'They Were Good Soldiers': African–Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775–1783

By John U. Rees

Detail from John Trumbull’s 1786 painting ‘The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775’. (Artwork by permission of Yale University Art Gallery.)

‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’: When those words were written in the Declaration of Independence, Africans had been enslaved in British North America for approximately 140 years, and African Americans had been fighting in the Continental Army and states’ militia for 14 months.

‘They Were Good Soldiers’: African–Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775–1783 examines the subject in some detail, including black soldiers’ personal experiences before, during, and after their military service.

The role of African-Americans, most free but some enslaved, in the regiments of the Continental Army is not well-known; neither is the fact that relatively large numbers served in southern regiments and that the greatest number served alongside their white comrades in integrated units.

‘They Were Good Soldiers’ begins by discussing the inclusion and treatment of black Americans by the various Crown forces (particularly British and Loyalist commanders, and military units). The narrative then moves into an overview of black soldiers in the Continental Army, before examining their service state by state. Each state chapter looks first at the Continental regiments in that state’s contingent throughout the war, and then adds interesting black soldiers’ pension narratives or portions thereof. The premise is to introduce the reader to the men’s wartime duties and experiences. The book’s concluding chapters examine veterans’ post-war fortunes in a changing society and the effect of increasing racial bias in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

African American drummer, 2nd Battalion Philadelphia Associators, January 1777.

My intent from the start was to make extensive use of black veterans’ 19th century pension narratives. For those unfamiliar with the Revolutionary War pension applications (deemed by one historian, ‘one of the largest oral history projects ever undertaken’), they are the best way to hear the men’s stories in as close to their own words as is possible – to almost hear them speak. Add to that, personal details, available nowhere else, are revealed by the veterans themselves or people close to them. In essence, my wish is to present their experiences as soldiers, as citizens, and as individuals, and pension narratives are the best way to accomplish that.

Here are several examples showing the range of their experiences:

Connecticut veteran Cezar Shelton: ‘Before he enlisted, he was in the Militia … he was wound[ed] at Horse Neck [Landing], he was just relieved from guard and had lain down with his pack on & fell asleep when he was awaked by an order, surrender[,] he jumped out of the window and escaped to the bushes, but received one blow with a cutlass across his back, he was also struck by a [musket] ball on the skin at the same time …’.

New York soldier Joseph Johnson, aka Thomas Rosekrans, at the Battle of Newtown, August 1779: Major James Rondecrants … gave me orders to stay with the pack horses, I did so a short time, but becoming uneasy I left the horses, took my Gun and engaged in the battle for which I was censured by Major Rondecrants’.

Jim Capers, South Carolina, ‘was in the Battle of Eutaw Springs, at [that] … Battle he received four Wounds, Two cuts upon the face, one on the head with a sword & one with a Ball which passed through his left side, killing the Drummer immediately behind him …’.

Virginian Thomas Mahorney, ‘declares that he is a planter on a little farm not his, and is rendered unable to pursue it by reason of his age and infirmity and that his family residing with him are as follows: Viz: his wife Maima[?] and his son Jack both of which are slaves, he the said Thomas Mahorney being a free man of colour who served in the war of the Revolution, and is unassisted by the labour of his family’.

Four Appendices close the book, covering the role of officers’ servants (both black and white), deserter notices for African American soldiers, and men of color in Virginia’s 1780-81 draft to fill its Continental regiments. Appendix 2 discusses African American women with the army, including Sarah (also called Rachel), a runaway ‘Mulatto slave’, pregnant and accompanied by her son Bob. Sarah and her son were present in 1778 with the 1st Maryland Regiment.

Rachel (previously called Sarah) and her son Bob. based on an October 1778 New Jersey Gazette runaway advertisement. Artwork by Bryant White (Image courtesy of the artist, https://whitehistoricart.com/)

Finally, here is a teaser from the only known letter written by a black soldier during the war, published for the first time in ‘They Were Good Soldiers’: John Lines to his wife Judith, “November the 11 1781 … i am well and hopeing these lines may find you and the Children Well … we lay at fishkill now … I have lived a-11-day With Bread [only] … I re mane your loveing husband un tel death.”

Lines and other veterans returned home to a changed and changing nation. Despite the waning of Northern slavery, with the ratification of the 1789 United States Constitution black bondage was cemented as a political and economic fact, and detrimental racial attitudes hardened, especially after 1800. Thirty-five years after the war black Revolutionary veterans, along with their white comrades, were eligible for service pensions, but, even in that system, they experienced the effect of increasing bias. Still, black Americans continued to fight for their nation, as 81-year-old Judith Lines related in 1837, ‘my youngest son died of a wound recd in the last war [War of 1812], his name was Benjamin, the wound was recd. at the Battle of Chippewa [5 July 1814]’. And black Revolutionary veterans remained proud of their service, as attested by Artillo Freeman, who in a tally of his belongings, totaled the whole at $15.75. At the end of the list he added one more item, ‘Revolutionary Uniform – Invaluable’.

Buy a copy of ‘They Were Good Soldiers. African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783’ here.

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