African American History: American Revolution (Black Participation in the War)
After the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British began to change their relationship with their American colonies. They started to increase taxes, demanded that the colonists help pay for British soldiers stationed in the colonies, and controlled the colonial trade opportunities more carefully. Most colonists were outraged, particularly about the new taxes. They felt that Great Britain did not have the right to tax them, since it did not allow them representatives in Parliament.
Colonists, both black and white, worked together to fight what they saw as British injustices. Interracial mobs rioted against the Stamp Act of 1765 and other despised regulations imposed on the colonies throughout the 1760s. American protests targeted British officials and soldiers. In 1770 Crispus Attucks, a fugitive slave of mixed African and Native American descent, led an interracial crowd of sailors and laborers in attacking the British guard at Boston’s customs office. They threw snowballs, chunks of ice, and stones; in response, the soldiers fired into the crowd, wounding six and killing Attucks and four others. For rebellious Americans, the Boston Massacre, as this event was named, symbolized Britain’s armed determination to deprive them of their rights.
When the American Revolution began in 1775, all but 25,000 of the 500,000 African Americans in British North America were enslaved. Many were inspired by American proclamations of freedom, and both slaves and free blacks stood against the British. The black minutemen at the Battle of Lexington in 1775 were Pompy of Braintree, Prince of Brookline, Cato Wood of Arlington, and Peter Salem, the slave of the Belknaps of Framingham, freed in order that he might serve in the Massachusetts militia. Prince Estabrook, a slave in Lexington, was listed among those wounded in this first battle of the war. African Americans also served in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where former slave Salem Poor received official commendation as ‘a brave and gallant soldier.’
At first General George Washington refused to recruit black troops. It was the British who made the first move to enlist blacks. In November 1775 Lord Dunmore, the British colonial governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that all slaves belonging to rebels would be received into the British forces and freed for their services. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped from Southern plantations, and over a thousand fought for the British. Tye, ‘a Negro who [bore] the title of colonel’ led one interracial guerrilla band in New Jersey. In the South, such bands, called banditti, burned and looted plantations, stole horses, and liberated slaves, some of whom became British soldiers.
The demands of war eventually changed Washington’s mind, and he began to recruit black soldiers. Before the war was over, more than 5000 African Americans from every state except Georgia and South Carolina served in the Revolutionary army. Slaves, many serving in their owner’s place, were promised freedom in return for their service. There were several black regiments like the Rhode Island Regiment and Massachusetts’ ‘Bucks of America,’ but most African Americans served in integrated units, the last integrated American army units until the Korean War in the 1950s.
Thus, African Americans in search of freedom from slavery served on both sides during the Revolution. As a result of the Revolution, the population of free blacks in the United States increased-from about 25,000 in 1776 to nearly 60,000 when the first federal census was conducted in 1790.