The Black Men in The Revolution and War of 1812 by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Essay

The return of the festival of our national independence has called our attention to a matter which has been very carefully kept out of sight by orators and toast-drinkers. We allude to the participation of colored men in the great struggle for American freedom. It is not in accordance with our taste or our principles to eulogize the shedders of blood even in a cause of acknowledged justice; but when we see a whole nation doing honor to the memories of one class of its defenders to the total neglect of another class, who had the misfortune to be of darker complexion, we cannot forego the satisfaction of inviting notice to certain historical facts which for the last half century have been quietly elbowed aside, as no more deserving of a place in patriotic recollection than the descendants of the men to whom the facts in question relate have to a place in a Fourth of July procession.

Of the services and sufferings of the colored soldiers of the Revolution no attempt has, to our knowledge, been made to preserve a record. They have had no historian. With here and there an exception, they have all passed away; and only some faint tradition of their campaigns under Washington and Greene and Lafayette, and of their cruisings under Decatur and Barry, lingers among their, descendants. Yet enough is known to show that the free colored men of the United States bore their full proportion of the sacrifices and trials of the Revolutionary War.

The late Governor Eustis, of Massachusetts,–the pride and boast of the democracy of the East, himself an active participant in the war, and therefore a most competent witness,–Governor Morrill, of New Hampshire, Judge Hemphill, of Pennsylvania, and other members of Congress, in the debate on the question of admitting Missouri as a slave State into the Union, bore emphatic testimony to the efficiency and heroism of the black troops. Hon. Calvin Goddard, of Connecticut, states that in the little circle of his residence he was instrumental in securing, under the act of 1818, the pensions of nineteen colored soldiers. “I cannot,” he says, “refrain from mentioning one aged black man, Primus Babcock, who proudly presented to me an honorable discharge from service during the war, dated at the close of it, wholly in the handwriting of George Washington; nor can I forget the expression of his feelings when informed, after his discharge had been sent to the War Department, that it could not be returned. At his request it was written for, as he seemed inclined to spurn the pension and reclaim the discharge.” There is a touching anecdote related of Baron Stenben on the occasion of the disbandment of the American army. A black soldier, with his wounds unhealed, utterly destitute, stood on the wharf just as a vessel bound for his distant home was getting under way. The poor fellow gazed at the vessel with tears in his eyes, and gave himself up to despair. The warm-hearted foreigner witnessed his emotion, and, inquiring into the cause of it, took his last dollar from his purse and gave it to him, with tears of sympathy trickling down his cheeks. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the poor wounded soldier hailed the sloop and was received on board. As it moved out from the wharf, he cried back to his noble friend on shore, “God Almighty bless you, Master Baron!”

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“In Rhode Island,” says Governor Eustis in his able speech against slavery in Missouri, 12th of twelfth month, 1820, “the blacks formed an entire regiment, and they discharged their duty with zeal and fidelity. The gallant defence of Red Bank, in which the black regiment bore a part, is among the proofs of their valor.” In this contest it will be recollected that four hundred men met and repulsed, after a terrible and sanguinary struggle, fifteen hundred Hessian troops, headed by Count Donop. The glory of the defence of Red Bank, which has been pronounced one of the most heroic actions of the war, belongs in reality to black men; yet who now hears them spoken of in connection with it? Among the traits which distinguished the black regiment was devotion to their officers. In the attack made upon the American lines near Croton River on the 13th of the fifth month, 1781, Colonel Greene, the commander of the regiment, was cut down and mortally wounded; but the sabres of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of blacks, who hovered over him to protect him, every one of whom was killed. The late Dr. Harris, of Dunbarton, New Hampshire, a Revolutionary veteran, stated, in a speech at Francistown, New Hampshire, some years ago, that on one occasion the regiment to which he was attached was commanded to defend an important position, which the enemy thrice assailed, and from which they were as often repulsed. “There was,” said the venerable speaker, “a regiment of blacks in the same situation,–a regiment of negroes fighting for our liberty and independence, not a white man among them but the officers,–in the same dangerous and responsible position. Had they been unfaithful or given way before the enemy, all would have been lost. Three times in succession were they attacked with most desperate fury by well- disciplined and veteran troops; and three times did they successfully repel the assault, and thus preserve an army. They fought thus through the war. They were brave and hardy troops.”

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In the debate in the New York Convention of 1821 for amending the Constitution of the State, on the question of extending the right of suffrage to the blacks, Dr. Clarke, the delegate from Delaware County, and other members, made honorable mention of the services of the colored troops in the Revolutionary army.

The late James Forten, of Philadelphia, well known as a colored man of wealth, intelligence, and philanthropy, enlisted in the American navy under Captain Decatur, of the Royal Louis, was taken prisoner during his second cruise, and, with nineteen other colored men, confined on board the horrible Jersey prison-ship; All the vessels in the American service at that period were partly manned by blacks. The old citizens of Philadelphia to this day remember the fact that, when the troops of the North marched through the city, one or more colored companies were attached to nearly all the regiments.

Governor Eustis, in the speech before quoted, states that the free colored soldiers entered the ranks with the whites. The time of those who were slaves was purchased of their masters, and they were induced to enter the service in consequence of a law of Congress by which, on condition of their serving in the ranks during the war, they were made freemen. This hope of liberty inspired them with courage to oppose their breasts to the Hessian bayonet at Red Bank, and enabled them to endure with fortitude the cold and famine of Valley Forge. The anecdote of the slave of General Sullivan, of New Hampshire, is well known. When his master told him that they were on the point of starting for the army, to fight for liberty, he shrewdly suggested that it would be a great satisfaction to know that he was indeed going to fight for his liberty. Struck with the reasonableness and justice of this suggestion, General Sullivan at once gave him his freedom.

The late Tristam Burgess, of Rhode Island, in a speech in Congress, first month, 1828, said “At the commencement of the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island had a number of slaves. A regiment of them were enlisted into the Continental service, and no braver men met the enemy in battle; but not one of them was permitted to be a soldier until he had first been made a freeman.”

The celebrated Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, in his speech on the Missouri question, and in defence of the slave representation of the South, made the following admissions:–

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“They (the colored people) were in numerous instances the pioneers, and in all the laborers, of our armies. To their hands were owing the greatest part of the fortifications raised for the protection of the country. Fort Moultrie gave, at an early period of the inexperienced and untried valor of our citizens, immortality to the American arms; and in the Northern States numerous bodies of them were enrolled, and fought side by side with the whites at the battles of the Revolution.”

Let us now look forward thirty or forty years, to the last war with Great Britain, and see whether the whites enjoyed a monopoly of patriotism at that time.

Martindale, of New York, in Congress, 22d of first month, 1828, said: “Slaves, or negroes who had been slaves, were enlisted as soldiers in the war of the Revolution; and I myself saw a battalion of them, as fine, martial-looking men as I ever saw, attached to the Northern army in the last war, on its march from Plattsburg to Sackett’s Harbor.”

Hon. Charles Miner, of Pennsylvania, in Congress, second month, 7th, 1828, said: “The African race make excellent soldiers. Large numbers of them were with Perry, and helped to gain the brilliant victory of Lake Erie. A whole battalion of them were distinguished for their orderly appearance.”

Dr. Clarke, in the convention which revised the Constitution of New York in 1821, speaking of the colored inhabitants of the State, said:–

“In your late war they contributed largely towards some of your most splendid victories. On Lakes Erie and Champlain, where your fleets triumphed over a foe superior in numbers and engines of death, they were manned in a large proportion with men of color. And in this very house, in the fall of 1814, a bill passed, receiving the approbation of all the branches of your government, authorizing the governor to accept the services of a corps of two thousand free people of color. Sir, these were times which tried men’s souls. In these times it was no sporting matter to bear arms. These were times when a man who shouldered his musket did not know but he bared his bosom to receive a death-wound from the enemy ere he laid it aside; and in these times these people were found as ready and as willing to volunteer in your service as any other. They were not compelled to go; they were not drafted. No; your pride had placed them beyond your compulsory power. But there was no necessity for its exercise; they were volunteers,–yes, sir, volunteers to defend that very country from the inroads and ravages of a ruthless and vindictive foe which had treated them with insult, degradation, and slavery.”

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On the capture of Washington by the British forces, it was judged expedient to fortify, without delay, the principal towns and cities exposed to similar attacks. The Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia waited upon three of the principal colored citizens, namely, James Forten, Bishop Allen, and Absalom Jones, soliciting the aid of the people of color in erecting suitable defences for the city. Accordingly, twenty-five hundred colored then assembled in the State-House yard, and from thence marched to Gray’s Ferry, where they labored for two days almost without intermission. Their labors were so faithful and efficient that a vote of thanks was tendered them by the committee. A battalion of colored troops was at the same time organized in the city under an officer of the United States army; and they were on the point of marching to the frontier when peace was proclaimed.

General Jackson’s proclamations to the free colored inhabitants of Louisiana are well known. In his first, inviting them to take up arms, he said:–

“As sons of freedom, you are now called on to defend our most inestimable blessings. As Americans, your country looks with confidence to her adopted children for a valorous support. As fathers, husbands, and brothers, you are summoned to rally round the standard of the eagle, to defend all which is dear in existence.”

The second proclamation is one of the highest compliments ever paid by a military chief to his soldiers:–


“Soldiers! when on the banks of the Mobile I called you to take up arms, inviting you to partake the perils and glory of your white fellow- citizens, I expected much from you; for I was not ignorant that you possessed qualities most formidable to an invading enemy. I knew with what fortitude you could endure hunger, and thirst, and all the fatigues of a campaign. I knew well how you loved your native country, and that you, as well as ourselves, had to defend what man holds most dear,–his parents, wife, children, and property. You have done more than I expected. In addition to the previous qualities I before knew you to possess, I found among you a noble enthusiasm, which leads to the performance of great things.

“Soldiers! the President of the United States shall hear how praiseworthy was your conduct in the hour of danger, and the Representatives of the American people will give you the praise your exploits entitle you to. Your general anticipates them in applauding your noble ardor.”

It will thus be seen that whatever honor belongs to the “heroes of the Revolution” and the volunteers in “the second war for independence” is to be divided between the white and the colored man. We have dwelt upon this subject at length, not because it accords with our principles or feelings, for it is scarcely necessary for us to say that we are one of those who hold that

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“Peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war,”

and certainly far more desirable and useful; but because, in popular estimation, the patriotism which dares and does on the battle-field takes a higher place than the quiet exercise of the duties of peaceful citizenship; and we are willing that colored soldiers, with their descendants, should have the benefit, if possible, of a public sentiment which has so extravagantly lauded their white companions in arms. If pulpits must be desecrated by eulogies of the patriotism of bloodshed, we see no reason why black defenders of their country in the war for liberty should not receive honorable mention as well as white invaders of a neighboring republic who have volunteered in a war for plunder and slavery extension. For the latter class of “heroes” we have very little respect. The patriotism of too many of them forcibly reminds us of Dr. Johnson’s definition of that much-abused term “Patriotism, sir! ‘T is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“What right, I demand,” said an American orator some years ago, “have the children of Africa to a homestead in the white man’s country?” The answer will in part be found in the facts which we have presented. Their right, like that of their white fellow-citizens, dates back to the dread arbitrament of battle. Their bones whiten every stricken field of the Revolution; their feet tracked with blood the snows of Jersey; their toil built up every fortification south of the Potomac; they shared the famine and nakedness of Valley Forge and the pestilential horrors of the old Jersey prisonship. Have they, then, no claim to an equal participation in the blessings which have grown out of the national independence for which they fought? Is it just, is it magnanimous, is it safe, even, to starve the patriotism of such a people, to cast their hearts out of the treasury of the Republic, and to convert them, by political disfranchisement and social oppression, into enemies?

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