Big Idea 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War
With freedom, liberty, and equality at stake, people of African descent fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. All faced opportunities and risks. Between 5,000-8,000 people of African descent served with the Continental Army. Thousands of others served in state militias and at sea, like James Forten. Supporting the British, Hessians, and Loyalists were approximately 15,000 –20,000 people of African descent.
Black Revolutionary Soldiers
When George Washington was appointed to be the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, he initially banned the recruitment of people of African descent and tried to expel those who were currently serving. These soldiers, however, felt strongly about their involvement in the war and petitioned to be allowed to stay. Alongside their petition, Washington also faced difficulties in recruiting white soldiers to the Continental Army, and learned that the British were recruiting soldiers of African descent to theirs. As a result, at the beginning of 1776, free men of African descent who had already been serving in the Continental Army were allowed to remain. Enslaved men were not allowed to serve. Some individual states allowed enslaved men to serve as substitute soldiers for their owners only if they were freed before their enlistment. Rhode Island, for a brief time in 1778, offered immediate freedom to enslaved men who enlisted. Whether free or enslaved, and however they joined the army, these men of African descent served with bravery and honor like so many of their fellow soldiers.
Integrated and Segregated Soldiers
Many of the Continental Army’s regiments were integrated, with soldiers of African descent serving alongside men of Native American and European descent. These men, all from different backgrounds, experienced the same hardships in camp and on the battlefield. One such regiment, the 6th Connecticut was an integrated unit within the Continental Army. Interestingly, the names of ten of the men of African decent in that unit, including Pomp Liberty, Cuff Freedom, and Jube Freedom, suggest that they had been enslaved prior to being freed for military service. How might they have thought about the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal?” Might this have impacted their decision to join the Continental Army?
In 1778, the state of Rhode Island reorganized their military units. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was entirely made of soldiers of African and Native American ancestry who were led by white officers. It was the only time such a regiment was formed in the Continental Army. In 1781, Rhode Island merged its two state regiments to form the Rhode Island Regiment. The Rhode Island Regiment was segregated by company. Two of that regiment’s nine companies were entirely made up of soldiers of African and Native American ancestry, former members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Like before, these two companies were led by white officers. Some other companies in the Rhode Island Regiment also included drummers of African descent.
Among the opportunities the Revolutionary War offered was the chance to serve the American cause at sea, in the Continental Navy, a state navy, or on a privateer ship. Originally merchant vessels, privateer ships were each issued a Letter of Marque by state governments or the Continental Congress that granted them permission to attack enemy ships. Once permission was received, ships were refitted for wartime engagement. This process included cutting holes for cannons and acquiring ammunition. The owners of merchant ships then looked for a captain and sailors, also called privateers, who were ready to take a risk for the chance of rewards.
Privateer ships were important in disturbing British trade routes by attacking their merchant vessels. The goal of a privateer ship was to attack enemy ships and take any goods they carried, such as gunpowder, flour, and even fine china. Once the ship was captured and brought into port, it was considered a prize of war and the goods the ship carried would be auctioned off. The money was then divided between the authorities, captain, and crew, according to rank. Even the lowest member of the crew was able to make a decent sum of money on a successful voyage. However, becoming a privateer also came with many risks, including the possibility of developing a disease like scurvy or being captured by the enemy and confined on a prison ship. Since privateering came with these uncertainties, men of color were not often turned away.
Did You Know?
One quarter of the Letters of Marque issued during the Revolutionary War went to vessels sailing out of Philadelphia.
Sometimes Freedom Wore a Redcoat
In November of 1775, during the first year of the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, made an important announcement. He proclaimed that any enslaved man owned by a “rebel” who was willing and able to fight against rebellious colonists would be given freedom. Enslaved people owned by Loyalists were not included. Dunmore’s Proclamation was not made because he believed slavery was morally wrong, but because he hoped to increase the number of people willing to fight for him, while taking away both labor and wealth from the rebels.
There were serious challenges to joining Lord Dunmore’s military force. Enslaved people sometimes needed to travel long distances to reach Lord Dunmore and had to avoid recapture along the way. As they crossed regions and encountered different communities, sickness became a grave danger. Ultimately, disease took more of these soldiers than the battlefield did. Those who survived made up Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment.” These soldiers of African descent were not actually from Ethiopia; the name was used as a synonym for “African.”
In 1779, British General Sir Henry Clinton expanded upon Lord Dunmore’s proclamation. While he did not clearly promise freedom, he strongly implied that it, as well as protection, would be provided to enslaved people owned by “rebels.” And rather than specifically bearing arms for the British, freedom seekers could provide any kind of labor for the army. This proclamation, with its expanded reach, encouraged thousands more enslaved people to rush to the British lines. Historians estimate that about 20,000 enslaved people sought freedom by escaping to the British during the Revolutionary War.
James Forten and the Revolutionary War
James Forten and his family were part of Philadelphia’s small community of free people of African descent during the Revolutionary War. They probably stayed in Philadelphia with one third of the city’s residents during he British occupation from September 1777 to June 1778. Among the remaining residents were enslaved people. The British Army’s presence offered them an opportunity: follow the British for a chance at freedom. James Forten might have witnessed people of African descent in his community taking charge of their lives in the hopes of attaining freedom. When the British Army marched out of Philadelphia, they were accompanied by over 3,000 Loyalists and over 100 men and women of African descent, most of them formerly enslaved.
After the British occupation, Philadelphia reemerged as a major port city. Living close to the docks, James Forten watched privateers embark on their journeys and his desire to do the same increased. We don’t know exactly why Forten wanted to fight for the Revolutionaries as a privateer. He could have had a bad experience with the British during the occupation of Philadelphia. Or he could have been inspired by the passage of the 1780 “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” in Pennsylvania, which gave freedom to enslaved people once they turned 28. He might have been eager to use his knowledge of sail-making and sail repair from the days his father took him to work in a sail loft. Making money was another consideration, as he knew extra income would greatly help his family. Forten also might have realized, due to the dangerous nature of privateering, captains of merchant vessels were always looking for men and often did not put importance on the color of a sailor’s skin. Whatever the reason, after he convinced his mother, Forten joined the Royal Louis, a 22-gun ship under the leadership of a successful captain named Stephen Decatur.
James Forten was only 14 when he set sail on his first voyage. Once on board the Royal Louis, Forten was part of a crew, 10% of which were people of African descent. Because he was young, Forten cleaned the deck, let out the lighter sails, helped to lower or raise the anchor, worked in the galley, and assisted the other privateers when needed. His first cruise with the Royal Louis was successful. The crew were able to capture five British vessels easily and won a contest with the sixth vessel that carried important information about battle plans for the British navy. He came back to Philadelphia enthusiastic for the Revolutionary cause and with money in his pocket.
Once home in Philadelphia again, Forten witnessed an important event on September 2, 1781, his 15th birthday, that he would remember for the rest of his life. He saw the Rhode Island Regiment, partly made up of soldiers of African descent, marching in front of the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) on their way to Yorktown, Virginia. Recalling the event 50 years later, Forten remarked “I well remember that when the New England Regiment marched through this city on their way to attack the English Army under the command of Lord Cornwallis, there were several Companies of Coloured People, as brave Men as ever fought.” These soldiers helped secure the American victory at Yorktown. Unfortunately, only one third of the men of the Rhode Island Regiment survived the war.
When James Forten rejoined the Royal Louis in October of 1781, the Siege at Yorktown was underway on land and at sea. Captain Decatur was warned that a couple of small British warships were seen off the coast of Virginia. Not long after they sailed down the Delaware River did the Royal Louis encounter a group of British ships, including the Amphion. The captain of the ship, John Bazely, moved in to capture the smaller Royal Louis, which was forced to surrender. Tired and frightened, the crew awaited their fate. Forten was transferred to the Amphion where he faced an unknown future. Would he be sold into slavery? Would he die on the ship from lack of food and water, or disease? Would he ever see his family and Philadelphia again?
While on the Amphion, Forten’s future took an unexpected turn. Captain Bazely had two young sons onboard with him. The youngest, Henry, only 12, was restless and bored. Captain Bazely noticed Forten was about Henry’s age and asked him to supervise and engage Henry. Captain Bazely took note of Forten’s successful supervision. As Forten was debarking the Amphion for the prison ship, the Jersey, Bazely made him a surprising offer: Forten could come to England with Henry and the Bazely family. If he agreed, Forten would have his education paid for and, with Captain Bazely’s connections, a bright future ahead of him in Britain. But Forten rejected the offer, proclaiming “I have been taken prisoner for the liberties of my country, and never will prove a traitor to her interest.”
On the prison ship docked near Brooklyn, New York, Forten endured awful conditions. The ship was crowded, dirty, stuffy, and filled with bugs. Disease was rampant and many men died. Forten found comfort with his fellow mess mates while considering what to do next. One day, he heard the news that an American officer onboard was being released and Forten asked if he could hide in the officer’s sea chest to escape. But at the very last moment, Forten gave his place in the sea chest to another young privateer from Philadelphia, Daniel Brewton, who was very sick. Brewton made it home to Philadelphia and never forgot this act of kindness. Brewton and Forten became friends for life.
After seven months on the Jersey, James Forten’s turn to go home finally came with a prisoner exchange. Upon his release, Forten had no choice but to walk home from New York to Philadelphia. On the way, he stopped in Trenton, New Jersey, and some kind people gave him much-needed food, clothing, and shoes. Despite that, he arrived home malnourished with a bad case of scurvy that left him almost bald. His mother happily nursed him back to health.
While recovering, James Forten thought about what the Revolutionary War meant for him. On the prison ship, dealing with hunger and fear, Forten might have thought about his ancestors who came to America on a slave ship. As a prisoner of war, historians are unsure if Forten was treated the same or differently because of the color of his skin. But we do know he experienced the same hardships as the other prisoners who needed to work together to survive. As a result, Forten developed close bonds with his fellow prisoners, despite their differences in class, wealth, and race. This was an important and formative moment for Forten. In later years, Forten would remember his experiences in the Revolutionary War. In his successful sail loft, he established an interracial workplace. He spent his later life determined to advance the cause of the abolition of slavery, proclaiming that people of African descent deserved the same rights as all other Americans.
The end of the Revolutionary War presented both new opportunities and challenges for people of African descent. Some, like James Forten, experienced a degree of equal treatment, but the Revolutionary War did not eliminate prejudice and discrimination. Many who followed the British were returned to their former enslavers or sold back into slavery. Soldiers of African descent who fought for the Revolutionaries received the same pay as white soldiers, but when pensions were authorized in the 1800s, some Black veterans were discriminated against, with payment being denied or delayed. And even though all states north of Maryland, like James Forten’s Pennsylvania, gradually abolished slavery, the institution greatly expanded in the southern states in the decades leading up to the American Civil War.
However, the Revolutionary War did lead to new opportunities for freedom, liberty, and self-determination, on both sides of the conflict. After the war, thousands of formerly enslaved people who joined the British were able to maintain their freedom. They were transported to places like Canada and England to begin new lives and founded a settlement in Sierra Leone in West Africa. Some enslaved men who fought for the Revolutionaries gained their freedom due to their enlistment in the army. Sometimes they received veterans’ pensions or even bounty land as thanks for their service. By the early 1800s, all states north of Maryland ended or moved toward ending slavery. For some people of African descent, like James Forten, the Revolutionary War gave them a chance to seize new opportunities and experience equality. His experiences in the war led him to spend his life challenging the nation to fulfill the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence. How will your past experiences affect your future?