Throughout American history, from the colonial period onward, people of African descent have played a crucial role in the fighting for the country's independence. Although the exact numbers are unclear, many African Americans were involved on both sides of the Revolutionary War.
Contributions of Slaves in the Revolutionary WarMPI / Getty Images
The first African slaves arrived in the American colonies in 1619 and were almost immediately put into military service to fight against the Native Americans. Both free blacks and slaves enlisted in local militias, serving alongside their white neighbors until 1775 when General George Washington took command of the Continental Army.
Washington, himself a slave owner from Virginia, saw no need to continue the practice of enlisting black Americans. Rather than keeping them in the ranks, he released, through General Horatio Gates, an order in July 1775 saying, “You are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial British army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.” Like many of his compatriots, including Thomas Jefferson, Washington did not see the fight for American independence as being relevant to the freedom of black slaves.
In October of that same year, Washington convened a council to re-evaluate the order against blacks in the military. The council opted to continue the ban on African American service, voting unanimously to “reject all Slaves, and by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.”
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
The British, however, had no such aversion to enlisting people of color. John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore and the last British governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation in November 1775 essentially emancipating any rebel-owned slave who was willing to take up arms on behalf of the Crown. His formal offer of freedom to both slaves and indentured servants was in response to an impending attack on the capital city of Williamsburg.
Hundreds of slaves enlisted in the British Army in response, and Dunmore christened the new batch of soldiers his “Ethiopian Regiment.” Although the move was controversial, particularly among Loyalist landowners fearing armed rebellion by their slaves, it was the first mass emancipation of American slaves and predated Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by nearly a century.
By the end of 1775, Washington changed his mind and decided to allow the enlistment of free men of color, although he stood firm on not permitting slaves into the army.
Meanwhile, the naval service had no qualms at all about allowing African Americans to enlist. The duty was long and hazardous, and there was a shortage of volunteers of any skin color as crewmen. Blacks served in both the Navy and the newly-formed Marine Corps.
Although enlistment records are not clear, primarily because they do not contain information about skin color, scholars estimate that at any given time, approximately ten percent of rebel troops were men of color.
Notable African American NamesJohn Trumbull's painting is believed to depict Peter Salem on the lower right.
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Historians generally agree that Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks is believed to have been the son of an African slave and a Nattuck woman named Nancy Attucks. It is likely that he was the focus of an advertisement placed in the "Boston Gazette" in 1750, which read,
“Ran away from his Master William Brown from Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl'd Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour'd Bearskin Coat.”
William Brown offered ten pounds for the return of his slave.
Crispus Attucks escaped to Nantucket, where he took a position on a whaling ship. In March 1770, he and a number of other sailors were in Boston. An altercation broke out between a group of colonists and a British sentry. Townspeople spilled into the streets, as did the British 29th Regiment. Attucks and a number of other men approached with clubs in their hands. At some point, the British soldiers fired upon the crowd.
Attucks was the first of five Americans to be killed. Taking two shots to his chest, he died almost immediately. The event soon became known as the Boston Massacre. With his death, Attucks became a martyr to the revolutionary cause.
Peter Salem distinguished himself for his bravery at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which he was credited with the shooting of British officer Major John Pitcairn. Salem was presented to George Washington after the battle and commended for his service. A former slave, he had been freed by his owner after the battle at Lexington Green so that he could enlist with the 6th Massachusetts to fight the British.
Although not much is known about Peter Salem prior to his enlistment, American painter John Trumbull captured his deeds at Bunker Hill for posterity in the famous work "The Death of General Warren at the Battle at Bunker's Hill." The painting depicts the death of General Joseph Warren, as well as Pitcairn, in battle. On the very far right of the work a black soldier holds a musket. Some believe this to be an image of Peter Salem, although he could also be a slave named Asaba Grosvenor.
Born to a free black couple in Massachusetts, Barzillai (pronounced BAR-zeel-ya) Lew was a musician who played the fife, drum, and fiddle. He enlisted in Captain Thomas Farrington's Company during the French and Indian War and is believed to have been present at the British capture of Montreal. After his enlistment, Lew worked as a cooper and purchased the freedom of Dinah Bowman for four hundred pounds. Dinah became his wife.
In May 1775, two months before Washington's ban on black enlistment, Lew joined the 27th Massachusetts as both a soldier and part of the fife and drum corps. He fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill and was present at Fort Ticonderoga in 1777 when British General John Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates.
Women of Color in the RevolutionPhyllis Wheatley was a poet who was owned by the Wheatley family of Boston.
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It wasn't just men of color who contributed to the Revolutionary War. A number of women distinguished themselves as well.
Phyllis Wheatley was born in Africa, stolen from her home in Gambia, and brought to the colonies as a slave during her childhood. Purchased by Boston businessman John Wheatley, she was educated and eventually recognized for her skill as a poet. A number of abolitionists saw Phyllis Wheatley as a perfect example for their cause and often used her work to illustrate their testimony that blacks could be intellectual and artistic.
A devout Christian, Wheatley often used Biblical symbolism in her work, and in particular, in her social commentary on the evils of slavery. Her poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America" reminded readers that Africans should be considered as part of the Christian faith, and thus treated equally and by Biblical principals.
When George Washington heard about her poem "His Excellency, George Washington," he invited her to read it for him in person in his camp at Cambridge, near the Charles River. Wheatley was freed by her owners in 1774.
Although her true name has been lost to history, a woman nicknamed Mammy Kate was enslaved by the family of Colonel Steven Heard, who would later go on to become the governor of Georgia. In 1779, following the Battle of Kettle Creek, Heard was captured by the British and sentenced to hang. Kate followed him to prison, claiming she was there to take care of his laundry - not an uncommon thing at the time.
Kate, who by all accounts was a good-sized and sturdy woman, arrived with a large basket. She told the sentry she was there to collect Heard's soiled clothing, and managed to smuggle her small-statured owner out of prison, tucked safely away in the basket. Following their escape, Heard freed Kate, but she continued to live and work on his plantation with her husband and children. Of note, when she died, Kate left her nine children to Heard's descendants.
Davis, Robert Scott. "Battle of Kettle Creek." New Georgia Encyclopedia, October 11, 2016.
"Dunmore's Proclamation: A Time to Choose." The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2019.
Ellis, Joseph J. "Washington Takes Charge." Smithsonian Magazine, January 2005.
Johnson, Richard. "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment." Blackpast, June 29, 2007.
Nielsen, Euell A. "Peter Salem (Ca. 1750-1816)."
"Our History." Crispus Attucks, 2019.
"Phillis Wheatley." Poetry Foundation, 2019.
Schenawolf, Harry. "Enlist no Stroller, Negro, Or Vagabond 1775: The Recruitment of African Americans in the Continental Army." Revolutionary War Journal, June 1, 2015.
"The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775." Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2019, Boston.
"The UMass Lowell Hang Gliding Collection." UMass Lowell Library, Lowell, Massachusettes.
Wheatley, Phillis. "His Excellency General Washington." Academy of American Poets, New York.
Wheatley, Phillis. "On Being Brought from Africa to America." Poetry Foundation, 2019, Chicago, IL.