Slaves & Free Blacks in the Revolutionary War

Instructor: Douglas Rich

Douglas has taught high school History and has a master's degree in Education and Business Administration.

In this lesson, learn how both slaves and free blacks were involved in the Revolutionary War. Understand their role and importance to both the Americans and the British war efforts.

Slaves and Free Blacks in the American Revolution

Slaves and free blacks played a major role in the outcome of the Revolutionary War, but their mention and the credit for their contributions is not in the history books. In school, you might have learned about Crispus Attucks and his involvement in the Boston Massacre. However, there weren't many other tales even though it is estimated that over 5,000 participated directly in the war as soldiers and thousands more as militia or laborers.

Crispus Attucks
Crispus Attucks

Laws Regarding Free Blacks and Slaves as Soldiers

Slavery, or the condition in which one person is owned by another as property, is an institution of the United States dating back to the 17th Century. However, slaves were not the only African-Americans that resided in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution. Free blacks were individuals who had gained their freedom in various ways and continued to live in the colonies. The American Colonies were separated into three distinct cultural regions, the Northern Colonies, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies. Once the American Revolution began in April 1775, the decision to allow free blacks and slaves to fight as soldiers or work as laborers had to be made and the decision differed from one region to the next.

In 1775, General George Washington declared that slaves and free blacks could not enlist in the army or volunteer for the militia. After many devastating American losses, Washington changed his mind and decided to allow free blacks and slaves to enlist. Disease in the American camps further enforced the notion that both slaves and free blacks were necessary to help the American cause.

Slaves and Free Blacks' Contributions to the American Colonies

The Southern Colonies were an agrarian society, meaning their economy was based on agriculture. Slavery was a vital aspect of the economy. The Southern Colonies were uneasy about the decision for slaves and free blacks to fight as soldiers in the American Revolution as it could lead to their freedom after the war and the possible termination of slavery with an American victory.

It was more common to have free blacks and slaves fighting in Northern militia units as the Northern Colonies and the Middle Colonies were commerce-based and did not depend on slavery to thrive. Free blacks in the Northern Colonies and Middle Colonies volunteered as valuable members of their society and wanted to prove their value by fighting for the American Revolution. Free blacks also had to decide on the best option for themselves and their families upon conclusion of the war. Many free blacks remained loyal to the British as did many white people, known as Tories. Upon conclusion of the war, Tories would often choose to flee to Nova Scotia or return with the British to avoid any consequences or repercussions for failing to join the revolutionaries' cause.

Slaves and Free Blacks as Soldiers

For slaves in the American Colonies, their desire and willingness to participate in the war correlated with their desire for freedom. Slaves fought for both the American and the British sides in the war as both offered promises of freedom if they fought a certain period of time. Some slave owners offered the services of their slaves to fight in their place.

Southern Colonies were reluctant and often refused to allow slaves to participate in the war. Southern landowners relied heavily on the labor of their slaves to harvest their crops, and the loss of their labor would be detrimental to their success. Free blacks and slaves would serve as both enlisted infantry and also manual laborers. Both slaves and free blacks would be enlisted as pilots and navigators for both armies' supply chains.

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