The revolutionary period that took place in the eighteenth century is among the most eventful eras in the U. S. history. The colonies’ ability to get beyond the British Empire’s control and implement their own public management policies became a critical historical juncture. Collaborating with the representatives of the white majority, both free and enslaved African Americans contributed to the victory of independence, which impacted them both positively and negatively.
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African Americans participated in numerous battles of the American Revolutionary War despite the existence of systemic oppression due to the legal status of slavery and ethnic minorities. There was no absolute ideological unity among the representatives of that ethnic group even though many of them regarded the brewing confrontation between Britain and American colonists as a chance (Gray White et al. 90). Basically, African Americans were not equal in terms of opportunities to gain personal freedom and improve their families’ position and could derive personal benefits from collaboration with either side of the conflict.
American and British colonists’ perceptions of the African-American population changed drastically due to the growth of revolutionary moods and the escalation of the conflict. Prior to the war, slaves were seen as a cost-effective source of wealth facilitating economic development. However, the threats of slave conspiracy were recognized by those in the position of power, which resulted in multiple arrests and executions aimed at destroying people’s will to resist (Gray White et al. 90). Therefore, prior to the war, slaves’ freedom was mainly associated with chaos and uncertainty and perceived as a potential barrier to stability.
The situation for the enslaved populations altered a few decades later when they were given a chance to strengthen any side’s army in exchange for freedom or other benefits. The oppressed minority group became a significant military resource in 1775 when the British Army started enlisting African-American soldiers (Gray White et al. 90). Although hesitantly, the Continental Army had to follow that example and maximize its military power potential by inducting the black population into military service (Crowder 4).
More than five thousand black people fought on the American side, and the proportion of African Americans in the army reached fifteen percent by 1779 (Crowder 4). Initially, the leaders of the Continental Army opposed the enlistment of African Americans, fearing that military training would help them to organize successful armed rebellions (Crowder 4). The Navy leaders’ position on the issue was different, and black people were welcome due to the growing need for sailors (Crowder 4). Therefore, African Americans became a significant part of both conflicting parties’ war reserve.
As it has been mentioned, African Americans’ participation in the war was heavily influenced by the offered benefits and potential negative outcomes. Many white Americans realized the inappropriateness of British domination, and those thoughts encouraged them to draw analogies between that situation and slave ownership. The nascent equality rhetorics appealed to both enslaved and freed members of the racial minority, impacting their decisions related to military service (Gray White et al. 90).
Seeing that ideological change, the British had to use negative and positive reinforcement to prevent African Americans from protecting new democratic ideals. Thus, slaves fleeing from their owners to join the British Army were offered freedom and money, whereas African Americans of any legal status who collaborated with rebel groups could be sold into slavery (Crowder 4). Due to that, from the considerations of safety, many slaves preferred to fight on the British side.
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With the intensification of fighting between the British and American forces, African Americans became more welcome to join the ranks of the American Army. In 1777, the Continental Army leaders started recruiting black men and encouraging slave owners to let their people serve in the military to get monetary rewards (Crowder 5). Consequently, for many enslaved people, the revolutionary period and the war became a source of “new routes to freedom,” enabling them to make the first steps to erode slavery (Gray White et al. 91).
Even though the racial minority group in question got new opportunities to gain independence from slave owners, the number of free people of African descent remained ludicrously small (Gray White et al. 91). The demand for soldiers to fight for patriots increased immediately after the first human losses suffered by the Continental Army, and this is why racial diversification in the military was inevitable (Crowder 5). Therefore, apart from the ideological shift, black people’s increasing participation in battles was linked to patriots’ need to reduce the risks of defeat.
Despite the fact that both free and enslaved African Americans fought in all battles of the American Revolutionary War, their potential was underestimated in many cases. For instance, even during the last few years of the war, prejudiced attitudes toward soldiers of color were common in the army (Crowder 6). The existing biases often predetermined the range of missions that African Americans were allowed to run.
As an example, apart from performing high-risk tasks at the battles of Concord and Lexington, they were expected to fulfill the duties of soldier servants, wagon drivers, road workers, and builders (Crowder 7). In some colonies, such as South Carolina and Georgia, African-American men could only be responsible for performing service work to help their allies to succeed during battles (Crowder 7; Gray White et al. 108). It follows as a logical consequence that many of them were not given the status of soldiers and the related benefits and rights.
The revolutionary era involved positive changes for many people of color, but the decades-long habits of oppressing racial minorities had a heavy impact on black men’s chances to build careers in the military. As an example, unlike their white fellow soldiers, the members of that racial group faced significant difficulties when rising through the military ranks even if they demonstrated outstanding talents (Crowder 6). Interestingly, the highest rank achieved by African Americans during the historical period in question was that of a corporal (Crowder 6). Thus, despite particular achievements related to freedom, racial minorities’ career advancement opportunities left much to be desired.
Continuing on African Americans’ position during the revolutionary era, it is possible to suppose that the accuracy of some historical facts peculiar to the racial group can be questioned. Again, it relates to the incidence of racism and inequality immediately after the American Revolutionary War. In general, modern historians agree that the military achievements of thousands of loyalists and patriots of color were diminished and almost erased after the proclamation of independence (Crowder 6; Gray White et al. 119).
For instance, in 1792, following the initiative of the U. S. Congress, black Americans were excluded from military service (Crowder 6). Along with African Americans’ struggle for freedom and recognition that took many years, such facts allow making conclusions on the mixed results of military activity for that racial group.
To sum it up, despite the long-term effects of oppression, African Americans played a significant role during the revolutionary era in the United States. It can be problematic to generalize on their efforts peculiar to the distribution of forces. Realizing the need for freedom and the abolition of slavery, they could choose to become loyalists or join white patriots. However, in spite of positive results related to the number of freed slaves, there have been attempts to destroy African Americans’ military achievements after the war.
Crowder, Jack Darrell. African Americans and American Indians in the Revolutionary War. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019.
Gray White, Deborah, et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents. 2nd ed., vol. 1, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.