Brave and Gallant Soldiers: African Americans and the Continental Army
by Noel B. Poirier
". . . no regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance: and among them are able-bodied, strong, and brave fellows."
Hessian Officer's Testimony, October 23, 1777
The casual student of the American War for Independence, when considering the role of African Americans in the Continental Army, might assume that they played no significant part. Usually the layperson will take for granted that African American patriots must have fought in segregated, “all-black” units, served simply as laborers in the construction of fortifications and camps, or as servants to wealthy army officers. Oftentimes, it is also presupposed that the attitudes of all Euro-American officers and enlisted men toward African American soldiers were categorically negative. However, upon reading contemporary accounts and strength reports, one will discover the legacy of the Continental Army regarding race: the Continental Army was the first integrated army in American history. Unsuccessful attempts were made during the war to segregate the Continental Army, but due to manpower needs these attempts did not diminish its racial integration. Unfortunately for history, it was the philosophy of racial segregation in the American military that survived the Revolution to be implemented in future American conflicts. Even so, during the American Revolution, Euro-American Continental Army officers and enlisted men recognized the necessity of tapping into the manpower available in the colonial African American population and embraced (although at times hesitantly) the inclusion of the African American citizen-soldier in the contest for American independence. American citizen-soldiers of European and African descent who served in George Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolution were exposed to the first integrated army in America’s history.
African Americans and the Colonial Militia
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the American colonies had come to rely heavily on the militia system for their defense. This British tradition, based on the idea of a citizen’s obligation to defend his homeland, dated back to the founding of the English monarchy . . . . Individual colonies formulated their own militia statutes and based them on the individual needs and concerns of their own colony. One would imagine that, with the diversity of the individual colonies, there would be a corresponding diversity in their militia laws regarding the use of enslaved and free African-descended colonists. This was not the case. If there was one point on which all the American colonial militia laws agreed, it was on the exclusion of the majority of those of African descent from service in the colonial militias. The reasons given for this exclusion varied from colony to colony, but there were essentially two principal motivations cited for not permitting Africans to join the ranks of the colonial militias. First, since the majority of the Africans in America were enslaved (and therefore property), many believed that the slave’s service to his master took prominence over any service that slave could provide to the colony as a militiaman. In the unlikely event that a colony desired to enlist non-freemen into the militia, this viewpoint of a slave’s duty to his master required the colony to first obtain the master’s permission. Second, there was the obvious fear of arming a portion of the population many of whom were enslaved and the rest treated as second-class citizens. Many European colonial leaders were wary that, upon the onset of hostilities, armed slaves and discontented free African Americans might flock to the enemy’s standard or rise up against their Euro-American masters.
Euro-Americans were not the only colonists with a military tradition to bring to the New World. African Americans also hailed from long traditions of military service in their homelands. For centuries, Africans had been used as soldiers to supplement the armies of their Mediterranean neighbors, and the tradition of performing as a warrior for one’s own tribe was familiar to virtually every male African. The earliest Europeans to visit the continent of Africa recorded their views on the military ability of the populations there. One traveler wrote that West African soldiers were “bold and fierce” and would rather die than surrender in battle. As the numbers of Europeans trading with Africans along the west coast increased, so did the ability of African tribal soldiers to become familiar with the weapons of their European counterparts. By the eighteenth century this trade brought with it the latest military weaponry, and firearms became increasingly present on the tribal battlefields of West Africa. Despite this military tradition equal to that of Euro-Americans, colonial leaders preferred to view the African American warrior as unsoldierly and arming him as a danger to the status quo. This racial attitude was firmly in place in the period immediately preceding the American Revolution and affected the debate within the Continental Congress over the use of African Americans in the Continental Army.
The American Revolution Begins
In spite of colonial militia policies prior to the formal creation of the Continental Army, African Americans had already begun to take part in the hostilities in and around the city of Boston. The most famous African American to appear during this period was Crispus Attucks, martyred in 1770 during the riot that came to be known as the Boston Massacre. However, Attucks was not alone in his active participation in the years before the creation of the Continental Army. When the British marched a detachment from Boston to Lexington and Concord in an effort to capture rebel munitions and leaders, they found Prince Estabrook, an African American, present in militia ranks to greet them. In June 1775 at the Battle of Bunker Hill, a number of African Americans were in the ranks of the militia who fortified Breed’s Hill outside Boston. Among them was a recently freed slave named Peter Salem, who, as legend has it, fired the round that fatally wounded British Major John Pitcairn, and Salem Poore, who was honored by the officers of his regiment for his bravery during the battle. His officers wrote that Poore “behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent solider . . . in the person of this said negro centres a brave and gallant soldier.” Cuff Whitmore, another African American veteran of Bunker Hill, managed to acquire a British officer’s sword that he kept as a souvenir. The African American men who served at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker’s Hill did so in integrated militia units, not as part of a segregated force. As hostilities continued in the late summer of 1775, the Continental Congress determined that the time had come to create an American army to challenge the British force in Boston. In determining how to fund the coming conflict, the Congress chose to bill each state in proportion to its inhabitants. In doing so, they resolved that the amount be “determined according to the number of inhabitants . . . including negroes and mulattoes.” However, determining to count African Americans as part of the population and allowing them to officially bear arms in the new army were two entirely different matters.
In 1775, a rag-tag army made up of militia from the New England region held the British in Boston in check. It was this force that Congress used to create the nucleus of what was to become the American Continental Army. Among the many New England militiamen in service around Boston were found men of African descent. Speaking of the men in his Massachusetts brigade, General John Thomas stated that “we have some Negros but I look upon them as equally serviceable with other men, for fatigue and in action” and that “many of them have proved themselves brave.” While General Thomas may have been singing the praises of his integrated brigade, others were not so supportive. One soldier from Philadelphia, Alexander Graydon, wrote that the presence of African American soldiers had a “disagreeable, degrading effect [on] . . . persons unaccustomed to such association.”
Even with the commendable service already rendered by men like Salem, Poore, and Whitmore, the leadership of Congress and the colonies were still resistant to the idea of enlisting African Americans into the newly created army. Massachusetts determined that it would not allow the enlistment of slaves into its ranks, but it would allow the continued enlistment of free men, European or African. The Continental Army’s recently appointed Adjutant-General Horatio Gates prohibited the recruitment of any “stroller negro.” The inclusion of any African American in the American army infuriated many of the southern delegates to the Continental Congress. In September 1775, in an attempt to purge the Continental Army of the presence of African American soldiers, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina proposed a motion on behalf of those delegates to discharge all African Americans, free or enslaved, from service. Congress was unwilling to dismiss from service African Americans currently serving, but did agree to limit the enlistment of them in the future.
This limitation of the enlistment of African Americans into the Continental Army was in practical effect as early as November 1775. The Continental Army’s commander, Virginian George Washington, included in his Orderly Book for November 12, 1775, the mandate that African Americans, free or otherwise, no longer be enlisted in the army. Shortly after issuing the order, however, it became clear to the army’s commanding general that to turn away African American recruits might be sending those possible recruits into the service of his enemy. Significantly, the Royal Governor of Virginia had issued a proclamation freeing all male slaves of rebel masters who could, and would, bear arms for King George III. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, as it came to be known, may have been a factor in Washington’s concern about African American defections to the British. Washington’s anxiety was substantial enough to warrant him drafting a letter to the President of Congress. In it, Washington stated that “the free negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded . . . it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial [British] Army.” Congress’s response to Washington’s fear was to allow the reenlistment of free African Americans, but to continue their moratorium on the enlistment of enslaved individuals.
As the war entered the year 1776, the patriot leadership came to the conclusion that the army would need to enlist men for more than the one-year enlistment policy then in effect. Congress eventually decided to enlist new army recruits for three years or for the duration of the war. It was in this form of long-term enlistment that African American men, like Salem Poore, often found themselves. Following the decision to increase the term of enlistment for recruits in the Continental Army, Congress paid very little attention to further legislation regarding the enlistment of African Americans into the Continental Army. Many of the individual colonies continued to address the issue, following in Congress’s footsteps, by effectively banning the recruitment of African Americans into their state units.
In 1776, when the city of New York was under the threat of British attack, American Brigadier-General William Alexander (also known as Lord Stirling) ordered all able-bodied African Americans to work alongside Continental Army troops who were preparing the city’s defenses. Congress continued to set recruiting quotas for the individual states, quotas that were becoming increasingly difficult for the states to meet with Euro-American recruits alone. Certain states, particularly in New England, simply disregarded the mandates of Congress or their state legislatures and allowed anyone who volunteered for service to enlist. In order to meet the Continental quotas, a few states, like Connecticut, allowed for masters to free their slaves so that they might enlist in the Continental Army. Massachusetts announced that all African Americans, whether free or enslaved, were eligible to be drafted for service in the Continental Army. This demand for enlistees induced many states to begin offering outright freedom as a reward for service to any slave who would enlist. John Adams wrote that America should “set Liberty before their eyes as the Reward of their Valour and . . . we should find them sufficiently brave.” It was becoming clear that, at least in northern states, the need to fill troop quotas led to the promotion of African American enlistment, regardless of their status.
The enlistment of African Americans was not, however, limited solely to the northern states. The colony of Virginia in 1775, while still unwilling to allow enlistment of the enslaved, allowed for the enlistment of all freemen between the ages of sixteen and sixty. This open enlistment policy encouraged a number of enslaved African Americans to illegally profess to be freemen in order to enlist. The problem became severe enough to warrant an amendment two years later that required all African Americans who wished to enlist to provide proof of their freedom. Maryland, under continuing pressure to meet its state’s quote for troops, did nothing to prevent slaves from enlisting for either state or Continental Army service. Other southern states were not as willing to forgo their cultural traditions; the governments of South Carolina and Georgia continued their resistance of arming the African Americans throughout the war.
As the number of African Americans in the Continental Army began to increase, due to more open enlistment policies, so too did the commentary on their presence. In July of 1776, Captain Persifor Frazer, a Pennsylvania officer stationed at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, observed that the men constituting the army there were composed of “the strangest mixture of Negroes, Indians, and whites.” General Phillip Schuyler, stationed at Saratoga, New York, complained in July 1777 that one-third of his force were men who were either too young or too old to serve or African Americans. When asked to describe the Massachusetts men serving with the Northern Army in 1777, General William Heath reported that there were “a number of negroes.” Heath also provided insight into the manner in which these men were being employed in the army. Heath complained that, while the African American soldiers were capable, he did not relish seeing them serve alongside his Euro-American soldiers. In 1778, Thomas Kench, also from Massachusetts, felt that the policy of having “negroes in our service, intermixed with white men” was successful and in no need of alteration. It was this American army, operating in the northern theater, that one Hessian soldier observed “no regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance.” There is little doubt that the Continental Army, while perhaps politically discouraging the enlistment of African Americans, had become by 1778, the first racially integrated army in American history.
Alexander Scammell’s Report
In January 1778, Alexander Scammell replaced Timothy Pickering as the Continental Army’s Adjutant General. One of his many tasks was to compile a reckoning of the total number of African Americans then serving with the Continental Army at White Plains, New York. The product of this count was a document, dated August 24, 1778, that recorded how many were serving in each individual brigade. Virtually every brigade had at least one African American and most had considerably more than that. . . . Scammell’s report confirms what observers of the Continental Army had affirmed about its integration of African Americans into the ranks. They were a noticeable presence in practically every Continental Army unit. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Scammell’s report was that, of the two brigades with the highest proportion of African Americans, one was a southern brigade.
One regiment, which is integrally connected to the story of African American service in the Continental Army, although absent from Scammell’s report, deserves closer inspection. Desperate for recruits, the state of Rhode Island determined to create units composed primarily of enslaved and free African Americans. The product of this determination was the First Rhode Island Regiment, in which freedom was offered to all slaves who enlisted. This was the second regiment from Rhode Island to bear the designation First Rhode Island Regiment. The original First Rhode Island Regiment was eliminated in December 1775, with many of its soldiers constituting the newly created Ninth and Eleventh Continental Regiments. Enlistment in the new First Rhode Island Regiment went so well that the state was required to halt any further active enlistment only four months after creating the regiment. The regimental recruiters managed to enroll some 250 privates in the short time in which they were actively recruiting. While the regiment began as a strictly segregated unit, it would appear that the regiment’s ranks became increasingly more integrated as the war progressed. At the beginning of 1781, the then existing Rhode Island regiments were combined into one. After the fusion of the Rhode Island regiments, the Chevalier de Chastellux encountered them and observed that “the greatest part of them are negroes or mulattoes.” The Baron Von Closen, also upon sighting the regiment, recalled that “three-quarters of the Rhode Island regiment consists of negroes.” Chastellux’s use of the qualifying statement “greatest part,” taken with the observations of his French comrade, would seem to indicate that by 1781 a degree of integration had occurred within the ranks of even this “all-black” regiment. A Light Infantry company of this regiment, presumably also with a number of African Americans, traveled as part of Lafayette’s Light Infantry Corp in the Virginia Campaign of 1781. Months later, it was the more integrated Rhode Island regiment, not the segregated one of 1777, which witnessed the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781.
The War Turns South
As the war dragged on, the need for manpower to fill the ranks of the Continental Army never diminished. In response, Congress and the individual states continued to turn to the African American soldier to alleviate some of that need. While the state of Virginia continued its policy of forbidding the open enlistment of slaves, recruiters allowed slaveholders to send one of their bondsmen as substitutes for themselves. In some cases an enslaved soldier, having been sent to fight in his master’s stead, did so unaware that he might be returned to slavery when his enlistment expired. The state of Maryland, in 1780, continued to accept the enlistment of African Americans and floated the idea of raising a regiment of 750 slaves, similar to Rhode Island’s earlier endeavor. In spite of the support of officers like Major-General Marquis de Lafayette, the regiment never materialized. As the focus of the conflict transferred to the southern states, those states that had avoided the necessity of using African American troops were moved to reassess their positions.
In the south, the British had been attempting to lure slaves away from their masters since the beginning of the war. As noted, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia when hostilities began, issued a proclamation that offered freedom to any slave of a rebel master who was willing and able to bear arms against the American insurgents. The response was so considerable that Dunmore created a segregated unit that he named the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, and they battled alongside the governor during his attempts to reassert control of Virginia in 1775 and 1776. In June 1779, Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in America, issued his own proclamation stating that any enslaved person who deserted his rebel master would find protection with the British. He also warned that any African American soldier fighting for the rebels who was captured would be purchased for the public service, with the proceeds going to the men who seized him. Lord Cornwallis, on his march from the Carolinas to Virginia in 1780 and 1781, attracted many slaves who believed that his army offered them freedom from servitude. Cornwallis refused to allow them to bear arms, put them to work as laborers, and many of them died from various camp diseases. While the British commanders searched for ways to disrupt the slaveholding South’s rhythm, American leaders were considering the enlistment of thousands of southern enslaved African Americans as well.
While the Continental Army was substantially integrated, as more African Americans enlisted, it became more likely that they would be formed into segregated units officered by Euro-Americans. This segregated approach to the use of African American manpower was not limited to the southern states. Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut all considered the creation of segregated African American units. Meanwhile, the governor of South Carolina, claiming that he could not enlist enough white men to challenge the British invasion of his colony, considered the possibility of raising a regiment of reliable slaves to assist in the state’s defense. Going yet one step further, Congress recommended that the state raise as many as three thousand African American troops with the promise of freedom as payment for their service. In March 1779, Henry Laurens, the president of the Continental Congress, wrote General Washington that “had we arms for three thousand such black men . . . I should have no doubt of success in driving the British out.” Washington however was not nearly as enthusiastic, believing that the arming and freeing of some slaves would further irritate those remaining in servitude. Among the most unequivocal champions of the plan was one of Washington’s aides-de-camp, Colonel John Laurens, Henry Laurens’s son, who labored diligently in an attempt to see the idea realized. Selected by Congress to travel to South Carolina to encourage the project, he faced a daunting task. While regular officers like Alexander Hamilton expressed the belief that the South Carolina “negroes will make very excellent soldiers,” the South Carolinians were less convinced. Members of South Carolina’s elected government reacted with expected horror at the prospect of arming so many of their enslaved population and raised the specter of slave insurrection to buttress their opposition. In spite of the staunch resistance, Laurens continued his attempts to see the plan through. The Marquis de Lafayette wrote an acquaintance that Laurens was “sacrificing his own fortune” in the effort. In late 1780, Colonel Laurens was ordered to travel to France on a diplomatic mission, and the task of attempting to raise the African American troops in the south fell to Generals Benjamin Lincoln and Nathanael Greene.
In April 1780, a month before the British Army began its siege of Charleston, General Benjamin Lincoln wrote the Governor of South Carolina that “I think the measure of raising a black corps a necessary one . . . because my own mind suggests the utility and importance of the measure.” Laurens and Lincoln were not alone in the call for the increased involvement of the African American population in the cause. James Madison of Virginia, whose ideas would have mortified many of his southern brethren, called for the emancipation of slaves and their enlistment in the Continental Army. Madison argued that it would be “more consonant with the principles of liberty” to liberate slaves and employ them in the fight against Great Britain. In spite of the support of Congress, Colonel Laurens, Generals Lincoln and Greene, and intellectuals like James Madison, the Deep South remained unwilling to initiate any large-scale use of African American soldiers. Even the success of these soldiers in the Continental Army failed to convince the southern leadership. John Laurens attributed the failure to raise an African American force in the South to the “triple headed monster, in which prejudice, avarice and pusillanimity were united.” General Washington, who had never expressed a great deal of support for the plan, blamed “selfish passion” and “private interest” for the disappointment.
Following the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, there was considerably less military conflict in the North American theater of war. However, the Continental Army continued to be concerned with maintaining a force large enough to counter any possible British offensives. General Nathanael Greene, still operating in the southern theater, continued to press for the greater enlistment of African Americans. Greene had witnessed the use of African Americans in the northern theater and encouraged Governor Rutledge to have them “incorporated, and employed” for the defense of South Carolina. Greene informed the Governor that they “make good soldiers” and that, with the lack of Euro-American enlistees, they were essential. Shortly after General Greene’s letter to the Governor of South Carolina, the British ministry began to make peace overtures to the Americans. It appeared as if the need for further enlistment of African Americans was coming to an end. . . .
If one merely examines the number of African Americans who served in the Continental Army during the War of American Independence, it would appear as if their contribution was minimal. Some 5,000 African American soldiers, out of about 200,000 total, served the American cause during the Revolution. While this figure seems a small one, it is not the number of African Americans who served that matters, but how they served.
The African American citizen soldier who served in the Continental Army did so for many of the same reasons as his Euro-American counterparts. There was the draw of enlistment bounties, adventure, and the escape from the day-to-day existence of being an outsider in colonial American society. In spite of their enslavement and imposed status, African Americans also enlisted out of a sense of attachment to what they now viewed as their new homeland. They, like many other members of the lower strata of colonial society, followed the leadership of their colony into revolution. However, the African American also volunteered for something the Euro-American had little true, personal understanding of: freedom. Euro-Americans believed that freedom meant the societal freedom to determine one’s own government, economy, and geographic expansion. African Americans of eighteenth-century America undoubtedly thought of freedom in its more fundamental and individual terms. It is reasonable to believe that they desired to have the same opportunities as their Euro-American neighbors to acquire personal property, raise their families, and travel freely. It is conceivable that, for reasons of personal freedom and the future freedom of their progeny, many African Americans willingly enlisted in the Continental and British Armies. These personal reasons certainly made it possible for them to justify their active defense of a new nation that demonstrated no signs of eliminating the institution which continued to enslave their fellow African Americans. Even after the winning of American independence, however, the carrot of personal freedom for military service was only guaranteed in those states that abolished slavery during the revolutionary period and shortly after.
The primarily integrated part played by the African American citizen soldier in the Continental Army was one that would not be repeated until the second half of the twentieth century. That is not to say that the War of American Independence did not set precedents for the use of African Americans in the United States military. The American Revolution began a pattern for the approach to be taken toward African American citizen soldiers for the succeeding 175 years. That pattern consisted of discouraging the involvement of these citizen soldiers until the necessity for manpower dictated that they must be used. The United States, for political and cultural reasons, preferred to leave the African American citizen soldier out of the fight. Often the military, even when allowing the use of African American citizen soldiers, preferred to use them in laboring and service-oriented roles. The inhibiting of the African American as a combat soldier perpetuated a mythology in their inability as a soldier, a mythology that many Revolutionary War veterans could have debunked. The African American citizen soldier who, whatever his motivations, served in the Continental Army did so as part of America’s first integrated army, an integration that would not occur again until the Cold War battles of the twentieth century.
This article was published in the Winter 2001–2002 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter. Mr. Poirier presented the article as a paper at the Military and Naval History Forum at Virginia Military Institute in April 2001. It also appeared in an edition of Army History: The Professional Bulletin of Army History published by the United States Army Center for Military History.