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Black History of the Revolutionary War

Only took about 200 years to recognize that Crispus Attucks as one of the first to fall at the brewing revolution to form America. SO why are we surprised it has taken another 50 to recognize the contribution of black folks, both slave and free to the Revolution?

The Secret Black History of the Revolution

As we know all too well, the Revolutionary War was not fought so that all men could be free, but its role in creating the seeds of abolition should not be forgotten.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was a Continental Army regiment during the American Revolutionary War. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became known as the “Black Regiment” due to its allowing the recruitment of African Americans in 1778.

A central myth of American history teaching is that the American Revolution was fought for the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” of each person. By each, Jefferson sadly meant mainly white farmers. This patriotic myth—what I call a Founding Amnesia—drove Frederick Douglass, in 1852, to declare that the Fourth of July was not for slaves. 

But perhaps in contrast to its long history of racist exclusion, the Daughters of the American Revolution should first honor black Patriots. As Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private who fought at the decisive battle Yorktown with the French Royal Deux-Ponts for the Patriots, noted while walking around the field of battle the next day: “all over the place and wherever you looked, corpses… lying about that had not been buried; the larger part of these were Mohren [Moors, blacks].”

And as I emphasize in Black Patriots and Loyalists (2012), the acme of freedom in the American Revolution was the gradual emancipation of slaves in Vermont (not yet a state) in 1777, in Pennsylvania in 1780, in Massachusetts in 1782, in Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, in New York in 1799, and in New Jersey in 1804. If we ask the central question in American history: how did there come to be a free North to oppose bondage in the Civil War, the answer is, surprisingly: gradual emancipation during and just after the American Revolution. Thus, black Patriots and their white abolitionist allies played a central, undiscussed role both in battle and in the deepening of American freedom.

Finally, why did the man believed to be the first martyr of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave of black and Native American parentage who became a sailor, fiercely take on the Redcoats in the Boston Massacre? Attucks is part of a complex history that reveals how much the Revolutionary War and the Fourth of July are a day that belongs to African Americans.

1.  The violent fight against Imperial press-gangs

The first part of this story is the emergence of a violent revolutionary movement of self-defense among sailors in the 18th century. The Imperial Navy needed bodies for its expanding empire. But the crown had never relied on volunteers. Instead, it sent armed gangs to kidnap people at sea or in the street. But people did not go willingly. All around the Atlantic—in Antigua, Jamaica, Halifax, and Boston, for example—there were 604 uprisings against these royal gangs in the 18th century. 

Sailors often defended themselves with pikes or muskets. Soldiers and sailors were killed in such raids.

The greatest of these uprisings was a three day battle in Boston against Admiral Knowles’s gangs in 1746. In the Independent Advertiser in 1747, Sam Adams wrote that multiracial, multinational movement against press-gangs was a driving force in making a free regime: “All Men are by nature on a Level: born with an equal Share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike.”

 Whole communities rebelled against the gangs. Women, left behind, were called “Impressment widows.” Mary Jones, an Irish teenager, and her children starved after her husband was taken during the Falklands war scare of 1770. Mary was arrested for shoplifting a small piece of muslin.  Suckling one of her children even as the noose was put around her neck, she was hung. British “law” meant hanging and it was used depravedly against the poor. And in the colonies, it was worse.

Agrippa Hull was a free African-American patriot who served as an aide to Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish military officer, engineer and nobleman, for five years during the American Revolutionary War.

Merchants and members of the Boston House of Representatives feared revolutionary crowds. They denounced “a tumultuous riotous assembling of armed Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and others… tending to the Destruction of all Government and Order.” The phrase, “Armed Seaman, Servants, Negroes, and others” became almost a formula in such denunciations. They would be echoed by many later historians.

But a vast, Atlantic-wide succession of rebellions against Impressment was the key feature of the run up to the Revolution. These rebellions mobilized sailors against the crown, motivated them to participate vigorously in other demonstrations about taxes, and taught them, their relatives and communities, in Lockean terms, the need for violent self-defense. In America, press-gangs made revolutionaries.

Now black escapees, like Crispus Attucks, often found freedom at sea. Sailors, notably blacks, would lead revolutionary crowds against press-gangs and other abuses.

Colonel Tye was an escaped slave who became one of the most respected leaders of the Loyalist troops during the American Revolutionary War.

In 1760 in Jamaica, Tacky’s Rebellion, the largest uprising against bondage until that time, lasted for 4 months. Between 1760 and 1775, the outbreak of the American Revolution, some 20 slave uprisings took place in Bermuda, Nevis, Surinam, British Honduras, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Vincent, Tobago, St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. Kitts.

Seized without compensation, forced to abandon their families, sailors on British ships often identified with slaves. They took the word to London and Boston. In 1760, J. Philmore talked with mariners on London docks, and wrote the memorable Two Dialogues concerning the Man-Trade. In the broad abolitionist movement in England and America, Philmore’s 1760 pamphlet marks the most thorough transition politically from fighting for the basic “rights of an Englishman” to natural, universal or what we name today human rights. Unlike non-abolitionist authors, Philmore replaces the commonly labeled “slave trade”—a pro-bondage appellation which falsely legitimizes owners, merchants, and hunters—with the shocking but true name: the Man-trade. James Otis wrote a similar pamphlet in Boston. These ideas would be discussed in every poor people’s tavern in the 11 years leading up to the Revolution and shape rank-and-file abolitionism.

Integrated riots against press-gangs marked the pre-Revolutionary period as well as protest against taxes on tea or stamped paper. In Newport in June 1765, 500 “seamen, boys, and Negroes” rioted after five weeks of impressment. In Norfolk in 1767, Captain Jeremiah Morgan retreated, sword in hand, before a mob of armed whites and Negroes. “Good God,” he wrote to the governor, “was your Honour and I to prosecute all the Rioters that attacked us belonging to Norfolk there would not be twenty left unhang’d belonging to the Toun.” According to Thomas Hutchinson, the Liberty Riot in Boston in I768 was as much against impressment as against the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop. To understand this militancy, we might say that a second and deeper emancipatory revolution against bondage surged from the Caribbean via sailors into the U.S. and London, and shaped the revolution for independence from Britain.

In 1776, the crown authorized large numbers of press warrants in London for bodies to fight the American Revolution. But sailors, armed, marched together “having resolved to oppose any violence that might be done to them, and rather die than assist the Royalists in shedding the Blood of their American Brethren.” This was a startling example of democratic solidarity or internationalism from below, anti-patriotic, despising the Royalists’ haughty colonialism.  Read the Rest Here including the level of Black Toryism, and Black Patriots who fought in major battles…

Portrayal of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. One of my ggg-grand-sires fought in this regiment and gained his freedom

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2016 in Black History

 

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The American Revolution

On this Independence day, it should be remembered that black folks fought on both sides of the War.

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation which offered freedom to any slave who joined the British Army

The American Revolution was not a whites-only war

July 3 at 6:41 PM

Peter Salem was a legendary black soldier of the American Revolutionary War.

There are aspects of the American Revolution that are neither well known nor appreciated. To be sure, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave and great men, as ex-slave, abolitionist and fiery orator Frederick Douglass acknowledged in his July 5, 1852, speech in Rochester, N.Y. But Douglass, noting slavery’s continued existence 76 years after the first Independence Day, advised the crowd: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

“What, to the American slave,” asked Douglass, “is your Fourth of July?”Douglass said that the “rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”

Douglass’s denouncing the injustice of slavery in the midst of a celebration of liberty is now a storied event.

But less understood or appropriately recognized during most July 4 celebrations is that the American Revolution, although not fought on behalf of slaves, was not a whites-only undertaking.

John Singleton Copley

The political freedom resulting from the war was earned on battlefields at Lexington and Concord, at the Battle of Bunker Hill and beyond, with the help of black soldiers, both free and enslaved, who fought with the Continental Army.

The Revolutionary War victory was every bit theirs, as well.

At least 20 blacks were among the ranks of the rebels when the British launched their attack on the American position outside Boston in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Peter Salem, born a slave in Framingham, Mass., earned his stripes as a minuteman fighting at Concord and later at Bunker Hill. Salem is credited with firing the shot that killed British Maj. John Pitcairn, who led the Redcoats when they attacked at Lexington.

Getting into the fight wasn’t easy for Salem or other blacks at the time. At the start of the war, George Washington opposed the recruitment of blacks, whether free or slave. Washington had plenty of company. Many slave owners considered the training and arming of slaves akin to inviting insurrection.

Thomas Peters: slave, millwright, soldier…and politician. His voyage from slavery to freedom began when he was kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery; at the onset of the American revolution, he seized the opportunity to reclaim his freedom fighting with British forces. A talented craftsman, he became a leader of men on the fields of battle. The war’s conclusion found him traveling once again, hoping to redeem the British promise of freedom in Nova Scotia. In the 1780s and 1790s, the former sergeant found himself fighting in unfamiliar territory: the world of British politics. From New Brunswick to London, he tirelessly pursued freedom and justice for his community. He would help found the country Sierra Leone.

But they soon found that there weren’t nearly enough white men willing and able to fight the British, so Washington relented.

Salem fought in other battles, and after the war, lived in a cabin and worked as a cane weaver. He died in a Framingham poorhouse in 1862.

Twenty years later, the town erected a monument in his honor.

Former slave Salem Poor was also at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His service drew the praise of 14 officers who petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to grant him a reward. They wrote “that a negro man called Salem Poor, of Colonel Frye’s regiment, Captain Ames’ company, in the late Battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth the particulars of his conduct would be tedious, we would only beg leave to say that in the Person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress.”

It was not to be. Poor died in a Boston shelter for the homeless in 1802.

Saul Matthews was a slave when he enlisted as a soldier in the Virginia militia, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Matthews served as a spy, undertaking missions into British camps to collect information on troop positions and movements. He, too, drew praise from top leaders of the Revolution.

When the war ended, Matthews was returned to slavery for nearly 10 years.

He petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for his freedom. It was granted in 1792.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, called the “Black Regiment” because of its large number of African American soldiers, engaged in five years of fighting in New York, New Jersey and Virginia.

Christopher Greene commanded the 1st Rhode Island Regiment until 1781, when he and many of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with loyalists. Greene’s wounded body was reportedly dragged from his house into the woods and mutilated as possible punishment for having led black soldiers.

After the war, as the Army’s official Web site reports, some black soldiers, like those who served in the 1st Rhode Island, went on to live as freed men. However, many others, after having fought for freedom, were returned to slavery.

Frederick Douglass’s “This 4th of July is yours” assertion was biting oratory. But in helping to earn America’s freedom, the black soldiers of the Revolution have made the Fourth of July all of ours.

The nation should salute them, too.

The First Rhode Island Regiment in action at the Battle of Rhode Island. August 1778

Most of the black soldiers that fought on he American side were re-enslaved. Those that did manage to escape slavery were poorly treated, and denied soldier’s pensions for over 20 years. The British evacuated over 3,000 Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia. Some were evacuated to London and over 4,000 were evacuated to Sierra Leone. Most of those who stayed in the new country were re-enslaved. Those that  escaped that fate either moved to the North or to the Western Frontier.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2015 in Black History

 

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Slavery As a Cause of the American Revolution

Hat tip to lunchcountersitin over at All Other Persons for an in depth book review and opinion piece  –

Was Slavery a Cause of the Revolutionary War? Yes. (Book Review of SLAVE NATION)

Revolutionary War Sailor

Revolutionary War Sailor

The book – Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen which seeks to prove that the impact of legal decisions in England relative to slavery as being one of the major contributing factors in the Southern slave holding states being willing to join the American Revolution.

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Posted by on June 15, 2009 in Black History

 

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