Slaves in the Revolutionary War

slaves in the revolutionary war
A representation of Lord Dunmore’s Loyalist regiment, many of whom were African-Americans

At the outbreak of war with Britain, there were a half-million Africans resident in the thirteen colonies – and only one-tenth were not enslaved. Most became involved in the conflict, directly or indirectly, though the reasons for this were diverse and complex. In some cases their participation was voluntary: they were inspired by the words of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the grand talk of liberty, freely offering their services in the faint believe it might bring about their own liberation. Some were released by their white masters on the proviso that they would take up arms against the British (four of the militia at the Battle of Lexington were newly-released black slaves). Some Africans were forced into enlistment by their masters, who had either enlisted themselves or offered to send a slave in their place.

Washington, himself a significant slave-owner, had strong misgivings about having black soldiers in his army. Africans were forbidden from enlisting throughout 1775, though they continued to be used in support and labouring roles. A pressing need for men prompted Washington to change his mind in January 1776. More than 5,000 Africans would eventually join the Continental Army, some serving in blacks-only regiments but most fighting alongside white soldiers – the first racially integrated American army and the last until the Korean War. Since Africans in the regular army and the civilian militias were promised their freedom, the war would dramatically increase the numbers of free blacks nationwide (from about 25,000 in 1775 to 60,000 in the 1780s) though almost all of these were resident in the northern states. Since the British also promised freedom for any African who took up the cause, thousands of slaves – particularly those in the south – escaped to fight alongside the ‘redcoats’ or join Loyalist units.

A historian’s view:
“Although the reasons for using slaves as soldiers were compelling, their employment raised fundamental problems for the plantation system. The arming of slaves contradicted the alleged inferiority of blacks and undermined the racial myths that justified slavery. The American Revolution was, in many ways, an unpropitious [unfavourable] moment to consider arming slaves. The size of the slave population and the proportion of slaves in the larger colonial population was greater than at any time in the history of British America.”
Philip D. Morgan

The role of native Americans during the war was less clear. As a general rule, most native groups supported the British because the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 had offered some semblance of native title. An American victory would undoubtedly mean westward expansion from the thirteen colonies and further conflict. However the Iroquois Confederacy – a league or alliance of six different native tribes – could not form a consensus on which side to support, causing a split. The Cherokee tribe also divided into pro- and anti-American factions. More than 2,000 Iroquois warriors fought eagerly with the British, conducting damaging raids on American settlements in the north-east. In 1779 Washington, unable to protect the frontier and fed up with the Iroquois, ordered a scorched earth policy against them, issuing the following orders to General John Sullivan:

“The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

The so-called Sullivan Expedition wiped out approximately 40 Iroquois villages, killing or driving off the population, destroying buildings, burning crops and orchards. The natives gave Washington the title ‘Caunotaucarius’, meaning ‘destroyer of towns’ – however the general himself considered the expedition to be unsuccessful and Sullivan later resigned his commission. The Iroquois did continue their raids on American positions, however, they became less frequent.

Citation information
Title: “Slaves in the Revolutionary War”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: February 15, 2015
Date accessed: May 22, 2022
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