Black Soldiers in American History
While many volumes of work have been written on the heroics of Anglo-Americans in defense of the United States, insufficient notice has been given to the extensive involvement of blacks in defense of the United States beginning with, but not limited to, the Revolutionary War. Although bought over in chains, blacks continually demonstrated their commitment to liberty, equality and democracy through their participation and valiant fighting in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
The first group of Africans in the United States is attributed to a group of twenty bought in 1619 to an area that was later settled as Virginia. The status of Africans was typically that of indentured servants, or, as agriculture became important economically, slave. All too often the lives of blacks are viewed solely through the lens of the demoralizing and degrading work a slave does. A careful look at the activities of blacks in the United States will reveal far more complex lives. It is important to remember that where slavery existed there was resistance and that as Anglo colonist began discussing the ideas of liberty, equality and democracy, in the context of their subjugation to the British, blacks were deeply affected by these discourses. As the War for Independence began to unfold, blacks participated extensively in the struggle for freedom. While colonists used slavery as a metaphor in describing their relationship to England, for many thousands of blacks, a life of slavery was a tangible reality. When the opportunity came to rebel, both whites and blacks found themselves involved in acts of insurrection.
As a newly settled area, the thirteen colonies did not have the luxury of segregating its troops as the Revolutionary War began to unfold. It was common practice that the men enlisted for the army and navy were assigned indiscriminately, with no regard to race. In spite of these early policies, one finds the Varner Rhode Island Battalion as "…the only large aggregation of Negroes in this war, though Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire each furnished one separate company…"1. As men became scarcer, slaves began to find their way into the ranks. But it is difficult to maintain a caste society when one finds slaves fighting side-by-side with freemen, so October 1775, General George Washington and his generals voted unanimously against the enlistment of slaves and the further enlistment of freemen.
The British Army, under the leadership of Lord Dunmore, quite astutely, offered freedom for any slave fighting for King George. Washington was compelled to act in response to such a provocative offer. One must keep in mind that there were many blacks desirous of enlisting and the decision to enlist and arm slaves came down to necessity. On the question of utilizing Southern slaves, Congress decided that South Carolina and Georgia would "…take measures immediately for...