Unsung Patriots: African-Americans at the Battle of Cowpens
OverviewGOAL: To introduce to students the role of African-Americans at the Battle of Cowpens in context of the Revolutionary struggle against England and the African-American struggle for freedom.
- The student will describe the role of African-Americans generally in the American Revolution.
- The student will be able to correlate this role in the context of the Revolutionary struggle for freedom.
- The student will identify the Patriot minorities at the Battle of Cowpens.
- The student will describe and consider the role of William Washington’s servant (Ball/Collins/Collin) in the Battle of Cowpens.
- The student will use art skills to illustrate the dramatic event involving the servant Ball/Collins/Collin.
- The student will critique the historic Ranney painting of this event as to accuracy, aesthetics, artistic merit, style and elements of art.
Colonial South Carolina was possibly the most ethnically diverse among all the colonies. Those of Native-American, African, European, Moorish and Turkish descent inhabited the coastal plain, and such diversity was especially reflected in the Charleston area.
It was a diverse group of individuals that met on the field of battle at Cowpens on a bitterly cold Wednesday morning, January 17, 1781. Of the more than 2000 men who fought this battle, the National Park Service can document 15 African-American males who fought with the Americans. In addition, there is one famous African-American male the Park Service has been unable to document other than by tradition. In general, African-American genealogy is difficult because of lack of records.
The names of minorities that the National Park Service can document at the Battle of Cowpens are as follows: James Anderson (or Asher Crockett), Julius Cesar, Lemerick Farr, Andrew Ferguson, Fortune Freeman, Gideon Griffen, Morgan Griffen, Drury Harris, Edward Harris, Allen Jeffers, Berry Jeffers, Osborne Jeffers, Andrew Peeleg, Dick Pickens, and Record Primes (or Primus Record), and also Thomas Tyac, a Native American.
The William Ranney painting (above) shows the famous William Washington-Banastre Tarleton sword fight in which Washington’s servant rode up, fired his pistol at a British officer, and saved Washington’s life. Since most waiters were African-American, Ranney painted him as such. Apparently the servant did not file a pension, and Washington did not leave behind written papers of his own role or of anyone else’s role in the American Revolution. Therefore, the National Park Service cannot document his complete role in the battle and even his name (most likely either Ball/Collins/Collin). On a larger scale, African-Americans in the Revolution had a vested interest in the fight for freedom. Many hoped that liberties embodied in the Declaration of Independence would lead to the abolition of slavery. Many slave-owners, especially those in the Middle States and North, saw the connection between the Declaration and those issues involved in slavery, and freed their slaves (The North generally didn’t have as large an economic motive as the South.) George Washington, for example provided for the manumission of his slaves in his will. Phillis Wheatley wrote so eloquently on the issue that she was granted her freedom.
Slave-holders in the South feared British-inspired slave insurrections. Indeed, numerous slaves fought for the British in hopes that a British victory would offer them freedom. There is no evidence that they fared better under British command, however, than under their former masters. It is in these contexts the following activities are recommended
- Have students read the Declaration of Independence and memorize the Declaration of Natural Rights embodied in the Declaration. List and define or explain five words or phrases relevant to slavery and the African-American quest for freedom, i.e., concrete ways these natural rights were denied under slavery.
- Have students read the List of Grievances embodied in the Declaration. Have them choose five grievances and summarize each. Have students prioritize the five as to those most important. Would these five apply to African-American slaves? How would they differ?
- Some slaves petitioned for their freedom basing their petition on American petitions to England. Have your students write such a petition for freedom.
- Have students research the lives of the following African-Americans of the Revolutionary War era: Phillis Wheatley, Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, Armistead Lafayette, Salem Poor, William Lee, Oliver Cromwell, George Latchom, Edward Hector, Austin Dabney, Prince Whipple, Primus Hall and Agrippa Hull.
- Have students view William Ranney’s painting of events of the Washington-Tarleton duel. View other paintings adjoining the Ranney painting, paintings in the museum and the Don Troiani painting at the Visitors Desk. Do any of the other paintings depict African-Americans? Discuss how you would picture the events of the Washington-Tarleton duel differently from the Ranney painting. Critique the Ranney painting for its realism and accuracy. Compare and contrast the Ranney painting with the etching from Chappel’s painting of the same event. Using art vocabulary, critique each painting for its realism, accuracy, aesthetic appeal, style, artistic merit and elements of art.
- Walk the battlefield and discuss the interpretive sign(s) related to the Washington-Tarleton duel. Discuss the heroic action of Washington’s servant, standing in the historic road on which the event occurred.
- Have students look at the display, “Patriot Minorities Who Received Pensions or Served in the Battle of Cowpens” and identify the patriot minorities at the Battle of Cowpens.
- Have students draw their own interpretation of the events surrounding the Washington-Tarleton duel.
- Have students take on the role of Washington’s servant (Ball/Collin/Collins) and petition William Washington for his freedom based on his actions at the Battle of Cowpens. Or, have students take on the role of William Washington and dramatize (in verbal or written form) how he might have reacted to his servant’s actions. Undocumented legend says Washington freed his servant/slave, who, in Charleston, wore a silver belt given him by Washington.
Crow, Jeffrey J. The Black Experience in Revolutionary North Carolina. Raleigh: Department of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1996.
Frey, Sylvia R. Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Revised Edition. Amherst, Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Davis, Burke. Black Heroes of the American Revolution. San Diego: An Odyssey Book, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1992.
Silcox-Jarrett, Diane. “Phillis Wheatley: The First African-American Author” in Heroines of the American Revolution: America’s Founding Mothers. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Green Angel Press, 1998.