Freedom Denied? Enslaved Soldiers During the Revolution

February 01, 2022 Posted by: Ranger Bill
African Americans had an extensive role in the American Revolution, which until more recent times has tended to be glossed over, or intentionally forgotten. This is particularly true concerning those African Americans who chose to fight for the British. It is estimated that between 5,000-8,000 African Americans fought against the British, and over 20,000 served with the British. For the United States Army, it would be the first and last time it was fully integrated until the 1950’s.

While Washington and his officers initially barred African Americans from enlisting after 1775, constant manpower shortages forced them to relent. In 1778, Rhode Island raised an entire regiment of African Americans, promising that those that were enslaved would be freed at war’s end. Serving in many notable actions, a detachment of the Rhode Island Regiment also made-up part of Colonel Marinus Willett’s force that attempted to take Fort Oswego from the British in February of 1783. This service amazed many, who thought African Americans would be unable to function in the snow and cold.

It was largely the ideology of the American Rebels that kept them from initially allowing African Americans to serve. They were quite aware of the jarring inconsistency of their situation: having declared that “all men are created equal” and born with a natural right to liberty, how could they keep other men (and women) enslaved, and also use enslaved people to win that liberty? While the law of the day did not recognize African Americans as “people”, the founding fathers were painfully aware that it WAS a whole race of people that were enslaved. General Philip Schuyler (who enslaved 13 people) brought this inconsistency to the forefront when commenting on the recruits he was getting to counter British General Burgoyne’s invasion, stating “one third of the few (men) that have been sent are boys, aged men and negroes, who disgrace our arms…Is it consistent with the Sons of Freedom to trust their all to be defended by slaves?”

Lord Dunmore, the last Royal Governor of Virginia, famously issued a proclamation in 1775 that gave freedom to any enslaved people who ran away from their Rebel masters and joined the British. Dunmore knew this tactic would weaken the southern Rebel economy and spread the terror of possible revolts among the numerically inferior southern white Rebels. Due in part to this proclamation, an estimated 100,000 enslaved people escaped during the war. British General Clinton expanded this proclamation in 1779, promising freedom to the enslaved in any colony that fled their Rebel owners. However, if anyone tried to run away from Loyalists, they were returned to their enslavers.

Dunmore’s proclamation produced one of the most successful guerilla leaders of the war for the British. Titus Cornelius ran away from his master in New Jersey and joined Dunmore in Virginia. Starting in 1779, “Colonel Tye” as he became known, led the “Black Brigade” composed of 24 African Americans who staged numerous successful raids in New Jersey, targeting Rebel enslavers, communities, and leaders. They sometimes worked in conjunction with the Loyalist Queen’s Rangers. “Col. Tye” sacrificed everything for his freedom, dying from a wound he received in 1780 while attempting to capture a local militia captain.

For some African Americans, the American Revolution did lead to freedom, whether they fought for the Americans or the British. Along with the African Americans who earned their freedom by fighting with the Continental Army, around 3,000 African American men women and children joined other American Loyalists in Nova Scotia to start a new life. Around half of them would eventually return to Africa in 1792 to be part of a new settlement in British Sierra Leone. Far more African Americans, however, would remain in the new United States still enslaved. 
Four soldiers in a line. They all wear various Continental Army uniforms. The first's complexion is notably darker than the others.
Four soldiers from the siege of Yorktown in 1781. The African American soldier on the left is a member of the Rhode Island Regiment that served in Willetts Oswego expedition.

A historic watercolor by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger

Last updated: February 5, 2022

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