Black Americans have participated in every armed conflict in American history. Before the twentieth century, the pattern was that the government of the United States would not call on black Americans until defeat was near. Thus black Americans have often been the reinforcements called in at the last minute to save the day. Black Americans have often been given the most dangerous military assignments and they have systemically been denied recognition for their efforts and heroism.
The Revolutionary War represents a slight variation of this pattern. There was no organized central government, so black involvement varied considerably from state to state. The most intense involvement was in Massachusetts. The first American to die in the struggle for independence was
, a black man who died in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, five years before the Revolutionary War began. (Davis 26)
Crispus Attucks is the best known of the black soldiers who fought for American independence. But there were many others. Historian Burke Davis estimates at least five thousand black Americans fought for independence. (Davis 1) Who were these men? Let us briefly sum up Davis’ profiles of some of these men (in alphabetical order):
the most important American spy during the Revolutionary War. Armistead volunteered to help the British, but sent reports back to the patriots every day. The British never suspected the young black man.
of New Jersey fought at Valley Forge and Brandywine and was present for the British surrender at Yorktown.
, a slave on a Georgia plantation, took the place of his master and became an important artillery man.
, far better known as a prominent abolitionist, fought in the Revolution at age fifteen.
, who later became a prominent minister, helped Ethan Allen of Vermont storm the British at Fort Ticonderoga. A portrait of the soldier
still hangs in the historical room of the Stockbridge, Massachusetts town library.
demonstrated heroism in battle in Virginia and was set free by Colonel John Cropper.
died in battle after killing a British commander. A plaque in Fort Griswold later listed Latham, whose nickname was Lambo, as Sambo.
was George Washington’s chief aide and closest companion.
demonstrated such great bravery at Bunker Hill that fourteen white officers recommended him for a Congressional reward. But none was forthcoming.
served in the Virginia navy for nine years and became a prominent Portsmouth businessman after the War’s conclusion.
Finally there is
. Davis and some other historians credit Salem with killing British Major Pitcairn. Most historians seem to feel that claim is unsubstantiated, but Salem’s participation and courage during the Revolution do not seem in doubt.
Questions for Discussion:
Why did it take so long for Americans in general and historians in particular to recognize African-American heroism during the Revolutionary Period?
What specific problems would be faced by military historians that other historians might not face?