Unit 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War
The purpose of this unit is to help students learn more about the role of people of African descent during the Revolutionary War. Students will consider how the war created both challenges and opportunities for soldiers, privateers, and enslaved people. By focusing on the story of James Forten, students will consider how the Revolutionary War offered Forten a chance to experience equality, adventure, and opportunities while shaping his future.
Aims & Objectives
The modular activities and extensions in this unit provide opportunities for students to:
- Explore the various roles that soldiers and sailors of African descent played in the Revolutionary War.
- Practice historical empathy and critical thinking by evaluating the risks and rewards that accompanied deciding with whom to side during the Revolutionary War.
- Discover the story of James Forten and how the Revolutionary War presented him with opportunities to experience equality.
- Consider the impact of the Revolutionary War on the lives and opportunities of people of African descent.
Engagement, Option 1 (10-15 minutes)
A Soldier's Reward
Teacher preparation: Prepare to display or project the document Bristol Caesar Pay Voucher.
Engage students in conversation around the following questions:
- What reward(s) do you think was appropriate for soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War?
Then display or project the document Bristol Caesar Pay Voucher
- What is the document?
- Why do you think this document was important for the person who owned it?
Then explain to students that this was a pay voucher issued to a soldier of African descent. Why might this document be important in telling the story of the American Revolution?
Engagement, Option 2 (15-20 minutes)
The Prisoner List
Teacher preparation: Prepare to display or project the document Muster Book from the Jersey Prison Ship.
Engage students in conversation around the following question:
- What are some reasons people create lists of names?
Then, project or display the document Muster Book from the Jersey Prison Ship.
- What do you think this list was used for?
Then explain to students that this is a list of prisoners on a ship.
- Why would names be listed on this document?
- What can this list tell historians?
- What would you expect conditions to be like on this ship?
- How might relationships with fellow prisoners develop on a prison ship?
Development, Option 1 (35-40 minutes)
Risks and Rewards
Teacher Preparation: Review Big Idea 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 2 or print out enough copies for each student.
Ask students if they have ever had to make an important decision. Did they consider the risks before making the decision? The possible rewards? Have students read Big Idea 2: Black Soliders and Sailors in the Revolutionary War.
Divide students into three groups as follows and explain to students that they are going to consider the decisions made by enslaved people during the Revolutionary War.
- Remain in place and see what happens at the end of the war
- Fight for the Continental Army, hoping the new nation will include them in the ideal that “all men are created equal”
- Fight for the British, hoping they will honor their promiseof freedom to those that joined them
In their groups, ask students to make a list of the risks and rewards that might be involved for an enslaved person given their assigned decision during the Revolutionary War. Then have students present their list to the class. (Their lists might be easiest to frame as “If…, then…” statements.)
After students have presented their risks and rewards, engage them in a conversation around the following questions:
- What risks were similar between all three groups?
- What rewards other than freedom did you consider? Was freedom the only reward?
- How did the potential rewards affect the risks that people of African descent were willing to take?
EXTEND: Have students think about a risk they have taken and how the potential rewards affected their decision.
Development, Option 2 (35-40 minutes)
What Would You Do? Debate
Teacher preparation: Review Big Idea 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 2 or print out enough copies for each student.
Tell students they are going to consider the decision James Forten made to stay on the prison ship and not take Captain Bazely’s offer. Break students into 2 groups: 1) Take the Offer and 2) Reject Offer. In their groups, instruct students to come up with a pro/con list. Then, have them consider reasons why their option is the best one for James Forten at the time it was presented to him.
After students have had time to come up with their arguments in their groups, have them debate which is the better offer. After the debate, have the class vote on what they would have done in James Forten’s place. How did hearing both sides of the argument influence your decision?
EXTEND: Have students consider what might have happened to James Forten if he decided to accept Captain Bazely’s offer to go to England.
Development, Option 3 (40-45 minutes)
Brave Men as Ever Fought
Teacher preparation: Review Big Idea 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War, specifically the section on the Integrated and Segregated Soldiers. Print out enough copies of the section for the students or make sure they will have internet access to read it online. Prepare to display or project the painting Brave Men as Ever Fought by Don Troiani.
Display or project Brave Men as Ever Fought by Don Troiani. Give students time to examine the painting. Lead them in a close-looking activity with the following questions:
- What is going on in the scene?
- What might the soldiers be feeling? What about the people in the street? What do you see in the painting that makes you say that? What other information is shaping your ideas?
- Describe the young boy of African descent holding his hat. Why do you think Don Troiani put him in the middle of the painting?
Then have students read the Big Idea section Integrated and Segregated Soldiers. After they have finished reading, engage students in a conversation around the following questions:
- How close were their observations of the painting to the real story? (found in the Big Idea essay section James Forten and the Revolutionary War)
- What do you think James Forten was feeling when he witnessed this scene?
- What did Forten mean by saying the soldiers were “as brave Men as ever fought?"
- Why do you think Forten remembered this event 50 years later?
- Have you experienced anything in your life that you feel you might remember 50 years from now? Why?
EXTEND: Have students research the battles in which the Rhode Island Regiment fought and then create a report in the style of their choosing — film, paper, song, etc. — on their contributions to the Continental Army.
Teacher preparation: Prepare copies of the Turning Points worksheet. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 2 or print out enough copies for each student.
After students have read Big Idea 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War, hand out the worksheet: Turning Points. For homework or classroom reflection, give students time to complete the worksheet. Have students present their events to the class and/or place the worksheets around your classroom.
Extensions & Adaptations
AN OCCUPIED TEENAGER
Sally Wister, a 15 year old girl living in Philadelphia also witnessed the occupation of the city. Have students research her story to create a Venn diagram of the two teenagers’ experiences.
- How might they have felt differently about the British occupying their city.
- What challenges and opportunities might they have faced as a young person experiencing this event?
- How do you think the experience of living in an occupied city affected them?
ACTS OF KINDNESS
James Forten gave up his chance to escape in a sea-chest for another young privateer from Philadelphia who was very sick, named Daniel Brewton. Brewton made it home to Philadelphia and never forgot this act of kindness and he and Forten became friends for life. Ask students to consider doing an act of kindness and discuss how their action might positively impact someone else in a lasting way.
NEW YORK CITY TO PHILADELPHIA
Ask students how long they think the distance is between New York City and Philadelphia (about 100 miles). Ask them to brainstorm ways that you can get from New York City to Philadelphia today. How long would it take to walk? (Approximately 27 hours). Engage students in conversation around the following questions:
- What do you think James Forten experienced during this long walk?
- How might he have found food and water?
- Where do you think he slept?
- What thoughts might have been going through his mind?
Have students research privateers during the Revolutionary War to create an advertisement recruiting for privateers in Philadelphia in 1781, the year of James Forten’s voyages aboard the Royal Louis. Advertisements can be in the form of broadsides, video commercials or performances. Instruct students to include the risks and rewards to being a privateer.
WHY THE REVOLUTION?
We don’t exactly know why James Forten fought on the side of the Revolutionaries. After students have read Big Idea 2: Black Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War, have them individually or in groups consider the following possible reasons why James Forten may have fought for the Revolutionaries as a privateer and rank them in order of importance. Students will then justify their rankings to the class.
- Hearing the Declaration of Independence being read in Philadelphia
- Living in Occupied Philadelphia and experiencing the British control the city
- Desire to make money to help his family
- Gradual Abolition Law of 1780 and the promises in the Declaration of Independence
- Knowing that other people of African descent served the Revolutionary cause
- Knowing he would have a good chance to be accepted on a privateering ship because of his knowledge of sail making
OPPORTUNITIES IN OCCUPIED PHILADELPHIA
Have students research what the British occupation of Philadelphia was like for the following groups. What opportunities and challenges did they face?
- Enslaved people
- Revolutionaries who stayed in the city
- Those attempting to remain neutral
Ask students what the word ethical means? Discuss with students if they think using privateer ships is an ethical war tactic. Why or why not?