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Freedom was the principal motivation for the black slave whether joining either the Patriot or British army. The free black may have been drafted or enlisted by his own volition. Some motives to joining the American forces may have been a desire for adventure, belief in the justice and the goals of the Revolution and the possibility of receiving a bounty. Monetary payments were given or promised to those who joined. They would often become free because of their contribution.
Prior to the revolution, many free African Americans supported the anti-British cause, most famously Crispus Attucks, believed to be the first person killed at the Boston Massacre. At the time of the American Revolution, some blacks had already been enlisted as Minutemen. Both free and enslaved Africans had served in local militias, especially in the North defending their villages against attacks by Native Americans. In March 1775 the Continental Congress assigned units of the Massachusetts militia as Minutemen. They were under orders to become activated if the British troops in Boston took the offensive. Peter Salem, who had been freed by his owner to join the Framingham militia was one of the blacks in the militia. He served for seven years.
In April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, blacks again responded to the call and fought with Patriot forces. The Battle of Bunker Hill also had African soldiers fighting along the side of the white Patriots. Many Africans both enslaved and free wanted to join with the Patriots, believing that it would either lead to their freedom or expand their civil rights. In addition to the role of soldier, blacks also served as guides, messengers, and spies.
American states had to meet quotas of troops for the new Continental Army, and New England regiments recruited black slaves by promising freedom to those who served in the Continental Army. During the course of the war, about one fifth of the northern army was black. At the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Baron Closen, a German officer in the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, estimated the American army to be about one quarter black.
Because of manpower shortages at sea, both the Continental navy and Royal Navy signed African Americans into the navy. Even southern colonies, which worried about putting guns into the hands of slaves for the army, had no qualms about using blacks to pilot vessels and to handle the ammunition on ships. In state navies, some blacks served as pilots, South Carolina had significant numbers of black pilots.
Some African Americans had been captured from the Royal Navy and used by the Patriots on their vessels. Throughout the war, blacks served as seamen on British vessels – where they generally proved to be much more willing and able than their press-ganged British counterparts.
Revolutionary leaders began to be fearful of using blacks in the armed forces. They were afraid that slaves who were armed would uprise against them. Slave owners became concerned that military service would eventually free their people. In May 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, stopped the enlistment of slaves in the armies of the colony. This action was adopted by the Continental Congress when they took over the Patriot Army. George Washington in July 1775 issued an order to recruiters, ordering them not to enroll "any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro or vagabond". unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign, are to be enlisted." Most blacks were integrated into existing military units, but some segregated units were formed,
Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia was determined to maintain British rule in the southern colonies. On November 7, 1775, he issued a proclamation that he would free black and white bondsmen who came to fight with the British. By December 1775 the British army had 300 slaves wearing a military uniform. Sewn on the breast of the uniform was the inscription "Liberty to Slaves". These slaves were designated as "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment."
Dunmore's Black soldiers had brought fear to the Patriots. In December 1775, Washington wrote a letter to Colonel Henry Lee stating that success in the war would come to whatever side could arm the blacks the fastest. Washington then issued orders to the recruiters to reenlist the free blacks who had already served in the army. He worried that these soldiers may cross over to the British side. Congress in 1776 agreed with Washington and free blacks who had already served could be reenlisted. South Carolina and Georgia did resist in enlisting slaves as soldiers. African Americans from northern units did fight in southern battles and some southern blacks were allowed to be a substitute for their master.
The British also feared that if blacks had weapons that they would start slave rebellions. The British did use African Americans as laborers, skilled workers, foragers and spies. Except for those blacks who joined Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, there were only a few blacks, such as Seymour Burr, who served in the British army while the fighting was concentrated in the North. It was not until the final months of the war, when manpower was low that blacks were used for fighting for Britain.
In Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, when threatened by Patriot forces, the British filled gaps in their troops with African Americans. In October 1779, about 200 Black Loyalist soldiers assisted the British in successfully defending Savannah against a joint French and rebel American attack.
In 1778, Rhode Island was having trouble recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress, and the Rhode Island Assembly decided to pursue a suggestion made by General Varnum and enlist slaves in 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Varnum had raised the idea in a letter to George Washington, who forwarded the letter to the governor of Rhode Island. On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of "every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave" that chose to do so, and that "every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free..." The owners of slaves who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an amount equal to the market value of the slave.
A total of 88 slaves enlisted in the regiment over the next four months, as well as some free blacks. The regiment eventually totaled about 225 men; probably fewer than 140 of these were blacks. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers.
Under Colonel Greene, the regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. The regiment played a fairly minor—but praised—role in the battle, suffering three killed, nine wounded, and eleven missing.
Like most of the Continental Army, the regiment saw little action over the next few years, since the focus of the war had shifted to the south. In 1781, Greene and several of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Loyalists. Greene's body was mutilated by the Loyalists, apparently as punishment for having led black soldiers against them.
On July 21, 1782, as the final British ship left Savannah, more than 5,000 African Americans left for Jamaica or St. Augustine. Because they were the property of Loyalists they never gained their freedom from slavery. About 300 blacks in Savannah did not evacuate, fearing that they would be re-enslaved and established a colony in the swamps of the Savannah River. In 1786, many were back in bondage. The evacuation of Charleston in December 1782 saw the departure of more than 5,000 blacks. Over half were slaves still belonging to Loyalists and went to the West Indies. Another 500 slaves went to east Florida.
Many of the Loyalist slaves who sided with the British were promised their freedom. They sailed to New York, England, and Nova Scotia. In New York, the British created a registry of escaped slaves, called the "Book of Negroes". The registry included details of their enslavement, escape and service to the British. If their claim was believed the slave received a certificate entitling them transport out of New York. By the time the "Book of Negroes" was closed, it had the names of 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children, who all resettled in Nova Scotia. About 200 former slaves went to London as free people.
Because blacks living in London and Nova Scotia were faring no better than before the Revolution a movement to relocate the blacks to Sierra Leone had begun, On January 15, 1792, 1,193 blacks left Halifax for West Africa and a new life.
The African American Patriot who gave loyal service to the Continental Army found that the postwar military held no rewards for them. State legislatures like Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1784 and 1785 banned all blacks, free or slave, from military service. Southern states banned all slaves but some states allowed free men to serve in their militias. In 1792, the United States Congress formally excluded the African American from military service, allowing only "free able-bodied white male citizens" to serve.
Many slaves who fought did receive their freedom, but many others did not after their owners reneged on their promise to free them for service in the military.
Despite the added difficulties in African-American genealogy, many descendants of Revolutionary war veterans have been able to document their lineage. Professor Henry Louis Gates and Judge Lawrence W. Pierce, as examples, joined the Sons of the American Revolution.
Black women, many of whom were slaves, served both the Americans and the British in the capacity of nurses, laundresses and cooks.