|George Washington by John Trumbull|
with Will Lee in background, 1780
General George Washington, however, like other slaveholders, opposed recruiting blacks into the newly formed Continental Army, whether slave or free, fearing a slave uprising. Not long after his appointment as commander in chief, he signed an order forbidding their recruitment in spite of the valor of black soldiers like Poor. Hoping to divide the colonies on this issue, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, promptly offered freedom to any escaped slave who joined the British forces, and thousands of slaves grasped the opportunity. As a result Washington compromised by allowing blacks already in the army to stay but prohibiting new enlistments. But as the war continued and the need for more soldiers grew, he turned a blind eye to new enlistments, while still refusing to approve them. By the end of the war the army was actively recruiting black soldiers, and some in the New England regiments rose to the rank of colonel. Watching a review of the army at Yorktown, a French officer estimated that about a quarter of Washington’s troops were black, though today most historians believe that 10 to 15 percent is more likely.
|General John Glover by Jacques Reich|
Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography
When John Glover, a prosperous businessman in the Atlantic fishing trade, became the commander of the 21st Massachusetts Regiment, he recruited experienced seamen and fishermen, many of whom had been his shipmates. Among them were many of the Indians and Blacks who lived in the New England seaport villages. Thus when the regiment became the 14th Continental Regiment, dubbed the “amphibious regiment” for these soldiers’ naval skills, it was the first fully integrated unit in the Continental Army. Washington came to depend heavily on Glover’s well-armed and disciplined Marbleheaders. Among other noteworthy accomplishments, they made possible the army’s miraculous escape from Long Island after a disastrous defeat as well as the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776, that led to the victory at Trenton.
Speaking of which, the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze depicts a black soldier at the far side of the boat’s bow that some historians believe might represent Prince Whipple, a former slave of General William Whipple, who served in exchange for his freedom. After the battle of Princeton a week later, a free black soldier named Primus Hall reportedly tracked down and captured several British soldiers single-handedly. And Washington’s personal servant, Will Lee, a mulatto slave whose equestrian skills were equal to his master’s, accompanied Washington wherever he went, even in the thick of battle. He was the only one of Washington’s slaves freed outright in his will.
|Washington Crossing the Delaware|
by Emanuel Leutze
|Battle of Cowpens, William Ranney, 1781|
When the war ended, some black soldiers like those in the 1st Rhode Island returned to new lives as freemen. Others, however, returned to slavery. While a few were eventually freed, many who served as substitutes for their masters ended up fighting for freedom they would never receive. But all of these black heroes were forgotten over time. The new Congress passed laws forbidding blacks to serve in the military, and by the time it got around to offering pensions to the veterans of the Revolution, most of the black men who served had died.
|Watercolor of 1st Rhode Island Regiment at Yorktown|
with black infantryman at left, 1781
How much did you know about black soldiers in the Revolution before reading this article? Do you recall learning anything about black Revolutionary War heroes when you were in school?
To celebrate the new cover for Book 6 of my American Patriot Series, one lucky winner will receive a free copy of Book 1, Daughter of Liberty—or any of the other books in the series that’s preferred! Please leave a comment on this post to be entered in the drawing, and don’t forget to include you email addy so I can contact you. I’ll announce the winner tomorrow morning, so be sure to check back to see whether you’re the one!
|Forthcoming April 2019!|