African Americans in the Revolutionary War

Because I’ve spent much of the last two years researching the Revolutionary War in America for my Revolutionary Women series, I decided to take a look during Black History Month at the participation of African Americans during this fight against the British. In my American History classes, I had heard of Crispus Attuks, a stevedore of African and Native American descent, who was the first person shot during the Boston Massacre that signaled the start of the Revolutionary War. 

Crispus Attuks

This first incident of the war came about when a British officer received a haircut and decided not to pay the bill for the service. Townspeople gathered, as did a company of British soldiers and a fight ensued, ending with the deaths of five colonists. Attuks was the first to die. Whether or not he was responsible for clubbing a British officer is still a matter of debate. Regardless, he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

As for other African American participation, America’s founding fathers decided the principles of liberty and equality did not apply to every person, especially not enslaved African Americans in the colonies. They were denied the ability to join the Revolutionary forces, at least in the early years of the battle. It was not until the ranks of white men were so depleted that General Washington changed his mind and opened up the Continental Army to persons of color. However, one black man had been with the Army, and with General George Washington, from the outset. That man was Washington’s personal valet, William Lee, shown in the background of this picture of Washington.

Washington had purchased Lee in 1768 and assigned him to household duty at Mount Vernon. In 1775, Lee traveled to Cambridge, MA and became Washington’s personal assistant, helping him with his grooming and dress, along with caring for his equipment. He traveled with Washington everywhere the general went, from the battlefields to the various encampments. He endured Valley Forge and remained loyal to General Washington for the duration of the long war. Upon the war’s end, Lee returned to Mount Vernon, still as a slave. It was not until 1799 that Lee was granted his freedom by the reading of Washington’s will, where George Washington praised him for his “faithful services during the Revolution.” He remained at Mount Vernon as a free man, until his death in 1811. 

Another of Washington’s slaves, Harry Washington, existed on the opposite end of the spectrum. Having been unsuccessful with his first attempt at running from the harsh conditions as a field slave at Mount Vernon, he decided to cast his lot with the British, and fled Mount Vernon for a second time, in 1776. He enlisted with the British forces, upon hearing of the promise of his freedom if he fought for the crown. He became known as a “Black Loyalist,” one of nearly 100,000 Americans of color to join with the British. Their work was mostly drudgery–non-combat support services, such as digging ditches and building earthwork defensive positions, mostly during the Siege of Charleston, SC. Harry’s work ethic helped him rise to the rank of corporal. 

Once the war was over, Harry was one of 3,000 evacuated from the colonies by the British and was sent to live in Nova Scotia. Because of the harsh weather in Nova Scotia, Harry and his wife, Jenny, decide to cast their lot with 1,200 other refugees and flee to West Africa, to settle in British Sierra Leone. The promise of land and shelter never materialized, as the refugees face high taxes and discrimination instead. Harry joined a protest movement and was tried for rebellion and banished from Sierra Leone. He became one of the leaders of a new settlement called Bullom Shore, where he died of natural causes.  

Boats leaving Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone

Further Reading 

Egerton, Douglas R. Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hodges, Graham Russell, ed. The Black Loyalist Directory: African Americans in Exile After the American Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., in association with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996.

Pybus, Cassandra. Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2006.

Thompson, Mary V. “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2019.

Van Buskirk, Judith L. Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.

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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crispus_Attucks

https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/african-americans-in-the-revolutionary-war/

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/william-billy-lee

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Washington

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Becky Lower’s recently completed Revolutionary Women series features the events of the Revolutionary War from the eyes of the men and women who lived through the trauma. The war may have begun in 1775, but it waged for years, until 1783. An entire generation of Americans lived with the war at their doorstep for years, in the attempt to create the United States. There was not a man, woman, or child that did not suffer because of this war, regardless of the color of their skin. You can find out more about all of Becky’s books at her website: https://www.beckylowerauthor.com