Black Americans in the US Military from the American Revolution
to the Korean War:
The American Revolution to 1808
The American Revolution: A fight for freedom?
The Revolutionary war marked a turning point in American history. The British
Colonies gained independence after eight years of a White man’s war. For
the Black population of the North American Colonies, it would be the beginning
of a long struggle for equality.
The Black population of the British North American colonies reached 500,000
at the beginning of the revolution, and only 5,000 served under George Washington.
Under George III, about a thousand Blacks served, all southern slave runaways.
These runaways most likely felt more comfortable fighting for a side that had
already abolished slavery in its own country, as opposed to taking the risk
in trusting the North American colonists. Antislavery movements began both in
Puritan Massachusetts and Quaker Pennsylvania at this time. As early as 1727,
a young Benjamin Franklin started the “Junto,” (Buckley, p.6) an
influential antislavery discussion group. Boston’s James Otis spoke out
against the British Empire, noting that all North Americans should be free,
Black or White. The upper south and northern colonists felt that slavery would
be improved if not abolished eventually.
The idea of using Black soldiers never fully developed for the U.S. The southern
states had worried too much over making a deal that would allow Blacks freedom
from slavery if they helped fight the Red Coats. Although there were strong
antislavery groups throughout the Northeast, they were not strong enough to
unite the entire North American population under one universal freedom ideal.
Naturally, slaves and former slaves were unsure about their chances of gaining
freedom through the revolution.
In Virginia, Royal Governor John Murray Lord Dunmore carried out a policy
of inciting a slave rebellion. He began opposing his own state once its House
of Burgesses displayed a preference for American policy in the revolutionary
dispute. Dunmore even retreated to his man-of-war H.M.S. Fowey at Yorktown once
it seemed that opposition increased around him so much that he fled his Williamsburg
palace. From the Chesapeake Bay Dunmore used his fleet of 103 ships to lure
Blacks from tidewater plantations. He used the assistance of 150 men from the
Fourteenth Regiment, which he obtained from Florida. In addition, a few loyalists
and volunteer sailors added to Dunmore’s army.
In November of 1775, Dunmore had an army of 350. Upon hearing that 170 militiamen
had planned to meet up with other Virginians to attack Norfolk, Dunmore attacked
them at Kemp’s Landing on the Elizabeth River and sent two companies running
while the third company fled into the nearby swamp. Governor Dunmore allowed
his Black soldiers to hunt down and capture their former owners following the
surprise attack. Overconfident from his success, Dunmore then declared martial
law, and declared all servants and slaves free, and asked that they join His
Majesty’s troops. Instead of trying to conceal Dunmore’s proposal,
the Virginians were advised in the Virginia Gazette to convince their slaves
that they would be worse off under the British Flag. One writer even suggested
that the Blacks be convinced that the British would surely ship them off to
the West Indies, equal to being sent to death for a Virginia slave.
To counter Dunmore’s threat, the House of Burgesses constructed a new
policy: All slaves who returned within 10 days were to be pardoned. Roads would
be patrolled double the previous amount, and all ship owners were asked to guard
the tidal waters of the Chesapeake. Any slaves captured were sent back to their
owners, who were advised to send the slaves to the interior of the state. Any
slaves captured in arms would be sent, ironically, to the French and Dutch West
Indies, the same place that the colonists claimed that the slaves would be sent
to if the British succeeded in liberating them.
By the end of November, 500 more Blacks joined Dunmore, despite the warnings.
These Blacks were not quite as gullible as the Virginians had thought. They
were willing to fight for their freedom and did not fall for the anti British
Nevertheless, Dunmore’s army had been a great worry for George Washington,
since his position offered a great harbor from which the British Fleet could
control Cape Hateras. A causeway, Great Bridge, the only approach to his position
by land, sat defended by a cannon.
The man in charge of ridding the land of this threat was William Woodford.
Learning from the Battle of Bunker Hill, he decided to wait for Dunmore to attack
him. He believed that by waiting he would cut off Dunmore from obtaining more
men and supplies, as long as their side of the causeway remained secure. Although
he had frustrated many politicians by not attacking right away, he had avoided
making the same mistake as his colleagues made in Boston. Most politicians had
tried to pressure him and believe that Dunmore’s fort was nothing more
than a small heap of sticks defended by a few Blacks and Tories.
Among the 500 militiamen led by Woodford were Major Thomas Marshall and his
son, Lieutenant John Marshall. They cleverly figured out a way to convince Dunmore
to attack their position. They persuaded one of their slaves to pretend to be
a runaway. Once the slave arrived, he told Dunmore that Woodford had less than
300 inexperienced “shirt men,” (Fleming, p. 159) a terminology used
by the British to describe the militiamen who dressed in hunting attire, rather
than in uniforms. Woodford immediately ordered an attack, led by Captain Charles
Fordyce. Fordyce and his 120 regulars were caught by surprise at point-blank
range. Fordyce went down with 14 bullets in his body, and 12 of his privates
died as well. Woodward’s men flanked the rest of the Red Coats and Dunmore’s
“Ethiopians” who attempted to rally. Dunmore and his remaining troops
retreated to his fleet of ships off the coast of Norfolk. Many of the 3,000
loyalists who backed Dunmore fled to his ships, while others ran away and tore
off their red loyalist badges.
In the northeast, any Blacks involved in the war fought on the American side.
The first all Black-American regiment, the First Rhode Island, enlisted 132
volunteers, under the condition that all volunteers would gain their freedom,
according to the Rhode Island legislature. The members of this regiment were
also assured they would receive the same wages and bounties as regular soldiers.
In August of 1778 this regiment fought back the Hessian mercenaries employed
by King George III, allowing the U.S. Army to retreat. It also inflicted 5 times
the casualties on the British than were inflicted on their own regiment. Later
in 1779 the British evacuated Newport, and in 1780 the French Army landed there,
making it their main base of operations. This became especially important in
1781, during which the French began their march toward Yorktown.
The Battle of Stony Point, the last major battle of New York State, may have
not been victorious for the revolutionaries without the help of Pompey Lamb,
a Black spy. Lamb had been a fruit and vegetable deliveryman for the British,
and regularly provided other Americans with intelligence. In concordance with
General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, Lamb requested a night delivery to
Stony Point. The British accepted, giving Lamb the night password. On the night
of July 15th brought two American officers disguised as farmers on his delivery.
The two officers quickly overpowered the guards, allowing Wayne’s regiment
to charge the fort. The last battle of New York State in the Revolutionary War
resulted in an American victory, with 63 British killed and 71 wounded, and
15 Americans killed and 83 wounded, including General Wayne.
Spying also had nearly detrimental effects on the American foothold on New
York State. Benedict Arnold, once a hero of the Battle of Saratoga, offered
to negotiate the sale of West Point to the British, possibly from feeling under-appreciated
by his country. He had previously been charged and court-martialed by Congress
for conducting unauthorized business by using government supplies for his own
personal needs. Since marrying into a Tory family, Arnold soon found it expensive
to live the upper class life. Nevertheless, in his effort to gain a stronger
foothold on this upper class, Arnold’s eyes likely lit up at the offer
of 6,000 British Pounds along with a commission in the British Military.
British Major John André had received intelligence from Arnold, sitting
comfortably at the British Headquarters in New York City. Arnold originally
wanted 20,000 British Pounds for West Point, and 10,000 if the base somehow
did not go into British hands and Arnold ended up fleeing. British General Henry
Clinton only agreed to 6,000 with no compensation for failure. Major André
in turn had to visit Arnold, traveling up the Hudson under a neutral flag. In
the morning of September 21 1780, two Black militiamen, Jacob Peterson and Moses
Sherwood, spotted the British sloop-of-war Vulture while at anchor. Both militiamen
immediately took refuge behind rocks and fired at the ship, awakening other
militiamen. Eventually the other militiamen began firing a cannon at the Vulture,
sending it retreating down river. This stranded Major André further upriver,
where he had met with Arnold. André traveled in disguise but ended up
caught 2 days later in Tarrytown, having very incriminating papers in his possession.
Arnold escaped to Britain, but never received a military position of any value
from the untrusting British. Thanks to Peterson and Sherwood, Arnold’s
plan failed. Peterson ended up receiving a house from General Philip Van Cortlandt
as pension for his services.
The British finally lost the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1783. It took
them a while to withdraw their remaining troops. They also took many former
slaves with them, as they had offered them free emigration to Britain or its
colonies. The south lost around 100,000 slaves to Britain. About 3,000 former
slaves learned quickly that the British were not completely truthful. Upon arriving
in Nova Scotia, these slaves learned that, contrary to the British promises,
there had been no farms waiting for them, but rather poorly insulated sheds,
especially difficult to live in during harsh winters. These former slaves also
had slave-like work. Many complained of receiving lower wages than their White
counterparts. The Blacks of Nova Scotia eventually gained the right of free
passage to Sierra Leone, after British abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and William
Wilberforce convinced the British Secretary of State to order that the Nova
Scotia government pay for any former slaves who desired this change in location.
Constitutional Debates on Slavery
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia of 1787 lacked enough northern
abolitionists to fight against slavery. The south threatened secession unless
slavery was allowed to exist further. Ironically, 16 of the southern convention
delegates had enough slaves for significant production, while about 9 more still
had a few slaves. The South also wanted slaves to be represented as citizens,
and later won the three-fifths clause. This allowed the South to gain power
through the Electoral College, since it meant that 3 of every 5 slaves counted
as citizens, even though they were neither citizens nor voters. They remained
untaxed property. Other advantages gained by this clause were the right to import
slaves for another 20 years and federal aid to suppress southern slave uprisings.
In 1793, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin became integrated into the southern
cotton market, and guaranteed the existence of slavery for many years to come.
There was still hope for the slaves, as Canada abolished slavery in that same
year. The new Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 allowed for runaways to be seized in
any state and those who harbored them to be arrested. This law helped counter
the growing fear of a slave rebellion, over 100,000 slaves in Haiti rebelled
in 1791 against their French colonial owners. Ironically, this placed American
Revolutionary Henri Christophe as Haiti’s first king. Nevertheless, the
amazing military genius of the rebellion’s leader, chief Toussaint-Louverture,
scared many White slave owners in the United States. They had failed recognize
any of the successes of Black soldiers during the American Revolution.
The Haitian rebellion even survived a second invasion by Napoleon’s
troops in 1799. Overall France lost 60,000 men in Haiti. After a peace treaty
was signed, Napoleon deceitfully had Toussaint-Louverture captured and sent
to prison in France, where he died in 1803. Slavery was briefly restored in
Haiti until a rebellion led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated the French again.
Napoleon finally realized this to be a lost cause and decided that his territories
in North America would be too difficult to keep secure if The United States
went to war over it. He decided to sell the Louisiana Purchase at the cheap
price of four cents per acre.
On August 20, 1800, the fears of Virginian Whites almost came true. Gabriel
Prosser had organized over a thousand slaves to join his militia from around
the Richmond area. Starting from his owner’s property on the night of
August 20, 1800, Prosser and his militia would begin their invasion of Richmond,
which had been short on men and muskets. Prosser ordered that only Quakers,
Methodists and French be spared. The invasion failed because a sudden heavy
rainstorm washed out the roads and bridges leading into Richmond. If this militia
had actually made it to Richmond, they also would have been caught off guard
by a surprise from the enemy: Governor James Monroe’s militia stood on
guard, because two slaves had abandoned Prosser’s militia and informed
local authorities of the plan.
The first successful slave rebellion in the United States occurred in 1811
outside New Orleans. Charles Deslondes, a free mulatto (half Black and half
White) from Santo Domingo, led 400 slaves from the area. Several plantations
were destroyed, as they symbolized the wealth of their oppressors. Major Michel
Thomassin Andry, the owner of the plantation where the rebellion began, sent
a posse out to catch the runaways. As his son had been killed in the uprising,
he ordered his posse to execute all captured slaves. About 66 slaves were executed,
and their severed heads were placed in different areas between New Orleans and
the plantation where the rebellion began. Ironically, Governor William C.C.
Claiborne called out all troops, including the Free Men of Color battalion,
to quell any future rebellions. These troops had proven themselves previously
under the Spanish flag, pushing the British from the lower Mississippi area.
The slave trade ended on January 1, 1808, after President Thomas Jefferson signed
a bill in 1807 that ended American participation only officially. The highly
lucrative business continued and proved to be too powerful for the law to be
enforced upon it.
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New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
March 30, 2006