Black Soldiers and Sailors During the Revolution
By Paul Rastatter
There is a statue on Boston Common, put there in 1889, commemorating Crispus Attucks, a former slave and dock worker, who was killed by British soldiers along with four other men in 1770 in the Boston Massacre. Attucks has been called over the years as “the first to defy, and the first to die.”
A part of the problem in Boston in 1770 was that off-duty British soldiers were taking part time jobs on the docks trying to earn some extra money. They were sometimes housed in private homes and the homeowner was required to feed the soldiers. In England, the standing Army was used to collect taxes, stop smuggling and enforce customs. The British soldiers were therefore resented by the local Boston working class for political, economic and social reasons.
On the first Monday evening in March at nine o’clock at night an angry crowd gathered in front of the Custom House on King Street, accusing a soldier of using the butt of his musket on a boy who had made slurring remarks about a British officer. Eight British soldiers came running to his rescue followed by Captain Preston, the officer of the day. The town fire-bell rang causing many more people to pour into the streets that night. The local people were taunting the soldiers and throwing snowballs at them. One of the soldiers that night received a blow, which threw him off balance and knocked his gun to the ground. Partly out of panic, resentment or self-defense, the soldiers discharged their weapons. Eleven civilians were hit, three were killed instantly, eight were wounded, two of them mortally.
Who dealt the blow and thereby touched off the firing? It was not Crispus Attucks according to Samuel Adams, the chief colonial propagandist, since; “he was leaning upon a stick when he fell.” Samuel Adams would use the controversy surrounding this unfortunate killing to exaggerate British injustices.
According to John Adams, the chief counsel defending the British soldiers, it was Attucks (6’2″ 225lbs), “whose very looks was enough to terrify any person who… with one hand took hold of the bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down… in who all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed”
On December 5, 1770, six of the soldiers and Captain Preston are acquitted on all charges. Two soldiers, Montgomery and Killroy, are convicted of manslaughter. In order to reduce their punishment to branding, Montgomery and Killroy plead “the benefit of clergy” and Sheriff Greenleaf brands the two men on their right thumbs. Although, technically Crispus Attucks was not a trained soldier, he was an intrinsic part of the social fabric that night. His ideology, which may have been that of an unemployed or displaced dock-worker, was consistent with the patriot/rebel cause in the American Revolution.
Freedom for Blacks
White Americans were divided over the issue of who to support at the outset of the American Revolution. Some historians estimate that 1/3 of the population were patriots, 1/3 were Loyalists and 1/3 were neutral but it probably varied from region to region. New York state and the Carolina’s were big Loyalist centers with regiments of Loyalists soldiers forming from there and neutrality only works when there’s no army in your vicinity.
For African Americans, what mattered most was Freedom. As the war spread through each region of the country, those in bondage sided with whichever Army promised them their personal liberty.
The British actively recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters and thus more blacks fought for the Crown. The estimate of the slave population at the beginning of the Revolution is about 400,000 to 500,000 – or 20% of the population. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 slaves escaped, died or were killed during the American Revolution — again, about 20% of the slave population. About 10,000 blacks were recruited and fought for the British side and about 5,000 blacks fought for the American side.
The Ethiopian Regiment
The Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore sought to disrupt the American cause by promising freedom to any slaves owned by Patriot/rebel masters. Dunmore issued an official proclamation to that effect in November 1775. About 800 runaway slaves joined Dunmore who formed a regiment of soldiers from them known as the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore hurried to train the blacks in basic musket shooting; formation marching and even had special uniforms made up with a provocative insignia “Liberty to Slaves” embroidered on their breasts. The Regiment scored an easy victory at Kemp’s Landing when unprepared Patriot forces were surprised by Regular British and the Ethiopian Regiment and fled quickly. Being overconfident, Dunmore ordered his soldiers to attack fortified positions at Norfolk (where the Patriot State Legislature was meeting.) This is called the Battle of Great Bridge and Africans fought on both sides. The Patriots opened fire on the Ethiopian Regiment who were marching in formation and decimated their ranks. (Well, decimated is a strong word — 37 killed and 49 wounded is one account.) Dunmore was forced to withdraw. Cramped quarters aboard British ships soon took its toll and many of Dunmore’s white and black soldiers came down with smallpox. Many former slaves were put ashore with smallpox to fend for themselves. Dunmore sailed off with only 300 of the Ethiopian Regiment. He sailed up to New York where many of the Blacks were discharged.
The Congress refuses Black enlistees
At first it appeared that when George Washington took command of the Continental Army, he barred the further recruitment of black soldiers, even though many blacks had fought side by side with whites at Lexington & Concord and Bunker Hill (Washington, being a Southerner and a slave owner and assuming command in Massachusetts). But Washington actually allowed free blacks who had fought to re-enlist in 1775-76. The Continental Congress and most states except for Virginia in the Summer/Fall of 1776 barred the recruitment of blacks whether free or slave. The decision was taken out of his hands.
The 1st Rhode Island Regiment
By the winter of 1777-78 (Valley Forge), the Continental Army had dwindled from 18,000 to about 8,000 from disease and desertion. The situation was grim. Philadelphia was occupied. The Continental Congress was meeting in cramped quarters in York, Pennsylvania. The Congress approved a Rhode Island proposal to raise an entire regiment of free blacks and Slaves! The Rhode Island legislature, full of men connected to Rhode Island’s extensive slave trade, provided for compensation to slave owners of up to 120 English Pounds or $400.00 in Continental currency. The slaves, then, would be purchased by the state and once they passed muster by Colonel Greene would be freed. The regiment, however, was never entirely composed of former slaves or even African-Americans. White men, free blacks, and a few Narragansett Indians were present from the beginning. Over time, the unit resembled most of the Continental forces with a mix of whatever recruits could be found. That the majority of the men in this regiment were African American through most of the war was due to the terms of enlistment for former slaves. Colonel Greene commanded the unit from its formation in 1778 until his death at Points Bridge in 1781. In all, the unit saw five years of service and was a part of the Continental line at the battles of Rhode Island, Point’s Bridge and Yorktown. The regiment was an active part of the American effort, and at Points Bridge; they were particularly noticed for their effectiveness in the field. For many of the men of the First Rhode Island Regiment freedom had not only political meaning, but personal meaning as well.
Virginia and other States recruit free Blacks
To bring the Continental Army up to strength, Congress ordered the states in January 1777 to fill their units “by drafts, from their militia, or in any other way.” As Virginia was unable to meet her quota of 10,200 men with volunteers a lottery-based draft law was enacted in May 1777, which greatly increased the number of blacks in the Virginia Line. Free blacks were the first to be called up, as Virginia tightened the enforcement of the draft. Most free blacks had no choice but to join up. But slave owners could afford substitutes and, when faced with a draft notice, many a master presented a slave to the recruiting officer as a substitute. Many a runaway told the nearest recruiter that he was a freeman, anxious to fight. More often than not, he was accepted without too many questions; the army was always short of men. During the winter of 1777-78, dozens of black Virginians served in every one of the state regiments, freezing, starving, and dying at Valley Forge. By February 1778, the survivors were marching with white comrades through the snow, practicing Baron von Steuben’s as yet unfamiliar drill. When the Steuben-trained army proved its mettle at Monmouth in June, about 700 blacks fought side-by-side with whites
Except for the Carolinas and Georgia, all of the other states accepted blacks into their ranks. They served in un-segregated units. When Washington crossed the Delaware, many of Colonel Glover’s Massachusetts Marble-headers were African. The famous painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” shows a black man on the boat with a pole in the icy water. A John Trumbull painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill shows a black soldier, although he painted it seven years after the event in England.
General Howe’s policy vs. General Clinton
General William Howe, the new commander of British land forces barred the recruitment of black soldiers and discharged his black troops. With the arrival of 30,000 Hessian mercenaries, the British were no longer desperate for men. There were still some black companies of musicians, guides and laborers. In 1779, General Henry Clinton took command of the British army. Clinton issued the Phillipsburg Proclamation providing shelter and freedom for any patriot owned slaves whether they could fight or not. Clinton saw the economic sense of striking at the Southern economy with many slave-owners like Washington as the backbone of the Patriot money supply. Like Sherman’s march to the sea, many slaves escaped and made their way to the British side. After Yorktown, the British occupied three key cities, New York, Charleston and Savannah. There are reports of leaving many blacks behind especially in the Southern cities — clubbing them as they swam to ships. Other reports have blacks being re-enslaved on the Caribbean islands. But we do know that as many as 2000 blacks were taken to St. John’s Newfoundland from New York. Many of these blacks would later migrate to Africa and found a homeland there (Freetown, Sierra Leone not Liberia).
James Forten was born into a free black community in Philadelphia in 1766. His grandfather was a slave during the William Penn founding era and somehow purchased or acquired his freedom. At the time, Pennsylvania law said that 30 English pounds must be posted at the time of a slave’s manumission. James Forten’s mother, Sarah, did not start having children until she was 42 years old. It is suggested that she waited until she was free until having children. James’s father, Thomas, died when James was only 7 years old. Free blacks could be re-enslaved by Pennsylvania Law and their children taken from them, if they were found to be destitute and a burden to society. James was too young to start an apprenticeship. The Forten family must have struggled to stay above the poverty level. James attended a Quaker “African school” and learned to read, write and enough mathematics to be able to do quality bookkeeping in his own business in later years. Most likely, in 1775, the free black community in Philadelphia would have heard of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation that slaves who could fight would be set free in Virginia but James was already free. When George Washington and the Continental army passed through Philadelphia on their way to the Battle of Brandywine, Forten, if he watched the parade, would have seen black and brown faces among the Patriot troops as they marched though the city that day. Forten and his family stayed in Philadelphia when Sir William Howe and 20,000 British troops captured and occupied the city.
After the Patriots returned, the Pennsylvania Legislature in March 1780, abolished slavery by law, which was really a gradual emancipation to slave children once they turned 28 years old. (Like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the law did not free a single slave.) In 1781, at age 14, James Forten enlisted on a Privateer ship, the Royal Louis, named after the King of France and commanded by Steven Decatur, who would become famous as a naval hero during the war of 1812. (The Continental and State navies and especially the privateers did not restrict blacks from enlisting.) Forten became a powder-boy, running and fetching gunpowder for the cannons but he also would have gone aloft to let out the sails, worked the capstan to raise the anchor, swabbed the decks and helped in the galley. During his first voyage, the Royal Louis and the Holker worked together and took four vessels as prizes. As a boy under 16, James Forten’s share would only be 1/2 of a share. Between voyages, Forten recalls seeing Washington’s troops march through Philadelphia on their way to Yorktown and wrote later in life that in the New England Regiments, “there were several companies of colored people, as brave men as ever fought.”
His second voyage came on the heels of the great naval Battle of the Chesapeake between the French and British fleets outside Yorktown. One day out of the Delaware River and into the ocean, the Royal Louis came upon an English Frigate, Amphion. After a grueling seven-hour chase, the Amphion fired a broadside on the Royal Louis and Decatur had no choice but to strike his colors. Forten knew that very rarely were persons of his color exchanged in a prisoner of war swap. Blacks, whether free or slave, would be sent to the West Indies and re-enslaved. Luckily for Forten, the Captain of the Amphion spotted him among the POW’s. The Captain needed someone he could trust to watch over his 12 year old son who was accompanying his father on his first voyage. The Amphion sent most of the POW’s and her prizes back to New York and went south to strike a second time at the French fleet but soon discovered that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered. Returning to New York, the British Captain offered James Forten the chance “to go home to England with his son” — who was the heir of a handsome estate. James Forten is said to reply, “I have been taken prisoner for the liberties of my country and never will prove a traitor to her interest.” Captain Bazely kept his eye on Forten until the last minute, hoping he would change his mind and then, sent a note to the commander of the prison ship, “Jersey” in New York harbor to watch over young Forten. Forten writes in his later years, “Thus… a game of marbles (with the British Captain’s son) saved him from a life of West Indian servitude.” Hundreds of prisoners died aboard the “Jersey” and hundreds more escaped by volunteering for duty on board English vessels. But James Forten stayed for seven months until he was exchanged. He is said to have walked from New York to Trenton after his exchange and finally made it back to Philadelphia.
After the war, James Forten went to work for Robert Bridges, a sail-maker on the docks of Philadelphia. Forten became a foreman in 1786 and before Bridges died in 1798, he helped Forten acquire a loan to buy his sail loft. At age 32, James Forten had a workforce of 38 men, 19 of whom were white. Forten ran a prosperous business for many years in Philadelphia. He built a three-story townhouse on Lombard Street. He amassed a fortune of over $100,000. He helped in the founding of the Mother Bethel AME church. He got involved in the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad. When he died, white merchants, white Sea Captains and hundreds of others attended his funeral.
In Conclusion, there were five ways for blacks to serve during the American Revolution. 1) Free blacks could enlist for bounties. 2) Runaway slaves could lie about their status and join. 3) Slaves could serve as substitutes for white masters. 4) Slaves could be bought by State governments and freed upon service. (All New England States followed PA’s lead and abolished slavery in their new State Constitutions.) and 5) Slaves could escape to the British or Germans. One account has black men dying at Yorktown fighting for the Americans, for the French, for the British and for the Germans.