African Americans in the Revolutionary War

In October, Congress gave preliminary approval to a monument on the National Mall to African American Revolutionary War soldiers. While much work remains to be done before a monument is actually constructed, this was an important step for the project, whose backers have been advocating for such a marker since the mid-1980s.

While the military service of African Americans during the Civil War is well-known, thanks to movies like Glory and projects like this one, the black soldiers who fought in the American Revolution are seldom remembered. In part, this is a result of numbers: 186,000 fought in the Civil War as part of the U.S. Colored Troops (including some 8,000 from Maryland), and only about 5,000 fought in the Revolution.

In fact, the total number of African American soldiers in the Revolution may never be known, since their race was not always recorded. Only one document formally tallying black soldiers is known to exist, a “Return of the Negroes in the Army,” from August, 1778. Of the rank-and-file (i.e. non-officers) listed as present and fit for duty, almost 4 percent was black, 586 out of 14,719; including men who were sick or away from camp, the total drops to just over 3 percent (755 out of 24,323). [1]

Several individual units had much higher proportions of African American troops, however. Muhlenberg’s Virginian troops were nearly 6 percent black, and the North Carolina brigade about 4.5 percent. By far, the Massachusetts and Connecticut units had the most African American troops, with brigades that were almost all above the average. See table below:

Brigade State % Black
North Carolina NC 4.41
Woodford VA 2.74
Muhlenberg VA 5.90
Scott VA, Del 1.42
Smallwood MD 3.56
2nd Maryland MD 1.84
Wayne PA 0.14
2nd Pennsylvania PA [unknown]
Clinton NY 2.50
Parsons CT 7.64
Huntington CT 4.10
Nixon Mass 1.38
Patterson Mass 4.99
Learned Mass 3.41
Poor NH 1.54
Average 3.26

At least one all-black regiment was part of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Col. Christopher Greene’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, although it had only white officers. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all showed the largest groups of black soldiers, and were the only places where black soldiers received anything like a warm welcome for state and military leaders. It is estimated that about 500 African Americans from Massachusetts fought during the American Revolution, out of a free black population of only 4,400. [2]

Although Southern states had larger black populations, they were reluctant to accept them as soldiers. The idea of arming slaves posed obvious problems to a population perpetually frightened of a slave uprising, and many felt that enlisting free blacks would also encourage slaves to rebel. Eventually, however, states found it impossible to raise enough troops without allowing African Americans into the army, and ultimately enlisted freedmen and slaves.

Maryland was the only southern state that enlisted slaves—as substitutes for whites—but free blacks served everywhere. In many regiments, black soldiers were relegated to non-combat roles—duties like building defenses or driving wagons, a pattern which would hold well into the twentieth century. All the same, African Americans, though only a small part of the Continental Army, served much longer than their white counterparts: four and a half years, three years longer than the overall average. [3]

African Americans likely enlisted in the army with the same range of motivations as white troops. For slaves, there was also the additional motivation of gaining freedom, while free blacks stood to gain greater social standing, or at least lose less, than whites. Indeed, historians have noted that African American veterans were able to stake a new claim to citizenship after the war, and their service helped free black communities to coalesce and gain structure. Military service was, as it would be during the Civil War, an important route to freedom for slaves, even in the South where leaders were reluctant to arm blacks. African American troops—free and enslaved—understood they were fighting to free the U.S. from England, and to free themselves as well. [4]

The subject of African American participation in the American Revolution–as soldiers, laborers, spies, or simply as community members–is far too big for one blog post. Look for more on the topic soon, including the question of whether any African Americans were part of the Maryland 400.

–Owen

Notes:

1. Return of the Negroes in the Army, 24 August 1778. Alexander Scammel, Adjutant General, Continental Army. George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Series 4, General Correspondence, image 562;  Charles H. Lesser, ed. The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 80-81.

2. Charles Patrick Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York: New York University Press, 1996, 73-82.

3. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1961), 51-58, 60-66, 77; Neimeyer, 82.

4. Neimeyer, 85-88.

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2 Responses to African Americans in the Revolutionary War

  1. Christine Arnold-Lourie says:

    nice posting! good to see you doing history!

    >>> Finding the Maryland 400 2/10/2015 9:04 AM >>>

    msarevhistory posted: “In October, Congress gave preliminary approval to a monument on the National Mall to African American Revolutionary War soldiers. While much work remains to be done before a monument is actually constructed, this was an important step for the project, who”

    Like

  2. For more on black Continental soldiers see:
    “’They were good soldiers.’: African–Americans Serving in the Continental Army,”

    Like

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