African American Soldiers and the Revolutionary War

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Start of Revolutionary War

In 1773 North American colonists initiated the Boston Tea Party by throwing approximately 340 boxes of British tea into the Boston Harbor to protest England’s tea monopoly. In May of the following year, Britain responded with the Coercive Acts that colonists called “Intolerable Acts.” One regulation of the new laws was the Boston Port Act, which closed Boston Harbor to trade until colonials paid for the disposed tea. To plan an effective response to the Acts, in September 1774 upper-class colonials held the 1st Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. They intended use non-violent actions that would force Britain to rescind the Intolerable Acts.

Although Britain took note of the gathering, the country concentrated on the Massachusetts region. England not only had stationed more than 4,000 troops in Boston to maintain order, but also Parliament issued orders to arrest colonial rebels and to confiscate weapons and ammunition. The tension over rights and privileges culminated in an armed struggle between British soldiers and colonials at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. This battle started the war between England and its North American colony.

Second Continental Congress

As agreed upon during the 1st Congress, the colonial elite met again in May 1775. The group wanted to settle its differences with Britain peacefully, but King George III refused to compromise. As a result of stalled negotiations and because fighting had erupted one month earlier, Congress authorized an army of 200,000 men, created paper money, a mail system, and planned to build a military hospital.

George Washington

As men and women volunteered for colonial military service, including many free African Americans, on July 4, 1775 Congress appointed George Washington as commander of the Continental army. Washington was a Virginia slave-owner and a veteran of the Seven Years’ War. According to Horton and Horton, five days after his appointment, Washington instituted regulations that made African Americans army ineligible. Although he did not dismiss the enlisted black personnel, Washington disliked arming any African Americans. The Continental Congress had similar reservations. Southern delegate, Edward Rutledge, attempted to expel all African Americans from the army, but he was unsuccessful.

Washington believed that minimizing black soldiers was a good war strategy, but prejudice, racism, and poor leadership skills motivated his actions. Washington knew about the numerous African Americans who had fought effectively in the wars between France and England, which included King George’s War (1744 – 1748) and the Seven Years’ War (1755 – 1763). Near the end of King George’s War, English officials verbalized their appreciation to the black soldiers who helped England defend its South Carolina colony. Washington understood the importance of having good soldiers, but his negative views about African Americans tainted his military judgment.

Lord Dunmore

England had a history of enlisting black soldiers into the armed services. According to The American People – Creating a Nation and a Society, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War the colonial governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, continued England’s trend of recruiting blacks. In the fall of 1775, Dunmore promised freedom to all slaves who enlisted in Britain’s armed forces. The governor especially wanted soldiers from plantations in Virginia owned by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Several days after the “freedom” announcement, more than 500 captives joined Dunmore’s army, and most of them became part of his “Ethiopian” regiment. They fought under the banner of “Liberty for Slaves”.

Dunmore’s promise of freedom added to the turmoil in colonial America as approximately 100,000 captives fled the plantations, but no more than 1,000 fought for the British. Instead of fighting for England, many self-liberated African Americans joined bandit slave-raiding groups. With Native American, white, and black members, the banditti not only raided plantations to free people, but also to confiscate horses and ammunition. Other escapees joined fugitive slave groups called guerilla “freedom” units, which also raided plantations. One African American freedom fighter, Colonel Tye, led former slaves against colonial strongholds and slave establishments in New Jersey where Tye freed many captives.

Washington Reconsiders

With freedom-seeking black soldiers fighting for England, Washington’s army could not advance effectively for over a year. Washington exhibited so much concern for his unlikely chances of winning the war that he wrote a letter to his officer, Richard Henry Lee, expressing concern about Dunmore’s black soldiers. Washington intimated that the effectiveness of Dunmore’s black troops would certainly encourage other blacks to join the British. Horton and Horton explain that Washington viewed Dunmore’s black army as an impediment to American freedom because, as Washington told Henry Lee, substantial numbers of black troops would establish Dunmore as “the most dangerous man in America.” Washington believed that the outcome of the war depended on which side could “arm the Negroes the faster”.

Consequently, Washington changed his position about excluding African American captives, so he asked Congress to create laws that would encourage enslaved African Americans to join the army. Congress accommodated Washington’s request when it established laws for African American war participation on January 6, 1776. As states implemented the laws, similar to Dunmore’s recruitment strategy, they emphasized the promise of freedom to all African Americans who joined the service. Only South Carolina and Georgia did not allow blacks in the army.

Impact of African American Recruits

It is difficult to determine the number of African Americans who joined the Continental army after Washington altered his enlistment standards. However, more than 100,000 African Americans escaped slavery after Dunmore promised them freedom, so the number of blacks to join American forces was, at least, comparable to the number of run-a-ways. Furthermore, as Horton and Horton explain, white soldiers were unwilling to serve more than three month stints, and slave-owners promised certain slaves freedom in exchange for army service.

African American soldiers served in segregated and integrated units in Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, New Hampshire, Virginia, Vermont, Rhode Island, and in other regions. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that on July 4, 1776, which was six months after African American captives joined the Continental army, America declared independence. Washington was correct about the importance of African American soldiers to American independence because, ultimately, his black troops made him “the most dangerous man in America.”

Sources:

Horton, James Oliver and Horton, Lois E. Hard Road To Freedom –The Story of African America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001
Nash, Jeffrey, Howe, Davis Frederick, Winkler. The American People–Creating a Nation and a Society, Brief Fourth Edition. New York: Longman, 2003.