African Americans in Early American Military History

This soldier was one among many African Americans who fought for the Union Army in order to abolish slavery and preserve the United States.

photo courtesy of the Clements Library

Although the movie Glory and Ken Burn's documentary The Civil War have reminded the American public about the critical role African Americans played in the American Civil War, black men and women have participated in military conflicts since the colonial period. In colonial conflicts and the War for Independence, black men served in militia units and the Continental Army. However, black participation in American military history has been treated ambiguously at best. Although little research has been done on blacks in the colonial conflict, New England colonial records reveal that blacks were used in militia units in intercolonial wars and conflicts with Native Americans. It is not entirely clear if enslaved black men were utilized in a similar capacity in the southern colonies, but it is probably unlikely since such training could raise white fears of slave revolts.

During the Revolutionary War, black men and women served in a variety of capacities for the Continental and British armies. Proportionally, more African Americans supported the British because they promised freedom to those who fled rebel slaveholders. In 1775, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation in Virginia with such a promise and formed a black regiment of British soldiers. For these soldiers, the Revolutionary War was as much a war for liberation as it was for the American colonists rebelling against England. However, the British military was not always so magnanimous. More often they used blacks as workers to perform menial labor such as building roads and serving officers. Still, in places like New York, black men and women were used as spies for the British and sabotage rebellious cities. Moreover, they created networks to help enslaved men and women to escape to New York City which was occupied by the British. Many of these former slaves, known as the Black Loyalists would migrate to Nova Scotia and the Caribbean and become prominent leaders in the emerging freed black communities.

In New England, states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island employed African Americans in the militia and the Continental Army. Promised freedom for their service, many served in regiments that were interracial. However, Rhode Island raised one of the few predominantly black regiments that fought for American Independence. Although the state legislature approved the measure because the state badly needed men to fight, the black soldiers fought valiantly when given the opportunity to fight for their freedom. As one white soldier remembered, the African American soldiers, known as the Rhode Island Line, played a critical role in the battle of Rhode Island, protecting a key flank which prevented the British from overwhelming the Continental Army. The spirit of the Revolution coupled with black military service inspired a wave of manumission laws that ultimately sealed the fate of slavery in the northern states. Some of these veterans would eventually become leaders in abolition movements throughout the north.

While it is still unclear whether blacks served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, our best understanding of African American military service in the ninetheenth century come from the records of the American Civil War. Indeed, examining the war from the perspective of black Americans parallels the experience of blacks in the American Revolution. Although the military was reluctant to recruit black soldiers, advocates such as Frederick Douglass pressed Lincoln to raise an African American regiment since these men understood the gravity of the conflict and would fight valiantly against the Confederacy to abolish slavery. After the war, black veterans were instrumental in building emancipated black communities, helping to build social and economic institutions.


For more information on role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War:

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