African Americans in the War for (White) Independence

While the dust from the news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal still settles heavily on the hearts of Americans, I wonder if it is not time to take pause and consider the ramifications of this injustice (in my opinion) from a broader context.

In recent years, it seems to be that with all the attempts to silence the African American–with the reemergence of Jim Crow via the removal of the “unnecessary” Voting Rights Act, to the seemingly effectual misuse of ‘Stand Your Ground’ predominantly used successfully by whites in this country to kill people of color–the people of this country have all but forgotten the sacrifices of the black man in securing our freedoms from the British during the American Revolution.

In popular media, the American Revolution appears, at least on the surface, to have been a white-man’s war. Movies like The Patriot, while containing some very interesting accurate portrayals of events, contain some unfortunate inaccuracies (or perhaps they just didn’t find the time to clarify a few issues). They accurately depict the call for slaves from Southern plantations to join the British regulars (at which point the African American’s turn and proclaim their freedom, which is then followed by a snide remark by the British officer (Col. Tavington); the fiction is that this was done by force.

Picture 4

While it’s good that the movie The Patriot showed an integrated unit with some racial dynamics, it only portrays a single black man in a sea of white soldiers. In fact, this may be the only black soldier portrayed in the movie. The truth was that almost every unit, especially towards the end of the war and from Northern Colonies, contained many black soldiers.

At the time of the Revolution, the 13 Colonies contained over 240,000 slaves (including in the Northern colonies). When the British captured Boston and were then laid under siege, black men took up arms along with the white men. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, 5% of the soldiers fighting there were of African descent (numbers as high as 120 of the 2400 estimated Americans fighting that day were black soldiers–free and slave). While the Southern colonies continued to restrict the actions of the African American, the Northern states quickly realized their value as both human beings and soldiers. While only freed black men could enlist in the Continental army prior to 1777 in some Colonies, by the end of the war some 5,000 African Americans had fought on the side of the Continentals. It was recounted by one French officer at Yorktown that 1/4 of the American force there had been of African descent. While most regiments during the Revolution were indeed integrated, there were units made up of predominantly African Americans; the most famous being the 1st Rhode Island, described as “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers” by Baron von Closen.


1st Rhode Island.

Conversely, the South maintained its rigid position on slave ownership and the ‘position’ of the black man throughout most of the war. The British used this weakness against the Southern Colonies to some advantage. During the Southern Campaign, tens of thousands of black slaves sought help from the British against their Colonial masters, some even enlisting in the service of the British. When the British surrendered at the end of the war, many of these black loyalists moved to Great Britain, to Canada, or to a settlement established by the British for free blacks who remained loyal. Unsurprisingly, tragically, others were resold back into slavery.

Yet the result of the sacrifice of thousands of African American soldiers was not complete emancipation. While New England immediately freed all slaves, the Northern states were slow to do so, with emancipation not being issued in some states until 1804 (slavery was not completely abolished in New Jersey until 1865).

So why is this relevant? The largest group backing the current removal of Voting Rights Act and those politicians who support redistricting in order to promote high value to white voters rather than racial minorities, happen to be white conservatives. Now I want to be clear, not all white conservative politicians are doing this, but enough are doing it that it suggests a trend. That many are backed by the Tea Party–the modern day political movement largely trying (and failing) to associate itself with the founding fathers and Sons of Liberty–is, for me, representative of the issues of how at least some Americans view the role of whites vs blacks in American history. And it is a real tragedy, honestly, that African Americans are not given their share of the pie, even after 237 years.


Picture of Mr. Al Ward, reenacting the same pose as that found on the statue of the memorial to Patriots of African Descent at Valley Forge (picture found at the page of Sable Soldiers).

My concern is that people of color, who rightly earned their place (and then some) at the table, have been neglected into our modern era–and that they have been continually ignored largely by the same society that was guilty of enslaving them in the first place. When Southern Colonies were pressed to raise soldiers to fight for the Continental army, some flat out refused regardless of how it might have affected the outcome of the war. But despite their disposition towards the African American, that does not change the fact that so many men of African descent made sacrifices for, essentially what amounts to, the white man and received little in return.

We should do well to remember their sacrifices along with those of the white settlers, but remember also that the victory gained at Yorktown and the end of the Revolution did not lead to equal rights, it did not lead to equal independence. In the end, while the white settlers (like my ancestors–none of whom, so far as I can tell with the work I’ve done, were slave owners) gained their freedom. While some African Americans also gained freedom, especially in the Northern most states, that we could not have the foresight to remove slavery at the time of our own cries for independence and liberty is appalling. This cannot be sugar-coated. It cannot be forgotten. It cannot be ignored–not by conservative white politicians, not by SCOTUS, not by movie producers in Hollywood. Yet somehow, given recent events, isn’t that exactly what some people in this country want to do? Doesn’t that scare you? It scares me.


2 responses to “African Americans in the War for (White) Independence

  1. You would be interested to know that the leader of the League of the South said that the GOP is not the place for Southerners today. This group wants to go back to the Confederacy yet says they’re not racist. If you read their literature it becomes clear that they are a group of white supremacists of the old KKK model. They don’t want blacks, Indians (of any kind), Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Hispanics, Asians or any other group but White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and ideologically pure conservatives in their idea version of a country. Let us not forget that this is the Teabagger base too. It is pretty easy to see this group restricting rights like just their forefathers did in the South in order to preserve white only rule. Everyone else would be a second class citizen at best if not thrown out of their country.

    The fact that so many African-Americans have fought and died for this country in every single war is something they don’t want to hear. It conflicts with their racist version of history. They also don’t want to hear that they’re racist but don’t let that lie fool you. They are. Just let them talk. That shows what they are pretty quick.

    People like the members of the League of the South are the ones that have constantly shoved real history aside in favor of a false one that glorifies great men at the expense of everyone else. They would have you think that white men fought and won the Revolution because they believed in the American idea. That is a flat out lie. We know that a large amount of Washington’s army was black. We know that a lot of the American troops in that army were forced to be in it by courts, impressment (whatever word you want to use), and involuntary conscription to meet state quotas. Men fought in that Army because they didn’t have any other way to make a living too. By 1781 the typical Patriot envisioned by the conservative base was back home because when the going gets tough, those that don’t have to fight don’t.

    They did in 1776 and for a few more years, but as the war dragged on they quit for a lot of reasons. You don’t hear that but you can go check the archives to see who served all the way through. According to the conservative account, that didn’t happen, but according to the records, that is exactly what happened.

  2. Pingback: Was the 2nd Amendment About Preserving Slavery? | American History and Ancestry·

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