Africans in America: The Revolutionary War

Most African American were neutral or Loyalist. What mattered most was freedom, and the slaves sided with whichever army promised them personal liberty. The British recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters, thus more blacks fought for the Crown. An estimated 100,000 African Americans escaped, died, or were killed during the American Revolution.

Had George Washington been less ambivalent, more blacks might have participated on the Patriot side than with the Loyalists. When he took command of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington barred the further recruitment of black soldiers, despite the fact that they had fought side by side with their white counterparts at the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill.

The Governor of Virginia promised freedom to any slaves owned by Patriot masters who would join the Loyalist forces. Within a month 300 black men had joined his Ethiopian regiment. His proclamation inspired thousands of runaways to help the British throughout the war.

By the winter of 1777-78, the Continental Army had dwindled to 18,000 due to disease and desertion. This, and the active recruitment of enslaved blacks by the British, convinced Washington to approve plans for Rhode Island to raise a regiment of free blacks and slaves.

In October 1781, as Patriot and French ground forces and the French fleet surrounded Cornwallis' men at Yorktown, Virginia, the British sent their black allies to face death between the battle lines. After Cornwallis' surrender, the Americans rounded up the surviving blacks for re-enslavement. For the next year, as Loyalists withdrew from southern ports, black refugees sought passage to New York—the last British stronghold.

In November 1782, as the British prepared their final evacuation, the Americans demanded the return of American property, including runaway slaves, under the terms of the peace treaty. The acting commander of British forces refused to abandon black Loyalists to their fate as slaves. With thousands of apprehensive blacks seeking to document their service to the Crown, the British commandant of New York City created a list known as The Book of Negroes, which identified 3,000 to 4,000 African-Americans Loyalists for boarding ships to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain.

Of the thousands of African Americans who left the plantations, not many of them actually got their freedom.

Source: Africans in America: The Revolutionary War
Copyright © 1998, 1999 WGBH Educational Foundation

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