Kait Picco

Blacks during the American Revolution


For a long time historians have grappled with one of the most notable intellectual paradoxes in American history, how the founding fathers could promote the Aequal rights of man@ and talk of their Aenslavement@ by the Crown while simultaneously holding 1/5 of their population in bondage. Additionally, some are concerned with the question of why abolition or widespread emancipation didn't occur at this period in time when revolutionary and republican rhetoric existed alongside of anti-slavery sentiments and both had loyal supporters. Many have posited that Americans were speaking solely of political enslavement and slaves= exclusion from the political body made it easier for the Americans to make claims that seem so obviously hypocritical. Whether or not whites were able to justify to themselves the exclusion of the black community from their cries for freedom, the parallels revolutionary rhetoric had to 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.

-Part I- Slavery and Emancipation in the Age of the Revolution

By the Revolution roughly 1/3 of families in the Chesapeake had slaves and in the low country slaves often outnumbered whites. In the South there developed two different types of slavery based on the staple crop of the region. In the Chesapeake they grew mostly tobacco and they developed a gang labor system and patriarchal plantation management. On the rice coast it was a task system and the slaves did not interact as intimately with their white masters.

Though black and white southerners interacted, they were part of separate cultures. The white elites reenforced the importance of the plantation house, the courthouse, and the church, which were the primary components of their system of social domination. As the slave populations began to increase, so did the severity of legal punishments aimed towards them, and a separate judicial processes were created for slaves, embodied in the slave code. In Virginia, for example, the House of Burgesses proclaimed in 1639 that only white Virginians could arm themselves. Previous to this time free blacks and slaves were not excluded for carrying arms or serving in the Virginia militia. Yet during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 both sides promised slaves freedom in exchange for military service, similar to what would happen over 100 years later. The slave code of 1705 explicitly denied slaves the right to serve in the military and denied free blacks equal status with whites in the services. And the codes of 1723 and 1748 allowed free blacks to only serve as trumpeters or drummers.

Similar and even harsher slave codes existed in other states. The 1740 slave code in South Carolina made it legal to kill a slave who was away from the house or plantation, even if that person did not resist. Georgia=s code came 15 years later and actually encouraged the killing of runaways, offering a reward twice as much for a dead male slave than a captured live female. The white colonists feared slave insurrection and increasingly restricted their movements and actions. Their fears were well justified, during the 2 decades prior to the war slave unrest was at an all-time high. In times of crisis, however, people were willing to compromise their sense of security in order to win the war.

In addition to tensions among whites and their slaves, anxiety was building in places like Boston since the 1760s after a series of events including the public outcry against the Sugar and Stamp Acts. British soldiers stationed there and in other cities took jobs away from sailors and other working-class people, among whom blacks were represented. On March 5th, 1770 British soldiers fired into a violent mob that had congregated outside the Custom House on King Street in Boston. Crispus Attucks was a runaway ex-slave of African and Natick Indian origins and worked as a sailor. He was one of many seaman and dock workers present at the conflict and he was the first of five American killed by British soldiers at what became known as the Boston Massacre, which took place five year before the battle of Lexington.

-patriot propagandists used this to unite for the cause.

In June 1772, James Somersett sued for his freedom in English courts. Somersett, a slave taken to England by his master Charles Stuart, ran away but was recaptured and bound for Jamaica.. Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King=s Bench, ruled that Somersett be released because slavery is Aso odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it... .@ His decision outlawed slavery in England, but did not apply to British colonies. When the news reached the colonies however, American slaves began petitioning for their own freedom. The General Court in Boston received in January 1773 the first petition in which a slave argued that the Mansfield decision should apply to the colonies. Mansfield=s decision was not extended to the colonies in this instance, but it provided fodder for the belief of many slaves that their best chance for freedom lay with the British. They believed the Brits held a widely different view of slavery than the majority of Americans. Though many blacks were able to serve in the war, the freedom they were expecting was rarely realized.

-Part II- African Americans as Soldiers

On April 19th, 1775, a Lexington slave named Prince Easterbrooks was one of the first persons shot at Concord Bridge. He survived and went on to fight in nearly every major campaign of the Revolution. His presence at these battles was not unusual. In the early battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, free and enslaved blacks fought alongside white Patriots. After these battles however, blacks increasingly became excluded. The Committee of Safety resolved that only free men could enter the army by late May, and in September a delegate from South Carolina presented a resolution to the Continental Congress urging the dismissal of all blacks from the army. It was not accepted, but several officers followed their own policies of excluding all blacks from serving. Patriots also took measures to thwart the possibility of their slaves escaping to the British. In Virginia, for example, some slaves who were suspected of future attempts at escape were sent to remote areas of the state to work in lead mines, others were even incarcerated.

The British were not as willing as the patriots to reject this pool of potential manpower. They saw possibility in the revolutionary fervor of so many rebellious blacks. Though instead of channeling this enthusiasm for rebellion, the British hoped that the very threat of rebellion would pacify the colonists and that the actual desertion of slaves would cause great economic hardship. By the summer 1775, John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore, and the last royal Governor of Virginia found his ranks reduced to 300 men and announced that he welcomed men, regardless of race. 100 black runaways joined Dunmore by the fall, during which time he was leading spoiling operations along Virginia=s waterways. On November 7th, Dunmore declared martial law and issued his famous proclamation while on board the William. It reads as follows:

READ DUNMORE'S PROCLAMATION(For a copy, see: http://collections.ic.gc.ca/blackloyalists/.... and go to bottom of page and click on the link to Lord Dunmore's procalmation.  The page also has a link to information about the "Ethopian Regiment" that was recruited and fought for Dunmore.))

Dunmore did not intend to emancipate all slaves and indentured servants. He owned slaves himself and did not free them during this revolutionary period. Dunmore offered freedom only to those able-bodied slaves belonging to rebels and he did not want to provoke mass slave rebellion. Within a month he had nearly 300 blacks in his regiment. By the following summer at least 800 blacks had joined Dunmore=s troops, then stationed on Gwynn=s Island. But disease struck, and when Dunmore left Virginia on August 7th, all but 300 blacks had died of fevers.

On June 30th 1779, Sir Henry Clinton, the Commander-in-Chief, extended Dunmore=s offer throughout the colonies. In his Philippsburg Declaration Clinton stated that Aevery Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard [is granted] full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper.@ Most historians figure that seventy-five to one hundred thousand blacks sided with the British; it has been estimated that 30,000 came from VA, 25,000 from SC and around 11,000 from GA.. Both Dunmore and Clinton=s declarations freed some blacks, but ultimately they upheld the institution of slavery.

One notorious slave, known as colonel Tye, escaped to British lines here in our home state of New Jersey.

COLONEL TYE'S STORY (see note at end).

In 1776 Congress allowed the recruitment of free blacks and within a year shortages of soldiers encouraged the Patriots to accept blacks in large numbers into the military. The majority of black Patriot troops came from Northern states. But even states such as South Carolina and Georgia that prohibited the enlistment of blacks, used them as auxiliaries. Possibly 5,000 of the 30,000 Patriot troops were black. General Washington accommodated, if not exactly encouraged, the recruitment of free blacks when, on Jan. 12th 1777, he instructed that recruiters Aenlist none but Freemen.@ He conspicuously failed to mention race. Connecticut passed an act that allowed for the exemption of any two men who could provide a substitute, no matter his color. They also soon passed a second act that allowed masters to provide their slaves as substitutes, as long as the slave was granted his freedom. Rhode Island was the first state to pass a slave enlistment act, and in 1778 the First Rhode Island Regiment was formed and over the next five years 250 former slaves and freeman served within its ranks. They were the only all-black American unit at the siege at Yorktown and formed an important part of Major General Benjamin Lincoln=s division. They were present for the digging of the first parallel on the evening of October 6th as well during treaty negotiations and the British surrender 2 days later.

Many blacks also served on warships or on private vessels. The Continental Navy, unlike the army, recruited blacks, both free and enslaved, from the beginning of the Revolutionary war. This was partly due to their need for sailors of any race, but also that many blacks were experienced, having worked on merchant ships or by serving in the British and state navies. As many as a quarter of the slaves who escaped to the British ended up on ships. Blacks on both sides served as pilots, carpenters, laborers, and also often performed a range of menial duties.

It was with these menial labors that most blacks involved in the war were employed. Patriots were uneasy with the notion of arming slaves, and even the British often used blacks as a means of liberating other white soldiers for combat. In actuality, the majority of blacks who participated in the Revolution helped behind the lines instead of fighting. When blacks were incorporated into the British army, the loyalists often maintained a racialized structure and made limited use of the black troops in combat. Several hundred of Cornwallis=s black troops served as body servants or were employed in other servile capacities. At Petersburg Cornwallis issued regulations that allowed each field officer to keep two black servants and other officers were allowed to keep one. Soldiers also disobeyed orders and had black servants. Blacks were thought to have a better tolerance for heat and were often assigned the heavy labor when the weather was considered too disagreeable for the white troops.

There were also many complaints that the British army in particular did not provide adequate food, clothing, or medicine for their slave and free black populations. The death rate from disease was conspicuously higher among black troops than white. Overcrowding just intensified the problem. Small Pox ravaged the troops and hundreds and maybe thousands of blacks died from the disease. Patriots commented that the British would turn out the sick black soldiers so that they had to fend for themselves or hope to find help among the patriots, which was usually lacking.

-blacks saw hope in the armies for their independence, but they weren't completely blind to the realities of service.

-Part III- Winning Freedom in a Revolutionary Age

Of the Blacks who sought freedom with the British, thousands may have died of disease, particularly smallpox, or in combat. But thousands of others survived and their fates varied widely. More than 20,000 blacks, mostly the slaves of Loyalists but also many who had earned their freedom, left with the British, who often resisted American demands for their runaways. Some went on to fight with the British in the Bahamas shortly after the 1783 peace treaty. An estimated 15,000 sailed from Savannah, New York, and Charleston to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, Nassau, and England. The British did not extend the freedom prescribed by Dunmore to the slaves of Loyalists. Most slaves were taken to the Caribbean and most freemen went to Canada and England.

The story of Boston King illustrates the experience of one black loyalist through the duration of the war.

STORY OF BOSTON KING (See: http://collections.ic.gc.ca/blackloyalists/people/religious/king.htm)

Though his story is by no means representative, Boston King=s experiences demonstrate how even those free black loyalists who considered themselves lucky to be free and alive still had to endure unimaginable suffering. Just because they were no longer enslaved didn=t mean that they did not encounter racism and unaccommodating social systems.

The British and patriot armies were concerned much more with military success than they were with the manumission of slaves. Even Lord Dunmore, who was radical in his willingness to arm slaves had his limits. When he was unable to accommodate all of the slaves that arrived, he forced many blacks to return to their owners. Only slaves belonging to loyalists were returned, which shows that it was a political tactic rather than a humanitarian concern to offer freedom to slaves. This is most obvious in the framing of the declaration of Independence and the Constitution, neither of which abolish slavery or offer concessions to the free and enslaved black populations.

However, despite the numerous obstacles, many notable blacks came forth during the Revolutionary era and provided a challenge to white racial theories. The Revolution intensified abolitionist sentiment particularly in the North. Yet even many southern states loosened their laws guarding against manumissions. In 1782, Virginia passed a law permitting manumissions, but on the condition that former owners remain responsible for those unable to support themselves. During the next decade 1,000 slaves were manumitted in that state. During this same time however, the Assembly passed a bill condemning owners who Acontrary to principles of justice and to their own solemn promise@ kept in bondage those blacks who had served as their substitutes during the war.

Historian Sylvia Frey has argued that economic reasons were likely the primary factor inhibiting manumissions. She states that the volume of runaways created a severe slave labor shortage. By 1780 inflation and British raids had driven the price of Acommon planting [slaves]@ to over 4,000 pounds and of Aboys and girls@ to 3,000 pounds in terms of current money. It is very possible that the demand for slave labor, which continued into the postwar years, inhibited rather than inspired the movement for emancipation.@

Granted, we have the benefit of hindsight and know that slavery was eventually abolished in the North by legislation or judicial decision, with New Jersey being the last to act in 1804 with the passage of a gradual emancipation law. It required more than the courts to abolish slavery elsewhere.


Both the British and the Americans were afraid to arm blacks. Yet blacks were probably present on one or both sides for every major battle of the Revolution. Both armies accepted or enlisted blacks in the military to win the war, not to enact social change. The Revolution gave blacks a chance to articulate and indulge their desire for freedom. While the war did not lead to emancipation, it united blacks in their belief of freedom. It helped to create a sense of community and gave them a position from which to fight for the abolition of slavery.


Note: Boston King: Phyllis R. Blakeley: "Boston King: A Negro Loyalists who sought refuge in Nova Scotia." Dalhousie Review (Canada). Fall, 1968, 48(3): 347-356. He also wrote his memoirs for the Methodists which is available online at the above site and in a few collections.

Colonel Tye: See, Nash's Race and Revolution and in Graham Hodges' African Americans in Monmouth County during the Age of the American Revolution.