Big Idea 6: Soldiers of African Descent in the Revolutionary War
Note: Some 18th-century sources referenced or quoted in this section use the words “negro” or “negroes” to describe people of African descent. These words are generally considered to be offensive today.
From the first shots of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord through the end of the war in 1783, soldiers of African descent contributed significantly to the war effort, both on and off the battlefield. Don Troiani’s paintings of the war include images of these soldiers as they fought on all sides of the conflict. The Revolutionary War was not the first time men of color took up arms in British Colonial America. During the French and Indian War, a small number of soldiers of African descent served in colonial militias to help Britain defeat the French. When the Revolutionary War began, soldiers of African descent, enslaved and free, took up arms against the British during the first battles of the war. Lemuel Haynes, a free man of African descent participated in the Battle of Lexington and later wrote a poem about the motivation he and others had to fight. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Salem Poor, another free soldier of African descent, performed so heroically that 13 officers wrote to the Massachusetts legislature, commending him as a "brave and gallant Soldier" who deserved a reward. In Don Troiani’s paintings Battle of Bunker Hill and The Redoubt, Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, you can see soldiers of African descent like Haynes and Poor serving alongside white soldiers.
Despite these early contributions of soldiers of African descent, they were not always welcome in armies and militias. When George Washington was appointed the commander 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. His order decreed that “neither negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men” could enlist in the Continental Army. This included both free and enslaved men of African descent. Why? Washington felt he needed to maintain the unified support of the war effort from all thirteen colonies (called states after 1776), and especially of the Southern colonies, whose wealth was based on the labor of enslaved people. Not only did many white colonists — both slaveowners and others — fear an uprising if enslaved people were armed with weapons, many would have protested having to serve alongside men of color as equals. Washington also did not want to risk the financial losses of enslaved men, who were often considered not as people but as valuable property if they died in the war.
However, Washington quickly reversed his position. He lifted the ban after he faced difficulties recruiting white soldiers for the Continental Army and learned that the British were recruiting soldiers of African descent for theirs. Therefore, at the beginning of 1776, free men of African descent who had already been serving in the Continental Army were allowed to continue on. Some individual states allowed the participation of enslaved men as well, especially when they served as substitutes for their owners. Some owners — and one state — promised these substitute soldiers freedom after the war. Whether free or enslaved, and however they joined the army, these soldiers of African descent — like so many of their counterparts — served with bravery and honor.
Integrated and Segregated Soldiers
Most of the Continental Army’s regiments were integrated, with soldiers of African descent serving alongside men of Native American and European descent. In Massachusetts, for example, an integrated group of white, Black, and Native American sailors from the fishing village of Marblehead formed the town’s militia and ultimately became the 14th Continental Regiment. On the night of Dec. 25, 1776, they ferried Washington’s troops across the Delaware River to fight in the Battle of Trenton. The 6th Connecticut Regiment was another integrated unit within the Continental Army. The names of ten of the men of African descent in the unit, including Pomp Liberty, Cuff Freedom, and Jube Freeman, suggest why they may have decided to join.
The Rhode Island Regiment
During the harsh Valley Forge winter encampment, many soldiers in the Continental Army deserted or died from disease. In desperate need of more soldiers, Washington sent out a call to the states for assistance. He also forwarded without comment to Rhode Island, a state that was struggling to meet its quota, a proposal from General James Varnum that the state enlist enslaved men of African descent with the promise to free them at the war’s end. Rhode Island agreed and, in early 1778, began to enlist enslaved men of color with the promise not only of their freedom but also equal pay as their white counterparts.
The unit was initially known as the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and was made entirely of private soldiers of African and Native American ancestry who were led by officers of European descent, 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. Two of that regiment’s nine companies (about 65 soldiers each) were entirely made up of private soldiers of African and Native American ancestry, former members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Again, these two units were led by white officers.
Some other companies in the Rhode Island Regiment included Black drummers. Don Troiani’s painting Brave Men as Ever Fought features the Rhode Island Regiment marching through Philadelphia on their way to Yorktown, Virginia in September of 1781. You can see them wearing black leather caps decorated with a white anchor, the state symbol of Rhode Island. This scene was remembered by a free African American Philadelphian named James Forten, more than 50 years after he witnessed it on his 15th birthday. He recalled, “I well remember that when the New England Regiment passed 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.
Did You Know?
The Revolutionary War would be the last time soldiers of African descent served in integrated units in the United States Army until the Korean War in 1950. Despite facing segregation in the Army, they fought in every American war.
James Forten’s Revolution
Men of African descent served at sea as well as on land. They sailed both on British and American military vessels and on privateer ships, merchant ships that had been modified for basic combat and licensed by the government to harass enemy ships. Due to the dangerous nature of privateering, these merchant vessels were always looking for men and often did not put importance on the color of a sailor’s skin.
One of these sailors was James Forten, a free person of African descent born in 1766 just down the street from where the Museum of the American Revolution is today in Philadelphia. When Forten was fourteen, he decided to join the war against the British as a privateer. Forten participated in two privateer cruises during the war. On his second cruise, he was captured by the British and held on a prison ship for several months in New York harbor.
On the ship, where boredom and disease went hand in hand, Forten developed close bonds with his fellow prisoners, despite their differences in class and race. This was an important and formative moment for Forten. When he went on to become the owner of a sail-making business in Philadelphia, he enforced an interracial workplace. Forten became one of the wealthiest and most successful businessmen in Philadelphia during the early 1800s. Drawing on his Revolutionary ideals, he used his wealth and influence to advance the cause of the abolition of slavery, working with people across racial lines to advance shared goals.
Sometimes Freedom Wore a Red Coat
At the start of the Revolutionary War, British colonial leaders were faced with the question of how to best protect their colonies from the American “rebels.” 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 person owned by a “rebel” who joined him and was willing and able to fight for the British would be given their 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. Many colonial leaders saw Dunmore’s Proclamation not as an isolated decision, but as actual British policy. The Continental Congress made reference to Dunmore’s Proclamation as part of the Declaration of Independence’s grievances against the British crown.
The Ethiopian Regiment and Black Pioneers
When hearing about Dunmore’s Proclamation, enslaved people had to make life-changing decisions quickly. Could they trust the British offer of freedom? Would it be worth leaving their family and loved ones? Would they live to get their freedom? If they were captured, would they be returned to slavery? Would the British accept women and children, as well as men? Weighing these questions with the hope of potentially gaining freedom was not easy. However, thousands of enslaved people fled to Dunmore’s lines to seek protection from the British.
There were serious challenges to reaching Lord Dunmore’s military force. Enslaved people sometimes needed to travel long distances, and had to avoid recapture along the way. As they crossed regions and encountered people, and germs, that they had never encountered before, sickness became a grave danger. Ultimately, disease took more of these soldiers than the battlefield did.
Lord Dunmore formed the men who survived their travels and disease into what he called the “Ethiopian Regiment.” These soldiers of African descent were not actually from Ethiopia; the name was used as a synonym for “African.” In Don Troiani’s painting, A Soldier of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, you can see an example of what some of these soldiers wore: coats of the British 14th Regiment of Foot. According to one newspaper account, other members of the Ethiopian Regiment were said to have worn the words “Liberty to Slaves” across their shirts.
Throughout the war, many Loyalist units included soldiers of African descent. A smaller number served in British units. Many of these men left slavery, essentially stealing themselves away, to do so. The roles they were assigned once with the British army or supporting Loyalist forces, however, largely focused on physical labor. This was due to prejudices against soldiers of African descent. As a result, men of African descent often became musicians, scouts, and wagon drivers. Some became servants for officers. Men of African descent also acted as “pioneers,” providing support services such as clearing ground for camps, cooking, removing obstructions on roads, and digging. A company called the “Black Pioneers” was formed by British General Henry Clinton to support the work of the army, and was made entirely of men of African descent.
In 1779, General 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, they 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.
Soldiers of African Descent in the Hessian Army
Leaders from a variety of German-speaking principalities in Europe provided soldiers and officers to the British Army during the Revolutionary War. Together, they were known as Hessians, though they came from different regions. They lost men during the crossing to America, and then even more due to injuries and sickness. These losses encouraged them, like the other armies, to also recruit people of African descent.
As with the Continental and British Armies, the majority of men of African descent who enlisted in Hessian units served in non-combatant support positions, often as laborers and musicians. Several men served as drummers, including in the Hesse-Hanau Artillery. Don Troiani portrays one of these men in his painting, Hesse-Hanau Artillery Drummer, Parade Dress, with a white linen summer dress uniform and the turban that the drummers received and wore when on parade. Some of those men traveled to Germany with their regiments following the war. They would not have been an entirely unusual sight; Hessian and other German-speaking nobility, and other wealthy Europeans as well, were already known to purchase and employ servants and musicians of African descent well before the Revolutionary War. But what might it have felt like to be those men, women, and children?
How Revolutionary Was the War for Soldiers of African Descent?
Between 5,000-8,000 men of African descent served with the Continental Army. Thousands of others served in state militias and at sea. Supporting the British and their Loyalist allies were approximately 15,000-20,000 people of African descent. Even if they served on opposing sides during the Revolutionary War, many people of African descent were fighting for the same goals of freedom, liberty, and equality.
The war did not eliminate prejudice and discrimination towards soldiers of African descent. However, it 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. Those who fought for the Revolutionaries often gained their freedom due to their enlistment in the army. Sometimes they received veterans pensions or even bounty land as thanks for their service. And by the early 1800s, all states north of Maryland had also enacted gradual abolition laws, creating new generations that would be born into freedom.
However, freedom and equality were far from universal for people of African descent after the Revolutionary War, regardless of which side they chose. Some of those who followed the British were returned to their former owners or sold back into slavery. Those who made it to Canada and Sierra Leone protested unfair treatment, even using revolutionary language as they fought for their rights, though they may have been considered Loyalists during the war. Soldiers of African descent who fought for the Revolutionaries often did not receive pay, or equal pay, for their services and ended up extremely poor. Prejudice and discrimination made it more difficult for them to receive pensions and bounty land. And even though several northern states gradually abolished slavery, the institution greatly expanded in the southern states in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Don Troiani’s paintings remind us that soldiers of African descent were important to all of the armies that fought in the Revolutionary War. His paintings can serve as a starting point for remembering these brave soldiers in battle, considering the choices they made to get there, the struggles they may have faced after the war, and their efforts to make Revolutionary ideals real for themselves and their communities as they worked to build their lives.