Oliver Cromwell. African American Soldier of the Revolutionary War
Then did we see old Bonner rise
And, borrowing Spite from Hell
They stride along with magic eyes
where Sons of Freedom dwell
Oliver Cromwell was an African American soldier who participated in nearly every major battle of the Revolutionary War’s northern campaign. He spent six years and nine months in the New Jersey 2nd Continental Regiment. He crossed the Delaware with Washington and fought in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. He wintered at Valley Forge. At Yorktown, he stormed redoubt number ten and is reported to have seen the last man killed at that decisive battle. He fought at Brandywine Creek, Germantown, Monmouth, Short Hills, and was wounded at Springfield. At war’s end, Washington personally signed his discharge papers and awarded him the newly issued Badge of Military Merit, citing his military discipline, his superior personal conduct, and his dedication and sacrifice.
After the war, Oliver applied for a war pension. He was denied. Not only that, his discharge papers and medal was taken from him by the government. As the final insult, history basically treated him with obscurity. His great grand-daughter, because of hers and her great grand-father’s color, was not eligible to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. William C. Nell, the mid-nineteenth century author and first historian to acknowledge the contribution African Americans made during the Revolutionary War, asserts that had Cromwell been of a lighter complexion, he was light skinned by a maternal uncle, “every newspaper in the land would have been eloquent in praise of his many virtues.”
There is little recorded of his life. He was honored and well liked in his community; living to one hundred years. Sources give his birth on May 24, 1752, in the colony of New Jersey at the Black Horse (now Columbus in Mansfield Township) near Burlington. He was considered ‘half white’ and raised a farmer by the family of John Hutchin, who was his maternal uncle. Most historians believe he was a freeman prior to the war. During the late eighteenth century, Burlington had the largest number of free African Americans in New Jersey. This could be attributed to the large Quaker population who practiced manumission. Religious doctrine demanded their slaves be educated and ultimately given their freedom. As Mr. Sills, present proprietor of the Oliver Cromwell Society in Burlington City, NJ states, “they [Quakers] did the right thing giving [their former slaves] a wagon, a horse, and a piece of land.”
Few references state his physical appearance. It is known locally that he was a tall, broad shouldered man. William Nell, the only known author to interview Oliver, writes that he was a man of strong natural powers. At age one hundred, even in his attenuated frame with long silvery locks, his great grand-daughter, Mary McBride, remembered those who spoke of his former strength and prowess.
Oliver enlisted in the 2nd New Jersey Regiment late in 1776, though the 2nd was raised a year earlier on the 9th of October, 1775. African Americans were at first denied enlistment into the Continental army. Towards the end of 1776, Washington wrote in General Orders that no African Americans were to be recruited. By mid 1776, this changed due largely to England’s offer of freedom to slaves who escaped their patriot masters and the Continental army’s need for recruits. This allowed Oliver to enlist in late November, 1776, when the 2nd regiment returned from the Canadian Department.
He served under Captain James Lawrie* of the 2nd company and Colonel Israel Shreve who commanded the 2nd regiment. The regiment was part of a larger 2nd Battalion of New Jersey soldiers commanded by Colonel William “Scotch Willie” Maxwell. Oliver did not have long to wait to see his first action. His regiment, stationed at Morristown, NJ in November of 1776, soon joined Washington’s forces as they made their way across New Jersey. With the British in pursuit, he crossed over into Pennsylvania with the rest of the army. On December 25th, 1776, Oliver took part in the renowned Delaware River crossing. That morning, he participated in the Battle of Trenton.
Oliver is immortalized in a famous 1851 painting by Emmanuel Leutze depicting the event. He and another African American soldier, Prince Whipple, are in the bow of the boat. Whipple has a foot over the side while Oliver is just behind and to his right; he wears a dark hat and holds an oar. There has been some debate among historians whether Oliver is portrayed in the painting. However, the image of two African Americans in the bow of Washington’s boat appear on a U.S. stamp entitled “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, issued in Philadelphia, May 29, 1976. The two black soldiers are identified as Whipple and Cromwell.
Cromwell was a drummer. Though in the Continental army, his duties on the battlefield went beyond beating the men to action. He always kept his musket well oiled and his powder dry. At Trenton, he went from house to house silencing Hessian snipers, fired across the Assunpink Bridge at Hessian soldiers, and captured others at gun point. After the battle, he remained with the Hessian prisoners as they were escorted to Pennsylvania.
Cromwell returned from prisoner duty in time for the Battle of Princeton. Oliver told Nell, nearly seventy years later, that at Princeton, they had ‘knocked the British about lively.’
The rest of the winter of 1777 was spent at Morristown where Oliver served in guard and picket duty. On June 26th, 1777, Maxwell’s Brigade** had met British General Howe’s advance into New Jersey in what has been called the Battle of Short Hills, though it was fought at Scotch Plains, NJ. Howe moved most of his army into New Jersey in an attempt to lure Washington out of the Hills around Morristown. When Washington eventually did so, Howe sent two columns to cut off Washington’s retreat. The columns met General Lord Stirling’s troops that included Maxwell’s Brigade. A pitched battle resulted. Sullivan retreated, but Washington was alerted and returned to the Hills unmolested. This encounter was significant as Captain Anderson was killed and Cromwell’s captain, James Lawrie was taken prisoner. Lawrie later died in captivity.
On September 11th, 1777, Cromwell and the second fought at the Battle of Brandywine Creek. His regiment was stationed at the Birmingham Meeting House to counter a British flank attack. The three Continental divisions on the hill caught the full force of Howe’s assault. After forty five minutes, the Americans were forced to give way. During the action, Colonel Israel Shreve, commander of the second, was wounded in the thigh and did not return to duty until November.
Oliver was present during the Battle of Germantown, outside Philadelphia, on October 4th, 1777. Maxwell’s Brigade, which included the NJ 2nd regiment, formed part of the reserve. They attacked the Chew House where members of the British 40th Foot had barricaded themselves after the initial American attack swept through town. After several futile assaults and with British reinforcements, forcing a general retreat, the New Jersey troops gave up the attempt.
On the 19th of December, 1777, Oliver and Shreve’s regiment entered winter quarters at Valley Forge. He, along with the rest of the army, faced many hardships including starvation, sickness, and lack of warm clothing. They remained until March 19th 1778, when ordered to take post in Haddonfield, New Jersey, just over the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Oliver and the regiment barely escaped annihilation or capture when on April 4th and 5th, British forces repulsed Major Richard Howell and his militia troops from Billingsport, New Jersey. The large British force went on to attack Swedesboro and marched towards Haddonfield with intent to capture the second. Col. Shreve was warned of their advance and evacuated Haddonfield at about 2 am Sunday morning, April 5th . He forced marched his men to Mount Holly. Fifty of his men remained at Cooper’s Ferry (present site of the NJ side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), where they were spying on the British. They were suppose to evacuate after the firing of an alarm cannon. The cannon never fired and Major William Ellis refused to leave. A pitched battle ensued. Most of the Americans were killed, wounded, or captured, including the loss of Washington’s personal spy glass, given to the 2nd to keep on eye on British troops in Philadelphia. Washington never forgave Shreve for its loss.
Later in 1778, Cromwell’s regiment was assigned to General Charles Lee’s division. On June 28th, Maxwell’s Brigade advanced with Lee in the opening phase of the Battle of Monmouth. They, along with the rest of the division, retreated in disorder under heavy pressure from the British. The second covered the retreat of Lee’s forces and later fell back as reserves for the rest of the engagement. He spent that winter in the Newark, NJ area, once more serving in guard and picket duty.
From the 18th of June until October of 1779, Oliver participated in the Iroquois Raids under the command of General Sullivan. His regiment was part of a campaign to destroy the fighting capacity of Britain’s Native American allies who had been attacking frontier homesteads. He marched through Pennsylvania and into western New York. His regiment was ordered to burn villages and lay waste to crops. On August 25th, General Sullivan’s army left Pennsylvania for northern New York, leaving behind Colonel Shreve and part of his regiment at a small fortification called Fort Sullivan. It is unknown if Oliver remained with Shreve or marched north with the rest of his regiment. Five days later, Sullivan and his army was ambushed by a force of Iroquois and loyalist troops at Newtown (near present day Elmira, NY). Maxwell’s brigade was held in reserve as the besiegers were driven from the field.
On December 17th, Oliver and his regiment once again arrived at their winter quarters at Jockey Hollow, near Morristown, NJ. They remained there until May of 1780. June 7th, 1780 saw the 2nd regiment taking part in the Battle of Connecticut Farms, New Jersey. Later, Colonel Shreve wrote that this action “was the warmest that ever happened with the brigade.” A large detachment of British and Hessian forces, under Lt. General Knyphausen, crossed over from Staten Island to attack Washington’s headquarters at Morristown, NJ. They were met by the American militia and Continental troops. From the 7th of June to the 22nd, a series of heated battles occurred along the Wachung Mountains from Hobart gap to Springfield, N.J. It was at Springfield that Oliver was wounded as reported in the 1852 edition of the Burlington Gazette. No other details are known as to his condition.
Oliver and his regiment spent the winter of 1780 – 81 in and around Pompton, N.J. In early 1781, Colonel Isreal Shreve resigned and was replaced by Colonel Elias Dayton. While wintering at Pompton, several members of the New Jersey brigade mutinied. From the 20th to the 27th, the men refused to follow orders until their grievances of squalid living conditions were heard. The uprising was forcefully suppressed and two of its leaders were executed. It is not known if Oliver took part in the mutiny.
On September 23rd, 1781, the first contingent of New Jersey troops under General Washington landed near Williamsburg, Virginia where they joined forces under Lafayette. The siege of Lord Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown began on September 29th. On October 14th, during the cover of night, the New Jersey light infantry under Lt. Col. Francis Barber attacked and took redoubt number 10. In all probability Oliver Cromwell was drummer for his regiment’s attack. He told Nell, the year before he died, that he witnessed the last man killed at Yorktown.
In the winter of 1781 – 82, the regiment once more occupied their old huts at Morristown. The next winter found the regiment quartered with Washington’s main army at Newburg, New York. The end of the war was announced on April 19th , 1782. The regiment was furloughed on the 6th of June.
So ended Oliver’s career in the military. Historian Dr. Nicholas Kamarase wrote that Oliver Cromwell had enlisted for the duration of the war, at a time when thousands of white Americans refused to enlist at all. He remained fighting and facing extreme hardships at a time when thousand others marched away from the army’s camp at the end of their short terms, regardless of the country’s danger. Oliver had a close relationship with George Washington who personally signed his discharge papers for which he was always proud of and spoke often. He also received the Badge of Merit which Washington personally awarded him for his long and dedicated service.
As a veteran, Oliver applied for a pension. He was denied because he could not read or write. His discharge papers and medal was taken from him. He was well liked in his community of Burlington. Local lawyers, judges, and politicians spoke for him and helped him receive his pension of $96 a year. With the pension money, Oliver purchased a 100 acre farm outside Burlington. He fathered 14 children, seven boys and seven girls who all lived to maturity. Around 1840, he left the farm and moved into Burlington City, residing at 114 East Union Street.
It is believed that Oliver Cromwell and his descendents took an active part in the underground railroad that assisted runaway slaves in their long journey to Canada. The Burlington area continued to have a large number of free African Americans supported by a healthy Quaker population. The community by large was sympathetic to the plight of African Americans seeking their freedom.
Cromwell outlived eight of his children and died on January 24th, 1853 at 100 years of age. It is believed he is buried at the Broad Street Methodist Church Cemetery. At the time of his death, there was interest to mark the spot where his ashes were buried, but no such monument was erected. His final resting place is unknown. Several of Oliver Cromwell’s descendents continue to reside in the Burlington City region.
Badge of Military Merit
The Badge of Military Merit was first announced in General Washington’s general orders issued on August 7, 1782 at his headquarters in Newburg, NY. Designed by Washington in the form of a purple heart, it was issued only to those soldiers who exhibited, “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in anyway.” This was the first time in modern history that military awards had been presented to the common soldier; the practice in Europe was to honor high ranking officers only. Washington is quoted as saying [the] “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is… open to all.”
The Oliver Cromwell Black History Society, Inc.
The society was formed in 1984 in Burlington City, New Jersey. It was founded to collect, preserve, and exhibit records, artifacts, and other documents that advance public understanding of African-American history. The organization works with schools, elected officials, private groups, non-profit organizations and others to offer special educational programs to residents. Mr. Clayton Sills is the organization’s overseer.
Since 1984, the Oliver Cromwell Black History Society has given out over $20,000 in awards for students participating in the Black History Month Art and Essay Contests. The Society also recognizes local residents by awarding the “Oliver Cromwell Living Heritage Award” every year. The society holds regular meetings at the Burlington County Historical Society facilities located at 451 High Street , Burlington, NJ. Tax deductible donations that allows the society to continue promoting student awareness of our rich historical heritage may be sent to: The Oliver Cromwell Black Historical Society, Inc, PO Box 679, Burlington, NJ 08016 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Phone: 609-877-1449
William Stryker, Adjunct General, New Jersey, was commissioned in 1872 to compile an official record of all Officers and men of New Jersey who fought in the Revolutionary War. On page 563, Oliver Cromwell is listed as a private and incorrectly identified as an Indian. Pages 135-36 and pages 481 – 82 list drummers. Stryker failed to list Oliver Cromwell’s name.
*Captain James Lawrie’s name has been misspelled as Lowrey throughout the internet and texts. According to Stryker’s Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War, James Lawrie was captain of the first then later second companies of the second regiment under Colonel Shreve.
** On the 23rd of October, 1776, Congress promoted Colonel Maxwell to Brigadier General. By November of that year, he assumed command of the New Jersey Battalions then labeled Maxwell’s Brigade.
Burlington County, New Jersey Web site. Details Oliver Cromwell Historical Society, Inc.
Kamaras, Dr. Nicholas. A Report on an American Soldier. 2013: Historian, City of Burlington, New Jersey..
Lanning, Michael Lee. Defenders of Liberty, African Americans in the Revolutionary War. 2000: Citadel Press & Kensington Publ., Corp., New York, NY. pg. 13
The Revolution’s Black Soldiers. http://www.americanrevolution.org/blk.html An article by Dr. Robert A. Selig that provides background on the history of 18th-century
Nash, Gary B. The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution, The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures. 2009: Harvard University Press, MA.
Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriot of the American Revolution. 1856: Published by Egbert F. Wallcut, Boston, MA.
Sills, Clayton. Oliver Cromwell Black History Society, Inc. 2013: Burlington, NJ.
Stryker, William. Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War. 1872: William T. Nicholson & Company, Trenton, NJ.
Williams, George W. History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens. 1883: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY.
Special Thanks to Clayton Sillis – Chairman of the Burlington County Historical Society