African Americans and the American War for Independence
Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
Englishman Nicholas Cresswell, during July 1777, wrote in his journal that the American army was composed of a “ragged Banditti of undisciplined people, the scum and refuse of all nations of earth.” Baron Curt von Stedingk, a Swedish colonel in French service, described the American army in Savannah during 1779 as being composed “almost wholly of deserters and vagabonds of all nations.” These were somewhat exaggerated descriptions, yet at times they seemed very true and therefore concerned the revolutionary leaders. Their ideal was a disciplined army composed of Whigs who had a stake in society. They desired an army composed of men who shared the same cultural, political, and social background and beliefs. What was desired—mature domestic yeomen—did make up the bulk of the army surrounding Boston during the summer of 1775, but by the end of the year many of those had left the service when their enlistments terminated. Thereafter, because of the difficulty in recruiting such an army, and military necessity, many who did not share a stake in American society as they envisioned it enlisted in the patriotic forces.
The first group taken into the American military forces against the wishes of most Americans were African Americans, a people many had feared to arm. Even though African American soldiers had demonstrated their skill and courage at Lexington and Bunker Hill, General Washington issued orders that they were not to be recruited, although those already enlisted could remain. The Continental Congress in September rejected a motion to discharge all African American soldiers, but a council of officers at Cambridge, MA, on October 8, 1775, unanimously agreed to discharge all slaves. By a large majority, they agreed that free Blacks in service should not be reenlisted. Washington concurred.
Late in 1775, however, because of difficulty in recruiting, Washington allowed African Americans to reenlist. Learning this, Congress informed Washington that he could continue to reenlist those who had faithfully served at the siege of Boston, but no others. This restriction was lifted during the following years as enlistments slackened, and African Americans, including slaves, were encouraged to join both the Continental Army and the state military forces. By the summer of 1778, there were over 750 African Americans serving in the Continental Army, and by 1780 both Rhode Island and Connecticut had all-Black companies, except for the officers.
This increasing use of African Americans did not take place without protest. Six members of the Rhode Island Assembly opposed the decision of their body to raise Black companies, expressing the fear that the world would believe the Americans were attempting to win their rights and liberties with a band of slaves. General Schuyler asked General Heath if it was “consistent with the Sons of Freedom to trust their all to be defended by Slaves?” Heath agreed it was not.
Opposition to allowing African Americans to fight, as one would surmise, was greater in the southern states. One southerner wrote that arming them was “the child of a distempered imagination.” Nevertheless, from the beginning of the war, Virginia allowed African Americans to join the militia, and South Carolina (the only southern state to do so) allowed them to be enlisted and even resorted to drafting them in 1781.
Congress, during the British invasion of South Carolina and Georgia in 1779, suggested using slaves under white commissioned and noncommissioned officers, compensating slave owners for any loss they may suffer. Alexander Hamilton, for one, thought the plan a good one, believing slaves, having lived a life of subordination, would make good soldiers. But he doubted that southerners would readily accept such a plan, believing “prejudice and private interest will be antagonists too powerful for public spirit and public good.”
Hamilton was correct in believing the plan would not be adopted, for as one southerner wrote after learning of it, “We are much disgusted here at the Congress recommending us to arm our Slave, it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic step.” Despite the rejection of the plan, some Continental officers and civilian leaders continued to lobby for it, believing that the threat posed by a British army outweighed the danger of using slaves.
Col. John Laurens, once elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1782, raised the possibility of the state enlisting an African American regiment under his command. This recommendation was not adopted, as “the prejudice against the measure,” according to Lewis Morris, Jr., “are so prevailing that no consideration could induce them to adopt it.” The legislature did, however, agree to the limited use of American Americans for fatigue duty.
It has been estimated that some 5,000 African Americans served during the American War for Independence in various guises, primarily as sailors aboard privateers. Many served in the Continental Army. A Hessian officer observed in 1777 that “no regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance, and among them there are able-bodied, strong and brave fellows.” They served as well and with the same degree of bravery as their White contemporaries. African American Rhode Island and Virginian Continentals were reported to have made excellent soldiers and distinguished themselves in many engagements.
Freedom for most slaves serving in the military forces did not come as a result of their service. However, the American Revolution (as distinct from the American War for Independence) created a “contagion of liberty” (to borrow the chapter title from Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution). The ideas espoused about freedom and liberty were found to be inconsistent with the realities of the political and social landscape of America, and calls for change arose. As a result, changes in many facets of American life were made. With respect to slavery, between 1777 and 1804, antislavery laws or constitutions were passed in every state north of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon Line. I would like to think the recognition of the service of African Americans in the patriot cause, in addition to the “contagion of liberty,” had some role to play in the abolition of slavery, at least in the northern states.