts of enslaved and freed African Americans who supported the British effort.

The Clements Library also holds the papers of Thomas Clarkson, a leading British abolitionist who worked with Black Loyalists to found the Sierra Leone Colony. The Schoff Collection specializes in Civil War manuscripts and lists accounts of blacks who served in the Union army.

The Black Cultural Center of Nova Scotia has some holdings about Black Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution. Most of the collections on this subject, however, are held at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia and the National Archives of Canada

Colored Patriots of the American Revolution
The entire 1855 classic by Nell in electronic form