August 25, 2019 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the first Africans forcibly brought to English-occupied North America.1 The National Park Service commemorates this historic event, remembering the survival, resilience, and contributions of Black people in American history.
During the American Revolution, approximately five-to-eight thousand people of African descent supported American liberty. They ranged from Crispus Attucks to James Armistead Lafayette (the Black double agent who spied on Charles Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold for the Marquis de Lafayette). Many Black people enlisted as soldiers, while others supported the army as spies, hostlers, blacksmiths, wagoners, laborers, carpenters, artificers, free and enslaved servants, and in innumerable other positions. While they fought for independence, many had the opportunity to fight for their own freedom as well.
Historian George Washington Williams wrote on the death of Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the Boston Massacre. Attucks probably had Black and Nantucket Indian heritage. Williams found it “significant indeed that a Negro was the first to open the hostilities between Great Britain and the colonies, -- the first to pour out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people’s rights.”2
Black people joined the fight against the British, even before the official formation of the Continental Army. Yet, Congress did not authorize their recruitment until January 1776.3 Each unit commander determined whether he would accept Black enlistments. Even with these restrictions, Black people continued to fill both military and civilian support roles. Many fought in integrated units, which would not occur again until the Korean War, about 170 years later.
Approximately 700 to 720 Patriots of African descent at Valley Forge, mostly in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts units.4 Some of them had dual African and American Indian heritage. Beginning in the eighteenth century, for example, Black people and Pequot Indians frequently intermarried. Individuals with dual heritage included Cash Africa, Robert Freeman, and possibly others in the 1st, 2d, 5th, and 8th Connecticut Regiments.
Weakened from the previous Philadelphia campaign, military readiness at Valley Forge continued to dwindle due to disease, reassignments, and expiring enlistments. Rhode Island had to rethink their recruitment strategy to meet their quota, so Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum proposed a solution that the state legislature considered and signed into law. Passed on February 14, 1778, it empowered Rhode Island’s government to purchase the freedom of “any negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” able to bear arms for the Continental Army.5
According to the Valley Forge Muster Roll Project, the Valley Forge encampment included at least 115 Black soldiers from Rhode Island.6 Native and Black Americans already served throughout the 1st and 2d Rhode Island Regiments. Yet during the February 1778 reorganization, the Continental Army consolidated (or segregated) them into a single company commanded by Captain Thomas Arnold. Formed at Valley Forge, this company fell under the newly organized 1st Rhode Island Regiment. So, from February to June 1778, one company of the Black Regiment encamped at Valley Forge. They later fought at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse while attached to the 2d Rhode Island Regiment.
In Rhode Island, the state legislature purchased freedom for 117 enslaved recruits before wealthy slaveholders forced a repeal of the law, with a cutoff date of June 10, 1778.7 Nonetheless, free Black people continued to enlist and those already in the ranks remained. In July 1781, they earned accolades during a military review of the Continental Army. An aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau in the French Army, Baron Ludwig von Closen stated that “three-quarters of the Rhode Island Regiment [detachment present] consists of negroes, and that regiment is the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers.”8
Some Patriots of Color are well known. For others, we have only their names. However, researchers continue to uncover additional information on their lives. The following are short biographies of just a few of these varied individuals:
Among Patriot forces, between 5,000 to 6,000 enslaved people of African descent fought for this nation’s independence, hoping that they too might benefit from purported principles of freedom and liberty.
The publication of the Declaration of Independence also forced civilians to confront the contradictions of slavery in a society where “all Men are created equal.” And enslaved people used these words to their advantage. In 1781, a jury declared Quock Walker a free man. Walker and his lawyers successfully argued that slavery contradicted Article I of Massachusetts’s new constitution. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, it stated:
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”8
Despite the outcome, no one wrote a formal law or amendment specifically outlawing slavery in Massachusetts. Yet, the ruling undermined slaveowners’ property claims, especially when combined with a changing economy and a public increasingly hostile to the practice. While racial tensions would continue, by 1790, the U.S. Census returned no enslaved people in Massachusetts.9
But the American War of Independence was a conservative revolution compared to later uprisings in France, Haïti, and elsewhere in the Americas, whereby society was radically overturned. A conservative democratization of class occurred with U.S. independence, which meant greater rights of citizenship for some, but not others.
Connecticut instituted “gradual emancipation,” requiring children born into slavery to serve twenty-five years before receiving their full freedom. Under that system, slavery continued there into the 1840s. Most other states did not abolish slavery at all.10
Ironically, many enslaved people had better prospects for freedom with the British, especially in slave societies within the Chesapeake and Lowland South. About 20,000 Black enslaved people emancipated themselves and fled to the British, who offered manumission and protection from Patriot masters. In 1775, Virginia Governor Dunmore a proclamation, which armed able-bodied Black men who escaped from their rebelling slaveowners. This so threatened white Virginians, that it convinced many of them to fight against the British.
Enslaved Loyalists who emancipated themselves aided the British Army in various capacities. Even before the American Revolution, however, Black drummers “enjoyed a respectable standing within [their] regiment and retired as free men.” Moreover, British commanders made them responsible for flogging white soldiers convicted in court martials. This shocked Whigs (those who protested British policies), especially given the harsh military sentences involved. They made sure to identify drummers as Black in Whig-run newspapers, to incense their readership.11
Historian James O. Horton argues, “The point in all this is that whether African Americans fought for the American cause or whether they fought for the British cause they were fighting for the central cause of freedom. That’s what African Americans were fighting for. For them, the revolution really was a freedom struggle.”12
Regardless of the side they chose, some Black people survived the war and gained freedom, and sometimes full rights of citizenship. Yet, many were later re-enslaved—either by former masters or elsewhere in the British Empire. In the United States, it would take another eighty-two years and a civil war before the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.” Despite a constitutional amendment, Black people continued to endure forced labor through Black Codes, convict leasing, and so-called ‘Pig Laws.’
English privateers forcibly brought Angela and about twenty other Angolans to Point Comfort (present-day Fort Monroe) aboard the Treasurer and the White Lion. The English had colonized this area of Tidewater Virginia, which lay within the Powhatan territory of Tsenacommacah.
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books, 2012), 7.
“Hull, Agrippa,” African American Lives, eds. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 425.
John U. Rees, “‘Put up for winter quarters at Valley forge’ African American Soldiers at the 1777-1778 Overwintering Camp,” revised presentation, Spring Research Symposium, organized by National Park Service-Valley Forge National Park and The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, online, April 10, 2021.
The Valley Forge Muster Roll Project is a project of the Valley Forge Park Alliance.
John U. Rees, ’They were Good Soldiers’: African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 (Warwick, UK: Helion & Company, 2019), 73.
Baron Ludwig von Closen, The Revolutionary Journal of von Closen, ed. Evelyn M. Acomb (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 92, quoted in Daniel M. Popek, They “… fought bravely, but were unfortunate:”: The True Story of Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment” and the Failure of Segregation in Rhode Island’s Continental Line, 1777-1783 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2015),1669.