During the Revolutionary War, about 5000 African-Americans both enslaved and free men fought for the American colonies and their fight for freedom against the British. But the process was anything but a smooth one. Slavery was still in practice in all 13 American colonies at that time.
And the British were the first to take advantage of that fact. They openly recruited African-American slaves, promising freedom for those that took up arms for the Crown against those pesky Rebels. In November 1775, Virginia’s British Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation that the British would free any slave who left his slave master to serve alongside the British Army. Over 300 joined within the first month that Dunmore dubbed his “Ethiopian Regiment.”
And even today, many still debate whether more African-Americans fought for the British than the Americans.
But that changed in 1776 when the Continental Congress authorized the Continental Army to allow black men to enlist. Initially, George Washington was against this. Coming from Virginia in the south where plantations held many black slaves, like many Southern Americans, he feared guns in the hands of slaves as the thought was, they would revolt against their slave masters.
Although Washington had initially banned blacks from serving in the Continental Army, many free blacks served in the Colonial militias. Washington finally did relent, but would only allow free blacks to serve in the Continental Army. Slaves were still banned.
The first casualty in the war for American Independence is generally agreed upon as being an African-American, Crispus Attucks who was the first man killed during the Boston Massacre in 1770.
Attucks himself was a runaway slave, not from the south, but from Framingham, Massachusetts. There was an ad in the 1750 Boston Gazette that mentioned he had run from his master’s home. William Brown offered a ten-pound reward for the return of his “property”.
“Ran away from his Master William Brown from Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat.”
Attucks escaped to Nantucket where he worked on a whaling ship. In March of 1770, he and some other sailors were ashore in Boston when hotheads from Massachusetts began accosting a British sentry in the street. The alarm went out and a quick reaction force from his unit, the 29th Regiment of Foot soon was face-to-face with an angry mob of Bostonians with clubs in their hands. At some point, the soldiers fired into the crowd and Attucks, with two bullets in the chest died almost immediately.
Here in my hometown of Millbury, Massachusetts, we like to claim Peter Willard as one of, if not the first African-American soldiers in the United States Army. Willard was part of the militia here and he traveled with them to fight during the battle at Lexington and Concord. When he was allowed to in 1776, he joined the Continental Army and fought until the end of the war.
He returned to his home and lived out the remainder of his years quietly. You won’t find his name in any history books, but his town remembers him. A portrait of Willard hung in Millbury’s Town Hall until the building was destroyed a fire in 1971,
Peter Salem is one of the first and possibly most famous of the Revolutionary War African-Americans to fight in the war. He was a slave but his owner freed him so that he could join the militia and fight the British after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which he did with the 6th Massachusetts.
During the battle of Bunker Hill, Salem was credited with the killing of the British Major Pitcairn during the fighting After it was over, Salem was introduced to General George Washington and was commended for his bravery and service.
His bravery was captured in artwork by painter John Trumbull “The Death of General Warren.” In the work, it shows both General Warren and Major Pitcairn dying, on the far right is an African-American soldier with a musket that is believed to be Salem. The featured image shows a more recent drawing of Salem shooting Pitcairn.
Perhaps the most famous mixed-race infantry unit in the Continental Army was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Organized in 1778, the 1st Rhode Island fought mainly in the Northern Theatre during the war. The organization of this regiment was endorsed by Washington, despite his misgivings over the organization of its members. Enlisting in the regiment were 88 slaves who were guaranteed freedom at the end of their service. That is something Washington was very much opposed against, coming from the plantations of the south. The Rhode Island State Assembly promised compensation to the former slave masters for the men signing up to fight.
Even enslaved African-Americans fought in the south. The guerrilla fighters of Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox” had some enslaved members of his unit. However, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, there were many African-Americans in the ranks of the Continental Army, including the 1st Rhode Island Regiment who were there.
It should be noted, however, that Washington, upon his death in 1799, freed his 124 slaves. Was it because his faithful servant, William Lee stood by his side through thick and thin and always accompanied Washington into battle? Washington admired his bravery and his faithfulness and mentioned Lee in his will. Washington in it thanked Lee for “his attachment to me” and for “his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
He was to be given his freedom immediately, given an annual stipend of $30 and the choice to remain at the estate, which he did until his own death, as a free man in 1810.
So although Black History Month is still a few weeks away, we thought we’d jump the gun a bit and lean forward in the foxhole to pay respect to our first African-American soldiers who have served our country faithfully since the time of the American Revolution.
Photos: Smithsonian, Millbury Historical Society, author