Slavery through the eyes of Revolutionary Generals

by Gene Procknow, All Things Liberty

Generally when people think about slavery in the United States, they harken back to the Civil War period when Northern states had abolished slavery and slavery was the center of the southern plantation economy. However, during the Revolutionary era, the noxious institution of slavery prospered in both Northern and Southern states. While there were substantially more slaves in the Southern states, legalized slavery was condoned and rife throughout all thirteen colonies. Among the white population, slavery was widely accepted with only hints of the upcoming nineteenth-century abolition movement.

The Revolutionary era institution of slavery was typified by slave ownership by the richest segment of society. Wealthy individuals and those with leadership positions in the community employed slaves in agriculture, manufacturing and household services. As a group, the Continental Army major generals fit the definition of people who were most likely to own slaves.[1] Looking at the major generals’ views on slavery and their slave ownership is a window on how the entire leadership class and population viewed slavery.

Not counting George Washington, there were twenty-nine major generals, of which twenty-three lived before or after the war in the United States.[2] Over half of these major generals owned slaves, which is a bit lower in proportion to the slave owning signers of the Declaration of Independence. While certainly a small percentage, the proportion of the major generals who advocated ending slavery is not certain.[3] The contradiction between fighting for political liberty and fighting for personal liberty did not seem to manifest itself (or be important enough) in the minds of this group of Revolutionary leaders.

What complicated the situation for the major general, however, is that they were faced with severe manpower shortages and had to decide whether to enlist slaves into the army. During an October 1775 council of war, George Washington and seven current and future major generals considered the question of enlisting both freed and enslaved African Americans. They “agreed unanimously to reject all slaves and by a great majority to reject all Negroes altogether.”[4] At the same time, Brig. Gen. (later Maj. Gen.) John Thomas disagreed and welcomed Blacks into the ranks, saying in a letter to John Adams “…. we have Some Negros, but I Look on them in General Equally Servicable with other men, for Fatigue and in Action; many of them have Proved themselves brave …”[5]   With his back to the wall during the 1777 Saratoga campaign, Philip Schuyler, a New York major general, complained to Maj. Gen. William Heath on the quality of his reinforcements, stating, “one third of the few that have been sent are boys, aged men and negroes, who disgrace our arms.” Raising the contradiction of slaves fighting for white people’s freedom, Schuyler went on to say, “Is it consistent with the Sons of Freedom to trust their all to be defended by slaves?”[6]

As the war continued longer than expected and the need for additional soldiers increased, Thomas’s point of view won out and most major generals changed their views to freely enlisted both free and enslaved African Americans. Even large slaveholders such as Maj. Gen. William Smallwood actively advocated for enlistment of enslaved people. In the end, major generals had to lead and rely on slaves – up to ten percent of the Continental Army were free and enslaved African Americans, especially in the later years of the war and among the Continental line outside of the deep south.[7]

Contrary to popular perceptions, both Northerners and Southerners owned slaves. All six of the major generals from states south of the Mason Dixon line owned slaves while five out of seventeen Northern major generals owned slaves. Rather than regionalism, slave ownership most closely correlated with income; the wealthiest major generals owned slaves. Similar to civilian slave owners, the major generals either used slaves as exploited labor or as house servants.

Other than George Washington, Maj. Gen. William Moultrie, owner of a South Carolina planation, owned the largest number of slaves with over two hundred. The war ravaged his plantation, however, and he died both penniless and without slaves. Other large slave owning major generals include William Smallwood (fifty-six slaves), Adam Stephen (thirty slaves) and Robert Howe (thirty slaves), all southerners. With the exception of Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler (thirteen slaves), Northern major general slave owners tended to own at most a handful of slaves.

A number of the major generals were guilty of hypocrisy when it came to slavery. Raised a Rhode Island Quaker but not practicing by the outset of the rebellion, Nathanael Greene owned slaves during the war and may have brought them with him on campaign.[8] When military exigencies became extreme, however, he strongly advocated for slave enlistment.[9] Further, after the Revolution, the states of South Carolina and Georgia rewarded his military services by deeding him sequestered loyalist plantations. Greene stated that he was forced to use slaves to make those properties financially successful. Like others, Greene changed his views on slavery when it suited his economic interests. Another example of hypocrisy is the case of Alexander McDougall. As a pre-war merchant he bought and sold slaves and he owned at least one slave by the name of Colerain.[10] Joining the nascent New York Manumission Society late in life, McDougall may have had a change in heart. It is not clear whether he continued to own slaves after the war and while a member, as there were other slaveholders in the Manumission Society,[11] including its principal founder, John Jay.[12]

Israel Putnam was the only major general to have likely freed his slaves prior to the onset of Revolutionary hostilities. As with most other events in Putnam’s life, it is hard to separate fact from fiction, notable events from embellishment. A mid-nineteenth century biographer recounted a story about Putnam helping subdue a Connecticut neighbor’s unruly slave. To prove a point, Putnam placed a single noose around the necks of both master and slave, thereby ending the dispute.[13] Later, there was a story about Putnam rescuing a slave named simply Dick from mistreatment by his Cuban masters in 1762. Putnam returned to Connecticut with Dick who functioned as a freely employed manservant for the rest of Putnam’s life.[14]

One would have thought that fighting for the ideals of the Revolution and having African-American soldiers serving under them would have changed the views of slave-owning major generals. With one partial exception, this appears not to have been the case. Horatio Gates has been praised for freeing all slaves who operated his Virginia plantation called Travelers Rest shortly after the war.[15] However, closer examination reveals that this is a misstatement. Actually, per the terms of a September 14, 1790 deed of sale, Gates sold his slaves for £800 with the stipulation that five would be free after five years and the remaining eleven when they reached the age of twenty-eight.[16] Financially, it became easier for Gates to manumit his slaves as he became wealthy through marriage to his second wife. While this is a much different story than commonly reported, none of the other major generals took steps while living, no matter the motivations, to emancipate their slaves.

Certainly, Washington freed his (though not Martha’s) slaves at the time of his death. Several major generals including Richard Montgomery, Charles Lee and Adam Stephen bequeathed their slaves to heirs. The other slave owners’ last wills and testaments cite only property to be bequeathed with the assumption that slaves would be divided just like other property.  Two large pre-war slaveholders, William Moultrie and Robert Howe, died destitute and likely sold all of their slaves prior to death to discharge debts.

Only Samuel Holden Parsons, Arthur St. Clair and William Health publically expressed opposition to slavery or expansion of slave-owning territory, all of them never have owned slaves during their lifetimes. After the Revolution, both Parsons and St. Clair politically advocated for prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territories.[17] Moving from Connecticut, Parsons became a leading settler in the Ohio region and later was appointed by Washington as a territorial judge. Parsons’ opposition was widely known and gave support to those opposing slavery as the 1787 Northwest Ordinance was drafted.[18] In 1802, St. Clair made an impassioned speech in Cincinnati supporting the prohibition of slavery when forming the laws of the new state of Ohio.[19] Parsons’ and St. Clair’s efforts were instrumental in defeating Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican efforts to open the territory north of the Ohio River to slavery. While his views were more nuanced, William Heath publically opposed slavery during the 1787 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Although Heath did not believe it possible to eradicate existing slavery due to the states’ rights provisions of the Constitution, he opposed any expansion of territories allowing slavery and prognosticated that slavery would wither away due to the non-importation clause and likely decline in economic productivity.[20]

In posterity, biographers have sought to burnish the reputations of our most revered Revolutionary War generals. Several biographers ignored their slave ownership or played it down. For example, Philip Schuyler’s highly comprehensive biographer Don R. Gerlach ignored his slave ownership all together.[21] A good example of playing down slave ownership is the David Mattern biography of Benjamin Lincoln in which the author attempts to put a good face on Lincoln’s slave ownership by asserting that Northern slavery was not as bad as Southern slavery. Further, Mattern concludes that as a result of his Southern campaign, Lincoln changed his views to oppose slavery.[22] William Moultrie’s biographer C. L. Bragg even goes so far as to depict him as a benevolent slave master who engendered loyalty and commitment from the enslaved.[23] While abhorrent today, this view that “some slavery was better than other slavery” has survived for a long time.

What biographers do recount are the major generals’ attempts to employ slaves as military assets. After the initial period of non-use, most major generals engaged slaves as soldiers, laborers or servants and actively sought ways to inhibit slaves from fleeing to the British lines. In some cases, they advocated granting freedom in exchange for enlistment. This was especially the case in the southern theater where the numbers of soldiers were few, recruitment was difficult, and there was a high proportion of slaves in the population. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene even offered a persuasive pecuniary argument to the governor of South Carolina that arming blacks would allow the Patriots to recapture from the British the most agriculturally fertile regions and restore the war ravaged economy. Notwithstanding the economically compelling argument but fearing more a slave uprising, the South Carolina Patriot politicians dismissed Greene’s proposal.[24]

Beyond noting the ownership of slaves and their military value, biographies rarely discuss the major generals’ views on slavery. Perhaps this is because slavery was so widely accepted during the Revolutionary period that it is not considered notable or a controversial issue. Another factor maybe that with only a few exceptions, the major generals lost considerable wealth during the war and were largely financially unsuccessful after the war; therefore they did not have the economic capacity to purchase slaves. Most importantly, the incongruity of leading both free and enslaved soldiers in the fight for liberty and freedom from oppression is proof of the prevailing wide spread support for slavery in all segments of the Revolutionary era population.

In rare and nuanced cases such as Benjamin Lincoln or Horatio Gates, military service may have altered a few major generals’ opinions on slavery. As a group, however, their views were consistent with other prominent leaders in society. They fought for independence and freedom from “British slavery” but not for the freedom of enslaved African Americans.

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