Historical Essay: African American Heroes and why they fought for a country that abused them

 

The British Colonies in North America became the new home of colored men and women from all over the globe because of the slave trade. While it is true that The U.S. has a diverse population filled with a multicultural citizenship not seen in any other nation, the African American slaves were forced to fight harder and longer for freedom. Of all the peoples that inhabit America, and whose ancestors endured forms of persecution in American society, the African American people have paid dearly and fought relentlessly for the rights, liberties, and freedoms promised in The Declaration of Independence. While many of America`s cultures have experienced bigotry and racism, none have endured the same fight for rights as African Americans. This begs the question of why African Americans fought in the Revolutionary War for the very nation that had enslaved them. The answer lies in the new language of liberty heard in The Declaration of Independence, public speeches, pamphlets, and pubs during the Revolutionary Era.[1]

Historical accounts, documents, newspapers, war records, and journal entries suggest that African American slaves and free black men fought for one ideal: the ideal of freedom and liberty promoted in The Declaration of Independence. Moreover, their thirst for liberty did not lend itself to bias in terms of which side they would fight for, necessarily. Rather, historical accounts point to the fact that African slaves, colored slaves, and freed blacks, fought for the ideal of freedom and liberty on both sides of the Revolution. It simply depended, to them, on which side might better deliver on this promise of freedom. Before the American Revolution occurred, African slaves, especially those that held positions close to the very men that sparked the revolution, heard the language of freedom, individual sovereignty, and inalienable rights discussed in the pre-revolution colonial states.[2] Moreover, freed blacks enjoyed such political freedoms as the right to bear arms. And many had fought in other wars prior to the revolution.[3] They saw the Declaration of Independence as an end to slavery and a chance for complete citizenship in the new republic. If the rebels failed, they would gain their freedom under British rule.

Prior to the revolution in the colonies, there were no innocent bystanders to the slave trade. The colonial nations of the world, among others, were involved in the African slave trade to one degree or another and, in all cases, enslaved other races as well.[4] As the slave trade began to lose its appeal to Enlightenment thinkers, the abolitionist movement thrived, and with it, new ideals about the rights of men and the existence of inalienable rights.[5] The idea of individual sovereignty was born out of the Magna Carta in 1215.[6] This was the first time in human history that a sovereign was held to account for his actions by the very people he ruled in his kingdom. The Enlightenment furthered these ideals. Moreover, The Decoration of Independence and the American Revolution were sparked by the idea of individual sovereignty and that rights that were given by God and not by government. Enlightened thinkers believed that no government, sovereign, man, or group of men could take these inalienable rights away.

African slaves and freed blacks heard about this new philosophy, and the dispersion of its ideals brought a new excitement into their communities. They believed they were seeing a possible end to their plight within the revolutionary ideals taking shape in the American Colonies. These principles, the stories of revolution, and the language of the Declaration of Independence are the only rational explanation as to why African American slaves, among others, would have found the reason or motivation to fight for the colonies during the revolution. The freed blacks and slaves believed these liberties and freedoms would extend to them as well. This thesis is proved true in the stories of African American men that chose to fight, and in some cases die, for the cause of freedom in the new American Republic.

Salem Poor, a freed black man that fought in the Revolutionary War, was born a slave in the American Colonies sometime around 1747-1750. He lived in Massachusetts. In the Northern Colonies it was possible for a slave to purchase their freedom, however, very few could afford the price. According to the National Parks Service Revolutionary War Historical Site, Salem Poor “purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds” which would have amounted to about one year’s worth of wages at that time.[7] The interesting part of this fact is that Poor could have done several things with his freedom. Many slaves that had purchased their freedom before the revolution became tradesmen of various kinds including blacksmiths, carpenters, etc. However, Poor chose to join the Minute Men and eventually the Colonial Army at the beginning of the revolution. Many slaves and freed blacks chose to fight for the revolution until George Washington began to question the wisdom of allowing them to fight. Washington decreed that no more slaves or freedmen of color could join his ranks. This decision backfired on Washington when the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, released a proclamation, “…promising freedom to any slave of a rebel who could make it to the British lines,” [8] [and that would fight for the crown]. This proclamation by Lord Dunmore caused some 5000 African Americans to join the British troops in their cause to put down the rebellion. Furthermore, these freed blacks and slaves fought for the eventual promise of their personal freedom. Eventually Washington saw the error of his decision about recruiting freed blacks and slaves into his ranks. Washington saw the mass force of slaves running to the British lines. He also saw his own depleted forces and allowed slaves and freedmen of color to join his ranks once more.

Salem Poor went on to fight in several of the major battles in the revolution including Bunker Hill in which he was eventually awarded a meritorious commendation by the Court of Massachusetts.[9] Interestingly, the white members of Poor`s own regiment petitioned on his behalf for the meritorious commendation.[10] The words of the commendation are too long to quote in full but the most important descriptions attributed to Poor are as follows: [Poor] “behaved like an experienced officer…[conducted himself as] a brave and gallant soldier…To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious.”[11] Poor finished his enlistment and was discharged in 1780. There are no records of his life after his meritorious service to the Continental Army. Historians only recall that he died a free.

The Northern States began to enact various forms of emancipation throughout the Revolutionary Era. Slavery continued in America until the Civil War. Poor led a life of freedom until he died; however, the vast majority of his fellow African Americans would continue in their own quest for the same rights, liberties, and freedoms promised in the Declaration of Independence for decades to come.

No one will ever really know what drove men like Salem Poor to fight on the side of the Continental Army. Historians can only draw logical conclusions from documents, stories, the Founders and Framers diaries, and other sources from that time period. The sad truth for African Americans is that much of their history is lost, undocumented, and skewed through the prism of white men`s written history. The plausible conclusion is that Poor and other slaves and freed blacks of that time period believed their masters and men like Washington, Jefferson, and others would share the glory of their ideals with all men. Furthermore, it said so in their own writings; The Declaration of Independence clearly stated that “All men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights.”

Historian Douglas R. Egerton makes the case that George Washington had abolitionist sympathies in spite of evidence that he didn`t see the black man as an equal.[12] Egerton`s prologue tells the story of Washington`s valet William Lee. The story conveys a relationship that develops between Washington and Lee that can only be described as an endeared friendship. Lee was injured while working at Mount Vernon and eventually became crippled due to his injury. In the end, Washington left a small monthly retirement and a permanent residence to Lee in his will. In spite of all this, and according to Egerton`s account, Lee died broke and drunk. He used alcohol to ease the pain of the injuries he suffered while working on Mount Vernon for Washington.[13] The broader point in Egerton`s book was that while the Founders and Framers spoke about “liberty or death” and wrote the documents that America was built upon, they never quite let go of their own habit of owning slaves until the abolitionist movement went from a whisper to a scream. The evidence that supports their abolitionist leanings is found in their own writings; however, the act of owning slaves was not quite repugnant enough until it was too late to change history`s opinions about the Founders and slavery. Historians and political pundits, primarily, see the Founders as slave owning hypocrites rather than men that believed the ideas in the Declaration of Independence would one day free all men and women from political and societal oppression.

The talk of liberty and the writings about liberty during the Revolutionary Era are the only reasonable explanations for African slaves and freed blacks to fight for the Continental Army, or the British. This conclusion is further evidenced by the story of Gabriel in the epilogue of Egerton`s book. The story entitled, General Gabriel`s Flag: Unsuccessful Coda to the Revolution, is an account of Gabriel Prosser`s disgust with the reality that liberty was fought for and won by both blacks and whites, and yet, the African American was still not privy to the full rights of American citizenship as put forth in the Declaration of Independence and the final Constitution of 1789.

This story proves, in retrospect, that slaves and freed blacks saw the revolution as their own fight for freedom as well. They believed that fighting alongside of white soldiers would show them to be equals in every way. Moreover, there had been proof of this very hope in stories like Salem Poor`s at Bunker Hill. His fellow soldiers petitioned for an accommodation, or honorable mention, to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay.[14] He was given this great honor as his fellow soldiers and officers requested. During and after the Revolution there can be no doubt that stories like Salem`s would be heard in the slave community. Historians demand evidence to make such claims. According to Edgerton`s account, “[Patrick] Henry`s famous speech demanding ‘Liberty or Death,’…remained legendary for years to come, and both the phrase and its sediments would come to mean a great deal to…enslaved Virginians.”[15] History, logic, and human behavior suggest that stories like Salem Poor`s, among others, reached the ears of slaves and freed blacks and that they hoped for the same liberty as their white counterparts. This leads to the story of Gabriel Prosser. Prosser (also known as General Gabriel) was a man that died for the same liberty his white countrymen had promised to all men, and yet, in the fall of 1800, Prosser died fighting for this same liberty.[16]

Prosser represents thousands of other African American slaves that in the aftermath of the revolution were unable to celebrate its fruits. They had felt liberty slip through their hands. They saw several token acts against the slave trade and the ownership of slaves in the Northern States of the new republic; however, the blood that was shed in the revolution, by their own kinsmen, did not release the African slaves` chains. Prosser`s story gives a clear view into the mind of the African slave after the revolution. His story lends credible evidence to the thesis of why Africans would fight for the colonies and against the British. Prosser was one of the few willing to stand up and face his white adversaries. He demanded the same rights they, the whites, demanded in The Declaration of Independence.

Looking at Prosser`s story through the lens of white history, he seems like another criminal that suffered the death penalty; however, if one looks through the eyes of the African slave, he was a man, just like any other, that wanted to be free and was willing to pay for it with his life. Prosser was tried and executed for a failed attempt at starting a new revolution of slaves and poor whites. His battle cry, ironically, was “Death or Liberty.” This was a purposeful inversion of Patrick Henry`s famous speech. This one man, Gabriel Prosser, felt the cry for “Liberty or Death” fell short in terms of the black man`s plight for freedom. He therefore decided that “Death or Liberty” was more meaningful. It was a deeper cry for freedom.

Edgerton argues in his book about the questions surrounding the Founders` and Framers` beliefs in terms of slavery before and after the revolution. He ends his book with the detailed story of Gabriel Prosser. Prosser`s story not only proves that the Founders and Framers did not end slavery, although the reasoning is vague and could be argued in many different ways, but that slaves and freedmen both thought the revolution would end their fight for equal rights.

Although some 5000 slaves chose to fight for the British because of the promise of freedom, their kinsman did so for the colonies for the very same reason. It seems that each camp, those for the British and those for the colonies, saw their choice as a roll of the proverbial dice. Each one saw fighting as their means to and end of slavery. They fought with white men, and in some cases their former masters, for the same freedom and ideals that the new republic said it would provide; however, in the end, they would not fully realize this same liberty for another 160 years. By 1804 the Northern States had abolished slavery. The South would not do so without the shedding of more blood.

 

 

Illustrations from footnotes

Meritorious Commendation for Salem Poor

1

[17]

2

 

3

 

[18]

Bibliography

Primary sources from photos:

“African American Patriots of the Revolutionary War.” (Fold3. January 1, 2014). (Accessed April 16, 2015). http://img4.fold3.com/img/thumbnail/16534654/300/400/0_0_372_552.jpg.

Headsman. “1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, Slave Rebel.” (ExecutedToday.com. October 10, 2010). (Accessed April 16, 2015). http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/10/10/1800-gabriel-prosser-rebellion-virginia/.

Books:

Egerton, Douglas R. Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009. Accessed March 20, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

Quarles, Benjamin. “Uncertain Trumpet.” In The Negro in the American Revolution. Williamsburg, Virginia: University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill, 1961.

 

Journals:

 

Hartgrove, W.B. “The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution.” The Journal of Negro History 1, no. 2 (1916): 22. Accessed April 21, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/i354014.

 

Secondary sources:

“Abolitionism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. May 8, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1448/abolitionism.

Beers, Henry A. “The Revolutionary Period 1765-1815.” In Initial Studies in American Letters. New York, C. L. S. C. Department, 150 Fifth Avenue, NY: Chautauqua Press, 1891.

History.com Staff. “Magna Carta.” History.com. January 1, 2009. Accessed March 16, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/british-history/magna-carta.

O`Brien, William P. “Poor, Salem (1747-1780).” Blackpast.org. Accessed March 16, 2015. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/poor-salem-1747-1780.

“Stories from the Revolution.” The American Revolution: Lighting Freedom`s Flame. December 4, 2008. Accessed March 15, 2015. http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html.

“Salem Poor: A Brave and Gallant Soldier.” Slideshare.net. January 1, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2015. http://www.slideshare.net/wtlodge/salem-poor-2-1401.

 

End notes

[1] The Revolutionary Era is considered to have been 1765-1815: Henry A. Beers, “The Revolutionary Period 1765-1815,” In Initial Studies in American Letters, (New York, C. L. S. C. Department, 150 Fifth Avenue, NY: Chautauqua Press, 1891).

[2] Washington’s valet William Lee was often present during important meetings and discussions: Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009), Accessed March 20, 2015. ProQuest ebrary, 11

[3] W.B. Hartgrove, “The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution.” The Journal of Negro History 1, no. 2 (1916), 22, (Accessed April 21, 2015), http://www.jstor.org/stable/i354014.

[4] Africans were not the only race enslaved during the slave trade era: Egerton, 17-19.

[5] English Quakers introduced legislation against the slave trade as early as 1772: “Abolitionism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (May 8, 2014), http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1448/abolitionism, (Accessed March 12, 2015).

[6] The Magna Carta: History Staff, “Magna Carta,” History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/british-history/magna-carta. (2009), (Accessed March 16, 2015).

[7]  “Stories From The Revolution,” The American Revolution: Lighting Freedom`s Flame, http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html,

(December 4, 2008), (Accessed March 15, 2015).

 

 

[8] “Stories From The Revolution,” The American Revolution: Lighting Freedom`s Flame, http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html,

(December 4, 2008), (Accessed March 15, 2015).

[9] Benjamin Quarles, “Uncertain Trumpet.” In The Negro in the American Revolution, (Williamsburg, Virginia: University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill, 1961), 10-11

[10] William P. O`Brien, “Poor, Salem (1747-1780),” Blackpast.org, (2015), (Accessed March 16, 2015), http://www.blackpast.org/aah/poor-salem-1747-1780, Pp.2

[11] O`Brien, Pp.1

[12] Egerton, 4

[13] Egerton, 11

[14] “Salem Poor: A Brave and Gallant Soldier,” Slideshare.net, (2015), http://www.slideshare.net/wtlodge/salem-poor-2-1401, (Accessed March 16, 2015).

[15] Edgerton, 272

[16]Gabriel was convicted of conspiracy and insurrection and hanged: Edgerton, 280

[17] “African American Patriots of the Revolutionary War.” Fold3, (January 1, 2014), (Accessed April 16), 2015. http://img4.fold3.com/img/thumbnail/16534654/300/400/0_0_372_552.jpg.

18 General Gabriel: Headsman, “1800: Prosser`s Gabriel, Slave Rebel,” ExecutedToday.com, 2010

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S.W. Biddulph

Scott Biddulph is a published writer, author, and poet from North Georgia. He began writing as a youngster and followed his lifelong dream of reaching people through the written word when he returned to The University of North Georgia in 2013 to finish earning his BA/English with a concentration on publication and creative writing. His publications include the following: an eBook, Apples of Gold: A collection of inspirational short stories and poems (Smashwords, 2010) and a paperback, Voices from the Heart, (Createspace, 2012). His poetry is published in Papers and Publications Undergraduate Research Journal. Vol 3 (2014) and the award-winning Chestatee Review (Spring, 2015), among other places (Check his LinkedIn profile for a full list of his publications). He is currently working on publishing poetry, creative non-fiction, academic essays, and his memoir. ******** Scott has also worked as an intern editor for the University of North Georgia Press. As a freelance editor, he has done the layout and design of several books and magazines. He is currently working with several authors on various publication projects in which he is either ghostwriting, editing manuscripts, or doing the layout and design of their books. ******** Finally, and most importantly, he is a father, grandfather, husband, and dedicated Harley Davidson rider. He and his family enjoy the beauty of the North Georgia Mountains where they live—especially their screened in back porch where they love to bird watch. ******** ~ "I love realism. I love writing about the raw, down-to-Earth, heartfelt realities of life. I love to write in a way that reaches into the human soul—to take the greatest pains and struggles in life, and make them a blessing to others. Fantasy is a wonderful, interesting thing—but real-life situations, feelings, fears, and dreams are an unexplored ocean of stories that need to be told." ~ ~Scott Biddulph~

3 comments

    • Thank you Lydia,
      I’m so glad you liked this piece. I put about two months into this essay in research and writing. I wish more black Americans would read this kind of stuff and learn how many heroes came from their ancestry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was very informative and profound. I truly loved it!!! We will get it out there and educate the uneducated. You taught me something I did not know. Most black Americans don’t know that Caucasian and African American slave owners bought slaves to save them from the brutality of slavery. Sorry to say but many of us love to hide behind a veil instead of seeking truth.

        Liked by 1 person

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