African Americans and the Revolutionary War
The Revolutionary War was an important era for both free and slaved African Americans. Public officials that had not expressed their opinion on slavery, now saw the the hundreds of thousands of African Americans as an important tool in winning the war. It is estimated that 5,000 African Americans served as soldiers for the Continental army, while more than 20,000 fought for the British cause.
When the American Revolution began in 1775, all but 25,000 of the nearly 500,000 blacks in British North America were enslaved. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" Samuel Johnson, the great English writer and dictionary maker, posed this question in 1775. He was among the first, but certainly not the last, to contrast the noble aims of the American Revolution with the presence of 450,000 enslaved African Americans in the 13 colonies.
With blacks numbering nearly 20% of the total population in the colonies, both sides saw the importance of having blacks, whether free or enslaved fighting for their cause. The free black may have been drafted or enlisted by his own volition. Some motives to joining the American forces may have been a desire for adventure, belief in the justice and the goals of the Revolution and the possibility of receiving a bounty. Monetary payments were given or promised to those who joined.
Freedom was the principal motivation for the African American slave whether joining either the Patriot or British army, especially after the James Somersett ruling. James Somersett, a slave taken to England by his master Charles Steuart, had run away. Recaptured and in chains in the hull of a ship bound for Jamaica, he sued for his freedom. In June 1772, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King's Bench, held that slavery "is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law." As "the law of England" neither "allowed" nor "approved" of slavery, Mansfield ruled that "the black must be discharged."
Mansfield's decision outlawed slavery only in England; it did not apply to British colonies. But that was immaterial to American slaves. In January 1773, the General Court in Boston received the first of three petitions in which slaves pleaded their freedom with the argument that Mansfield's decision should indeed apply to the colonies, where they were "held in a state of Slavery within a free and Christian Country."
The British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, quickly saw the vulnerability of the South's slaveholders. In November 1775, he issued a proclamation promising freedom to any slave of a rebel who could make it to the British lines. Dunmore organized an "Ethiopian" brigade of about 300 African Americans, who saw action at the Battle of Great Bridge in December 9, 1775. Dunmore and the British were soon expelled from Virginia, but the prospect of armed former slaves fighting alongside the British must have struck fear into plantation masters across the South.
Colonel Tye was perhaps the best-known of the Loyalist black soldiers. 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. On September 1, 1780, during the capture of a Patriot captain, Tye was shot through the wrist, and he later died from a fatal infection.
The colony leaders also saw the importance of gaining African American support for the war effort. African Americans in New England rallied to the patriot cause and were part of the militia forces that were organized into the new Continental Army. Approximately 5 percent of the American soldiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill were black. New England blacks mostly served in integrated units and received the same pay as whites, although no African American is known to have held a rank higher than corporal.
Because of manpower shortages at sea, both the Continental navy and Royal Navy signed African Americans into the navy. Even southern colonies, which worried about putting guns into the hands of slaves for the army, had no qualms about using blacks to pilot vessels and to handle the ammunition on ships. In state navies, some blacks served as pilots, South Carolina had significant numbers of black pilots
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. 3,000 to 4,000 African Americans Loyalists boarded ships in New York bound for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain. An estimated 100,000 African Americans escaped, died or were killed during the American Revolution.
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