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Brothers in Arms: African American Soldiers in the American Revolution

By Cliff Odle

On April 19, 1775 in a small hamlet west of Boston called Lexington, some 87 colonial Minutemen squared off against 250 British regulars. After being ordered to disband by Major John Pitcairn, the colonials began departing. Then a shot was fired. This shot would be the first in a battle; and that battle started the War for American Independence. No one knows who fired the first shot in this skirmish, but what is known, however, is that the last American colonist to be wounded at Lexington was an African American from Dorchester named Caesar Augustus.

While little is known about Augustus, his struggle in the War of Independence was shared by most of the twelve to fifteen thousand men of African decent who risked their lives in the conflict. Their story of bravery and sacrifice has become buried and forgotten over time. By understanding what these men went through can we grasp the meaning of the words, "All men are created equal."

The first armies of the future United States were colonial militias mustered from the local men from towns that voted such militias into existence. As tensions between King and his colonial subjects grew, most militias were not too particular about who joined. In fact, it would be the last time that the military forces of this county would be racially integrated until the Korean War nearly two centuries later. In Massachusetts alone, 1,100 African Americans enthusiastically joined various colonial militias. Most were slaves who gambled their lives after being offered freedom by their masters. Some were slaves who simply escaped their bonds. Still others were freemen who hoped their example would lead to the end of the institution.

At the Battle of Bunker Hill, 150 blacks took their place among the 3,000 Americans who defended that position against the Redcoat attacks. Despite a devastating defense in which almost 1500 British soldiers were killed, the militia finally gave way due to a lack of ammunition. Major John Pitcairn turned to urge his men on to victory. His words were cut short when a ball fired from the musket of ex-slave Peter Salem ended his life. Along with Salem, many other black men, including Salem Poor, Prince Hall, and Philip Abbott also distinguished themselves in a battle that would give hope to the patriot cause.

By November of 1775, George Washington arrived outside Boston, mandated to organize the militias into a united force, the Continental Army. One of Washington's first orders was to expel all African American soldiers from the ranks, an action that represented the prejudices and fears that many white colonists held about their black counter-parts. These prejudices ran strong among slave-owners such as Washington. Patriot slave-owners were worried about what effect blacks fighting and killing whites would have on their slaves.

Just as Washington was removing blacks from the ranks, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore and Royal governor of the Virginia colony issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who escaped their masters and joined the cause of King of George III. This tactic had been used previously against the Spanish and French. It is important to note that this offer was only for the slaves of the rebels and not those who belonged to the loyalists also called Tories. Nevertheless, thousands of former slaves escaped their bonds to fight under the King's standard. The offer of freedom was too great to resist. Most of the escapees came from the southern colonies and British strongholds such as New York City and parts of New Jersey. These men either formed units called "Ethiopian regiments" or guerilla units such as those lead by a runaway slave named "Colonel" Tye. Tye's forces would terrorize northern New Jersey on behalf of the King often taking revenge on their former masters. At one point during the war there was almost an equal number of people of African decent fighting on both sides.

As it became clear that the struggle would not be short, Washington and the Continental Congress changed their views about using black troops. They decided to allow the recruitment of free blacks only. This did not, however, prevent slaves and ex-slaves from signing up to fight. Black patriots once again fought in integrated units. Joining them were three all-African American regiments formed to fight for the American cause. These were the Rhode Island First regiment, who fought with distinction at Newport, Monmouth and Yorktown; the Black Bucks of America, a Massachusetts regiment whose banner is still on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society; and the Volunteer Chasseurs, a regiment from Haiti brought over by our French allies. After the war, they brought ideas of liberty and freedom back to their homeland, and later defeat their French masters to create this hemisphere's second democratic republic.
By 1779, 15% of the Continental Army and colonial militias were made of men of African decent. They saw action in every single major battle including Ticonderoga, Monmouth, Valley Forge, Princeton, and Washington's Delaware crossing. With the exception of Georgia and South Carolina, each of the colonies sent men of color to fight for the colonials. Some historians believe that if South Carolina and Georgia had sent their slaves into battle, the extra 15 to 20,000 men could have shortened the length of the war.

The black soldiers who put their lives on the line, worked and toiled to help bring about a new country would find the promises of freedom and liberty, as stated in the United States Bill of Rights, would remain out of reach for them. Many who were promised freedom found those promises broken once the war was over. Those former slaves who fought for the crown and could not evacuate with the British found themselves re-enslaved. Free blacks found that over the next few decades, they lost many of the rights they thought they had earned, including the right to own property and the right to vote.

In every major conflict the United States had fought since, one can find a person of color ready to put their life on the line. Following the examples of the first black patriots, African-American soldiers worked to defend the rights and privileges that their own country continued to deny them for the next two hundred years. They fought until their country would finally stand by the words "All men are created equal."

Sources and Further Reading:

Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogady; The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, MA.1989

Nash, Gary B.; The Forgotten Fifth. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 2006

Quintal Jr., George; Patriots of Color "A Peculiar Beauty and Merit". Division of Cultural Resources - Boston National Historical Park. Boston, MA. 2004

Edited by Marisa Calleja

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