And I 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, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to this Majesty's crown and dignity.
- Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
While the Patriots were ultimately victorious in the American Revolution, choosing sides and deciding whether to fight in the war was far from an easy choice for American colonists. The great majority were neutral or Loyalist. For black people, what mattered most was freedom. As the Revolutionary War spread through every region, those in bondage sided with whichever army promised them personal liberty. The British actively recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters and, consequently, more blacks fought for the Crown. An estimated 100,000 African Americans escaped, died or were killed during the American Revolution.
Many African Americans, like Agrippa Hull and Prince Hall, did side with the Patriot cause. 5,000 black men served in the Continental Army, and hundreds more served on the sea.
A List of the Names of Provincials
Black Revolutionary Seamen
Portrait of a Black Revolutionary Sailor
Battle of Cowpens
Had George Washington been less ambivalent, more blacks might have participated on the Patriot side than with the Loyalists. When he took command of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington barred the further recruitment of black soldiers, despite the fact that they had fought side by side with their white counterparts at the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill.
The Governor of Virginia, whose royal title was Lord Dunmore, on the other hand, sought to disrupt the American cause by promising freedom to any slaves owned by Patriot masters who would join the Loyalist forces. (Runaway slaves belonging to Loyalists were returned to their masters.) Dunmore officially issued his proclamation in November, 1775, and within a month 300 black men had joined his Ethiopian regiment. Probably no more than 800 eventually succeeded in joining Dunmore's regiment, but his proclamation inspired thousands of runaways to follow behind the British throughout the war.
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
By the winter of 1777-78, the Continental Army had dwindled to 18,000 from disease and desertion. This, together with the active recruitment of enslaved blacks by the British, finally convinced Washington to approve plans for Rhode Island to raise a regiment of free blacks and slaves.
Colonel Tye was perhaps the best-known of the Loyalist black soldiers. An escaped bondman born in Monmouth County, New Jersey, he wreaked havoc for several years with his guerrilla Black Brigade in New York and New Jersey. At one time he commanded 800 men. For most of 1779 and 1780, Tye and his men terrorized his home county -- stealing cattle, freeing slaves, and capturing Patriots at will. On September 1, 1780, during the capture of a Patriot captain, Tye was shot through the wrist, and he later died from a fatal infection.
Runaway ad for Titus
Boston King was an escaped slave who joined up with the Loyalists and later documented his experience. When he reached the black Loyalist encampment, it was a rife with smallpox. King became ill himself, and discovered that the British removed sick runaways from camp to die or heal on their own. King survived, and rejoined General Cornwallis' troops at Camden, South Carolina, where he served as a military messenger and an orderly. But while fighting for the Crown, King was kidnapped by a band of southern Loyalists who tried to sell him back into slavery. He escaped and again rejoined the army.
In October 1781, as Patriot and French ground forces and the French fleet surrounded Cornwallis' men at Yorktown, Virginia, the British sent their black allies to face death between the battle lines. After Cornwallis' surrender, the Americans rounded up the surviving blacks for re-enslavement. For the next year, as Loyalists withdrew from southern ports, scores of black refugees sought passage to New York -- the last British stronghold.
Many thousands of African Americans who aided the British lost their freedom anyway. Many of them ended up in slavery in the Caribbean. Others, when they attempted to leave with the British, in places like Charleston and Savannah, were prevented. And there are incredible letters written by southerners of Africans after the siege of Charleston, swimming out to boats, and the British hacking away at their arms with cutlasses to keep them from following them. So it was a very tragic situation. And of the many thousands of Africans who left the plantations, not many of them actually got their freedom.
- Margaret Washington, historian, on the evacuation of Charleston
In November 1782, Britain and America signed a provisional treaty granting the former colonies their independence. As the British prepared for their final evacuation, the Americans demanded the return of American property, including runaway slaves, under the terms of the peace treaty. Sir Guy Carleton, the acting commander of British forces, refused to abandon black Loyalists to their fate as slaves. With thousands of apprehensive blacks seeking to document their service to the Crown, Brigadier General Samuel Birch, British commandant of the city of New York, created a list of claimants known as The Book of Negroes. Boston King and his wife, Violet, were among 3,000 to 4,000 African Americans Loyalists who boarded ships in New York bound for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain.
[P]eace was restored between America and Great Britain, which diffused universal joy among all parties, except us, who had escaped from slavery, and taken refuge in the English army; for a report prevailed at New-York, that all the slaves, in number 2000, were to be delivered up to their masters, altho' some of them had been three or four years among the English. This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North-Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them out of their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us. For some days we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes.
- Boston King
Boston King's Memories of the Evacuation from New York
The Book of Negroes
Next: The Constitution and The New Nation
Part 2 Narrative:
Map: The Revolutionary Era
Freedom and Bondage in the Colonial Era
Slavery and Religion
Declarations of Independence
The Revolutionary War
The Constitution and The New Nation
Part 2: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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