Maryland’s African American Troops

Earlier, we introduced the topic of black Revolutionary War soldiers, but left unanswered the question of whether any fought as part of the Maryland 400. While a number of African Americans fought as part of the Maryland Line later in the war, there were apparently none among the men who fought under Col. William Smallwood at the Battle of Brooklyn. The simplest explanation is that the Smallwood’s regiment was Maryland’s first contingent of regular, full-time soldiers, and they had no trouble raising enough whites. Only in New England were black soldiers really welcomed; for the most part, states acquiesced to enlisting African Americans only when facing severe shortages of men. In early 1776, Maryland wasn’t having trouble filling its quota of soldiers.

Later, in 1781, the General Assembly did consider raising an entire black regiment, similar to the state’s German Regiment, but never did so, and blacks served in mixed units. Still, one Maryland officer wrote to a colleague:

I wish the [black] regiment would be raised. I am of the opinion that the Blacks will make excellent soldiers—indeed experience proves it…As to the danger of training them to Arms—tis the Child of a distempered Imagination. There are some people who are forever frightening themselves with Bugbears of their own Creation. [1]

The exact number of African Americans who fought in Maryland units during the Revolution is unknown. According to the Continental Army’s “Return of the Negroes in the Army,” there were 95 in 1778. However, the Flying Camp, which served July-December 1776, had at least four black soldiers, and others enlisted during the 1780s. All told, the names of only about 50 African American soldiers from Maryland are easily discovered; many are listed in the Daughters of the American Revolution’s book Forgotten Patriots, available online for free. [2]

However, while there were no known African Americans among the Maryland 400, there still may have been blacks among the men who traveled to New York in the summer of 1776, although little is known about who they might have been. Just as an eighteenth-century army traveled with an entourage of soldiers’ wives and children, some men brought slaves with them as personal servants, and there are hints that members of the First Maryland Regiment did so in 1776.

One instance of that is known to have occurred later in the war, when Mordecai Gist, on-the-ground commander of the Maryland 400, had at least one slave with him in camp. In October, 1778, he placed the following ad in the Pennsylvania Packet:

pa_packet_24oct1778

Pennsylvania Packet, 24 October 1778.

The identity of Rachel’s (or Sarah’s) “pretend” husband, is unknown (“pretend” because slaves were not allowed to get married). The First Maryland Brigade, of which he was a part, had 60 black soldiers, and he could have been one of them, or he could have been white; interracial relationships were not unknown in the late eighteenth century. More likely is that Rachel could pass as white—Gist said she had “a remarkable fair complexion, with flaxen hair,” and that she “passed herself as a free woman.” Nothing of Rachel’s fate, nor her husband’s, is known. By running away from Gist, she may have simply been seeking to accompany her husband, as any other army wife. Still, Gist’s advertisement reveals a number of truths about the Continental Army, and life during the Revolutionary era: the lines between black and white were not hard and fast, women traveled with their husbands to war, and the army fighting for liberty was supported by slaves.

Notes:
1. Major Edward Giles to Otho Holland Williams, 1 Jun 1781. Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society. Quoted in 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), 56-57.

2. Soldiers who are identified as African American can be found in military service records Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 18, as well as on fold3.com.

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2 Responses to Maryland’s African American Troops

  1. Sue Vanzant, nee Gaither says:

    While researching my family history I ran across a pension application for Adam Adams, a free black. He enlisted in the Maryland 1st regiment in May 1777 in Capt. Henry Gaither’s company. According to the pension information he remain in the regiment until 1783. However, farther down in the information on the pension papers it says he was in the military from 1776. There are several sources on line: genealogytrails.com/mary/Charles/adamadamspension/html; http://www.examiner.com/…/adam-adams-free-black-revolutionary-war-soldier. The first site is a Charles County genealogy site and the second is an article in the Examiner newspaper. Evidendently Adam Adams resided in Charles County his remaining years.

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    • Thanks for passing along this info, Sue. Adam Adams is listed in the DAR’s Forgotten Patriots. We haven’t really had an opportunity to talk about any individual black soldiers, so I appreciate you sharing this!

      Owen

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