African Americans in the British and Continental Armies

The first African American who died for our freedom was Crispus Attucks, who was killed in 1770 at the Boston Massacre. This event was a precursor to the American Revolution which is where the rich history of African American serving in the U.S. military begins.

During the American Revolution, between 200,000 and 250,000 citizens in the Thirteen Colonies joined the Continental Army. This is very close to 10% of the 2.4 million individuals living in the colonies at the time. And of those who served, 9,000 were African-Americans, a.k.a. Black Patriots.

The reality is that the Continental Army rarely had more than 45,000 men at any one time because enlistments were typically for a year and death in combat, disease and desertion continually thinned the ranks. About four per cent of the soldiers in George Washington’s army were former slaves who averaged 4.5 years of service under the standard enlistment terms. This is two times the length of the average white soldier.

Twice the British used proclamations (see earlier post on August 30th, 2020 – Proclamations With Unintended Results) to try to entice slaves to flee their masters and join the British Army. Depending on the source, as many as 20,000 and made their way to the British held enclaves – New York, Savannah (after December 1778); Charleston (after May 1780) – and the British colony of Florida.

Those African-Americans who were inducted into the British Army were assigned to units called Black Pioneers. These men were organized into companies of 70 – 80 men and given construction, street cleaning and garbage collection tasks. Later in the war, because the British Army needed men, it started allowing former slaves to serve in line infantry units.

This is totally different than the Continental Army’s practice under George Washington. Throughout the war, former slaves served with honor and distinction side by side with whites in line infantry and artillery units.

What is interesting to note is that George Washington, a plantation and slave owner, wrote to a fellow Virginian and slave owner Colonel William Lee III in 1775 that “success would come to whichever side could arm the black men the fastest.” In 1776, the Second Continental Congress authorized the Continental Army to enlist and re-enlist any African-Americans who wished to serve.

In Rhode Island, the state raised the 1st Rhode Island Regiment which was a small unit never had more than about 225 men and only 140 were African-American. They fought with distinction and oddly enough, was the only segregated unit in the Continental Army. There is a monument to their heroism in Yorktown Heights, NY.

So what happened to the Black Loyalists who sided with the British. The British kept their word and the majority were evacuated. In July 1781, the British moved about 5,000 from Savannah to Jamaica, Bahamas, and other British held islands in the Caribbean. In December 1782, another group of 5,000 from Charleston were taken to the same destinations. Oddly enough, the same Loyalists who left Georgia and South Carolina bought plantations on those British Islands enslaved many of these former slaves.

Another large group of about 3,000 were moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, 500 were taken to West Florida and a fourth group of about 200 were brought to England. Almost half of those brought to Canada decided to return to Africa and started Freetown in what is now Sierra Leone.

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