African Americans Fighting in the American Revolution
African Americans have a long standing tradition of fighting for freedom. This tradition reaches all the way back to the American Revolution. In fact, an African American started the Boston Massacre of 1770, which is one of the major events that led to the start of the American Revolution
In 1770, at the Boston Massacre, a black man named Crispus Attucks was not only the first to die but also encouraged those around him, whites included, to stand their ground against the British. Because of the former slave, unarmed American colonists stood eye to eye against armed British soldiers. Yet Attucks was far from the only African American who stood up for freedom.
Four Boston slaves petitioned the colonial legislature in Massachusetts for their freedom in 1773, and a year later, blacks in Massachusetts asked Governor Thomas Gage to abolish slavery. So when the fighting began in the American Revolution, African Americans sided with freedom.
At the same time that Attucks and Peter Salem, who distinguished himself enough at Bunker Hill to grace a postage stamp, were siding with the Americans, George Washington, who would later become the new country’s first president, took steps to bar blacks from the American forces. In July 1775, he sent an order to recruiting officers instructing them not to enlist black soldiers. (Existing black soldiers remained in service.)
Months later, Lord Dunmore of Virginia countered by declaring free all black indentured servants or slaves who could fight for the Crown. As a result, other blacks, such as Southerners Thomas Jeremiah and a dockworker named Sambo, joined the British camp. On December 31, 1775, Washington, backed by the Continental Congress days later, reversed his policy slightly to allow free blacks to serve.
Some states like New Hampshire and New York offered freedom to slaves who fought with the Americans, and many slaves, no doubt motivated by the possibility that their status would improve in victory, joined in the efforts. Georgia and South Carolina refused to enlist slaves even when the Continental Congress offered to pay for every slave recruited. Yet there were some black sailors in the South who served bravely on several vessels.
In all, about 5,000 African Americans fought for the American cause. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island even had a few all-black companies. Black soldiers Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell were with Washington when he crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776. Free black Haitians even came to fight for the patriots’ cause. There’s no denying that Africans made a substantial contribution to the victory that established the United States of America.