African American Patriots of the Revolutionary War

African American Patriots of the Revolutionary War


Page Two~While the Patriots were ultimately victorious in the American Revolution, choosing sides and deciding whether to fight in the war was far from an easy choice for American colonists. The great majority were neutral or Loyalist. For black people, what mattered most was freedom.

Stories about African American Patriots of the Revolutionary War

A Fight for Liberty

    As the Revolutionary War spread through every region, those in bondage sided with whichever army promised them personal liberty. The British actively recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters and, consequently, more blacks fought for the Crown. An estimated 100,000 African Americans escaped, died or were killed during the American Revolution.

    On the 7th November, 1775, Earl Dundore, commanding the forces of His Majesty the King, issued a proclamation offering freedom and equal pay to all slaves who would join his armies as soldiers. It did not take the the colonists long to find out their mistake, although Gen. Washington, in accordance with the expressed will of his officers and of the Committee of Safety, did on the 17th Nov., 1775, issue a proclamation forbidding the further enlistment of Negroes. Less than two months later, that is to say on the 30th Dec., 1775, he issued a second proclamation again authorizing the enlistment of free Negroes. He advised Congress of his action, and stated that he would recall it if so directed. But he was not. The splendid service rendered by the Negro and the great and pressing need of men were such, that although the opposition continued from some sections, it was not thereafter strong enough to get recognition. So the Negroes went and came much as did other men.

    In all the events of the war, from Bunker Hill to Yorktown, they bore an honorable part. The history of the doings of the armies is their history, as in everything they took part and did their share. Their total enlistment was about 3,000 men. A very fair percentage for the then population. I might instance the killing of Major Pitcairn, at Bunker Hill, by Peter Salem, and of Major Montgomery at Fort Griswold by Jordan Freeman. The part they took in the capture of Major-General Prescott at Newport; their gallant defense of Colonel Greene, their beloved commander, when he was surprised and murdered at Croton River, May 13, 1781, when it was only after the last of his faithful guards had been shot and cut down that he was reached; or at the battle of Rhode Island, when a battalion of 400 Negroes withstood three separate and distinct charges from 1,500 Hessians under Count Donop, and beat them back with such tremendous loss that Count Donop at once applied for an exchange, fearing that his men would kill him if he went into battle with them again, for having exposed them to such slaughter; and many other instances that are of record. The letter following, written Dec, 5, 1775, explains itself:

    To the Honorable General Court of the Massachusetts Bay: The subscribers beg leave to report to your Honorable House, (which we do in justice to the character of so brave a man), that under our own observation we declare that a Negro Man named Salem Poor, of Col. Frye's Regiment, Cap. Ames' Company, in the late battle at Charleston, behaved like an experienced officer as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We would only beg to say, in the person of this Negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to Congress.

    Jona. Brewer, Col. .......... Wm. Prescott, Col.

    Thomas Nixon, Lt. Col. .......... Ephm. Corey, Lieut.

    Joseph Baker, Lieut. .......... Joshua Row, Lieut.

    Jonas Richardson, Capt. .......... Eliphalett Bodwell, Sergt.

    Ebenezer Varnum, 2 Lt. .......... Wm. Hudson Ballard, Capt.

    William Smith Capt. .......... John Morton, Sergt.

    Richard Welsh, Lieut.

    This is a splendid and well attested tribute to a gallant worthy Negro. There were many such, but, beyond receiving and reading no action was taken thereon by Congress. There is no lack of incidents and the temptation to quote many of them is great, but the time allotted me is too brief for extended mention and I must bring this branch of my subject to a close. It is in evidence that while so many Negroes were offering their lives a willing sacrifice for the country, in some sections the officers of the Continental Forces received their bounty and pay in Negroes, "grown" and "small," instead of "dollars" and "cent."

    Many African Americans, like Agrippa Hull and Prince Hall, did side with the Patriot cause. 5,000 black men served in the Continental Army, and hundreds more served on the sea. Had George Washington been less ambivalent, more blacks might have participated on the Patriot side than with the Loyalists. When he took command of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington barred the further recruitment of black soldiers, despite the fact that they had fought side by side with their white counterparts at the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. In November 1782, Britain and America signed a provisional treaty granting the former colonies their independence. As the British prepared for their final evacuation, the Americans demanded the return of American property, including runaway slaves, under the terms of the peace treaty. Sir Guy Carleton, the acting commander of British forces, refused to abandon black Loyalists to their fate as slaves. With thousands of apprehensive blacks seeking to document their service to the Crown, Brigadier General Samuel Birch, British commandant of the city of New York, created a list of claimants known as The Book of Negroes. Boston King and his wife, Violet, were among 3,000 to 4,000 African Americans Loyalists who boarded ships in New York bound for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain.

    The Governor of Virginia, whose royal title was Lord Dunmore, on the other hand, sought to disrupt the American cause by promising freedom to any slaves owned by Patriot masters who would join the Loyalist forces. (Runaway slaves belonging to Loyalists were returned to their masters.) Dunmore officially issued his proclamation in November, 1775, and within a month 300 black men had joined his Ethiopian regiment. Probably no more than 800 eventually succeeded in joining Dunmore's regiment, but his proclamation inspired thousands of runaways to follow behind the British throughout the war.

    By the winter of 1777-78, the Continental Army had dwindled to 18,000 from disease and desertion. This, together with the active recruitment of enslaved blacks by the British, finally convinced Washington to approve plans for Rhode Island to raise a regiment of free blacks and slaves.

    Colonel Tye was perhaps the best-known of the Loyalist black soldiers.

    Never actually commissioned an officer by the British Army (which did not appoint African-Americans as officers), Colonel Tye earned his honorary title as a sign of respect for his tactical leadership skills. As the commander of the Black Brigade, he led raids against Patriots, seized supplies, and assassinated many Patriot leaders during the war, thus providing substantial aid to the British. His aid to the British in New York City helped them withstand a siege by American forces under Gen. George Washington.

    An escaped bondman born in Monmouth County, New Jersey, he wreaked havoc for several years with his guerrilla Black Brigade in New York and New Jersey. At one time he commanded 800 men. For most of 1779 and 1780, Tye and his men terrorized his home county -- stealing cattle, freeing slaves, and capturing Patriots at will.

    Born in about 1753, Titus was originally owned by John Corlies, a Monmouth County, New Jersey Quaker who held slaves despite of his religion's opposition to slavery. It was Quaker practice to teach slaves how to read and write, and to free them at age 21. However, Corlies refused to do so. In fact, Corlies was known to be especially cruel to his slaves, severely whipping them for even the most minor reasons.

    In September 1780, Tye was injured by a musket ball that passed through his wrist while he was trying to smoke out another Monmouth County patriot leader, Captain Joshua Huddy. Huddy and a female servant managed to resist Tye's band for two hours before they set fire to his house. Unexpectedly, Colonel Tye developed tetanus from his wound and soon died of it. His death was a major loss to the Loyalist forces. Since he was on the losing side in the American Revolution, Colonel Tye%u2014who fought for the freedom of his own people%u2014has largely been forgotten by American history.

    Boston King was an escaped slave who joined up with the Loyalists and later documented his experience. When he reached the black Loyalist encampment, it was a rife with smallpox. King became ill himself, and discovered that the British removed sick runaways from camp to die or heal on their own. King survived, and rejoined General Cornwallis' troops at Camden, South Carolina, where he served as a military messenger and an orderly. But while fighting for the Crown, King was kidnapped by a band of southern Loyalists who tried to sell him back into slavery. He escaped and again rejoined the army.

    In October 1781, as Patriot and French ground forces and the French fleet surrounded Cornwallis' men at Yorktown, Virginia, the British sent their black allies to face death between the battle lines. After Cornwallis' surrender, the Americans rounded up the surviving blacks for re-enslavement. For the next year, as Loyalists withdrew from southern ports, scores of black refugees sought passage to New York -- the last British stronghold.

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