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The Revolutionary War provided both opportunities and challenges for people of African descent, regardless of their involvement or lack of direct involvement in it. The purpose of this unit is to help students to understand the variety of experiences these individuals had.


Aims & Objective

The modular activities and extensions in this unit provide opportunities for students to:

  • Compare and contrast the experiences of both soldiers on different sides of the war, and of various inhabitants of British military camps
  • Practice historical empathy as they imagine seeing the war from a variety of perspectives
  • Use creative expression to synthesize new understandings about wartime experiences


Materials

Big Idea 7: Wartime Experiences

Finding Freedom Sources:

Primary Source:

  • Image: Soldiers in Uniform, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:236977/ (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

Other Resources:

  • Document: Sample Mind Map (Included)
  • Worksheet: A Soldier’s Life (Included)

Procedures                                                                      

Note: Please be aware of the environment you and your students create when discussing the experiences of people of African descent, particularly enslaved people. This can be an emotional topic with the power to create lasting memories for students of all backgrounds, particularly those who continue to experience racism in the present.


Engagement

Mind-Mapping the War (15 minutes)

Teacher Preparation: Gather and distribute 8.5x11” plain white paper and ensure that students have writing implements. Read Big Idea 7: Wartime Experiences.

Ask students to write the words “Revolutionary War” in the center of their piece of paper. Then ask students to brainstorm a list of words and ideas that come to mind when they think of the war. Each time they write down a word or phrase, they should draw lines to connect it to other words or phrases to which it relates.

Project or display the “Sample Mind Map” as an example. Give students 5-8 minutes to create their maps.

Next, ask students to share their words and phrases, why they chose them, and how they connect with one another, linking students’ comments to one another. Ask students what they think was most difficult about living during the war? Being in the war? Interweave information from Big Idea 7: Wartime Experiences into your discussion as appropriate to help students understand the variety of people, challenges and opportunities involved in the war effort.


What Does a Uniform Say? (10 minutes)

Display or project the image Soldiers in Uniform, by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger. Ask students to focus on the image of the person of African descent, on the left. Have them describe what they see, using information from the image to support any deductions they make. (“What do you see that makes you say that?” is a helpful question to ask.) Inform students that this is a representation of a soldier in the Rhode Island Regiment, a Continental Army unit that had two companies composed primarily of soldiers of African descent led by white officers. Note that the men in this unit were generally formerly enslaved men who had been given their freedom in exchange for a chance to fight. Discuss with students the following:

  • Considering how most of these men became soldiers, how do you think they felt wearing this uniform?
  • How do you think other Revolutionaries of African descent may have felt to see them in this uniform?
  • How might Loyalists of African descent have felt seeing these men in this uniform?

Explore the range of responses from your students, noting the complexity of potential responses. Close by noting that your next activities will provide opportunities to consider the wartime experiences of soldiers like them, as well as others living as the war raged on.


Development

Life in the British Camps (45 minutes)

Teacher Preparation: Review the stories of Deborah, Eve, and London in the Finding Freedom interactive. Ensure that students have access to computers, tablets or other devices with working internet connections. Read Big Idea 7: Wartime Experiences, focusing on the section entitled “Camp Followers and Refugees” and “The Challenges of Soldiering and Spycraft.”

Eve, Deborah, and London all ended up in British military camps in 1781. Instruct students to explore each of their stories in the Finding Freedom interactive, paying special attention to the time they spent in the British camps before the conclusion of the war. Ask students to jot down notes, from both the main story and any related hot spots, on what life in camp was like.

Before asking the students to share their discoveries, engage in a word whiplash — ask each student to share 1 word that best summarizes what life in the British camps was like. Discuss:

  • Why did you choose that word?
  • What was Deborah’s experience in the camps like? What did she see and do?
  • What was Eve’s experience like? London’s?
  • What other information did you gather about life in the camps?
  • Overall, how would you summarize what life was like for the freedom-seekers who made their way to the British?
  • If London, Deborah, and Eve had known what camp life would be like before they joined the British, do you believe they still would have gone? Why or why not?


Soldiering on Different Sides (30 minutes)

Teacher Preparation: review the stories of London and Andrew in the Finding Freedom interactive, as well as the accompanying Google Map.

Have students explore both the stories of London and Andrew in the Finding Freedom interactive, as well as their points on the Finding Freedom Google Map. As they do, ask students to complete the chart on the “A Soldier’s Life” worksheet. Once they have finished, or a sufficient amount of time has passed, debrief with students, exploring the similarities, and differences between lives of Andrew and London. Discuss: what do their stories tell us about being a soldier during the Revolutionary War?


Culmination

A Letter to Loved Ones (20-45 minutes)

Individually or in groups, ask students to choose a wartime moment experienced by Andrew, Deborah, Eve, Jack, or London, then imagine that they are in his or her shoes. Referencing the Finding Freedom interactive as well as primary sources such as Andrew’s pension applications, they should write a letter to loved ones they left behind, describing their experiences and what they hope, fear, or otherwise imagine is next. Students can create these letters in a standard format, or record them as a short video using their cell phones.

Extensions & Adaptations    

Black Soldiers, Past & Present

Like most men of African descent at the time, Andrew served as part of an integrated unit in the Revolutionary War. But afterwards and to the end of World War II, black soldiers’ experiences were more like that of the Rhode Island Regiment, segregated but with white commanders. Individually or in groups, ask students to choose a black unit — the Triple Nickels, Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, or United States Colored Troops, for example — and research their history and experiences in their conflict. How did their activities contribute to the war effort? How did they carry out the legacy of the Rhode Island Regiment?


A Wartime Memoir

London left no records in his own words of his time with the British. However, another man, named Boston King, did. Assign, or read with students, the first eight paragraphs of his memoir, which was originally published serially in The Methodist Magazine in 1798. Discuss how Boston’s experiences are similar to and different from the individuals in Finding Freedom, and what his story, told in his own words, adds to students’ understanding of the experiences of people of African descent during this time.


Writing and/or Discussion Prompts

How was Jack’s war different from that of the other Finding Freedom individuals?

If you had been alive and a person of African descent during the Revolutionary War, would you have risked being a spy? What opportunities might being a person of African descent have presented in this role? What challenges?

The stories of Eve, Deborah, and London each mention the risk of recapture by former slave owners during and immediately after the war. George Washington sent a slave catcher to New York. A member of the family that had enslaved Eve placed an ad for her in the newspaper. Which, if either, do you think would have been harder: the strains of camping, traveling, and fighting with the British military, or the knowledge that your former owner might try to seize you at any moment? Or would they have been equally difficult? Explain your response.

Deborah, London, and thousands of other people of African descent who’d fled to the British found themselves in New York City over the course of the Revolutionary War. What do you think the first priorities would have been for new arrivals to this community, and why?

Learn More

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Big Idea 7: Wartime Experiences

View the Finding Freedom Teacher Guide Big Idea 7 to find lesson plans, resources, and worksheets available to download and print.
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Finding Freedom Glossary

The Finding Freedom glossary of terms may be useful as you explore the Finding Freedom Interactive, Big Ideas, and Primary Sources.
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