Blacks In The Revolution

Blacks, who understood the literal meaning of patriot rhetoric, eagerly took up the cause of American freedom, fighting bravely in the early confrontations with the British. Though the revolution freed some blacks and set the country on a course toward the abolition of slavery, political accommodation to plantation owners forestalled emancipation for many blacks in the south for 90 more years.

A black man was one of the first martyrs of the patriot cause. Crispus Attucks, apparently a slave who had run away from his owner 20 years before, died in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Though facts were disputed at trials then as now, witnesses said Attucks hit a British officer with a large piece of firewood, grabbed a bayonet and urged the crowd to attack just before the British fired. Attucks and two others were killed while eight were wounded, two mortally.

Blacks served at the battles of Lexington and Concord. Peter Salem, a freed slave, stood on the green at Lexington facing the British when the first battle broke out with the shot that was heard around the world. One of the last men wounded in the battle as the British escaped to Boston was Prince Estabrook, a black man from West Lexington.

At least 20 blacks, including Peter Salem, were in the ranks two months later when the British attacked an American position outside Boston in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Salem has been honored for firing the shot that killed Major John Pitcairn, the British officer who led the Redcoats when they had attacked his small unit at Lexington.

Unable to venture outside Boston and then threatened with cannon surrounding the city, the British left Boston for New York. As the war changed from a Massachusetts endeavor to a broader conflict throughout the colonies, the politics of race changed dramatically.

Blacks had been welcomed in the New England militia, but Congress initially decided against having them in the Continental army. Congress needed support from the South if all the colonies were to win their independence from England. Since southern plantation owners wanted to keep their slaves, they were afraid to give guns to blacks.

Congress ordered all blacks removed from the army, but black veterans appealed directly to George Washington, who took up their cause with John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Blacks serving in the army were allowed to stay, but new enlistments were forbidden.

Though the Declaration of Independence declared that "all men were created equal," many blacks soon saw more opportunity on the British side. The British governor of Virginia promised immediate freedom and wages to any slave who would join the King’s army. Hundreds flocked to the standard of the governor, Lord Dunmore, but he was denied a base on the land by the American forces and many of the blacks who joined him died of smallpox on overcrowded ships.

The loyalties of blacks was a serious issue for the American leaders because blacks made up one-fifth of the two million people in the colonies. With the British soldiers already outnumbering the American troops, and recruitment difficult for the patriots, the northern colonies soon again began to enlist blacks. Rhode Island made up a regiment almost entirely of blacks. As the war continued, colonies as far south as Maryland and Virginia were recruiting free blacks for the American cause.

As the war spread into the South, Congress found it needed to recruit slaves. It offered to pay South Carolina slave owners $1,000 for able-bodied male slaves. The slaves would receive no pay, but would be given $50 and their freedom at the end of the war if they served "well and faithfully." The South Carolina Assembly threatened to leave the war, dooming the plan in the southernmost colonies.

Recruitment of blacks to the American cause continued further north, but the patriots had less success than the British. The offer of immediate freedom extended by Virginia’s unfortunate loyalist governor was eventually made by the British throughout the colonies. Slaves joined the British by the tens of thousands.

The fate of the loyalist blacks varied considerably. Some were captured by Americans and either returned to their masters or treated as war loot and sold back into slavery. Approximately 20,000 were with the British at the end of the war, taken to Canada or the Caribbean. Some became the founders of the British colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Even though the British offered slaves a better deal, many blacks served on the American side. They made up a sizeable share of the men in the Continental navy, state navies and the large force of American privateers. Blacks had long been in the labor force on ships and at seaports. On the water, then as now, skill counted for more than politics.

Among the blacks fighting on the American side were a large number of troops brought to the continent by the French. These included Henri Christophe, a 12-year-old who was wounded in the fight before Savannah. He later become the liberator and then king of Haiti. Other blacks in the French force who would later gain fame included Martial Besse, who was promoted to general by the French, and Jean-Baptiste Mars Belley, another government leader in Haiti.

The precise role of blacks in the revolution is difficult to quantify. Blacks in those days, generally did not write. The people who did write early histories of the revolution were whites and concentrated on the efforts of white men. Also, many participants in the revolution were not specifically identified by race in the documents of the time and historians now have no way of knowing whether they were black. The owner of Fraunces Tavern was known as "Black Sam," but no one has been able to establish whether he was a black man or whether the nickname was given to him for other reasons.

When blacks were allowed to serve in the American military, they often did work as laborers, sometimes in addition to regular soldier duties. Usually they were privates, though a few rose to command small groups of men.

The words of the Declaration of Independence were taken literally by blacks and some whites. In, 1780, Pennsylvania became the first colony to pass a law phasing out slavery. Children born to slaves after that date were granted their freedom when they reached 28. Other northern states followed. The Superior Court of Massachusetts held in 1783 that slavery violated the state constitution, and New Hampshire also ended slavery by a court ruling. Vermont outlawed slavery and Connecticut and Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation laws. New York outlawed slavery in 1799 and New Jersey followed in 1804. The international slave trade was outlawed in 1808.

Progress then came to a stop. A boom in cotton production spread the slave economy into the lower Mississippi Valley. Slave states were careful to control at least half the political power in the federal government, blocking any national movement against slavery until the Civil War.

Of the blacks who fought in the Revolution, a number of stories of individual heroism have survived. Here are some of them:

JAMES ARMISTEAD LAFAYETTE was an American black who first volunteered to spy on the traitor Benedict Arnold then-serving as a British general. When Arnold left Virginia, Armistead moved to the personal staff of the British general, Lord Cornwallis. Armistead sent a steady stream of intelligence to the Marquis de Lafayette, helping Lafayette to keep Cornwallis bottled up at Yorktown until Washington and the French fleet could arrive to capture the British army and win the war. He was freed and took Lafayette’s name for his own after the war.

LAMBERT LATHAM was present as a tiny American fort near Groton, Conn., was overrun by the British. After the American commander surrendered, he was murdered by a British officer. Latham killed the British officer and was in turn killed as the British stabbed him 33 times with their bayonets.

PRINCE WHIPPLE, a black man shown in famous pictures of Washington crossing the Delaware, was the son of a wealthy family in Africa and had been sent to America to get an education. He was enslaved by a dishonest sea captain. In addition to crossing the Delaware with Washington, Whipple successfully fought off two robbers while carrying a large sum of money from Salem to Portsmouth. He was given his freedom after the war.

WILLIAM FLORA, a black freeman, was with a small American force holding Great Bridge near Norfolk. He gained fame for standing his ground and firing eight times as the British overwhelmed the position. Long after the other Americans had fled, Flora made his retreat. He became a leading businessman in Portsmouth after the war.

JAMES FORTEN, a 15-year-old free black, served as a powder boy on the Royal Louis, preying on British shipping. On his second cruise, his ship was battered by three British naval vessels and forced to surrender. As a prisoner, Forten struck up a friendship with the British captain’s son, who persuaded his father to offer the captured teen-ager a life of ease in England. Forten refused, declaring he would not be a traitor to his country. He was held with 1,000 other prisoners in the ship Jersey anchored near New York. Several prisoners died every day from the horrible conditions. Forten was offered a chance to escape in a chest when an American officer was exchanged for a British prisoner. He gave up his place to allow a younger white boy to escape. After seven months Forten was set free in an exchange of prisoners and walked home to Philadelphia. He became a successful businessman and a leader of the abolition movement.