African-Americans in the Revolutionary War

African-American slaves were prohibited from serving in the military during the Revolutionary War.
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Updated on: September 20, 2006
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(Slaveholding) Founding Fathers

Without George Washington, there would have been no United States of America. Yet those accustomed to thinking of Washington exclusively as a benevolent, egalitarian, liberty-loving Founding Father tend to ignore the fact that he was the wealthiest man in America, and that his livelihood (like that of Thomas Jefferson, another revolutionary and future president) was built on slave labor. Both of these white slaveholding revolutionaries won enduring fame for struggling successfully against the British, and for setting out noble aims for the new republic. The conflicts between their best-known, and long-enduring, ideals and the realities of their domestic lives, however, has, for many African-Americans, tarnished their legacy.

It is easy, even today, for white Americans to forget that the Declaration of Independence's promises of life, liberty, and happiness were initially intended to be applied only to white males, and that the Constitution quietly sanctioned the institution of slavery.

Washington Rebuffs the Slaves

Slaves made up one-quarter of the populations of the new nation. A large number of them appealed to General Washington to join the army—and thereby secure their freedom. Washington chose not to grant freedom in exchange for military service.

On the March

Many colonial African-Americans took up the British offer of freedom in exchange for service to the Crown, with the result that African-Americans served on both sides of the conflict as fighters, workers, trail guides, messengers, and haulers of cargo. On the colonial side, many African-Americans saw service as foot soldiers replacing whites.

The result of the British overture to American slaves was quite alarming to whites accustomed to seeing African-Americans in an entirely menial and servile position. As one Maryland newspaper reported:

  • The insolence of the Negroes in this county is come to such a height, that we are under a necessity of disarming them, which we affected on Saturday last. … The malicious and imprudent speeches of some among our lower classes of whites have induced them to believe that their freedom depended on the success of the King's troops. We cannot therefore be too vigilant nor too rigorous with those who promote and encourage this disposition in our slaves.

For a time, enslaved Africans were prohibited from serving in the American army, but in 1778, with the revolutionary cause facing grave challenges, Rhode Island broke ranks and permitted slaves to enlist. Within two years, slaves were fighting and dying on the front lines. So it was that, despite white skittishness, large numbers of African-Americans took to arms in defense of the new nation. These troops showed a deep attachment to the American homeland, an attachment that few whites bothered to try to comprehend.

African-American forces fought side by side with whites at Lexington and Concord, at the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, and at the Battle of Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill; slaves and free African-Americans served with distinction in most of the major battles of the war.

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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