African Americans in the Revolutionary War

Peter Salem Shooting Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill by J.E. Taylor
Peter Salem is credited with the shooting of Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Throughout American history – even from the colonial period, when many blacks were brought overseas as slaves – people of African descent have played a crucial role in the fighting for the country’s independence. Although the exact numbers are unclear, many African Americans were involved on both sides of the Revolutionary War.

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African Americans on the Front Lines

Colonist Reading
African Americans played an integral role in the Revolutionary War. Imagesbybarbara / Getty Images

The first African slaves arrived in the American colonies in 1619, and were almost immediately put into military service to fight against the Native Americans defending their land. Both free blacks and slaves enlisted in local militias, serving alongside their white neighbors, until 1775, when General George Washington took command of the Continental Army.

Washington, himself a slave owner from Virginia, saw no need to continue the practice of enlisting black Americans. Rather than keeping them in the ranks, he released, through General Horatio Gates, an order in July 1775 saying, “You are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial [British] army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America.” Like many of his compatriots, including Thomas Jefferson, Washington did not see the fight for American independence as being relevant to the freedom of black slaves.

In October of that same year, Washington convened a council to re-evaluate the order against blacks in the military. The council opted to continue the ban on African American service, voting unanimously to “reject all Slaves, and by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.”

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation

The British, however, had no such aversion to enlisting people of color. John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore and the last British governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation in November 1775 essentially emancipating any rebel-owned slave who was willing to take up arms on behalf of the Crown. His formal offer of freedom to both slaves and indentured servants was in response to an impending attack on the capital city of Williamsburg.

Hundreds of slaves enlisted in the British Army in response, and Dunmore christened the new batch of soldiers his “Ethiopan Regiment.” Although the move was controversial, particularly among Loyalist landowners fearing armed rebellion by their slaves, it was the first mass emancipation of American slaves, predating Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by nearly a century.

By the end of 1775, Washington changed his mind and decided to allow the enlistment of free men of color, although he stood firm on not permitting slaves into the army.

Meanwhile, the naval service had no qualms at all about allowing African Americans to enlist. The duty was long and hazardous, and there was a shortage of volunteers of any skin color as crewmen. Blacks served in both the Navy and the newly formed Marine Corps.

Although enlistment records are not clear, primarily because they do not contain information about skin color, scholars estimate that at any given time, approximately ten percent of rebel troops were men of color.

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Notable African American Names

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by John Trumbull
John Trumbull's painting is believed to depict Peter Salem on the lower right. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

Crispus Attucks

Historians generally agree that Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks is believed to have been the son of an African slave and a Nattuck woman named Nancy Attucks. It is likely that he was the focus of an advertisement placed in the Boston Gazette in 1750, which read, “Ran away from his Master William Brown from Framinghamon the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat.” William Brown offered ten pounds for the return of his slave.

Attucks escaped to Nantucket, where he took a position on a whaling ship. In March 1770, he and a number of other sailors were in Boston, and an altercation broke out between a group of colonists and a British sentry. Townspeople spilled into the streets, as did the British 29th Regiment. Attucks and a number of other men approached with clubs in their hands, and at some point, the British soldiers fired upon the crowd.

Attucks was the first of five Americans to be killed; with two shots to his chest, he died almost immediately. The event soon became known as the Boston Massacre, and with his death, Attucks became a martyr to the revolutionary cause.

Peter Salem

Peter Salem distinguished himself for his bravery at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which he was credited with the shooting of British officer Major John Pitcairn. Salem was presented to George Washington after the battle, and commended for his service. A former slave, he had been freed by his owner after the battle at Lexington Green so that he could enlist with the 6th Massachusetts to fight the British.

Although not much is known about Peter Salem prior to his enlistment, American painter John Trumbull captured his deeds at Bunker Hill for posterity, in the famous work The Death of General Warren at the Battle at Bunker's Hill. The painting depicts the death of General Joseph Warren, as well as Pitcairn, in battle. On the very far right of the work a black soldier holds a musket, and some believe this to be an image of Peter Salem, although he could also be a slave named Asaba Grosvenor.

Barzillai Lew

Born to a free black couple in Massachusetts, Barzillai (pronounced BAR-zeel-ya) Lew was a musician who played the fife, drum, and fiddle. He enlisted in Captain Thomas Farrington’s Company during the French and Indian War, and is believed to have been present at the British capture of Montreal. After his enlistment, Lew worked as a cooper, and purchased the freedom of Dinah Bowman for four hundred pounds. Dinah became his wife.

In May 1775, two months before Washington’s ban on black enlistment, Lew joined the 27th Massachusetts as both a soldier and part of the fife and drum corps. He fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and was present at Fort Ticonderoga in 1777 when British General John Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates.

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Women of Color in the Revolution

Phillis Wheatley
Phyllis Wheatley was a poet who was owned by the Wheatley family of Boston. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Phyllis Wheatley

It wasn’t just men of color who contributed to the Revolutionary War. A number of women distinguished themselves as well. Phyllis Wheatley was born in Africa, stolen from her home in Gambia, and brought to the colonies as a slave during her childhood. Purchased by Boston businessman John Wheatley, she was educated and eventually recognized for her skill as a poet. A number of abolitionists saw Phyllis Wheatley as a perfect example for their cause, and often used her work to illustrate their testimony that blacks could be intellectual and artistic.

A devout Christian, Wheatley often used Biblical symbolism in her work, and in particular in her social commentary on the evils of slavery. Her poem On Being Brought from Africa to America reminded readers that Africans should be considered as part of the Christian faith, and thus treated equally and by Biblical principals.

When George Washington heard about her poem His Excellency, George Washington, he invited her to read it for him in person in his camp at Cambridge, near the Charles River. Wheatley was manumitted by her owners in 1774.

Mammy Kate

Although her true name has been lost to history, a woman nicknamed Mammy Kate was enslaved by the family of Colonel Steven Heard, who would later go on to become the governor of Georgia. In 1779, following the Battle of Kettle Creek, Heard was captured by the British and sentenced to hang, but Kate followed him to prison, claiming she was there to take care of his laundry – not an uncommon thing at the time.

Kate, who by all accounts was a good-sized and sturdy woman, arrived with a large basket. She told the sentry she was there to collect Heard’s soiled clothing, and managed to smuggle her small-statured owner out of prison, tucked safely away in the basket. Following their escape, Heard manumitted Kate, but she continued to live and work on his plantation with her husband and children. Of note, when she died, Kate left her nine children to Heard’s descendants.