African-Americans in the Continental Army and the State Militias During the American War of Independence

Four days after the 19 April 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress resolved “that an army of 30,000 men be immediately raised” out of volunteers from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Taking Massachusetts’ lead, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, voted in turn on 14 June to raise “six companies of expert rifflemen … in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia.” As soon as they were ready the men were to “join the army near Boston.” Though neither of these laws defined race or color criteria for military service, the racial and ethnic make-up of the army assembling near Boston mirrors largely the militias of the four New England states, where some 17,000 (in 1790) mostly free African-Americans constituted roughly 1.7 percent of the population.

The right to serve in the militia was often a pre-condition for the right to bear arms and to receive military training. But since militia also represented “the people in arms”, that right was the most visible expression of membership in, or exclusion from, “the nation.” The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations extended that right to free African-Americans and had most recently re-confirmed it in the March 1762 Act, regulating the Militia. Connecticut, in 1754, had once again denied free black men that right as it had done throughout the colony’s history. In New Hampshire, “all persons whatsoever residing w’thin our saide province” were required to serve in the militia since 1679, but “Indians and Negroes” were excluded since 14 May 1718. Whoever did not serve in the militia did not constitute part of “the nation,” and when the New Hampshire Committee of Safety on 12 April 1776 required all males over the age of 21 to sign a declaration pledging allegiance to the “United American COLONIES,” it did not demand that commitment from “Lunaticks, Idiots and Negroes.” Yet if New Hampshire again excluded “Negroes, Indians and Mulattoes” in its Militia Law of 19 September 1776, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety reversed an earlier position dating to 1693 that barred African-Americans from the militia when it voted on 20 May 1775 that “all such as are Freemen” could join the army assembling near Boston but that “no Slaves be admitted … upon any consideration whatever.”

Consequently, the forces outside Boston included dozens of black men from Rhode Island and Massachusetts in their ranks who had already fought valiantly at Lexington and Concord. Salem Poor, a free African-American from Andover had mustered with the minutemen at Concord and is believed to have shot British Lt.-Col. James Abercrombie in the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775. Peter Salem, a free African-American from Framingham had also fought at Concord on 19 April. A week later, on 26 April, he enlisted in the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment and fought at Bunker Hill, where he is credited with the shot that killed British Major John Pitcairn. But since the Massachusetts resolve of 23 April 1775 had failed to include racial criteria in its call for “volunteers,” African-Americans such as Thomas Freeman from Saybrook and Cash Affrica from Litchfield in Connecticut or Jude Hall from Exeter in New Hampshire were also among the African-Americans who fought at Bunker Hill.

The Continental Army created by the Second Continental Congress on 14 June 1775 was an integrated army composed entirely of volunteers. That would not last. Appointed commanding general of American forces outside Boston on 15 June 1775, George Washington, accompanied by his slave, William “Billy” Lee, arrived in Cambridge on 3 July. On 9 July, the Commander-in-Chief convened a Council of War. One of the topics discussed concerned the role that African-Americans, free and enslaved, were to play in the American military establishment. The council's decision became known the next day, when Adjutant General Horatio Gates instructed his recruiting officers to stop enlisting “any Deserter from the Ministerial Army, (or) any Stroller, Negro, or Vagabond.” Though the African-Americans already in the ranks would be allowed to stay, the Continental Army was to be a white army.

Yet this seemingly unequivocal decision of 9 July 1775 barring African-Americans from the Continental Army did not mean that the Commander in Chief, the rebel government or the individual states had settled on a comprehensive recruitment policy for the Continental Army, not for white soldiers and much less for those African-Americans willing to join its ranks. On 18 July 1775, Congress, almost in contradiction to Washington’s order of 9 July, kept the door open for an integrated military establishment, at least on the state level, when it “Resolved, That it be recommended to the Inhabitants of the United English Colonies in North America, that all able bodied effective men, between sixteen and fifty years of age in each Colony, immediately form themselves into Regular Companies of Militia”. Three months later in late October of 1775, the legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut agreed to again ban all blacks, free or enslaved, from their militias. The era of the Articles of Confederation from November 1777 to March 1789 too brought neither structure nor cohesion to American recruitment policies which continued to be driven by the whims and interests of the individual states –it was 1 March 1781 already before Maryland even ratified the Articles. Military orders, state laws, and congressional legislation specifying recruitment competed with, and often contradicted each other. Throughout the war, recruitment policy and ethnic and racial criteria for most of the Continental Army were set by the states and the make-up of that army provides vivid testimony to the states’, not national, recruitment criteria. Washington's ability to muster and maintain a fighting force under these conditions is yet another testimony to his unique genius.

The chaos was compounded by the fact that neither party in the war – the Continental Army and State militias on the one side, nor the British with their German auxiliaries and Loyalist friends on the other – ever whole-heartedly embraced the idea of arming African-Americans. Nor could they face up to the contradiction inherent in arming slaves to fight either for liberty and equality or for the crown of King George III. Unwilling to free – and lose – their black property, and generally unable to overcome deeply ingrained fears of arming any black man, politicians and generals used African-American soldiers only as a temporary expedient.

For South Carolina Governor John Rutledge, the decision of 9 July to halt recruitment of African-Americans did not go far enough, but a motion to discharge all black soldiers from the currently integrated army failed in Congress on 26 September. Rutledge and his friends kept up their lobbying until Lord Dunmore's proclamation of 12 November 1775 offering freedom to all rebel-owned slaves willing to fight for the crown forced Washington into an about face. In his General Orders of 30 December 1775, he gave “leave to the recruiting Officers to entertain … Free Negroes [that] are desirous of inlisting” should Congress approve the new policy. Writing to John Hancock the next day he couched his order in terms of military necessity: "free Negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial Army, I have … given license for their being enlisted." On 16 January 1776, Congress approved Washington’s order with the proviso that it apply to veterans only: "The free Negroes who have served faithfully in the Army at Cambridge may be re-inlisted therein but no other." The enlistment of slaves remained prohibited by General Orders of 21 February 1776.

As Washington was re-opening, if ever so little, service in the Continental Army to African-Americans, some states were again closing their militias to them. In An Act For Forming and Regulating the Militia, passed into law on 22 January 1776, Massachusetts listed “negroes, Indians and molatoes” among the excluded groups. Pennsylvania, in its first ever militia law of 17 March 1777, restricted the militia to “male white” citizens. Maryland, which had ordered all able-bodied freemen to enroll in the state militia on 14 August 1775, excluded blacks again in June 1777.

More often than not, these laws stood diametrically opposed to the manpower needs of the new nation. In September 1776, Congress had ordered the states to raise 88 infantry battalions to serve for three years or the duration of the war. In December it authorized Washington to recruit 16 additional battalions for the rapidly disintegrating army. If the fear that African-Americans would join Crown forces had influenced Washington’s order of 30 December 1775, the desperate military situation forced Washington to open the door to African-Americans even wider. On 13 January 1777, he instructed Continental Army captains to "inlist none but Freemen," the implication being that the recruits could be black as long as they were free.

When it came to recruiting and maintaining its manpower, however, Washington’s authority did not extend to the entire Continental Army: only the artillery, Sappers and Miners, Artificers, the skilled craftsmen such as blacksmiths, farriers, wheelwrights or harness-makers of the army, the Canadian (Congress’ Own) Regiment, the six regiments authorized in late 1775 and the 16 regiments approved on 27 December 1776, stood exclusively under his and Congress’ control. Free African-Americans could only be recruited directly into these units. The remaining three quarters of the Continental Army were raised and equipped by the states based on quotas set by Congress.

In order to meet these quotas the states initially advertised for volunteers from among their militia, but soon forcible conscription from its ranks emerged as the only realistic solution to meet the manpower needs of the army. On 17 April 1777, Congress passed a resolution urging the states to pursue that course. Whether or not African-Americans would be drafted into the Continental Army regiments of a state depended on the militia law of that state. In all states both free and enslaved, African-Americans were ready to serve, but their employment in the Continental Army posed serious political and ideological problems. If the militia represented “the nation” under arms, the large-scale admission of African-Americans, first into the militia and from there into the Continental Army, could potentially be seen as an affirmation that not just white men, but men of all races, free and un-free, were part of “the nation.” Taken at face value this was a proposition unacceptable in virtually all states, but eventually, all of them found ways to utilize African-Americans to meet Congressional requests for more soldiers.

By the summer of 1777, free African-Americans were enrolled in the militia of seven of the thirteen states, e.g. in Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. Here, drafting free African-Americans posed few problems. The states that excluded African-Americans, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware, frequently drafted free blacks directly into their Continental regiments without ever enrolling them in the militia. The only exception to this rule was Maryland. In May 1781, for example, that state raised “two battalions of militia for reinforcing the continental army” and decreed that “all freemen, although blacks or mulattoes, who are not deemed vagrants … shall be taken into the militia and be subject to a draught.”

In spite of serious misgivings, their manpower needs left the four states with the largest percentage of African-Americans no alternative but to occasionally utilize even slaves in their militias. In Virginia and North Carolina free blacks were required to serve without arms. In South Carolina up to one third of a militia unit could consist of slaves serving without arms, while in Georgia up to one third of any given militia unit could consist of “capable and faithful Slaves” serving with arms. At the same time, however, their numbers were so small that their inclusion seems to have been perceived to pose no threat to the social order. In 1790 there were but 7,174 free blacks in Georgia, North and South Carolina.

The single largest untapped manpower pool, however, was black slaves. Their use in the Continental Army posed not only ethical and moral, but also practical questions. Slaves were someone else’s property who expected freedom in return for military service. Here too the states found ways to utilize black volunteers. By late 1777, New Hampshire opened its regiment to slaves serving as substitutes; those who passed muster were purchased by the state and freed upon enlistment. In October 1780, Maryland’s ACT to procure recruits ordered “That any able bodied slave, between sixteen and forty years of age, who voluntarily enters into the service ... with the agreement of his master, may be accepted as a recruit (and unless claimed within twelve months by someone other than the person who claimed to have been his master at the time of enlistment) such slave shall be thereby freed.”

In May 1777, Connecticut allowed the enlistment of slaves manumitted by their owners to serve as substitutes for them. Also in 1777, Massachusetts allowed free African-Americans again to be drafted into the Continental Army, and in April 1778, allowed even slaves to serve as substitutes.

“Volunteering” a slave for service could be quite rewarding for the owner: Article VI of New York’s Act for raising two Regiments … on Bounties of unappropriated lands, from 20 March 1781, stipulated that “any person who shall deliver one or more of his or her able-bodied male slaves … shall, for every male slave so entered or mustered” be entitled to a grant of 500 acres of land and “shall be, and hereby is discharged from any future maintenance of such slave.” Upon discharge from his term of service of at most three years the slave was to receive his freedom.

That dream of freedom in exchange for service, usually as a substitute for a white man drafted from the militia into the Continental Army but unwilling to serve, did not always come true. In May 1777, New Jersey permitted owners to enlist their slaves as substitutes without a promise of freedom. After the war was over, some slaves, such as Samuel Charlton, who had fought at Monmouth, returned to slave status. On 1 September 1784, the New Jersey legislature freed a single slave, Peter Williams, who had run away from his Loyalist owner John Heard, to serve in the Continental Army. The legislature justified Williams’ manumission by saying that the confiscation of Heard’s estate made him the property of the state of New Jersey.

In most states, African-Americans served in integrated units, but some had segregated units as well. From October 1780 until November 1782, Connecticut had an all-black unit, the 2nd Company, 4th Connecticut Regiment. Massachusetts' all-black unit, the Bucks of America under Samuel Middleton, possibly also had its origins in the spring of 1778.

It was always difficult for the Continental Army to maintain its strength, but never more so than during the miserable winter of 1777-78 when at least five hundred African-Americans, among them Salem Poor, suffered with their white comrades through the cold Pennsylvania winter. Responding to Washington’s urgent pleas from Valley Forge for more soldiers, Congress on 26 February 1778, urgently requested the states to fill up their units with men to be taken either "from their militia, or in any other way." In the case of Rhode Island, this meant special legislation in which the state purchased slaves from their owners and manumitted them upon acceptance into the Continental Army. Between March 1778 and the war's end, some 250 former slaves and freedmen served in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the best-known integrated unit of the American War of Independence. Similar efforts brought hundreds of African-Americans into the Continental Army: at Monmouth on 28 June 1778, some 700 African-Americans fought side-by-side with their white comrades; eight weeks later, on 24 August, an army report listed 755 African-American soldiers in the Continental Army.

Besides the slaves who were enlisted legally, hundreds more served under the guise of being free men. This was especially true for Virginia, where the Militia Act of 1775 required that "all free male persons ... be enrolled or forced into companies." This excluded slaves by definition, but when faced with a draft notice, many a master presented a slave to the recruiter as a free man willing to serve as a substitute. To put an end to such unpatriotic behavior, the legislature amended the law in June 1777, "forbidding any recruiting officers … to enlist any negro or mulatto into the service of this, or either of the United States, until such Negro shall produce a certificate ... that he is a freeman." On 17 April 1780, North Carolina forbade that any “Indian or slave, shall in future be received by any militia officer as a substitute for any militia soldier or officer, under any pretense whatsoever.”

When North Carolina passed this bill, the military situation in the South had become desperate. Savannah had fallen in December 1778, followed by Augusta in January 1779. Responding in part to the relentless lobbying by John Laurens, the son of Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress, and scion of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest families, Congress, on 25 January 1779, proposed to raise 3,000 slaves for South Carolina and Georgia under white officers and non-commissioned officers. Congress offered to buy the slaves and train, arm, clothe and feed them. At the end of the war, any survivor who had served well, without pay, would be freed and given a $50 bonus. But the project never materialized. South Carolinians were "much disgusted here at the Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves," wrote Lieutenant-Governor Christopher Gadsden on 6 July 1779. And rather than entertain the proposal, the South Carolina Privy Council sent a flag of truce to British General Augustine Prevost inquiring about conditions under which South Carolina could become neutral for the remainder of the war. In Georgia, the plan was never submitted to the legislature.

Washington was well aware of the risk arming large numbers of slaves posed to the existing social order when he wrote to Henry Laurens on 20 March 1779: "I am not clear that a discrimination will not render slavery more irksome to those who remain in it. Most of the good and evil things in this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude.” Though arming slaves might be necessary to win independence, southerners – and plenty of northerners too – considered the risk of endangering the existing social and economic order posed by the large-scale emancipation of slaves through military service, not to mention the material loss of valuable property, too high a price to pay.

A case in point: in 1782, Virginia passed a bill permitting private manumissions. Over the next ten years, Virginians manumitted about 1,000 slaves, including some who had fought as substitutes for their owners. Many more, however, were returned to slavery, so many, in fact, that the legislature felt compelled to speak out against this obvious injustice. In the fall of 1783, it passed a bill condemning owners who, "contrary to principles of justice and to their own solemn promise," kept their substitutes in slavery. It also instructed the Attorney General of Virginia to act on behalf of slaves held in servitude despite their war-time service and grant them the freedom they had earned. It is unknown how many slaves were freed in Virginia as a reward for military service, but in neighboring Georgia, Austin Dabney was the only one. Purchased by the legislature from his owner, he also received a land grant as well as a federal pension.

While only service in the Continental Army could lead to freedom, one potential reward for militia service was a pension through one of the various State and Federal government pension laws. An on-line search of “Southern Campaign Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters” (in February 2012; the number has since grown) returned 105 African-American veterans’ pension applications. Though requests based exclusively on militia service had a lower rate of approval, most of these applications, which constitute almost exactly 1% of the 10,788 transcribed statements, were successful. Five of North Carolina’s 33 black applicants filed claims based only on their service in the state militia, as did ten of Virginia’s 56: four as orderlies, three as waiters, two as servants, one as a cook, and one as a drummer during the siege of Yorktown. None of Maryland’s 10 applicants list militia service in their supporting statements. Edward Harmon, the only African-American from Delaware who applied for, and was granted, a pension in 1818, had enlisted as a common soldier in Colonel Robert Kirkwood’s Delaware Regiment in 1777. Nathan Fry, Georgia’s lone applicant in 1820, had served in the 2nd Georgia Regiment in the Continental Army. In his pension application he declared that “He served as a drummer in this company until he was taken out of it to wait on Major Duval … until he was taken into the service of the Baron Steuben with whom he remained as a waiter or Batman,” i.e. a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant, “until after the siege of York in Virginia.”

That siege ended when the defeated British army and her German allies laid down their arms outside Yorktown in the early afternoon of 19 October 1781. Four months earlier in July 1781, when the French and American armies joined forces at White Plains, New York for the march to Virginia, the Continental Army had about 10,300 men on its rolls, though only about 6,500 were fit for duty. Baron Ludwig Closen, a German officer in the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, estimated it to be one forth black. Closen’s highly subjective estimate puts their number at a very high 1,500 soldiers, but there can be no doubt that on the eve of its decisive victory over Lord Cornwallis, the Continental Army had reached a degree of integration it would not achieve again for another 200 years. Among the troops at White Plains was the highly integrated Rhode Island Regiment, which Closen considered "the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise” regiment in the Continental Army.

That army had begun as an integrated army on 14 June 1775 and despite all efforts to keep African-Americans out of its ranks, was still an integrated army when Congress dissolved it again on 2 June 1784. In the mid-Atlantic and New England states, recruitment and rejection of free and enslaved African-Americans reflected the ebb and flow of the military situation. In the four southern states any policy that could be interpreted as a threat to the institution of slavery had the potential to wreck the anti-British alliance. This was political reality in which Washington and Congress had to operate, whether they personally liked it or not. Here John Laurens' "triple-headed monster" of "prejudice, avarice, and pusillanimity" proved invincible.

Together with their 5,000 compatriots said to have served in the Continental Army, the unknown number of African-Americans who at one point or another served in the various state militias, sometimes for a week or two at a time, sometimes for two or three months, sometimes for a day, or even for a few hours only when a British attack or Loyalist raid needed to be defended against, made valuable contributions to the achievement of American Independence.

Throughout the war, African-Americans served in the military establishment of the new nation. The reasons for the more open approach on the federal level versus the more restrictive legislation on the state level were both practical as well as ideological. On the practical level the Continental Army desperately needed soldiers, and enslaved African-Americans were especially anxious to serve; they saw service as a means to acquire what they wanted most: freedom. On the state level, blacks saw service in the militia as a cherished right rather than as the burdensome duty that many whites saw it as. They saw service in the militia as a visible claim to membership in the “nation” and to establish a claim to the rewards of that “nation” for whose independence they were fighting for. Contemporaries were not only aware of these claims, they also recognized the implications inherent in the two types of military service. Massachusetts allowed blacks to serve in the state’s regiments in the Continental Army and in 1781, enacted legislation freeing slaves who had or were fighting in the war. Concurrently, however, the law of 3 March 1781 continued to deny African-Americans the right to serve in the militia. A black man serving somewhere in the relative anonymity of the Continental Army posed little risk to upsetting the societal order at home. But a black man serving next to his white neighbor from the same township in the same militia company had political implications on a very personal level – which is why their rewards for having helped white America to achieve nationhood never materialized.

With the war over and the need for the states to ratify the 1787 constitution uppermost in people’s minds, no-one wanted to touch the race, and by extension, slavery, issue, for fear of risking ratification of the constitution. At a time when many states from Rhode Island to Georgia (in 1784), had (again) extended the right or duty to serve in the militia to “all the Male free Inhabitants of this State” irrespective of color, and states from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania were passing either gradual or outright abolition laws, service in an integrated militia could have been a crucial instrument to ameliorate race relations. But with independence achieved in 1783, African-Americans were no longer needed. When Congress passed the first National Militia Law on 8 May 1792, it pointedly restricted the militia to white males only. In spite of their devoted service, African-Americans would not yet be part of “the nation.”