History Tidbit: African American Service During the Revolutionary War

African Americans have fought and served in each of our nation’s wars, even before we were a legal nation, but their service and contributions prior to the Civil War were often ignored or overlooked by society.

The history of African Americans was preserved largely through oral tradition with other African Americans, passed from one generation to the next, with very little of it shared with mainstream society in print until the late 19th century and later. Founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 fostered activism and social justice and the crossover of African American literature, art, and music into mainstream culture created awareness and started to break old social barriers. After the Civil Rights Act and National Historic Preservation Act were enacted in the 1960s, many American historians shifted their focus from documenting just political history and stories about our society’s white elite to peeling all layers of culture. As a result, the discipline of history became more diverse and attracted African Americans, like Robert Louis Gates, Jr., and others into the profession. Their research made new discoveries that expanded our understanding of America’s history at all levels of society and continues to do so today.

At least 5,000 African Americans served with state militia units, the Continental Army or Navy, as spies, privateers, waggoneers, and servants of officers during the Revolutionary War, but the full scope of their participation as well as their numbers are still being studied. Photography didn’t come into use until around 1839, so no photographs of those early patriots exist, however, a few were depicted in paintings or drawings years after the fact. Below are highlights of a few African Americans in the Revolutionary War:

image001   Crispus Attucks – the first known African American killed during in Revolutionary War. He was shot by a British soldier during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Crispus Attucks was of mixed African and American Indian parentage and descended from John Attucks of Massachusetts, who was hung during King Phillip’s War in New England (the First Indian War, 1675-78). Crispus Attucks was 47 years old at the time of his death and hailed as a martyr for American liberty. Boston area abolitionists established “Crispus Attucks Day” in 1858 to honor him; a monument by sculptor, Adolph F. Kraus, was erected in his honor in Boston in 1888. He is buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.


image002Peter Salem – In 1750, Peter Salem was born a slave in Framingham, MA. He was owned by New England army captain, Jeremiah Belknap, who sold him to Major Lawson Buckminster around 1775. In May 1775 Massachusetts’ Committee of Safety allowed the recruitment of free blacks for the Framingham militia. Major Buckminster freed Peter Salem so that he could enlist in Captain Simon Edgel’s company of special forces, which were prepared to serve at a minute’s notice. As one of the few black “minutemen,” Peter Salem fought in the Battle of Concord and Lexington before enlisting in Colonel John Nixon’s 5th Massachusetts Regiment. He is best known for his involvement in the Battle of Bunker Hill where he killed the first Englishman, Maj. John Pitcairn. Peter Salem was memorialized in John Trumbull’s 1783 painting “The Battle of Bunker Hill.” Despite his heroics during the war, Salem received no pension after the war died in the Framingham poorhouse in 1816. Today, the `Salem’ gun is preserved at Bunker Hill to commemorate his deed.

image004  James Armistead Lafayette – James Armistead was born a slave in Virginia in 1760. At the age of 21, his owner, William Armistead, granted permission for him to serve in the Continental forces. At first he carried messages between the French units for Marquis de Lafayette until Lafayette realized his potential as a spy. Using Armistead’s information, the French and Americans blocked the British from sending reinforcements to Virginia which led to Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. After the war, Armistead was returned to his owner, since his service as a spy did not fit the definition of “slave-soldier” as described in the Emancipation Act of 1783 which granted freedom to other slaves who served. In 1784 Lafayette was disturbed by the injustice and wrote a testimonial on James’ behalf. In 1786, the Virginia General Assembly gave him his freedom. At that time, he took the last name of Lafayette as his own.

1st Rhode Island (Continental) – organized on May 6, 1775 in the R.I. Army of Observation under Col. James Mitchell Varnum. In 1778, when Rhode Island had trouble recruiting white troops, they enlisted slaves. It became the only regiment of the Continental Army have segregated companies of black soldiers. They fought at the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778 and took part in the siege at Yorktown in 1781. The unit disbanded in 1783 at Saratoga, New York. Drawing, right, depicts foot soldiers, including an African American, of the Yorktown campaign.image008





To learn more:

Crispus Attucks: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr046.html; http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/mar05.html

One of the first published references about Peter Salem was made in Samuel Swett’s 1818 book that gave an account of the Battle of Bunker Hill: http://goo.gl/8Oi5hZ, p. 43.

http://www.virginiamemory.com/online_classroom/lesson_plans/manumission_petition_for_james_lafayette; http://www.army.mil/article/119280/James_Armistead_Lafayette___1760_1832_/;

1st Rhode Island Regiment (Continentals): http://www.rhodeislandsar.org/pdf/Rhode_Island_Units_in_the_Revolutionary_War.pdf; http://www.rhodeislandsar.org/battleri.htm; http://sos.ri.gov/archon/?p=collections/controlcard&id=987; http://revolution.h-net.msu.edu/essays/adams2.html; https://archive.org/stream/memoiroflieutco00ward#page/n7/mode/2up;

African Americans in the Revolutionary War: https://archive.org/stream/coloredpatriots00stowgoog#page/n8/mode/2up; http://blogs.archives.gov/TextMessage/2013/01/08/african-americans-and-the-american-war-for-independence/; http://www.dar.org/sites/default/files/media/library/xpublications/Forgotten_Patriots_ISBN-978-1-892237-10-1.pdf;

Photo sources: Crispus Attucks – Library of Congress; Peter Salem and Rhode Island (Continental) regiment -Hutchins Center for African American Research, Harvard University; James Armistead Lafayette – wikipedia.org

Source: Historian, Veterans Health Administration

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