For many years, the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War was not counted as important because of the discrimination that lasted until the second half of the twentieth century. However, historical documents show evidence that their input was significant, and some individuals even left personal achievements. Various letters and books of that time mentioned large numbers of blacks that were seen among the armed forces of Americans.
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There were many reasons for African Americans to join the war. The primary reason was a possibility to gain freedom, which was promised by the leaders of both sides of the conflict. Although slaves participated actively in the Revolutionary War, it did not help them to become equal members of society, neither granted them chance for a normal life.
Reasons for Joining the Army
Slavery was the primary, if not the only, reason for African Americans to join the war. Discrimination faced by this large group of people had many sides, being political, economic, and social. The latter could be seen not only on a domestic level in a way how a master treated slaves, but also in the culture of the American colonies, Great Britain, and some other European countries.
Political and Economic Discrimination of Slaves
Slaves from Africa were brought to the North American continent in the XVII-XVIII centuries. It used to be an ordinary practice, as wealthy farm owners required free labor force to work on the plantations. High taxes that they had to pay to the British crown, as well the moral norms of that time, often made them think only about the economic side of their agricultural business.
African Americans were brought to their new home by ships over the Atlantic Ocean. Back at home, they were not free as well, since the territories of their primary landing were owned by the British Empire as colonial lands. English governors viewed blacks as a resource, just like crops, minerals, or other valuable materials that the African land could offer.
In fact, not only British representatives were engaged in slavery. Other European countries also had colonies in Africa where they used local goods to grow their wealth and to manage resources without thinking about the local population. Moreover, Europeans worked with small groups of Africans that were in charge of collecting large numbers of slaves on the spot for their further transportation to the American colonies.
The attitude towards African Americans, which equaled them to property, set the base for a situation, where they did not have any political or economic rights. Slaves were traded based on the financial plans of their masters, who did not take into consideration any human factors. The death of a slave during service was considered an economic loss to his or her European legal owners.
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Slaves could not participate in elections, form civil or political organizations, or defend their labor rights. Moreover, masters made sure that black servants were divided by internal hierarchy, where the most important ones made orders in a house, and the lowly ones worked in fields. This measure was used to separate slaves from each other, make them more diverse so that they could not have common ideas and purposes that would make them rebel.
While at the beginning of slavery practice American colonists did not use the European model of taking advantage of such labor force, they soon began to view this order as normal. They even regulated such things as literacy level among servants. 1African Americans could not freely learn to read and write, not talking about getting a proper education, and mastering a profession based on physical labor was their best option.
Another major problem was the fact that many slave owners did not value the family ties of their servants. Although there was no official marriage registration for African Americans, they conducted ceremonies and lived in families. While there was a large group of wealthy American colonists who believed that black families should not be separated, many others did not find it important and sold their slaves as they wished.
Even after death, African Americans faced discrimination, since their rights to be buried like white people were often neglected. For example, it was usual in Charleston to see bodies of dead African Americans in rivers or on roadsides, since they could not be placed on the cemeteries of whites2. Local authorities fought this problem only because it created sanitary issues.
The roots of such attitude towards African Americans lied in certain elements of European culture. It is important to remember that whites were mostly Christian, and religion was a major part of their everyday lives, affecting thoughts and decisions. To those people, anyone who did not follow the Christian religion was considered a person with poor culture.
This belief was especially true for nations like those who lived in Africa because they had a completely different understanding of sacred. Europeans and American colonizers thought that blacks are barbaric because they did not follow the same culture rules. Everything slaves did differently from the white population was seen by their masters as a proof of their low culture and bad intentions were hidden in mind.
As a result, over time whiteness began to be a sign of civility, while dark skin became a signal for savage behavior3. Moreover, even educated colonizers were afraid that contacts with African American slaves could make their skin turn black4. When a mixed-race child was born to a slave, he or she did not receive any citizen rights because a color of skin was inherited after an African-American mother.
The described attitude towards blacks had its signs in the sphere of fine arts, the examples of which can be found today. For example, African Americans were seldom painted, and if they did, their role could best be described as serving their master pictured nearby. Their dark skin contrasted with pale faces of colonizers, underlining both physical and cultural differences that lied between those two races.
However, not all American colonizers and Europeans spoke openly about their attitude towards African Americans as a lower race. While some people formally went away from the topic of using slave labor, others chose a different terminology to discuss it5. For example, Malachy Postlethwayt, one of the employees of a company engaged in a slave trade, used the terms “African trade” and spoke of blacks as being servants.
The situation, in which African Americans were finding themselves before the American revolution, counted numerous hardships and required change. Of course, the freedom that was offered by both sides of the conflict could not guarantee them becoming equal to whites. However, the ability to at least keep their families together and decide their own fate made many blacks eager to participate in the revolution as volunteers.
The Revolutionary War
The rule of King George III in the eighteenth century deepened the conflict between the Crown and American colonizers. While Britain implemented laws to collect more money from its territories overseas and prevented America from trading with other countries, colonies’ rulers and the middle class opposed to those rules as much as they could. Raising taxes became a turning point, after which people of America decided that they could be governed by themselves.
A series of events like the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773 made the conflict more tense. Britain gradually took away the right of the colonies for self-government, which resulted in American citizens uniting illegally to create their own administration. Finally, an open fight on April 19, 1775, between the group American militia against the British forces in Lexington and Concord became a starting point of the Revolution.
Since American colonies did not have a regular army, they offered volunteers to enlist. Both sides of the conflict required more soldiers, and this fact made them offer African Americans to join their forces. It is not surprising that many of slaves answered the call and enlisted in large numbers, although many white commanders and ordinary soldiers found it wrong to serve with those people.
The South and the North
As the British government kept raising taxes and creating hardships for the economics of the American colonies, farm owners had to use more workforce to make a profit. Tobacco and cotton were the primary products of the eighteenth-century agricultural sector in the American South. They required intensive manual labor, and the more money plantation owners had to make, the less they were caring about their slaves.
Long working hours and poor living conditions, in general, made African Americans share rebellious thoughts and intentions. Although they were not likely to unite against their masters and start an open conflict, some of them used to run away, especially to the North. When the Revolution began, slaves saw it as a real opportunity to gain freedom.
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The North had always been more liberal about the matters of slavery, which was explained by its lower participation in the industry of agriculture. Property owners in that region did not need that much manual labor to be performed and their views on slave trade could include even dissatisfaction with such practice. African Americans were treated much better in the North, and some of them were free men.
However, they, too, felt the discrimination and poor attitude coming from whites. The desire of African Americans of the North to gain freedom was also supported by the ideas of dignity and self-respect. They joined the army on a long-term basis, viewing it as a source of changing their life to make it more dignified and to receive money and rights for their future generations.
The first person killed in the Boston Massacre is believed to be a man named Crispus Attucks, who belonged to a mixed-race heritage – African and Native American6. Today, it is not known to historians whether he was a free man or a slave, though he played a great role in the nineteenth-century movements against slavery. His death later became symbolic and used by Patriots to agitate African Americans to join their side.
As it was mentioned, the Patriot high command did not find the idea of enlisting blacks to be good. They opposed it at the beginning of the revolution and even discussed the possibility of keeping slaves away from the army. The general motif behind their intention was that African Americans made the Patriot forces present in a bad light.
George Washington, one of the Patriot leaders, even decided in November 1775 that blacks, along with boys and old men, could not join the Patriot forces. However, later the same year he changed his mind for two reasons. Firstly, the American army did not have as many white soldiers enlisted as it was expected, and secondly, Loyalists offered freedom to slaves who would join them.
The latter fact required a similar measure taken by Patriots if they wanted to keep blacks from escaping to the enemy. It was a smart tactic to cooperate with African Americans as they made up a great number of the colonies’ population and could outnumber the enemy. Besides, some of them were free and participated in keeping order as militia forces before the revolution, known as Minutemen.
As a result, a great portion of the Patriot army consisted of blacks who were seeking freedom and a guarantee of civil rights. Observers of that time note, that up to quarter of all soldiers were African Americans7, and some names like Peter Salem, Prince Estabrook, and Seymour Burr were left in history. Other functions they had was spying, showing paths, and ensuring communication between regiments.
Black soldiers were not only those who volunteered to join the army for freedom or expansion of civil rights. It was a common practice for wealthy slave owners to send their servants to war instead of themselves and support it with paying money to officials. The possibility of it was explained by the fact that both sides of the conflict required financing, and it was an easy way to receive it.
Tensions within the patriot forces caused by whites opposing to serve next to slaves caused the high command to form separate regiments with the non-white population. For example, there was a famous 1st Rhode Island Regiment, where almost half of the soldiers were black, mostly slaves but some of them were free men as well. The Regiment did not play a significant role but was still praised for its effort.
British commanders were the first to understand that enlisting African Americans might help to win the war. Lord Dunmore created an opportunity for slaves to fight against their masters that opposed the Crown and gain freedom. As a result, the Ethiopian unit was formed, the members of which made American forces terrified with their fighting skills and willingness to get revenge for the years of oppression.
Loyalists offered freedom to slaves just like Patriots did, and their call was not left unanswered. Many blacks enlisted in the Loyalist army and showed themselves as rather disciplined soldiers that were able to follow their leaders promptly. Their input in the total revolution’s results was not very significant, but they became one of the most important forces of the American Revolution and created a precedent for the future abolitionist movement.
The Ethiopian unit was most feared in the South because it was the place where slaves suffered the most from their owners. Masters were afraid that former servants will come for revenge. Besides, they were not willing to let slaves join the war even on the Patriots’ side because they did not believe in receiving the promised financial compensation that was issued for losing a servant.
Since the British side lost the war, it had to withdraw its troops from the territories that became to be known as the United States of America. Many African Americans that searched for justice were now in a situation when they had to flee the newly formed country. The Crown kept its promise partially, as British commanders evacuated thousands of blacks from the American continent.
One of the first places where African American Loyalists settled after the war was Jamaica and other territories of West Indies and got land as a result. Hundreds were also transported to Florida and Canada as places, where the British rule was remaining after the revolution. Some blacks did not follow the leaving Loyalist forces because they were afraid of becoming slaves again and created small settlements near Savannah.
The book by Cassandra Pybus features stories of African Americans who left the USA to find a new home elsewhere in the world. The first place they arrived along with British troops was London – one of the biggest cities of that time8. However, even the density of people and a mixture of their background did not make London a suitable place for blacks as they were still prejudiced.
To resolve this issue, the British government created Sierra Leone – a new country on the West coast of one of the Crown’s African territories. Many former slaves traveled there to find justice for themselves and to build a new prosperous home for their future generations. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone became a corrupted country torn by provocations and arguments between its ruling classes, which led the population to poverty.
A completely different fate expected those African Americans who stayed in the USA after the victory of Patriot forces. Although they were promised freedom, many found themselves back in chains after the war. Such situation became possible because there were no laws regulating the rights of slaves, and masters could easily force them back into slavery even after years of perfect service in the army.
Those African Americans, who were actually free, did not find the new life easy as well. The new American government formulated a position, from which it was clear that that people of the white race were considered supreme compared to those who had another background9. According to this theory of supremacy, blacks could not be granted civil rights because they were not even considered to be citizens.
Such ideas became possible in the new republic because of the capitalistic ideas of ownership. New Slaveholders viewed African Americans as property, not people, and demanded that their ownership rights were kept unchanged in the United States10. They explained their attitude towards blacks saying that Africa, the place of their birth, did not provide any civil liberties, so their servants were slaves from the start.
Slavery and its factors such as the lack of basic human and civil rights, severe living conditions, and the loss of hope resulted in many African Americans joining the Revolutionary War. Even though both sides of the conflict had promised them freedom, the new life did not change much from what it was before the revolution. For those African Americans who stayed in the newly formed USA slavery was a reality until the end of the Civil War, while those who fled the country with British forces had to fight discrimination again.
Burnard, Trevor. “Slavery and the Causes of the American Revolution in Plantation British America.” In The World of the Revolutionary American Republic: Land, Labor, and the Conflict for a Continent, edited by Andrew Shankman, 54-76. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Dierks, Konstantin. In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Gray, Edward G., and Jane Kamensky, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Nash, Gary B. The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Pybus, Cassandra. Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
Van Horn, Jennifer. The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Yokota, Kariann Akemi. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Gary B. Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 155.
- Jennifer Van Horn, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 197.
- Van Horn, The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America, 178.
- Kariann Akemi Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 224.
- Konstantin Dierks, In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 89.
- Edward G. Gray, and Jane Kamensky, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 579.
- Gray, and Kamensky, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, 181.
- Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 75.
- Nash, The Forgotten Fifth, 124.
- Trevor Burnard, “Slavery and the Causes of the American Revolution in Plantation British America,” In The World of the Revolutionary American Republic: Land, Labor, and the Conflict for a Continent, ed. Andrew Shankman (New York: Routledge, 2014), 70.