In 1775, when rhetoric turned to open conflict, some militia commanders welcomed freemen and slaves into their ranks. Twenty percent of the country’s residents were of African heritage with four percent of that number freeman. For many, especially recruiters pressured to meet Congress’ demands for enlistment quotas; it seemed an ideal answer to the problem of raising adequate numbers to fill regimental rosters. For many African Americans, it meant that their freedom and the liberties championed by this new fledgling government were one and the same and they vowed to fight. So when General Washington arrived in Boston on July third, he found a considerable number of African Americans among the ranks of 17,000 militiamen loosely organized with no central chain of command. However, age old fears of a society, both north and south, built on the needs of slavery as a way of life immediately came into play greatly restricting, if for the present, the flow of African Americans into the army.
We must remember that not all colonists supported the rift with England. Fully one third of white Americans favored the crown. Another third were indifferent going about their normal lives hoping to be just left alone. This narrowed the pool considerably of those willing to pick up arms and confront a well organized, well disciplined and well financed military. On top of that, most enlistees were farmers, laborers and merchants with families to support. Only on the condition of short enlistments, ninety days to a year max, did many of them agree to fight for the rebel cause. And when their enlistment was up, no amount of coaxing by their regimental commanders could convince them to change their minds.
Early in July, a congressional committee met with Washington and representatives of the nearby colonies. Because the enlistments of the entire army stationed around Boston were due to expire at the end of the year, their first course of business was to replenish recruits. At that time many still believed or hoped that the conflict would be short-lived so the span of enlistments remained relatively brief. They decided that colonies would continue to furnish their own militias for local defense and when required, that militia would report to the general army for limited operations. Further, each colony would also provide additional troops to man a Continental or Regular Army.
Congress called for a Continental army of 20,370 men organized into twenty six battalions of eight companies each. A battalion at this time was roughly 800 men divided into eight 100 man companies. The breakdown by colony was as follows: Massachusetts 16 battalions, Connecticut, 5; New Hampshire, 3; Rhode Island, 2. However, by the end of November, the above colonies could only account for 6,000 of the original 20,000. Though other colonies supplied additional troops, they did so by choice and the number of regulars was far below what Congress expected.
Early on in the war Washington, Congress and many of the rebel officers believed that blacks had no place in the military, free or slave. There were some who noted the irony of slaves fighting to advance white independence. An argument was made that slave owners could not shoulder the financial burden of enlisting their bondsmen who would then be offered eventual freedom. And most especially in the south, the memory of slave revolts struck fear in whites now being asked to arm the blacks.
Though the Committee on Safety of Massachusetts, on May 20, 1775 issued a resolution that supported enlisting freemen, they were quite clear in their refusal to allow slaves admitted. Regimental commanders and field officers faced with the dour need of scrounging the land for raw recruits to fill their commission’s quota, basically ignored the resolutions by Legislative branches and their own military hierarchy and looked the other way as slaves added their mark to rosters. And one month after the Massachusetts Committee on Safety made their proclamation, slaves played an incredible role in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Yet Washington refused to bend his judgment and general prejudices of whites against blacks. On July 10, 1775 through his adjutant general Horatio Gates, he instructed his recruiters signing replacements troops to “engage men of courage and principle to take up arms,” adding, “You are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial [British] army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.”
Many recruiters were forced to follow orders and brought in only whites, however freemen and slaves already within the regiments continued to serve. That was soon challenged as more southern units joined the army around Boston and complained to Congress. On September 26, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina laid before Congress legislation to force Washington to discharge all blacks whether they be free or slave. The ban was defeated by a narrow margin.
It is towards the end of this year that Washington may have been having doubts of his obstinate stand towards African Americans in uniform. Perhaps he had read about and talked with those who witnessed firsthand the bravery demonstrated by blacks in combat. Maybe he observed their strident use with pick and shovel tightening the noose around the British in Boston. On October 8, he met with senior officers concerning the possibility of laxing the policy to include freemen. The attending officers unanimously agreed to reject all slaves and the majority pushed to reject all blacks.
After this meeting, Washington met with representatives from the surrounding colonies and Congress. This prompted him on October 23 to announce that “all negroes…”be rejected altogether.” On October 31 he charged his quartermaster to provide clothing to all who reenlist except, “negroes…which the Congress do not incline to enlist again.” And on November 12 the general orders stated, “Neither negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be enlisted.”
Whatever the thoughts of planters, politicians and senior officers, many of the junior officers, those who lived with, worked with and fought with had their opinion on the performance of the African American soldier. As Colonel John Thomas, commander of the 2nd Massachusetts observed, “We have some Negroes, but I look upon them as equally serviceable with other men, for fatigue [meaning in work]; and in action, many of them have proven themselves brave.” And by the end of the following year, most particularly in battle, Washington would come to understand the true meaning of the Colonel’s Thomas’s sentiments concerning the African American soldier.
“The Negro in the American Revolution,” by Benjamin Quarles. 1961 The University of North Carolina Press.
“African Americans in the Revolutionary War,” by Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning, U.S. Army (Ret.). 2000 Citadel Press.
“Death or Liberty,” by Douglas R. Egerton. 2009 Oxford University Press.
“Blacks in the American Revolution,” by Philip S. Foner. 1976 Greenwood Press.
“The Negro in the American Revolution,” by Mark M. Boatner III. 1969 American History Ill.
“Negroes and the American Revolution,” by Wallace Brown. Aug. 1964 History Today.
“Rhode Island Negroes in the Revolution,” by Noel Colon. 1970 Rhode Island History.
“Negroes in the Revolutionary War,” by William Hadaway. Jan. 1930 Westchester County Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin.
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“How Massachusetts Raised Her Troops in the Revolution,” by Jonathan Smith. 1923 Massachusetts Historical Society Proceeding 55.