African Americans in the Revolution

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African Americans in the Revolution

AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE REVOLUTION. Political and social turmoil in the decade before the American Revolution presented African Americans with opportunities and frustrations. As did their white counterparts, African Americans in the decade before the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 prepared for the conflict in disparate ways. In New England, where slavery was least common among the colonies, blacks prepared petitions seeking to take part in the Patriot cause against the British and later a significant proportion of them enrolled in state militias. In the mid-Atlantic, where legal restrictions in the system of small farm and urban slavery negated any chances for freedom, some blacks substituted for their masters in the state militias but more sided with the British. In the Upper and Lower South, African Americans seized upon the military and political splits within colonial society to gain freedom through self-emancipation and by siding with the British army. Blacks took part in the Revolutionary struggle throughout the war and played many different roles. Their eventual fate depended upon their location and on the final results of the war.


Initial sightings of black Revolutionary activities occurred in New England. African Americans there took part in the riots against the Stamp Act, the tax on tea, and the street clashes with British soldiers from 1765 into the mid-1770s. The first person killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770 was Crispus Attucks, a black man. But mob actions were not the only way by which blacks demonstrated their growing awareness of the political conflict between colony and crown. There were hopeful signs for African Americans in New England. Many felt heartened by the Somerset Decision of 1772, which barred taking enslaved blacks out of England and in effect gave enslaved people civil rights, and blacks were also inspired by the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Reminding the Patriots and the royal governor of Massachusetts that blacks too expected greater liberty, a committee of slaves sent a number of petitions to Governor Hutchinson and the colonial legislature. The petitions compared the status of blacks with that of whites who had clamored about royal designs to enslave the colonists. Accordingly, the petitioners, calling themselves Free Africans, informed the governor that they aligned themselves with Patriot discontent and asked that slaves be given a free day each week to earn money to purchase themselves. Upon gaining freedom, the petitioners opined, blacks would be eager to return to Africa to enjoy their liberty.

Although Hutchinson refused to act upon these requests, blacks in the Northeast continued to send forth petitions seeking general emancipation, even during the war. These petitions, combined with Patriot comprehension that enslavement of blacks contradicted white demands for liberty, produced results in the northern states. During the American Revolution, the breakaway Vermont territory abolished slavery by constitutional amendment in 1777. Massachusetts and New Hampshire extinguished slavery by gradual emancipation. New England's black population contributed mightily to the Patriot cause. Militias and Continental army quotas were filled with black soldiers. The Connecticut line in particular included many black soldiers, while various militia units in Massachusetts had sizable black participation. Some had notable careers. The Belknap family of Brookline, Massachusetts, freed Peter Salem so that he might enlist in the Massachusetts militia. He joined Pompey of Braintree, Prince of Brookline, and Cato Wood of Arlington in the state militia. Peter Salem and Salem Poor saw action at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In Connecticut, black soldiers proclaimed their new status by forsaking derisive titles such as Caesar, Charity, and Cato and taking names such as Pomp Liberty, Cuff Freedom, and Primus Freeman.


Patriot officers in New York and New Jersey were less open to black enlistments, although both allowed blacks to replace their masters in the military. In pre-Revolutionary years in Monmouth County, New Jersey, for example, masters worried about blacks roving about the countryside at night. Members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) made other masters uneasy with their antislavery rhetoric. Blacks in Long Island and in New York City openly defied their masters and spoke freely of alliances with the British. As white society descended into open conflict, an upsurge of self-emancipated blacks simply left their masters. Added to the usual number of young men who ran away from bondage were women, some with children and at times entire extended families. They took with them clothing, tools, food, and money to help start their new lives. Using the rhetoric of the whites, one black man left his former master in Philadelphia, demanding "that freedom, justice, and protection to which I am entitled to by the laws of the state, although I am a Negro." If whites regarded him as wrong, this man and other blacks were determined that the war prove him right.


Tensions between masters and slaves rippled further south as the crisis between Britain and America unfolded. A young James Madison reported in 1775 that a number of blacks in Virginia had gathered together and elected a leader "should the British troops arrive." His correspondent, the printer William Bradford of Philadelphia, responded by saying, "Your fear of insurrection being excited among the slaves seems too well founded," and he told of his own fears about Pennsylvania. Around Charleston, South Carolina, blacks ran away with increasing frequency and began to form bands that patrolled the roads.


Two events in 1775 determined black participation in the Revolutionary conflict. In July 1775 General George Washington ended black enlistments in the American forces, though he did allow those already in service to remain. Washington was in part reacting to a plan by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina to expel all blacks from the armed forces. The American strategy in dealing with African Americans proved disastrous after 7 November 1775, when Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, announced that he would guarantee freedom to any enslaved black or indentured servant willing to take up arms to put down "the present horrid rebellion." Lord Dunmore's Proclamation opened the floodgates, and thousands of enslaved blacks left their masters for freedom "inside the British lines."

New York City was the destination of thousands of former slaves and self-proclaimed free people. Black Loyalists, as such people were known, comprised men, women, and children. Living in occupied New York City, they created the first true free black community in British North America. Enlivened by freedom, blacks formed significant parts of Anglican congregations, took part in marriage and baptismal rituals, worked for wages at local breweries and factories, and held joyous Ethiopian balls where mixed race dancing was common. Black Loyalists felt so comfortable in their roles that they sent General Henry Clinton New Year's greetings in 1780. A dream experienced by one Black Loyalist that year encapsulated their hopes. Murphy Stiel, a black Loyalist from North Carolina who relocated to New York, had a dream in which God told him to take a message to General Clinton, asking him to warn George Washington that the Patriots should lay down their arms and surrender. Patriots should then, according to this message, offer freedom to blacks or face a vengeful God.

Few blacks left such public pronouncements, but their numbers spoke loudly. Estimates of how many enslaved blacks left their southern masters in the wake of Dunmore's Proclamation range from fifteen thousand to over one hundred thousand. Thomas Jefferson spoke of thirty thousand slaves leaving masters in Virginia, though he may have simply added zeroes to the thirty who abandoned him. Whatever the actual number, the responses by African Americans to Dunmore's Proclamation and to those made by British commanders later in the war sustained the most sizable slave flight before the Civil War. Dunmore's Proclamation insured black loyalties to the British as the most likely side to give them their liberty.

Joining the British and siding with the Americans were not the only fates for African Americans. Some lived in areas where conflict raged only briefly. Masters in a number of southern colonies and a few in the North sought to avoid problems by retreating far into the interior. For such whites and blacks, the war was avoidable and real choices waited until later. But for those who joined the British, Dunmore's Proclamation was a clarion call of freedom.

Fighting for Britain. Following Dunmore's Proclamation, insurgent blacks formed regiments under the leadership of British officers. The first was the Ethiopian Regiment that coalesced around Dunmore and saw action in various battles around Virginia in early 1776. Hampered by poor leadership and devastated by disease, the Ethiopian Regiment suffered sharp losses before about eight hundred members left by ship with Dunmore north to Staten Island to become incorporated into the British forces there. They joined several regiments of black guides and pioneers who served as pilots, spies, wagon masters, foragers, and infantrymen. The most elite groups, called the Black Brigade, consisted of active duty soldiers for the British. More loosely aligned were freelance marauders such as Colonel Tye of New Jersey.

Captain Tye. Tye, formerly Titus Corlies, left his master in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, right after Dunmore's Proclamation. Vanishing from history for a short while, Titus returned to his home area in 1777, fighting as Captain Tye in the Battle of Monmouth the following year. It was, however, in 1780 that he made his biggest impact. Starting in late March 1780, Tye commanded a "motley crew" of blacks and whites that raided Patriot homesteads in Monmouth, taking off cattle, silver plate, and significant numbers of prisoners to the British in New York City. He headed three such actions in June, in one of them capturing Barnes Smock, a leader of the county militia. Terrified, other Patriots in the county petitioned Governor William Livingston to declare martial law to help fend off Tye's incursions.

After several more attacks over the summer, Tye attempted his greatest feat in September. Then he captured Josiah Huddy, a Patriot notorious for his summary executions of known Loyalists. After a gun battle lasting several hours, Tye and his men captured Huddy and began their return to New York. While crossing from Monmouth County and Staten Island, New York, Huddy jumped over-board and swam toward a nearby Patriot vessel. In the battle that followed Huddy escaped, though he was recaptured later, and Tye suffered a wound in his wrist that later worsened to lockjaw. He died several days later. Tye's memory lived on for generations among white New Jerseyans, who viewed him with great respect, and into the twenty-first century among black residents of the state, some of who claim direct descent from him.

Not all blacks became as well known as Tye, but their contributions to the war effort were substantial. Following his treason, Benedict Arnold employed over three hundred black men to fortify Portsmouth, Virginia, in order to repulse Patriot efforts to retake the city. Others worked out of the Dismal Swamp between Virginia and North Carolina as freelancers who plundered the countryside. Their examples made enslaved people more assertive in dealing with masters, who at one point on the eastern shore of Maryland confiscated guns, swords, and bayonets from local slaves.

Gradually, Patriot militias had to disregard George Washington's edict and enlist slaves and free blacks. The state of Maryland subjected free blacks to a draft and enlisted slaves. Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia permitted slave masters to send their bondmen as replacements. During invasions, Patriots and British commonly impressed slaves to serve as laborers digging entrenchments or as personal servants to officers and common soldiers. Black women followed both camps as laundry workers and domestic servants.


Royal proclamations offering freedom to enslaved blacks did not mean the British were abolitionists. No attempt was made to enlist the slaves of Loyalists, and runaways from Loyalist masters were routinely returned. In occupied New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, British officers and colonial Loyalists maintained a brisk internal slave trade. Moreover, British commanders could be slippery about their promises. Lord Dunmore took a number of black Loyalists with him to Bermuda and then promptly sold them back into slavery. Lord Cornwallis abruptly abandoned thousands of blacks when he surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.


Despite the uncertainty of their British alliances, black Loyalists continued to join the army of the king. As the war moved south, blacks became important actors in a nasty civil war around Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Hearing rumors that they would "be all sett free on the arrival of the New Governor," blacks began to leave their masters in mid-1775 with increasing frequency and assertiveness. One slave told his astonished master that he "will serve No Man and that he will be conquered or governed by no Man." After that, the slave departed. Whites soon organized patrols around the streets of Charleston and established curfews. Violators were whipped and even hung for minor infractions.

Right after Dunmore's Proclamation, several hundred runaways who had gathered on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor began raiding coastal plantations. Even after Patriots were able to defeat them, they attracted more recruits. More than in the North and Upper South, self-emancipated blacks in South Carolina and Georgia moved in sizable groups, often based upon kinship and friendship. David George, later a prominent black minister, recalled leaving his master with "fifty or more of my master's people" who marched into freedom behind the king's lines. Many then entered the British army either as guerillas, laborers, or domestics. Others seized insecure residences in the coastal cities and hired themselves out. Life there was dangerous, as kidnappers were ubiquitous and smallpox and malaria swept through Charleston several times in 1779 and 1780. As in New York, blacks enjoyed a new freedom, donning fashionable attire and holding Ethiopian balls, to which prominent white officers were invited. Former enslaved women in particular were noted for their freedom attire. Entrepreneurial blacks took control of deliveries of food and supplies to the British commissary in Charleston. Eventually, blacks controlled access to a number of waterways into Charleston and proved very difficult for Patriots to dislodge, even several years after the conflict had ended. After the British abandoned the Lower South, many black Loyalists decamped into Spanish Florida to join with Seminole Indians.


The Revolutionary War enhanced white conquest of Native American lands along the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River. Plantation masters along the coast and inland took their enslaved people to remote areas as far north as western Virginia and to what would become the Mississippi Territory. Nearly four hundred slaves from South Carolina arrived in the future Mississippi Territory in 1778 and were followed by others from the nascent free states whose masters sought more hospitable locales and from the West Indies, where some of the plantations were being downsized. The Revolutionary War spread west as Americans, British, and Spanish armies battled for power along the Mississippi River and the coastal region known as West Florida. The immediate winners were the Spanish, who controlled all of the Gulf Coast from Florida to New Orleans. Quickly, African Americans evacuated American plantations for freedom in the coastal region. They established a maroon colony at Gaillardeville, north of New Orleans, that was led by James Malo, a fierce warrior and shrewd commander. Blacks also fought in units for the Spanish for a brief time, maroons and black Spanish soldiers, gaining their freedom by doing so, and thereby opening a tiny crack in the edifice of slavery. The booming economy of New Orleans offered enslaved blacks an opportunity to buy their own freedom under hiring agreements with their masters. Whites generally strove to control the conditions of self-purchase with a bias toward wives, mistresses, and the children of mixed love. But as freedom descended through the mother, this practice assured the liberty of future generations. Political changes put an end to many of these methods for gaining freedom. By the early 1800s, as white American society moved west and Spanish rule gave way to French and then to American, free blacks gave way to enslaved peoples.


The black Loyalists were on the side of the war's losers. From the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 until the Treaty of Paris ended the war two years later, black Loyalists continued to battle for their freedom. In General Guy Carleton they had an important ally. Blacks who left their masters along the Atlantic coast served the British army with valor and sacrifice. Eventually, thousands of them were rewarded when Carleton declared, during peace negotiations in 1783 with General George Washington, that he could not return blacks who had come into the British lines in response to royal proclamations. Washington, who viewed the blacks as stolen property, was astonished and angered. Carleton replied that to return them would dishonor the king's intentions. To push the negotiations along, Carleton agreed to compile a list of blacks who had left New York, primarily for Nova Scotia and in lesser numbers to England and Germany. Carleton also agreed to a requirement that blacks prove that they had entered the British lines during or before 1782.


The list, the so-called Book of Negroes, contained three thousand names, including about fourteen hundred men, eight hundred women, and eight hundred children. They came from all over the colonies, with the greatest numbers coming from Virginia, South Carolina, and New York. Many had been at large fighting for the British since 1775. Some children were freeborn within the British lines of parents from different regions who had met during the conflict. There were women in far greater numbers than had ever been reported escaping from slavery during the colonial period. By the end of November 1783, the three thousand black Loyalists had left New York for Nova Scotia. About four thousand left from Savannah, Georgia, for uncertain fates in the British West Indies.

Their departure did not end the controversy over them. American slave masters felt cheated by the British, whom they regarded as slave thieves. For example, Thomas Jefferson, in his perennial negotiations with the London merchants to whom he owed money, exclaimed in 1786 that the slaves taken from him by Lord Cornwallis were worth far more than the debts he owed. The issue remained a sticking point in Anglo-American economic relations until after the War of 1812, during which several thousand more blacks fled their masters for freedom in Nova Scotia.


The black Loyalists in Nova Scotia found freedom but little prosperity. They attempted to establish a free black community composed of religious denominations and militia groups. They strove to work as farmers, fishermen, and town workers. In Nova Scotia, a black clergy emerged like a phoenix. Boston King, John Marrant, David George, Moses Wilkinson, and others made alliances with Methodist groups, while Stephen Bluke even owned a pew in the white Anglican Church in Halifax. Overall, black Loyalists were discontented in Nova Scotia. Encouraged by the migration of the so-called Black Poor from London to Sierra Leone in 1789, over one thousand Black Loyalists departed from Nova Scotia two years later to help create the nation of Sierra Leone. Their nation-building work was inspired by their experiences in the American Revolution.


If the black Loyalists had to travel the Atlantic Ocean to find freedom, they at least attained it within a lifetime. For those who stayed in North America, liberty came slowly. The tiny black populations of New England benefited from the extinction of slavery during the 1770s and 1780s. Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780. But New York and New Jersey, with the largest slave populations in the North, did not legislate gradual emancipation until 1799 and 1804, respectively. In both cases, black men born after 4 July of the year of enactment had to labor for their masters until they were twenty-five years of age, while black women were not freed until reaching the age of twenty-one. Facing such long terms, blacks in those states bargained with masters for shorter terms on the basis of good behavior and for cash payments based on work performance. Liberal whites joined blacks in freedom suits against masters who had reneged on promises of liberty, for example, after military service. Many more blacks simply left their masters for freedom in the cities. In the countryside, masters held tightly to slaves. A few years after the adoption of gradual emancipation there, masters from Bergen County petitioned the state legislature to repeal the act because it deprived them of property rights won in the American Revolution.

Whether legally or self-proclaimed free people, African Americans created genuine communities in northern cities. Centered on black churches that gradually created a black clerical leadership, the black communities featured burial and fraternal associations, vibrant neighborhoods of small entrepreneurs and artisans, and boardinghouse keepers. They created a new interpretation of history. In the early nineteenth century, black intellectuals such as Peter Williams, Jr. hailed the closure of the international slave trade. Sea captain Paul Cuffe owned his own vessel. Sail maker James Forten employed about thirty workmen and became the wealthiest black in Philadelphia. In each of the northern cities, a tiny but robust black middle class emerged and combined religion, work, opposition to slavery, and reverence for the meaning of the American Revolution as central components of their ideology. While middle-class blacks sought improved social and political conditions, northern cities were becoming the homes of a more hedonistic, apolitical, poorer class of blacks who, to the disdain of educated blacks, spent most of their money on clothing, drink, and gambling. Rising racist attitudes in the North focused on the latter group and lampooned the hopes of blacks intent upon self-improvement. In the rural areas around the cities, freedom meant little more than a change in the local registry. Free blacks there had difficulty obtaining loans for land, received low subsistence wages, and were oppressed by a white society that soon forgot the shared work of the past by assuming racist postures toward free blacks. The latter often had to labor on white farms as cottagers, an early form of sharecropping.


In the Upper South, a period of egalitarianism after the American Revolution sparked new feelings of liberty among many whites. Robert Carter III, the largest slave master in Virginia, felt the contradictions of revolution and servitude and freed several hundred bonded people. George Washington, the father of the nation, went through a number of personal crises before, in his will of September 1799, freeing his more than one hundred slaves at his death, which came two months later. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, though conflicted about the meaning of slavery, wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) that blacks were inferior intellectually to whites and would be best served if they were returned to Africa. Gradually, Jefferson became more conservative on the issue of slavery and black capabilities. Despite his misgivings, the number of free blacks in Maryland and Virginia rose sharply in the years after the war, only to fall after the resurgence of slavery as an institution in the early nineteenth century.

The lives of free blacks in the cities of the Lower South were akin to those of their northern counterparts in many ways. Charleston's free people of color worked as artisans, peddlers, and domestics and formed independent churches. Lighter-skinned people of color formed a Brown Society to act as a social and political force. Similar groups operated in Savannah. The significant difference from the North was that free blacks in the South lived and worked in a slave society where little dissent was tolerated and in which servitude was the dynamic economic force. Whereas in the North, slavery was a declining system and the slave trade had been legally forbidden by the 1780s, South Carolina imported over one hundred thousand new slaves directly from Africa between 1788 and 1807, when a national ban on human trafficking took place. Quickly, Southerners learned to profit from an internal slave trade that moved enslaved blacks from the Upper South and regions along the Atlantic coast to the booming new white settlements from Georgia through Mississippi to Louisiana and Texas.

By 1810, then, blacks, abetted by white allies, had pushed through gradual abolition of slavery in the northern states. In the Upper South, revolutionary egalitarianism had cooled and Virginia, for example, demanded that free blacks leave the state. While converting much of their farmlands from tobacco to cereal production, the Chesapeake societies learned to profit by selling enslaved people to the expanding Lower South. As cotton plantations spread from South Carolina to Texas, slavery became entrenched in the region. Free blacks became more beleaguered and white southerners viewed slavery as a property right protected by the American Revolution and the federal Constitution of 1787.

SEE ALSO Loyalists in the American Revolution.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Hodges, Graham Russell. Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665–1865. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Pybus, Cassandra. "Jefferson's Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 62 (2005): 243-264.

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African Americans in the Revolution

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African Americans in the Revolution