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Blacks and the Revolutionary War

African American news from Pasadena - Blacks and Revolutionary War - Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks, a Black man, the first to die in the
American Revolutionary War.

African American participation was enormous during the events leading to American Independence, but these contributions are seldom mentioned in contemporary history books. For example, Crispus Attucks, a black man and probably an escaped slave, was the first person killed in Boston when tensions between British soldiers and an angry crowd resulted in the death of five people. March 5, 1770 was initially called the day of the Boston Massacre but the name was soon changed to Crispus Attucks Day. Crispus Attucks Day remained the chief American anniversary

until independence was won and it was replaced by July 4. John Adams, our second president, called March 5, 1770 the most important event in American history. On October 13, 1888 a monument was erected on Boston Common called the Crispus Attucks Memorial.

African American news from Pasadena - Blacks and the Revolutionary War - Peter Salem

Peter Salem, a Black man, at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

British resentment increased dramatically after the Boston Massacre until things finally exploded on April 19, 1775 into the Revolutionary War. At least a dozen black militiamen were among those firing the "shots heard round the world" at Lexington on April 19. One of the first Americans to fall was a black minuteman named Prince Estabrook. The second major clash was fought at Bunker Hill on June 17, where two African Americans again became great heroes. Peter Salem became famous after he shot and killed Major Pitcairn, the British commander. Salem Poor so distinguished himself in this same battle that 13 officers, including his commander, Colonel Brewer, recommended him for official recognition to the General Court of Massachusetts. However, less than 6 months after Lexington and the Battle of Bunker Hill, a pattern of exclusion of blacks from the new nation's military units had begun to develop. Southern slave owners protested vehemently against the use of black people in the Revolutionary War including George Washington who himself was a slave owner. Finally, on October 8, 1775, Continental Army headquarters bowed to southern pressure and issued a decree excluding all African Americans from service in Continental units.

As the war dragged on and the number of white deserters became enormous, Washington complained that "the lack of patriotism is infinitely more to be dreaded than the whole British army." Washington changed his mind drastically after his defeat by the British at New York, when he was greatly outnumbered. He then partitioned the new government to welcome all able-bodied men into the Continental Army whether black or white, slave or free. Accordingly, on March 14, 1779, Alexander recommended that South Carolina and Georgia "take measures for raising 3,000 able-bodied Negroes who would receive no pay but would be emancipated at the end of the war." White slave masters of the North and South who didn't want to risk their lives or their sons' lives were allowed to send slaves to take their place. There were soon so many black soldiers that General Schuyler wrote, "Is it consistent with the sons of freedom to trust their ALL to be defended by slaves?" 19th century American historian Ben J. Logging wrote that "as the war went on, and the ranks of the army grew thinner, an increasing number of Negroes took the place of the whites, until it began to appear that Ethiopia as well as America was in arms." Baron Von Clausen stated that of the 20,000 men he saw with Washington in January, 1781, "5000 were Negroes."

It is indisputable that African Americans provided the balance of power that brought America independence. They distinguished themselves in every possible manner from combat soldier to support personnel who built virtually every fortification and new building from Vermont to South Carolina. Sir Henry Clinton wrote Lord Germaine, British minister of state, "It is safe to say that but for the aid of the Negro, independence would not have been won." All black regiments as well as individual soldiers who distinguished themselves were mentioned by the hundreds. Rhode Island, with a small population and two thirds of its territory occupied by the British, became the first colony to authorize the enlistment of all slave regiments. At the battle of Rhode Island, August 27, 1778, a regiment of 226 slaves repelled a force of 6000 British who charged them 3 times in an attempt to dislodge them from a strategic valley. Dr. Harris wrote, "They preserved our army from capture and helped gain our liberty." General Lafayette called this "the best action of the whole war." A company of blacks from Boston called the "Bucks of America" rendered such valuable service that John Hancock gave them a special flag and honored them with a special affair at Boston. George Bancroft wrote of the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in 1778, "May history record that more than 700 black men offered their lives for their country and fought side by side with whites." Commander Nathaniel Shaler thought so highly of the black soldiers who fought under him that he sent a letter to Governor Thompkins stating that, "They ought to be registered in the book of fame and remembered as long as bravery is considered a virtue." In general, the contributions of black Americans who had fought to bring freedom to America were not forgotten. Virtually all of the slaves who fought in the war received their freedom after the war. In fact, the institution of slavery did not even last throughout the war in most northern states. In 1777, Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery. Pennsylvania followed in 1780, and Massachusetts in 1783. Rhode Island freed its slaves in 1784. Even Virginia passed a law freeing all slaves who participated in the war. Unfortunately, the contributions of African Americans were soon forgotten in the South, where the vast majority of them lived, and the institution of slavery soon returned to business as usual.

I'm Dr. Leroy W. Vaughn and that's my view.

[Dr. Leroy W. Vaughn, M. D., is a practicing physician specializing in diabetic eye disorders. His practice, Eye Care for Diabetics Medical Group, Inc., is located in Inglewood CA. You may contact Dr. Vaughn at (310) 671-0909.]

 

 

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