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African Americans and the Revolution Nikki Jones
Genesee community college
History 203: Fall 2014
Nikki Jones
Genesee community college
History 203: Fall 2014

Manipulated: African Americans and the Revolution

One of the most notable intellectual paradoxes in American history is how the founding fathers could promote the equal rights of man and their perceived enslavement by the crown while simultaneously holding a fifth of their own population in bondage. Another question that plaques the history of this great nation is why abolition, or widespread emancipation, did not occur at this period in time when revolutionary and republican rhetoric existed alongside of anti-slavery sentiments. A case can be made that Americans were speaking more loudly for the end of political enslavement, rather than the freedom of slaves themselves. The exclusion of slaves from the political forefront made it easier for Americans to make these hypocritical claims. Whether or not whites were able to justify themselves the exclusion of the black community from their cries for freedom, the parallels revolutionary rhetoric had on their own condition were not lost on slaves. Many took advantage of the revolutionary crisis and ran away and joined either side in hopes to attain their own independence.
There reasons that Blacks chose to join the revolutionary fight are as varied as the individuals who made them. The motives were, at times, a desire for adventure and a belief in justice and the cause of the revolution, but the more likely reasoning behind their joining was the promise of a monetary reward and eventually freedom from bondage. This appears to be backed up by, Gary B. Nash, in “The African American Revolution,” when he stated:
“…In the American Revolution, freedom was the principal motivation for the black slave, whether joining either the Patriot or the [Loyalists] army. The free black may have been drafted or enlisted by his own volition… [African Americans] enlisted at higher rates than whites…”1
Free blacks, from both the North and the South, at the time of the American Revolution, fought on both the side of the Patriots as well as the Loyalists; more often, however, those who joined were on the side of the crown, for obvious reasons. According to Nash there were approximately nine-thousand black Patriot soldiers; comprised of individuals that were involved in the Continental Army and Navy, state militia units, state militia units, Privateers and Wagoneers.2 On the other side, Ray Raphael agrees with the notion that more blacks joined the Loyalist cause he also states that “a far larger, free as well as slave, tried to further their interests by siding with the Patriots.”3 The Patriots, in an effort to draw support to their cause in the fight for independence, played on the emotions of the blacks, especially in the northern regions, by holding the death of Crispus Attucks, a black soldier who was killed during the Boston Massacre, as a martyr for the cause.4 The irony behind this metaphor speaks for itself; the genius of this tactic in the Patriot approach can be considered to be unparalleled. While there were already members of the Minute Men Brigade that were black, this act helped to propel the enlistment of other blacks into, not only the into the militias, but also they were then drawn into the revolutionary cause against the British soldiers.5 It should be noted, however, that while the free black was able to determine their side, some slave owners forced their chattel to fight for the Patriot cause. Many freed blacks chose the side of the Patriots because they thought that it would be their easiest course to gaining their civil rights, and more importantly, their freedom.6 Ironically, at throughout the war, the northern states managed to maintain a standing militia comprising a total of one-fifth of the soldiers being of African descent, while the entire Continental Army was approximately comprised of one-fourth7; one-fifth is a fraction that plays a key role in the history of America even still to this day. The south was far more reluctant to include blacks in within their militias. The south, whose entire identity was shaped by slavery and its rewards, feared that by arming the blacks with guns was a bad decision because it may give them the means to revolt against the southern plantation owners thus bringing the southern economy to its knees.9 This should come as no surprise considering the idea that plantation owners, along with the majority of the white population feared the arming of blacks with knowledge. The Patriots, knowing that they were actually outnumbered in many areas by the black population did not want to bring the blacks into a military society and therefore arming them in their own quest for freedom. It is widely believed that the majority of the resistance to allowing blacks to join the military was the southern colonies, the north also feared the arming of this population. It is for this reason for the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to convene in May, 1775. The Committee made the decision to disallow the enlistment of slaves into the Continental Army.10 In July of 1775, the during a meeting of the Continental Congress, George Washington backed up this up with the following order to the recruiters: “to not enroll any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro or vagabond.”11 This way of thinking surely showed the signs of the times. A person would think that during a period of war would not be a lucrative time to show the ignorance of their racist views, but, clearly, it did. The Loyalists took a much different approach towards the inclusion of blacks in the war. Lord Dumore, the royal governor of Virginia, for example, looked at the black population as an important role in the war to maintain control of the colonies by the crown. Dunmore used a cleaver strategy that involved the urge for independence from bondage in the slave population against the fearful Patriots. On November 7, 1775, he issued what is now known as Lord Dumore’s Proclamation, which would ensure the freedom of the slaves who made the decision to cross over and fight on the side of the British and their Loyalists. More than three hundred slaves had become members of the Loyalist army within the first month after this guarantee was issued. The men that joined this side soon became known as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment.12 Lord Dunmore declared that “…all indentured servants, Negroes…free, that are able and willing to bear arms.”13 In response to the issuance of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, George Washington decided to repeal the ban on the enlistment of blacks into the Patriot Army. In December, 1775, Washington wrote a letter to Colonel Henry Lee. This letter involved Washington’s concession that the side that was able to recruit the slave population in the quickest manner. Even with this concession, the allowance of blacks was still on a conditional basis. Washington only wanted to allow those blacks that had previously been enlisted prior to the ban.14
The southern colonies were reluctant to allow blacks into the army, they did manage to find a way to circumvent this in the furtherance of the revolutionary cause was the allowance of African Americans into the nations newly founded Navy. Blacks were readily signed to serve in the Navy as not only pilots of the vessels, but they also were the ones to handle and protect the ammunition that was aboard the ships. It is likely that the reasons behind the allowance of blacks aboard ships was due, in large part, to the amount of work it required to work on ships.15 Regardless of the meaning, it is clear that African Americans played an important role on both ends of the war for independence.
Typical of the fear demonstrated by the white population, the British, at times, showed the same fear of rebellious soldiers. While the British were far more likely to enlist the help of the slave population, they too would limit the role that could be played by this particular population. Blacks often played sideline roles in the war; they became laborers, skilled workers, foragers, and spies for the British. It was not until the end of the war when the number of available soldiers began to deteriorate in numbers did the crown see fit to add the blacks to the front lines.16 In Savannah. Augusta, and Charleston the British began to use the local African American population in their defense to the attacks that they were subjected to by the Patriots. According to Michael Laning, the author of African Americans in the Revolutionary War: “In October, 1779, about two hundred Black, Loyalist soldiers assisted the British in successfully defending a joint French and rebel American attack.”17
As the war progressed, both sides began to clearly understand that there was little chance to continue on in their quest without the help of the black population, whether free of bondage or not. A very good example within the Patriot army would be the development of the Rhode Island Regiment. General Varnum contacted George Washington personally when he proposed the inclusion of the African American population within the regiment. According to Laning, in February, 1778, he asked that, in response to a low number of willing and capable members of the white population to join the war efforts:
[That] every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto, or Indian man slave [be allowed to enlist]… [as well that] every slave so enlisting shall, upon his enlistment, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress. [With the allowance that] the owners of slaves who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an equal to the market value of the slave.19
This plea, once again, reinforced the need to keep the image of the black population the same in the minds of the people throughout the colonies, even though they were willing to concede the freedom of the slave upon their service to the cause. Even with the promise of freedom, slaves still resisted joining with the Patriot army in their quest of freedom. The army, headed by Colonel Greene, had a total of eighty eight slaves who chose to join the regiment during the first four months following the allowance of them to join with the promise of freedom; this was a very small number considering the actual population of the blacks within the colonies. “The regiment eventually totaled about two hundred and twenty five men…with fewer than one hundred and forty being black.”20 The first Rhode Island Regiment became the only one within the Continental Army to have segregated soldiers of black soldiers. Greene would eventually be killed and his body mutilated later by Loyalist soldiers for his development of a band of African American soldiers.21 As the final British ship left America on July 21, 1789, more than five thousand African Americans chose to flee America to the Caribbean, most would chose to settle in Jamaica and Saint Augustine. The driving force behind the migration was the fact that they did not gain their freedom due to the loss of the war by the British.
Not all blacks made the choice to leave. In the Savannah region, about three hundred black Loyalist soldiers that chose to remain in America; these people ended up establishing their own colony within the swamps of the Savannah River. Many of the slaves that formed this community, within just a few years, were once again captured and forced into a life of bondage. In December, 1782, when the city of Charleston was evacuated, there were more than five thousand more slaves that chose to leave; more than half of these people were members of the Loyalist army; these slaves fled to either Florida or the West Indies.
The African American Patriot who served for the Continental Army found that the military had no real rewards for them. The soldiers were not given many of the things that they were promised when they were manipulated by the whites to join their cause.
Foner, Philip. n.d. Blacks in the American Revolution. Westport : Greenwood Press.
Lanning, Michael. 2000. African Americans in the Revolutionary War. New York: Kingston Publishing.
1997. Liberty! The American Revolution Episode II.
Nash, Gary B. 2012. "The African American Revolution." In Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, 250-270. New York City: Oxford University Press.
O'Connor, Thomas H. 2001. The Hub: Boston Past and Present. Boston: North University Press.
Piecuch, Jim. 2008. Three Peoples. One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South. Charelston: University of South Carolina Press.
Raphael, Ray. 2008. A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence. Claremont: Paw Print Publishing.
Robert A. Selig, PhD. n.d. The Revolution's Black Soldiers. Accessed October 26, 2014.

Notes 1. Nash, Gary B., “The African Americans Revolution,” in Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2012) 2. Nash, p 254 3. Raphael, Ray, “A People’s History of the American Revolution,” p 281 4. O’Connor, Thomas H., “The Hub: Boston Past and Present,” p 56 5. O’Connor, p 56 6. Foner, Philip. “Blacks in the American Revolution” 7. Nash, p 251 8. Foner, 43 9. Foner, 47 10. Foner, 44 11. Foner, 44 12. Piecuch, Jim, “Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves” 13. Laning, Michael, “African Americans in the Revolutionary War” 14. Foner, 70 15. Foner, 70 16. Laning, 145 17. Laning, 147 18. Foner, 205 19. Laning, 148 20. Laning, 75-76 21. Laning, 79

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