Of the nearly 500,000 African Americans in the colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution, 445,000 of them were enslaved and 55,000 were free. Almost 5,000 African American soldiers and sailors, free and slave, fought on the side of the Patriots who were trying to separate from England. How hard was it for these men to serve in the cause for freedom? In Massachusetts in May of 1775, a resolution said that no slaves under any circumstances could serve in the army. A council of generals in October of 1775 agreed in total that no slaves could serve, and by a majority agreed to reject negroes altogether. On Nov.12, 1775, Army orders stated that neither negroes, boys unable to bare arms, or old men unfit to endure the fatigues of a campaign, were to be enlisted. Congress relented slightly in January of 1776, and said that the free negroes who had served faithfully at Cambridge could re-enlist, but no others.
I don’t know exactly how the system worked. A free black man could obviously have gone to the recruitment center and said he wanted to join. If accepted, he would have been paid wages for his service. But what about a slave? Would his master take him to the same center, and sign him up? If accepted, would the master get all his wages? Would the slave try to run away?
Would a free black man want to fight for the freedom of his country? Yes, a free black man retained all the rights of a white man, even in the South, except that African Americans were not allowed to vote until the Civil War had ended.
Would a slave want to fight for the freedom of this country? The answer: only if he was crazy. In 1778, Rhode Island finally passed a law that liberated all slaves who fought against England. I don’t know how that worked, either. Did a slave owner take his slave to the recruitment center to fight, knowing he would be free? If so, why didn’t he just free him? If the slave owner didn’t take the slave to sign up, did the slave then go by himself against his master’s wishes? A free black man carried documentation to prove he was free, and a slave would not have those papers, and who would enlist him in the Army?
Most African Americans at this time had no loyalty to a rebellion that promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness only to white men. Nearly 100,000 slaves ran to the English during the war. When the British were still trying to win the allegiance of white Americans, they discouraged this black exodus. When Cornwallis led his troops to Virginia, he permitted runaway slaves to tag along with the army. He and his men encouraged Virginia slaves to follow them, but did not make them. The response was amazing. The blacks flocked to the British from all parts of the state. Some took with them all their masters’ cattle, sheep and horses. On some plantations not a single slave was left. By the middle of June of 1781, almost 12,000 runaways took refuge with Cornwallis. Thomas Jefferson said later that his best estimate was that Virginia had lost 30,000 slaves that year.
Here’s why that mattered. Virginia’s fugitive slaves served as porters, body servants, spies and guides. Many showed the British where all their master’s hidden valuables and livestock were. The freed slaves provided manual labor for the British. These black pioneers built the extensive earthworks the British had erected around Portsmouth and Yorktown. The defection of so many slaves spread the fear of slave revolts throughout Virginia. Cornwallis’ role as slave liberator was for military purposes only, in the beginning. He soon developed a sympathy for the slaves. When Virginia’s governor wrote Cornwallis to inform him that many citizens wanted the return of their slaves, Cornwallis replied politely, “No Negroes have been taken by the British Troops by my orders nor to my knowledge, but great numbers have come to us from different parts of the Country. … Any proprietor not in Arms against us … will be indulged with permission to search the Camp for his Negroes and take them if they are willing to go with him.” Cornwallis had just issued an emancipation proclamation. Slaves who successfully reached British forces would not be forced to return to his or her master. What slave would then freely fight against that policy?