Long before the United States Colored Troops (USCT) fought in the American Civil War to help free their people from the shackles of slavery, African Americans fought for liberty in the American Revolution. They fought on both sides. They fought as slaves or free men. Few of them gained recognition for their efforts – but they laid the groundwork for what would come. Here are 5 things you may not know about African Americans in the Revolutionary War.
1. They were on the front lines even before the war began. Crispus Attucks, an African American dockworker, was the first patriot to die in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Between 1775 and 1781, 5,000 African Americans, both free and enslaved, fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War. African Americans were with Washington during the famed Ten Crucial Days, helping turn the tide of the fledgling revolution at the close of 1776. And they were digging and manning the siege lines at Yorktown to bring major military actions to an end in 1781.
2. Washington initially did not accept African Americans in his army.General George Washington, a slave owner, initially banned African Americans from the Continental Army out of fear that arming them could lead to uprisings against slavery. But when Virginia’s British Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, promised to free any slave who left his master to serve alongside British forces, Washington and the Patriot Congress quickly shifted their policies. This change created a stronger, and integrated army for Washington, with black men fighting beside their white comrades for the same cause.
3. For African Americans, the fight for freedom was two-fold. African Americans, free and slave alike, were caught in the middle of a war between the Continental and British armies. Promised their freedom in exchange for military service, thousands answered the call, motivated by the hope of a better life or just the prospect of gaining the basic right of self-determination. While some African Americans did indeed receive their freedom after the war, promises were bent or broken by Americans and British alike and many veterans returned to slavery.
4. One of the most important spies of the Revolution was a slave named James Armistead. Armistead got permission from his owner to volunteer for the Continental Army, where he served under the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette entrusted Armistead to spy on the British army by pretending to be an escaped slave. In return, he received invaluable intelligence that helped deliver the Patriot victory at Yorktown. After the war, Armistead was returned to slavery and his fight for freedom continued. In 1787, Lafayette intervened on his behalf and the newly-free Armistead became James Armistead Lafayette as a token of his gratitude.
5. The idealistic Marquis de Lafayette was an open critic of slavery after the American Revolution. When Lafayette visited New Orleans on a tour of the United States in 1824, he greeted African American Revolutionary War veterans who had migrated there. According to historian Jack Kelly, Lafayette “was troubled by the failure of the founding generation to confront the great paradox of a people dedicated to freedom holding others in bondage.” This paradox would not be resolved for another 41 years, beginning with Confederate capitulation at Appomattox Court House and finally with the ratification of the thirteenth amendment.