When the American Revolution began, the British knew that to win, they had to disrupt the economy of the Thirteen Colonies which was heavily dependent on exports – lumber, dried fruit, fish and vegetables, rice, indigo, cotton and tobacco.
The British were also smart enough to understand that the economies of Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia were far more dependent on agriculture than the other nine. Back in the 18th Century, farming – planting, weeding and harvesting – was a manual process. There was none of the specialized equipment we see today. Mechanization in those days was a plow drawn by horses or oxen and the plantations were heavily depended on slave labor to produce crops of indigo for blue dye, rice, cotton and tobacco.
Knowing Virginia plantation owners dependence on slave labor, James Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor for the Colony of Virginia, issued a proclamation November 15th, 1775 that established martial law in the colony and offered freedom for any slave who left a plantation and joined the British Army. Estimates for the number of slaves who joined the British Army vary from 600 to 2,000. Dunmore’s unit was known as the Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment and in its first action against the Continental Army in December 1775 at the Battle of Great Bridge, they, along with the British Army were defeated.
Known as Dunmore’s Proclamation, the document had three unintended consequences. One, plantation owners on both sides were angry because none of them wanted to lose the manpower needed to produce crops.
Two, most of the slaves were not inoculated against smallpox and an outbreak in the British Army in the spring of 1776 decimated Dunmore’s unit.
Three, Dunmore was forced out of the colony by Virginia citizens who favored independence. He left with 300 members of the Ethiopian Regiment, never to return. The unit was disbanded and the members distributed amongst units that became known as Black Loyalists.
The second proclamation was issued by General Sir Henry Clinton four years later on June 30th, 1779 to disrupt the economy of Georgia and South Carolina. Clinton also noticed that there were a significant number (approximately 5,000) of former slaves serving in the Continental Army. Several of the southern colonies such as Virginia granted any slave freedom if he served in the Continental Army.
Clinton’s proclamation is interesting because he admits he is following the practice of the Continental Army. Known as the Phillipsburg Proclamation, Clinton wrote in the very first line, “Whereas the enemy has adopted the practice of enrolling Negroes as members of their troops…”
This is a testament to the fighting qualities of the African American soldiers in the Continental Army. Unlike the British Army which placed them in separate units, they served shoulder to shoulder with their white comrades in arms.
Many historians believe the Phillipsburg Proclamation was an admission by Sir Henry Clinton that the British Army was losing the war. Or, or at best, the war was at a stalemate. He hoped that by capturing Savannah and then Charleston, he could turn the tide.
In some ways, Clinton’s proclamation succeeded beyond his expectations because over 5,000 slaves escaped from plantations just in Georgia. He had so many, he ordered many to return to their masters.
At the end of the war, 3,000 were moved to Nova Scotia and some went to Sierra Leone, a British Colony in Africa where they established the colony’s capital, Freetown.