February 10, 2024 at 8:57 a.m.

Black Patriots of the American Revolution

The Battle of Cowpens, painted by William Ranney in 1845. The scene depicts an unnamed black soldier (left) firing his pistol and saving the life of Colonel William Washington (on white horse in center).
The Battle of Cowpens, painted by William Ranney in 1845. The scene depicts an unnamed black soldier (left) firing his pistol and saving the life of Colonel William Washington (on white horse in center).

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Black Patriots of the American Revolution

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

It seems fitting that more discussion occur surrounding the many contributions to the path of the American independence by individuals that are outside the traditional textbook narratives. For example, there were multiple units of black soldiers and civil servants in the American colonies. Though often segregated, their existence is often downplayed or omitted entirely. Even some of those who were enslaved were included in the battles and the fight for the cause with most times no benefits coming to them. Black Patriots were African Americans who sided with the colonists who opposed British rule during the American Revolution. The term "Black Patriots" includes, but is not limited to, the 5,000 or more African Americans who served in the Continental Army and Patriot militias during the American Revolutionary War.

Their counterparts on the pro-British side were known as Black Loyalists, African Americans who sided with the British during the American revolution. Thousands of American slaves escaped to British lines to take up their offers of freedom in exchange for military service as promised in Dunmore's Proclamation and the Philipsburg Proclamation.

The Bucks of America were an all-Black, Massachusetts Militia company organized in 1775 in Boston. This was the name given to one of two all-black units fighting for independence. There is little known of the campaign history of the Bucks company, or if they ever saw combat. It appears that they operated mainly around Boston. The Bucks of America may have acted primarily as an auxiliary police or security service in the city during the war. They most likely did not see action against British forces.

After the British started enticing African Americans to serve or assist their cause in exchange for emancipation, Patriot leaders began to recruit free people of color in New England and other East Coast regions to serve in the Continental Army. They were promised a life of relative luxury and social mobility if they joined the war. Slaves in the American South were trying to escape the harsh treatment they suffered under institutionalized slavery. By joining the war, they believed they would be bettering their lives. Most of the time, Black Patriot soldiers served as individuals in a variety of predominantly white units of the Continental Army. Some notable examples:

· James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved African American who served the Continental Army under the Marquis de Lafayette, and later received a legislative emancipation. As a double agent, he reported the activities of Benedict Arnold after he had defected to the British, and of Lord Charles Cornwallis during the run-up to the siege of Yorktown. He fed the British false information while disclosing very accurate and detailed accounts to the Americans.

· Toby Gilmore was born in coastal West Africa as Shibodee Turrey Wurry, the son of a local chieftain. He was kidnapped at the age of 16 by slave traders. Later, he would regain his freedom by enlisting in the Continental Army. Toby was attached to military companies that served at Battle of Monmouth, Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, Battle of White Plains, West Point, Siege of Fort Ticonderoga and the Winter at Valley Forge.

· Prince Estabrook was an enslaved black man and Minutemen Private who fought and was wounded at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Once fully recovered from his injuries, he was back in action during the Battle of Bunker Hill and assigned to guard the headquarters of the newly formed Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was freed after he completed more than three years of service.

· Oliver Cromwell was an African American soldier, who was born a free black man in Black Horse (now the hamlet of Columbus in Burlington County, New Jersey. Private Cromwell served in several companies of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment between 1777 and 1783, seeing action at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Short Hills, Brandywine, Monmouth, and at the final siege of Yorktown.

· William "Billy" Lee was an enslaved valet of George Washington who served in the Continental Army and fought with the general's forces. Lee was considered to be Washington's favorite slave and was often featured in the background of the general's portraits.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, also known as "Varnum's Continentals," was a Continental Army regiment from Rhode Island. It became well known as the "Black Regiment" because, for a time, it had several companies of African American soldiers. It is regarded as the first African American military regiment, although its ranks were not exclusively African American.

Captain David Humphreys' All Black, 2nd Company, of the Connecticut Continental Line, served from October 1780-November 1782. On November 27, 1780, Humphrey's Black Company was assigned to the 3rd Connecticut Regiment. On January 1, 1781, the Regiment was merged with the 4th Connecticut Regiment, re-organized into nine companies, and re-designated as the 1st Connecticut Regiment.

Many of these soldiers went on to lead normal lives as they were allowed by their circumstances. Numerous examples of their contributions and creation of legacies are still being uncovered today. Readers may be familiar with the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” Television host and Harvard scholar and professor Henry Louis Gates is descended from John Redman, a free African American who served in the Continental Army. Gates is currently working on a project to find all descendants of Black Patriots who served in the American Revolutionary Continental Army.

The National Liberty Monument is a proposed national memorial to be located in Washington DC to honor the more than 5000 enslaved and free persons of African descent who served as soldiers or sailors or provided civilian assistance during the American Revolutionary War. The memorial is an outgrowth of a failed effort to erect a Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial.  The foundation that started the effort dissolved in 2005.  Congress then authorized the monument in 2013, but that authorization expired in 2021but was renewed in December 2022.  A memorial foundation has until September 30, 2027 to raise enough funds to begin construction.  For more information about this monument, visit https://libertyfunddc.com/


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