A Long Overdue Salute for Black Soldiers in the American Revolution Whose Contributions Have Been Under-Valued
The last days of February, also known as Black History Month, have quickly fled and maybe if the month ran a few days longer, this contribution to the monthly theme would seem more timely. But February, as Spike Lee pointed out at the Academy Awards presentation last Sunday, “is the shortest month of the year.” And black filmmakers like himself seem regularly to be getting the short end of the stick.
Nevertheless, the best picture controversy reminded me of a recent email I received from historian Harry Schenawolf, who writes articles and edits the “Revolutionary War Journal” website. A retired teacher and professor, historian and novelist, Schenawolf directed me to an article on the site titled “Black Presence in the American Revolutionary Army was Much Larger than What We’ve Thought or Been Told.”
His essay argues that the black contribution has been largely written off as an insignificant percentage of the total number of soldiers for fought American independence, approximately 300,000. Black participation has been estimated at 5,000, or about 1.6 percent.
But the true impact of black participation in the American War of Independence was considerably greater, Schenawolf contends, because of the differing life circumstances blacks and whites faced during that period. Many American soldiers enlisted for only 30 or 90 days. When their time was up, white soldiers tended to go home to take care of their families or harvest crops, or avoid spending horrendous winters with an army that lacked the resources to house, clothe and feed them properly in encampments such as the infamous Valley Forge.
But black enlistees stayed longer, many serving through the whole war, enduring winter camps and helping the Army to maintain a minimal strength, because often in many cases they had few or no other options. Some had no families or homes of their own to return to. Some, especially in Northern states, were African slaves who had been released from servitude for the express purpose of serving as fighters to prop up the cause of American independence.
Citing the scholarly research of others, Schenawolf’s article reports that contemporary observers placed the percentage of black soldiers at Valley Forge to 10 percent of the total number, even as the Army’s size dropped to a mere 7,000. His article reproduces a full regiment by regiment accounting of the active duty rosters at Valley Forge during the winter to back up this estimate.
As in almost areas of African American participation in American institutions, the story of black participation in the Revolutionary War is a varied tale. Opposed at the start of the war by everyone from Washington to state governors and plantation owners, the practical demand for more soldiers to replace those who quit the fight when their enrollment was up, deserted, or were lost as casualties to battle or disease, found generals and governors searching for ways to produce new enrollments.
“Shortly after General Washington took command of the army at Cambridge” in the war’s first year, Schenawolf writes, “he issued orders to recruiting officers prohibiting the enlistment of any African Americans.” But this ideological stance “was soon to erode by necessity and the fact that African American soldiers performed far beyond biased and preconceived prejudices.”
American leaders had initially discouraged black participation in part because of fears their appearance in the uniforms of the War for Independence would weaken the institution of slavery, a source of great wealth to some of the movement’s most important backers and to the Colonies as a whole.
When bodies are desperately needed, however, Schenawolf’s research tells us, black bodies prove acceptable.
Another reason to recruit blacks to the cause of independence was that the British were desperately seeking to fill their own ranks with deserting slaves. If you desert your rebel masters, British commander Henry Clinton urged the enslaved, you will find a home with us.
In response, independence leaders encouraged Colonial slave owners to free their slaves for military service by offering enrollment bounties to their masters.
The argument for this policy — freedom in reward for service — was expressed with characteristic eloquence (as quoted in Schenawolf’s article) by Alexander Hamilton, who wrote that by “the dictates of humanity and true policy, slaves should be given their freedom with the swords to secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and influence those remaining in bondage by opening a door to their emancipation.”
Emancipation for the cause of independence proved a tough sell in the deep South, but most Northern states embraced it. Rhode Island enrolled a full regiment of black soldiers who “proved themselves admirably in action, particularly during the Battles of Rhode Island and Yorktown,” Schenawolf writes. “New Hampshire enlisted African Americans and gave to those who served three years the same bounty offered others.”
Constitution Framer James Madison highlighted the ideological connection between a war founded on a declaration of freedom and equality to the offer of liberation to enslaved Africans. Schenawolf states:
“James Madison succinctly suggested that the slaves be liberated and armed, ‘It would certainly be consonant to the principles of liberty,’ he said, ‘which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty.’”
Black soldiers took part valiantly, sometimes heroically, in major battles. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, when some British attackers survived a withering fire from American lines, the appearance of a saber-wielding British officer on top their redoubt demanding they surrender threw American soldiers into confusion. Had their position been overrun? Was resistance suddenly hopeless?
Their indecision ended when African American soldier Peter Salem stepped forward and fired his musket into the chest of the British major, restoring the courage of the American defenders.
While Georgia would not emancipate slaves to allow them to fight, the state did permit a slave named Austin Dabney to enlist as his master’s substitute. He proved to be such a gallant fighter as an artilleryman that after a gunshot wound left him crippled for life, the state awarded him a pension.
The all-black Rhode Island First Regiment saved American forces from a shattering defeat in the Battle of Rhode Island when they protected the rear of the American army retreating from the abandoned siege of British forces in Newport. A first-hand witness, A Doctor Harris reported:
“Had they been unfaithful or even given away before the enemy all would have been lost. Three times in succession they were attacked with more desperate valor and fury by well disciplined and veteran troops, and three times did they successfully repel the assault and thus preserved our army from capture.”
While Massachusetts, home to its share of African slaves, dithered on the question of forming a black regiment or inducing slaves to enlist, first-hand accounts noted the “number of Negroes” in its regiments. British historian Bancroft wrote that “more than 700 black men fought side by side with the white”at the crucial battle of Monmouth, where Washington’s army held its own against a superior British force.
The American use of black troops in its War of Independence also established a pattern for participation of African Americans in future country’s wars. Schenawolf cites Benjamin Quarles’ study, The Negro in the American Revolution:
“From colonial times until the twentieth century, the Negro would be bypassed in the early stages of conflict. But as the struggle grew arduous, civilian authorities and military commanders would turn to the one great remaining manpower pool, and the Negro would emerge from his status as a rejected inferior to become a comrade in arms.”
Recent research has given us more detailed information on the identities of black soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Research conducted by the Daughters of the American Revolution (as part of a settlement of a suit against the organization) was able to name some 5,000 black soldiers.
In a story I wrote for the Boston Globe eight years ago, I reported that local historians in Plymouth County, Mass., after combing the DAR research, were able to identify 135 names from communities south of Boston. Bridgewater (a township that then encompassed what is now Brockton) had the highest total with 40. Twenty-six were from Plymouth, 10 from Middleborough, 10 from Scituate, 9 from Braintree, 8 from Hanover, and 5 each from Dedham and Stoughton.
The sources I spoke to for this story also told me that they thought a proposal for a a national memorial for African-Americans who fought for American independence had merit.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Jermain Corbin, an African-American who taught African-American history in a Boston exam school. “Something that’s forgotten is that more than 5,000 black soldiers participated in the American Revolution.”
After reading Schenawolf’s article and others on the American Revolution Journal website, I think there may even be material here for a good movie.
It’s unlikely, however, to win the Best Picture Oscar.