Should African Americans Serve in the Continental Army?
Washington and a new nation struggle with their convictions, morals, and necessity.
O’er the raging billows borne.
Men, call’d Christians, bought & sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But though their’s they have enroll’d me,
Minds are never to be sold.
by W. Cowper, Esq.
1774. Humanity was not ready to bestow true justice and dignity upon mankind. Nor were they to grant equality by disregarding an individual’s color, race, financial condition, or creed. Eighteenth century men who sat in judgment were ill prepared to do so. Their views were supported by religious doctrine that cast aside those morals which would impede greed and personal wealth.
Those who enjoyed the upper realms of a strict class system refused to relinquish laws that retained this status-quo. More so, they refused to allow even the suggestion that it was wrong to own indentured slaves, the lowest echelon of white depravity, and blacks sold to a life of slavery. They turned a deaf ear to the few who propagated that slavery was insupportable by logic within the very laws that governed nations.
By the 1770’s, Quakers and others who condemned slavery were solo voices raised above the clatter of chains and the slave auctioneers’ banter. They were men who saw the injustice clearly and rejected the defense of maintaining slavery in any capacity. They were soon to be joined. Throughout history, necessity has brought about change. The turbulence of the times gave pertinence to their concerns. As hostilities brewed between the American colonies and their mother country, these lonely voices gathered momentum. More and more, those within the power of government, began to question slavery.
But it was fear, not a surge of morals that began to dictate a shift in thought. One of the most potent American writer against slavery was Dr. Samuel Hopkins, governor and chief justice of Rhode Island, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who, in 1774, introduced a bill that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony. It was one of the first anti-slavery laws in the colonies. He wrote in 1776:
“…it seems absolutely necessary something should speedily be done with respect to the slaves among us, in order to our safety, and to prevent their turning against us in our present struggle, to get their liberty. Our oppressors have planned to gain the blacks, and induce them to take up arms against us, by promising them liberty… they have persuaded numbers to join them… (if we) punish them severely, who shall be detected in attempting to join our oppressors, this will only be making bad worse and serve to render our cruelty more criminal… and bring down the righteous vengeance of heaven on our heads. The only way pointed out to prevent this threatening evil is to set the blacks at liberty ourselves… and give them proper encouragement to take arms in the defense of the American cause. This would give some degree of justice and defeat our enemies in the scheme they are prosecuting…”
Hopkins and like minded gentlemen urged the Continental Congress and slave owners to see their reasoning and adopt a policy of emancipation. However, Congress, local governments, and those in uniform did not agree. Even Massachusetts was not to be deterred. Though earlier in October of 1774, a formal suggestion was offered in Massachusetts’ First Provincial Congress that, ‘to preserve ourselves from slavery, we must take into consideration the state and circumstances of the negro slaves.’
As the conflict deepened, most especially after open hostilities erupted at Lexington, a practical question arose: What to do with the negro, free or bonded, as to employment in the American cause?
May, 1775, the Committee of Safety within Congress (Hancock & Warren’s committee), considered this and came to a formal resolution. It was the most significant concession at the time:
“Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Committee… that the admission of any persons as soldiers (be freemen)… and that no slaves be admitted into this army upon ay consideration whatever.”
The resolution was read to Congress on June, 1775. It was tabled for further consideration and there it remained.
Meanwhile, the northern colonies actively recruited anyone who was proven a freeman, regardless of color. May recruiters, desperate to fill the required numbers per regiment as ordered by Congress, did not fully question the free status of black recruits. Black runaway slaves signed up right along with black freemen who had obtained legal documentation.
On July 3, 1775, Washington took formal command of the army. One of his first acts, issued from his headquarters on July 10th, was to prohibit the enlistment of any ‘negro’, whether they were slave or freeman. By this time, all the northern regiments had ‘men of color’ standing in ranks side by side with white soldiers. The black man, along with the whites of their perspective regiments, were retained in the army after the colonial troops were adopted into a Continental Army. This did not go without notice by Washington and Congress.
On September 26th, 1775, the Continental Congress began debate on the role of the ‘negro’ in the nation’s service. Washington had previously drafted several letters to Congress. Within he had voiced his opinion that all ‘negro’ soldiers be immediately released from the army. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina moved that Washington should be instructed to discharge ‘all negroes, as well as slaves as freemen,’ in his army. This was strongly supported by the southern delegation. The point was dropped when the northern representatives overwhelmingly opposed it.
This did not deter General Washington and his generals. On October 8th, 1775, a council of war was held. Present were His Excellency General Washington, Major Generals Ward, Lee, and Putnam; including Brigadier Generals Thomas, Spencer, Heath, Sullivan, Greene, and Gates. The question was proposed: ‘Whether it will be advisable to enlist any negroes in the new army, or whether there be a distinction between such as are slaves and those who are free?’ The rejection of all slaves was unanimous. But when the question was raised as to rejecting blacks altogether, a great majority voted that they do so.
Shortly after this council, a Committee of Conference was organized to confer with Washington and devise a method for renovating the army. Members of this committee were; Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Lynch. They met with Washington at Cambridge on October 18th, 1775. On the 23rd, the negro question was brought up and decided.
‘Ought not negroes to be excluded from the new enlistment, especially such as are slaves? All were thought improper by the council of officers… Agreed that they be rejected altogether.’
This conference was followed by general orders, November 12th, 1775. In it Washington states: “Neither negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be enlisted.”
Previously that year, Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore had proclaimed freedom to all slaves of patriots who agreed to bear arms against the colonial uprising. Washington was keenly aware of this and the hundreds of blacks braving the gauntlet of enraged slaveholders to enlist in the British army. White loyalists by the thousands were already marching to fight for the crown. If the slave population of the colonies were tempted to do so, the Continental Army would soon find itself in grave danger.
So too by the last days of 1775, it came to Washington’s attention that the free black soldiers of his army were very dissatisfied at being denied enlistment. He feared, and rightfully so, that they would turn to the ministerial army (British forces). By the end of 1775, with terminating enlistments among the white soldiers looming, the loss of the black enlistees would represent an enormous blow.
Washington decided to depart from the previous resolution regarding black soldiers. In general orders, December 30, 1775, he states: “As the General is informed that numbers of free Negroes are desirous of enlisting, he gives leave to the recruiting officers to entertain them, and promises to lay the matter before the Congress, who, he doubts not, will approve of it.”
Congress was well aware and so too fearful of the potential impact blacks would make if they enlisted in mass to aid the British. Washington communicated his intentions to Congress but, always the politician, added “if this is disapproved of by Congress, I will put a stop to it.”
On January 15th, Washington’s letter was referred to a committee composed of George Wythe of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania. Their report was issued to Congress the very next day and was immediately acted upon. Congress determined: “That the free negroes who have served faithfully in the Army at Cambridge may be re-enlisted therin, but no others.”
This was not the final resolution concerning black enlistments. As the war progressed and the value of black enlistees became more and more apparent, Washington and Congress (though reluctantly) drew back from their draconian positions. White soldier’s enlistments ran out and many went home. The black enlistee, by high percentages, remained in the army.
By the time of Valley Forge, nearly one in five regulars in the Continental Army were black. Eventually slaves, with the permission of their owners and in many instances replacing owners, were allowed to enlist with the promise of freedom and compensation for the slave-owner. Unfortunately, by war’s end, the number of black veterans granted the promised freedom they rightfully deserved was dismally low.
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Foner, Philip S. Blacks in the American Revoltion. 1975: Greenwood Press, Westport, CN.
Holton, Woody. Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era. 2009: Bedford/St. Martins, Boston, MA.
Lanning, Michael Lee. Defenders of Liberty. African Americans in the Revolutionary War. 2000: Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York, NY.
Moore, George H. Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Army of the Revolution. 1862: Charles T. Evans Publishers, NY, NY.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. 1961: The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.