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When war threatened the thirteen colonies, African Americans heeded the call to fight for American Independence. Roughly 25,000 African American men fought in the Revolutionary war. Black Patriots fought for the independence of America and also their own freedom. When sides were chosen, African Americans fought for the Continental and Crown (British) armies. Through their efforts, some African Americans received their freedom and would continue to fight for the freedom of all enslaved people—this was the foundation of the abolitionist movement.
Did you know? It is estimated that roughly 100,000 African Americans were killed in battle, died, or escaped from slavery during the American Revolution.
By the time the American Revolution began, roughly half a million African Americans resided in the colonies with the majority of the African American population in 1775 being enslaved. While colonists protested slavery, their outcries remained unheard. At the start of the American Revolution, African Americans were barred from military service. Yet, severe shortages in manpower became evident in state militias, and eventually, the Continental Army drew among the African Americans enslaved population to serve. The 5,000 men who participated on the side of the Continental Army became known as Black Patriots. However, other African Americans who did not serve in an official capacity supported the war effort through different means.
African Americans who sided with the American colonies throughout the American Revolution
Did you know? African American soldiers were involved in almost every battle in the American Revolution! Though black soldiers in the Continental Army saw more action than those who fought for the Crown.
Who were some of the famous African Americans involved in the American Revolution?
In 1778, the Rhode Island government issued a law allowing able-bodied enslaved people to enlist in the army. The state not only allowed African Americans to enlist but promised them complete freedom and provision of care if they became sick. As a result, white slaveholders strongly disagreed with this law. Scared they would lose a cheap source of labor, many slaveholders spread propaganda in an attempt to slow or stop black enlistment.
Over one hundred and thirty men enlisted in the regiment. Nevertheless, to help stem the slave owners' disdain for the law, Rhode Island purchased the enslaved people from slave owners prior to enlistment. Furthermore, extended enlistment periods and the acquisition of African American soldiers assisted in stemming the manpower shortages.
Enslaved on a Massachusetts farm in 1774, Salem Poor became eligible to purchase his freedom at the age of twenty-two. By the Revolutionary War, African American volunteers became acceptable to several militias. In 1775, Poor enlisted as a minuteman. He saw brutal battles in which he displayed heroic actions by aiding his fellow soldiers. Though Poor never received official recognition for his service, he continued to serve in the military until 1780.
Escaping enslavement, Colonel Tye became one of the most well-known fighters in the American Revolution. After escaping, Tye joined the British to fight against the American colonies. The British did not practice commissioning their African American soldiers. However, titles became customary for those who displayed unique talent. Tye immediately gained respect and a title within three years of entering the British forces. The British paid Tye well to raid Patriot homes, most of which had been former slave owners. Tye's reputation became so well known that even Patriots acknowledged his skill.
In 1773, Phyllis Wheatley published her first book of poems, becoming the first enslaved African American to publish a book. Phyllis' enslavers realized her intellect and immediately began to educate her instead of forcing her into traditional duties as an enslaved person. In 1774, Wheatley's enslavers emancipated her, though with freedom came difficult circumstances. Difficulty plagued her as she attempted to secure funding for more publications. Finally, she married in 1778, but little is known about her life after the marriage. Wheatley often wrote in support of the colonies' independence and she argued strongly against the institution of slavery. The third colonial woman to have a work published, Wheatley consolidated her place in history. Many American colonists read her works, and her contribution to American literature is well known.
Wheatley's poem on tyranny and slavery in 1772 is an example of how she used her writing to convey her opinions:
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
–Phillis Wheatley, Poem on Tyranny and Slavery, 1772
While many African Americans fought for the Continental army, others chose the side of the Crown and were known as loyalists. It is estimated that 20,000 African Americans fought for the Crown. The British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to escaped enslaved people who fought for the British. Like their counterparts in the Continental Army, black loyalists fought in hopes of securing freedom for their fellow enslaved people.
The British also offered land and other provisions to the black loyalists once the war was won. Roughly 100,000 enslaved people ended up with the British military, but the British left as the war turned in favor of the Americans. As the British departed, a number of African Americans were left behind and ended up back in slavery. However, another group of loyalists made it to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Here are some of the roles undertaken by African Americans at this time.
African Americans took on various jobs and roles during the war to aid the war effort and escape slavery. While the American army lagged in enlisting African Americans, the navy "actively recruited African Americans, both free and enslaved, from the very beginning of the war."1 Therefore, Africans looking to participate took on the role of seamen. For example, enslaved people in Virginia found the Navy to be a safe escape from their enslavers. "In Virginia alone, as many as one hundred and fifty black men, many of them enslaved people, served in the state navy."2
After the war, the legislature granted several of these men their freedom as a reward for faithful service. White southerners disagreed with African American soldiers because of the chance to turn on their masters. Serving as a black patriot in the Navy posed less of a risk in the eyes of the South.
Designated roles for African Americans in the military varied and were frequently labeled meager tasks. Africans also became boat pilots or accompanied battalions as cooks and artisans. However, as enlistment became a problem, colonies realized the necessity for enlisting African Americans as soldiers in the military or as spies, like James Armistead.
American population at the time was approximately 2.1 million; free black people comprised 2.4 percent of the overall population, and enslaved people formed 21.5 percent.3
The Continental Army and the majority of militias were integrated.
Rhode Island’s First Regiment was the first militia to recruit and enlist African Americans for the American Revolution.
Many women followed troops to provide valuable services like laundering uniforms and cooking; several African American women were involved in these roles.
An estimated 722 Black Patriots served at Valley Forge.
Many African Americans fought for the Crown (British) to obtain freedom.
Often white slave owners used African Americans as substitutes during the war.
At the onset of the war, the Continental Army did not allow African Americans to participate. However, that changed as losses in manpower became evident.
The names listed below are examples of African Americans and their roles in the American Revolution. (The list is not exhaustive.)
Spy for the Continental Army
Participated in the Boston Massacre
Soldier in the Continental Army
Solider in the Continental Army
Artilleryman for the Continental Army
Soldier for the Continental Army
Minuteman in the local militia; Black Patriot
Served as an orderly in the Continental Army
Soldier for the British side
Seamen in the Virginia State Navy
Soldier in the Continental Army
Seamen in the Virginia State Navy
Naval Pilot for the Continental Army
First Published African American female poet
Slavery became a contested subject in particular areas in the colonies, though no significant actions were taken to end it. In 1775 Congress decided to deny African Americans entry into the colonial army due to its impact on southern slave owners. Forced to reverse its decision due to British promises of freedom, Congress allowed African Americans to enlist. As a result, many African Americans enlisted in the British and colonial armies and sharply impacted the war.
Revolutionary rhetoric fuelled a new generation of enslaved people who would bolster and create the antislavery movement in America. Freed African Americans created their own social structures in schools, communities, and churches. These structures lay the foundation for African American lobbyists who sought the complete eradication of slavery. While some African Americans successfully claimed freedom at the war's end, others received harsher outcomes.
The start of the abolitionist movement is rooted in the American Revolution. However, as the colonies became united, slavery was bolstered; the slave trade would continue for decades to come. The South, predominantly dependent on slavery, fought to keep the slave trade alive to maintain a cheap labor source.
Enlisted enslaved people, previously promised freedom for their wartime service were often forced back into slavery or killed. Due to the economic prosperity of the southern states, the slave trade became heavily entrenched in the area. Contradictory ideas in the Declaration of Independence helped spur the war to end slavery though it was not officially abolished until 1865.
In Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, he called for the end of the "abominable crime" of slavery. Yet, Jefferson, along with other founders, were slaveholders. While the Declaration called for "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," it did not extend these rights to African Americans. The lack of civil rights for all American citizens would continue to plague African Americans well into the twentieth century.
2. Edward Ayres, African Americans and the American Revolution, 2022.
3. American Battlefield Trust, Ten Facts: Black Patriots in the American Revolution, 2022.
African Americans did fight in the Revolutionary war for both the Continental and Crown armies.
Roughly 5,000 African Americans fought in the American Revolution.
African Americans served in many capacities during the war. Many were soldiers, pilots, cooks, and artisans.
While the number of African American deaths is widely unkown, it is estimated that roughly 100,000 African Americans either escaped slavery, died, or were killed in the American Revolution.
African Americans helped in the Revolutionary War by serving in militias and the Continental Army by being orderlies, servants, cooks, artisans, and soldiers.
What was the term given to African Americans who sided with the American colonies?
Who was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre?
First African American female poet to have works published.
What state was the first militia to recruit African Americans into the war?
Often during the war, what role did enslaved people serve in relation to slave owners?
Who was the famous guerrilla fighter who fought for the British?
How many African Americans were estimated to have died, escaped, or been killed in the American Revolution?
Especially in the South, what role did many African Americans take instead of being soldiers in the army?
Pilots or other roles in the Navy
Most militias and the Continental Army were what?
List the different roles that African Americans had during the war.
Artisans, cooks, servants, soldiers, pilots/seamen
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