Black Soldiers of Liberty

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Robert Scott Davis

Previously published by Journal of the American Revolution at Republished with permission.

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill,” by John Trumbull, 1786. Two Black men appear in the upper left and lower right. The one at left is often identified as Peter Salem. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Estimates have appeared in print for generations that 3,000 to 5,000 Black soldiers served in the American military in the Revolution. These claims seldom offer documentation, being instead what historian Michael Lanning defined as only a “general consensus” of the number of African American patriots. Lack of records, reliance on anecdotal evidence, and other factors make any estimate of the number of these soldiers only an educated guess, but modern scholars make arguments for 10,000 or more Black Patriots.[1]

African Americans participated in the patriot cause from the beginning of the conflict, and that had international consequences.[2] George Washington and the Continental Congress originally opposed accepting Black soldiers. As the war progressed and enthusiasm for the Revolution waned, however, men previously marginalized, such as immigrants, filled the ranks. “It serves as no coincidence,” historian Patrick F. Moriarty wrote, “that as the reverence toward the American soldier diminished, the tendency to accept Blacks into the armed service increased.”[3]

African Americans served in the most racially integrated American army until the twentieth century. All of the rebelling colonies except Georgia and South Carolina allowed enslaved people to enlist. In most states, enslaved men could serve in place of White masters to gain emancipation. Virginia law protected 500 of these veterans from former owners trying to reenslave them after the war.[4]
The King’s army did offer emancipation to obtain African Americans as laborers and even soldiers, hoping to deny Black labor and service to the American cause. That did not mean that every Black man who fell into British hands was emancipated – British officer Nesbit Balfour wrote to General Charles, Lord Cornwallis on September 22, 1780, of twelve African Americans captured during the battle of Camden, South Carolina. He urged their sale “to convince blackthat he must not fight against us”; in other words, he hoped that returning these American soldiers to slavery would discourage other Blacks from joining the American army.[5]

Even when the enslaved had the opportunity to escape to emancipation by joining the British, they sometimes declined. The Georgia Act that emancipated mixed-race Austin Dabney, for example, noted that, unlike other enslaved people, he chose not to escape to freedom in British East Florida.[6] Some African Americans sought to return to their White families after being separated from them. British soldiers seized Moses Irvin of South Carolina, for example, and took him to the frontier. Irvin escaped to his owner and received emancipation out of gratitude. Similarly, a man named Jack went with his owner, captured soldier Francis Edwards of Georgia, to imprisonment on the British prison hulks in Charleston. After his master’s death, Jack left Wilmington, North Carolina to try to find his way home to his master’s widow Anne.[7]

African American enlistments in the patriot military increased after the first two years of the war. These men served partly to prove themselves and their descendants as worthy of the full rights of citizens. Unfortunately, by the 1830s, African Americans saw whatever advantages they had gained in the war reduced by increasingly restrictive race laws, especially in Georgia and the Carolinas.[8]

Black service in a war for liberty to create a nation that retained slavery always proved controversial. An anonymous commentator on Gabriel Prosser’s enslaved uprising in 1800 wrote, “during the Revolutionary War, the Negroes did not flock to the standard of Liberty and Equality; but deserted to the very people who curtailed slavery upon them, and perplexity upon us.”[9] Virginia state auditor James E. Heath, however, wrote in 1846, “it is proper to remark that there were many Indians, free negroes, and descendants of Indians in the Army of the Revolution, who not only served faithfully but have rec’d land Bounty.”[10]

Pension records tell of the service of some soldiers. Crippled in battle in Augusta in 1781 or 1782, Austin Dabney received the first pension of someone of his race and the first government purchased emancipation for his service (by the state of Georgia) in 1786. He was, however, the only pensioner of his race for almost the first fifty years of the United States and received notoriety only in 1849 when his life story appeared as a parable on honor and respect over race almost twenty years after his death.[11]

Other Black veterans have only recently received notice. Agrippa Hull, for example, served for six years in the Revolution but he was forgotten despite his living until 1848 as a prosperous Massachusetts landowner. He proved his service for a pension with his discharge signed by George Washington![12] Spy James Lafayette Armistead’s story went unknown for almost a century when scholars began looking for Black patriots.[13] James Roberts even published a memoir of his military career during and after the American Revolution that went ignored.[14]

Only 500 African American soldiers and widows applied for pensions, such as Jim Capers, a drummer who served with famed White partisan Francis Marion and took four wounds at the battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781. He received emancipation but when he applied for a pension in 1832, the federal government denied his claim for want of evidence, a situation common among African Americans who had managed to survive lives of poverty and exceptionally hard labor to live long enough to apply for pensions.[15]

More than 50 percent of the Black veterans moved to other states after the war, far from records of and witnesses to their service. Ishmael Titus, for example, served in many battles in North and South Carolina but, when he applied for a pension in 1832, he lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, far from anyone who might have testified on his behalf. Many Black veterans and widows surely did not even try to apply for pensions.[16]

Recognizing and later counting the Black patriots began with the Revolution but greatly expanded with the movement for emancipation. Some African American veterans, such as Rev. Lemuel Haynes and Primus Hall actively participated in the struggle for general emancipation.Black veteran Dr. James Harris publicly spoke out for ending slavery in his last years. In 1852, however, Rev. William Howard Day told a group of African American veterans of the War of 1812 that to his knowledge no effort had been made to preserve a record of the African American soldiers of the Revolution.[17]

Day did not know of the work that African American William Cooper Nell, a printer and writer employed by prominent Abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison, had begun in 1850. Nell first issued, in Boston, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851), only months before Frederick Douglass’s famous speech asking what the Fourth of July meant to African Americans. He followed with The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). His work is considered the first attempt to write African American History.[18]

These publications, argues historian Gary B. Nash, were “countering the white Negrophobia that had spread throughout the North in the early nineteenth century.”[19] Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips hoped that Nell’s research would challenge all popular prejudices against African Americans.[20]

Garrison published pages from Nell’s work in his attack on the Dred Scott Decision that threatened to protect and even restore enslavement everywhere in the United States. He went on to write The Loyalty and Devotion of Colored Americans in the Revolution and War of 1812 (Boston, 1861). Historian George Henry Moore followed with Historical Notes on the Employment of Negroes in the American Revolution (New York, 1862).[21]

Interest in African American history waned after the Civil War, but found revival in the Black Renaissance of the late 1800s. By 1885, Elon Alonzo Woodward, the white Chief of the Colored Troops Division of the Office of Adjutant General, United States Army, began a history of African Americans in the nation’s military, from colonial times through the Civil War. The Woodward manuscript omitted service in such conflicts as the War with Mexico and, despite the equivalent of seven and one-half years of work hours, its 4,730 pages deal almost exclusively with the Civil War.[22]

Two similar works of the time that included the Revolution and the War of 1812 were Joseph T. Wilson, The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldier of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-’65 (New York, 1887) and George W. Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 (New York, 1888). Wilson and Williams missed much, however, due to a lack of accessible sources.[23]

Williams made the first and most often quoted estimate of the number of Black patriots in the military during the Revolution. Over two winters in the 1880s, he examined muster rolls for sixty-seven Continental regiments in the northern states and, based on the names on the rolls, estimated that they carried the names of 2,345 African American soldiers.[24] Williams’ method of arriving at his estimate has limitations, however. Guessing ethnicity only by name omits Black soldiers with names also frequently found among their White comrades.[25]

Applying Williams’ average to other units in the North for which rosters had not survived and estimating the numbers for regiments in Virginia and other states in the South, he added 655 men for a total of above 3,000 soldiers. Joseph T. Wilson grew that number in print, likely because of a typographical error, to 5,000 men, at least in New England, from a population of some 50,000 African Americans in the North.[26] That estimate would fluctuate in print over the years from 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers and an estimated 1,500 African Americans in the Navy.[27]

Historian Albert Gilbert and others argue that the real “number was probably substantially higher.” Observers seeing so many Black soldiers among the American forces and individual records for the New England soldiers implies that far more African Americans were present.[28]

North Carolina had at least 468 Black soldiers altogether in the war as a whole and Georgia and South Carolina refused to enlist enslaved persons. Yet even in those states African Americans of all statuses played active roles.[29]

Historian Gary B. Nash wrote that Black Americans male and female acted to serve the Revolution faster than Whites and served longer.[30] There are some estimates that as many as 300,000 individuals served in the American Revolution, but that number comes from counting two or more tours of service by individual White soldiers. Many African Americans served only one long tour of duty to the end of the war in order to earn emancipation.[31] If a realistic overall number of total patriot soldiers comes to 150,000, the number of African Americans, estimated at 10 percent, likely comes to 15,000 men, a number consistent with accounts by foreign observers. The percentage of African Americans might, at times, also have reached as high as 25 percent, meaning a correspondingly higher overall number of soldiers.[32]

Black service on both sides of the Revolution contributed to the growing international Enlightenment call for civil, human, and legal rights. Historian Alan Gilbert wrote, “on both sides of the conflict, however, visions of victory motivated African American fighters.”[33] White Americans, and some Europeans such as philosopher John Locke, believed in the liberty of White citizens but not of the enslaved. That idea took a serious blow with the American Revolution. African Americans served in significant numbers during a brief period in a greater international struggle for liberty that began long before 1775 and continues to this day.[34]


[1]Michael Lee Lanning, Defenders of Liberty: African Americans in the Revolutionary War (Secaucus, NJ: Citidel, 1999), 177. See List of Black Servicemen Compiled From the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records (National Archives Special List no. 36, Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1976).

[2]Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 47-53. Also see Sidney and Emm Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution Revised Edition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).

[3]Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 95-96. Also see John U. Rees, “They Were Good Soldiers”: African American Service in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 (Warwick, UK: Helion and Company, 2019).

[4]North Carolina, for example, did not have such a formal arrangement, but freedom for military service in Revolutionary War Virginia can be seen as a basis of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation as it allowed enlistment of African Americans in the federal military in states that refused to return to the Union. W. Trevor Freeman, “North Carolina’s Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” (Master’ Thesis, East North Carolina Univerity, 2020), 80, 127; A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 371-375; Rees, “They Were Good Soldiers”, 144-145.

[5]Nesbit Balfour to Lord Charles Cornwallis, September 22, 1780, Cornwallis Papers, 30/11/64, p. 107, National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew. For the racial experience in the Revolutionary War South see Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South 1775-1782 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

[6]Freeman, “North Carolina’s Black Patriots of the American Revolution,”36; “An act to emancipate and set free Austin, a mulatto; also Harry, a negro fellow” in Horatio Marbury and William H. Crawford, compilers, Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia (Savannah: Seymour, Woolhopter & Stebbins, 1802), 203-204.

[7]David W. Dangerfield, “Testing the Limits: Free Persons of Color and Antebellum South Carolina Law,” The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association(2021): 17; Bobby Gilmer Moss and Michael C. Scoggins, African-American Patriots in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution (Blacksburg, SC: Scotia Hibernia Press, 2004), 128.

[8]Patrick F. Moriarty, “The Myth of the Citizen-Soldier: Black Patriots and the American Revolution” (Master’s Thesis, Wesleyan University, 2014), 18; Sinha, The Slave’s Cause, 93-96, 229-239; Freeman, “North Carolina’s Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” 49-53, 100, 102-103, 111.

[9]Quoted in Philip J. Schwarz, ed., Gabriel’s Conspiracy: A Documentary History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 101.

[10]Petition of James E. Heath, March 25, 1846, bounty land application of Stephen Freeman BLWt2393-100, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 (National Archives microfilm M804, roll 1024), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

[11]The story of Dabmey, however, received little notice until its rediscovery during the Black Renaissance of the 1890s. Robert S. Davis, “Tribute for a Black Patriot: A Pension for Austin Dabney.” Prologue Magazine 46 (Fall 2014): 22-29.

[12]Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Hodges, Friends of Liberty: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and the Betrayal that Divided a Nation: Thomas Jefferson, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 52-70, 79-94, 260-266.

[13]See Anne Rockwell, A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent (Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda, 2016).

[14]James Roberts, The Narrative of James Roberts: A Soldier Under General Washington in the Revolutionary War, and under Gen. Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 (Chicago: The author, 1858).

[15]John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution (New York: De Capo Press, 2016), 148, 176, 197. For African American veterans and widows pension claims see Judith L. Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017); and Ashley K. Schmidt, “Black Revolutionaries: African-American Revolutionary War Pensioners in the Early Republic, 1780-1850,” (Ph. D. diss, Tulane University, 2018).

[16]Freeman, “North Carolina’s Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” 91-92; Moss and Scroggins, African American Patriots in the Southern Campaign, 233-234; Rees, “They Were Good Soldiers,” 155-162.

[17]Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York: BBC, 2005), 96-97; Hugh Bicheno, Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War (New York: William Collins, 2004), 159-160.

[18]Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, 5 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 4: 292, 391; Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Valley Forge(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 337.

[19]Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Viking, 2005), 225.

[20]William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans (Boston: Robert F. Wallcott, 1855), 5-8.

[21]William C. Nell to Wendell Phillips, July 8, 1855, in Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, 4: 298-301; Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin Press, 2012), 472, 550.

[22]Colored Troops from and during the Revolutionary War. Letter from the Secretary of War transmitting an exhibit of documents in the office of the Adjutant General touching the introduction of the negro into the American colonies and his military service (Washington, DC: Governmrnt Printing Office, 1888), 50th Congress, 1st Session. House document 294.

[23]Robert B. Eleazer, America’s Tenth Man: A Brief Survey of the Negro’s part in the American History(Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Council, 1940), 7; Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), ix; Lanning, Defenders of Liberty, 177.

[24]George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887), 35n.

[25]Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 98, 284 n. 12; Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light, 7, 11, 13.

[26]John Hope Franklin, George Washington Williams: A Biography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 106-107, 110.

[27]George W. Reid, “Four in Black: North Carolina’s Black Congressmen, 1874-1901,” Journal of Negro History 64 (3) (Summer 1979): 240n5.

[28]Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 98, 104, 174-175, 284n12, 311n35; Gary B. Nash, “The African American Revolution” in Jane Kamensky and Edward G. Gray, The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 250-272.

[29]Freeman, “North Carolina’s Black Patriots of the American Revolution,” 3.

[30]Nash, The Unknown American Revolution, 223. Also see Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light and Douglas R. Edgerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[31]Schmidt, “Black Revolutionaries,” 117; Douglas R. Dorney, Jr., “A Demographic View of the Georgia Continental Line and Militia: 1775–1783,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 22, 2022,

[32]Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 98, 104, 174-75, 294 n. 12; Damani Davis, “The Rejection of Elizabeth Mason: The Case of a ‘Free Colored’ Revolutionary Widow,’” Prologue Magazine43 (Summer 2011): 51-61.

[33]Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 152.

[34]For the American Revolution as part of a greater struggle for emancipation see Christina Proenza-Coles, American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World (Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books, 2019); David Hackett Fischer, American Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022); and Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

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