Black participation was more common in the Revolutionary War than many think. Source: Wikicommons, originally painted in 1781.

How Black Soldiers Shaped American Independence 

Uncovering the crucial role of Black soldiers in the Revolutionary War, from the Boston Massacre to Yorktown

4 mins read

Mia Boykin

As the United States celebrates Independence Day, it’s crucial to remember the often-overlooked contributions of Black soldiers to the nation’s founding struggle. Here at TANTV we want to spotlight the contributions of Black and African soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The war that birthed the United States saw significant participation from Black soldiers – free and enslaved – who fought valiantly for the promise of liberty.

The story starts with an iconic American event, the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. The massacre included British soldiers shooting and killing five colonists, angering an entire colony that led to the sequence of events that created the United States of America. What is usually left out of history books, is that a Black man was included in the massacre, Crispus Attucks

Depiction of Crispus Attucks, most likely from 1854 when he became an abolitionist symbol, Source: Picryl 

He was a sailor of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry and is often considered the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks’ life before the massacre is shrouded in mystery. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, he may have been an escaped slave who used the alias Michael Johnson. His mixed heritage was reflected in contemporary descriptions, which referred to him as both “mulatto” and “Indian.”

The Revolutionary War started with the death of a Black man, whose name has been forgotten by history books and celebrations of independence. However, Attucks’ death became a symbol of the fight for American liberty, with abolitionists in the 19th century haling him as the first martyr of the American Revolution. 

The Colonial Landscape for Black Soldiers

At the war’s outset in 1775, approximately 500,000 Black people lived in the colonies, with 90% enslaved. Despite this, an estimated 5,000 Black soldiers and sailors served the Revolutionary cause, demonstrating remarkable courage. Black patriots fought in nearly every major battle of the war, from the very first shots at Lexington and Concord to the final siege at Yorktown.

Determining the exact number of Black soldiers is challenging, but records provide some insights. An August 1778 return showed 755 Black soldiers in a force of nearly 21,000 rank and file, comprising 3.63% of the army. By the war’s end, some estimates suggest this percentage may have increased to 8-10% of Continental forces.

Many of these soldiers, had once served as slaves, and it’s possible that they believed independence from the British would bring freedom for all. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Others were enticed by enlistment bounties or regular pay. For enslaved individuals, military service sometimes offered a path to freedom, though not all such promises were honored.

Enslaved soldiers were originally not allowed to serve, and George Washington himself declared that no soldiers would be allowed in the Revolutionary Army at all. It wasn’t until 1776, once Washington learned that Great Britain was enlisting African soldiers, that he allowed the enslaved soldiers who were already serving, to stay. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Continental Army and most state militias were racially integrated. This made the American Revolution the last widespread instance of U.S. military integration until President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order. Contemporary accounts paint a vivid picture of this diversity. In October 1775, General William Heath described the American army surrounding Boston as including “Some Negroes” and “Indians” alongside white soldiers.

Black Soldiers on the Battlefield

One notable Black soldier emerged during the Battle of Bunker Hill, 5 years after Attuckus’s death, Salem Poor. Born enslaved in Andover, Massachusetts, he purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds – a year’s wages for a working man.s In May 1775, Poor enlisted in the interim Massachusetts Army and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.

US stamp from 1976 celebrating the bicentennial honoring Salem Poor Source: Flickr 

Poor’s actions during the battle were so exceptional that 14 officers present submitted a petition to General George Washington describing his outstanding abilities. They stated that he had “behaved like an experienced officer” and was “a brave and gallant soldier.” This recognition was unprecedented, as no other soldier at Bunker Hill received such commendation. However, there is no evidence that Washington agreed, and Poor never received an award for his service. 

Poor continued to serve throughout the Revolutionary War, re-enlisting for a three-year term with Colonel Edward Wigglesworth’s 13th Massachusetts Regiment in 1777. His service took him to key locations including Monmouth, Saratoga, Valley Forge, and White Plains. He died at the age of 55 in 1802, and wouldn’t be recognized by history until a century later. In 1876, he was mentioned at an American centennial celebration, along with other Black soldiers. 

Despite facing systemic racism in their honoring, Black Continental soldiers largely received equal pay and provisions as their white counterparts. However, they were generally barred from serving in ranks above private soldiers, drummers, or fifers.

One notable exception to the integrated units was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. From February 1778 to July 1780, this segregated unit consisted primarily of Black and Native American private soldiers commanded by white officers. The regiment saw action in several engagements, including the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778.

It’s important to note that some enslaved individuals also served as soldiers, either by passing as freemen or at their owners’ behest. Virginia, despite laws barring slaves from military service, saw instances of enslaved men fighting. In October 1783, the Virginia legislature passed an act to emancipate slaves who had served as soldiers, recognizing their contribution to American liberty.

Women of color also played crucial roles in the war effort. Hannah Till, an enslaved cook in General George Washington’s military household, served from 1776 to at least 1780, even giving birth to a son during the harsh Valley Forge winter. Judith Lines, a free Black woman, joined her husband’s Connecticut regiment in 1782, working as a servant for the unit’s commander.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July, it’s vital to recognize the Black contributions to the fight for American independence. The participation of Black soldiers and supporters in the Revolutionary War underscores a complex narrative of a nation simultaneously fighting for liberty while maintaining the institution of slavery.

Their stories remind us that the ideals of freedom espoused in the Declaration of Independence were not just words, but principles that many, including enslaved and free Blacks, were willing to fight and die for. As we reflect on the birth of our nation, we should honor the contributions of these often-forgotten patriots, learn their stories, and celebrate their memory. 

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