The American Revolutionary war also known as the American War of Independence and the Revolutionary War was 8 years, 8 months, and 26 days long war. The war began on April 19, 1775, and ended on January 14, 1784. The reasoning for the war was a conflict between United States and Great Britain of its North American colonies, which declared themselves the independent United States of America.
African Americans both slave and free served on both sides during the war. In the American Revolution, gaining freedom was the strongest motive for black slaves who joined the Patriot or British armies. Free blacks may have been drafted or enlisted at their own volition. Reports shows that there was about 9000 African Americans Patriots soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy, state Militia Unit, as well as privateers, waggoneer’s in the Army, servants to officers, and spies.
In April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, blacks responded to the call and fought with Patriot forces.
American States had to meet quotas of troops for the new Continental Army, and New England regiments recruited blacks slaves by promising freedom to those who served in the Continental Army. During the course of the war, about one fifth of northern army was black.
Because of manpower shortage at sea, both Continental Army and Navy signed African Americans into the Navy. Southern Colonies worried about putting guns into the hands of slaves for the Army, but had no worries about using blacks to pilot vessels and to handle the ammunition on ships. In states Navies, some blacks served as pilots; South Carolina had significant numbers of black pilots.
Some African Americans had been captured from the Royal Navy and used by the Patriots on their vessels. Throughout the war, blacks served as seamen on British vessels, where they generally proved to be much more willing and able than their press-ganged white counterparts.
Patriot Revolutionary leaders began to be fearful of using blacks in the armed forces. They were afraid that slaves who were armed would rise against them. Slave owners became concerned that military service would eventually free their slaves.
Due to heighten fears, in July of 1775 George Washington (he was not yet president of United States) issued an order to recruiters, ordering them not to enroll
“Any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro or vagabond”.
Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, was determined to maintain British rule in the southern colonies. On November 7, 1775, he issued a proclamation:“I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops.”
By December 1775 the British army had 300 slaves wearing a military uniform. Sewn on the breast of the uniform was the inscription “Liberty to Slaves”. These slaves were designated as “Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment.”
The British regular army had some fears that armed, blacks would start a slave rebellions. Trying to placate southern planters, the British used African Americans as laborers, skilled workers, foragers and spies. Except for those blacks who joined Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, only a few blacks. It was not until the final months of the war, when manpower was low, that blacks were used for fighting for Britain in the South.
In Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, when threatened by Patriot forces, the British filled gaps in their troops with African Americans. In October 1779, about 200 Black Loyalist soldiers assisted the British in successfully defending Savannah against a joint French and rebel American attack.
Dunmore’s Black soldiers aroused fear among some Patriots. It was most widely used in the south, where the African population was oppressed to the breaking point. As a response to the fear that it might pose, in December 1775, Washington wrote a letter to Colonel Henry Lee stating that success in the war would come to whatever side could arm the blacks the fastest.
Washington issued orders to the recruiters to reenlist the free blacks who had already served in the army; he worried that some of these soldiers might cross over to the British side. Congress in 1776, agreed with Washington and free blacks who had already served could be reenlisted. Patriots in South Carolina and Georgia resisted enlisting slaves as armed soldiers. African Americans from northern units were used to fight in southern battles. In some Southern states, southern black slaves were allowed to substitute for their master in patriot service.
In the year of 1778, Rhode Island was having trouble recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress, and the Rhode Island Assembly decided to pursue a suggestion made by General Varnum and enlist slaves in 1st Rhode Island Regiment. General Varnum had raised the idea in a letter to George Washington, who forwarded the letter to the governor of Rhode Island. On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” that chose to do so, and that “every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free…” The owners of slaves who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an amount equal to the market value of the slave.
A total of 88 slaves enlisted in the regiment over the next four months, as well as some free blacks. The regiment eventually totaled about 225 men; probably more than 140 of these were blacks. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers.
Under Colonel Greene, the regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. The regiment played a major role in the battle, suffering three killed, nine wounded, and eleven missing.
Like most of the Continental Army, the regiment saw little action over the next few years, since the focus of the war had shifted to the south. In 1781, Greene and several of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Loyalists. Greene’s body was mutilated by the Loyalists, apparently as punishment for having led black soldiers against them.
On July 21, 1781 , as the final British ship left Savannah, more than 5,000 enslaved African Americans were transported with their Loyalist masters for Jamaica or St. Augustine. About 300 blacks in Savannah did not evacuate, fearing that they would be re-enslaved. They established a colony in the swamps of the Savannah River. By 1786, many were back in bondage.
The British evacuation of Charleston in December 1782 included many Loyalists and more than 5,000 blacks. More than half of these were slaves still belonging to Loyalists; they were taken by their masters for resettlement in the West Indies, where the Loyalists started or bought plantations. Freed slaves were also settled in Jamaica and other West Indian islands. Another 500 slaves went to East Florida.
Many of the Loyalist slaves who left rebels to side with the British were promised their freedom. In New York City, which the British occupied, thousands of refugee slaves had crowded into the city to gain freedom. The British created a registry of escaped slaves, called the Book of Negroes. The registry included details of their enslavement, escape and service to the British. If accepted, the former slave received a certificate entitling transport out of New York. By the time the Book of Negroes was closed, it had the names of 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children, who were resettled in Nova Scotia. They were known in Canada as Black Loyalist. About 200 former slaves were taken to London with British forces as free people.
The African-American Patriots who gave loyal service to the Continental Army found that the postwar military held no rewards for them. It was much reduced in size and state legislatures, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1784 and 1785, respectively, banned all blacks, free or slave, from military service. Southern states banned all slaves from the militias, but some states, such as North Carolina, allowed free people of color to serve in their militias. In 1792, the United States Congress formally excluded African Americans from military service, allowing only “free able-bodied white male citizens” to serve.