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.
African Americans on the Front Lines
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.
Notable African American Names