George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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for term of years) might receive his freedom; the master
might secure exemption from draught, and a discharge from
future liabilities, to which he must otherwise have been
subjected. In point of fact, some hundreds of blacks - slaves
and freemen - were enlisted, from time to time, in the
regiments of the State troops and of the Connecticut line.
_How_ many, it is impossible to tell: for, from first to
last, the company or regimental rolls indicate _no
distinctions_ of color. The _name_ is the only guide, and,
in turning over the rolls of the Connecticut line, the
frequent recurrence of names which were exclusively
appropriated to negroes and slaves, shows how considerable
was their proportion of the material of the Connecticut
army; while such surnames as 'Liberty.' 'Freeman,'
'Freedom,' &c, by scores, indicate with what anticipations,
and under what inducements, they entered the service.

As to the efficiency of the service they rendered, I can say
nothing from the records, except what is to be gleaned from
scattered files such as one of the petitions I send you. So
far as my acquaintance extends, almost every family has its
traditions of the good and faithful service of a black
servant or slave, who was killed in battle, or served
through the war, and came home to tell stories of hard
fighting, and draw his pension. In my own native town, - not
a large one, - I remember five such pensioners, three of
whom, I believe, had been slaves, and, in fact, _were_
slaves to the day of their death; for (and this explains the
uniform action of the General Assembly on petitions for
emancipation) neither the towns nor the State were inclined
to exonerate the master, at a time when slavery was becoming
unprofitable, from the obligation to provide for the old age
of his slave."[546]

Gen. Varnum, a brave and intelligent officer from Rhode Island, early
urged the employment of Negro soldiers. He communicated his views to
Gen. Washington, and he referred the correspondence to the governor of
Rhode Island.


HEADQUARTERS, 2d January, 1778

SIR: - Enclosed you will receive a copy of a letter from
General Varnum to me, upon the means which might be adopted
for completing the Rhode Island troops to their full
proportion in the Continental army. I have nothing to say in
addition to what I wrote the 29th of the last month on this
important subject, but to desire that you will give the
officers employed in this business all the assistance in
your power.

I am with great respect, sir,
Your most obedient servant,


The letter of Gen. Varnum to Gen. Washington, in reference to the
employment of Negroes as soldiers, is as follows: -


"CAMP, January 2d, 1778.

"SIR: - The two battalions from the State of Rhode Island
being small, and there being a necessity of the state's
furnishing an additional number to make up their proportion
in the Continental army; the field officers have represented
to me the propriety of making one temporary battalion from
the two, so that one entire corps of officers may repair to
Rhode Island, in order to receive and prepare the recruits
for the field. It is imagined that a battalion of negroes
can be easily raised there. Should that measure be adopted,
or recruits obtained upon any other principle, the service
will be advanced. The field officers who go upon this
command, are Colonel Greene, Lieutenant Colonel Olney, and
Major Ward; seven captains, twelve lieutenants, six ensigns,
one paymaster, one surgeon and mates, one adjutant and one

"I am your Excellency's most obedient servant,


Gov. Cooke wrote Gen. Washington as follows: -

"PROVIDENCE, January 19th, 1778.

"SIR: - Since we had the honor of addressing Your Excellency
by Mr. Thompson, we received your favor of the 2d of January
current, enclosing a proposition of Gen. Varnum's for
raising a battalion of negroes.

"We in our letter of the 15th current, of which we send a
duplicate, have fully represented our present circumstances,
and the many difficulties we labor under, in respect to our
filling up the Continental battalions. In addition thereto,
will observe, that we have now in the state's service within
the government, two battalions of infantry, and a regiment
of artillery who are enlisted to serve until the 16th day of
March next; and the General Assembly have ordered two
battalions of infantry, and a regiment of artillery, to be
raised, to serve until the 16th of March, 1779. So that we
have raised and kept in the field, more than the proportion
of men assigned us by Congress.

"The General Assembly of this state are to convene
themselves on the second Monday of February next, when your
letters will be laid before them, and their determination
respecting the same, will be immediately transmitted to Your

"I have the honor to be, &c.,


The governor laid the above letters before the General Assembly, at
their February session; and the following act was passed: -

"Whereas, for the preservation of the rights and liberties
of the United States, it is necessary that the whole powers
of government should be exerted in recruiting the
Continental battalions; and whereas, His Excellency Gen.
Washington hath enclosed to this state a proposal made to
him by Brigadier General Varnum, to enlist into the two
battalions, raising by this state, such slaves as should be
willing to enter into the service; and whereas, history
affords us frequent precedents of the wisest, the freest,
and bravest nations having liberated their slaves, and
enlisted them as soldiers to fight in defence of their
country; and also whereas, the enemy, with a great force,
have taken possession of the capital, and of a greater part
of this state; and this state is obliged to raise a very
considerable number of troops for its own immediate defence,
whereby it is in a manner rendered impossible for this state
to furnish recruits for the said two battalions, without
adopting the said measure so recommended.

"It is voted and resolved, that every able-bodied negro,
mulatto, or Indian man slave, in this state, may enlist into
either of the said two battalions, to serve during the
continuance of the present war with Great Britain.

"That every slave, so enlisting, shall be entitled to, and
receive, all the bounties, wages, and encouragements,
allowed by the Continental Congress, to any soldier
enlisting into their service.

"It is further voted and resolved, that every slave, so
enlisting, shall, upon his passing muster before Col.
Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the
service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE,
as though he had never been encumbered with any kind of
servitude or slavery.

"And in case such slave shall, by sickness or otherwise, be
rendered unable to maintain himself, he shall not be
chargeable to his master or mistress; but shall be supported
at the expense of the state.

"And whereas, slaves have been, by the laws, deemed the
property of their owners, and therefore compensation ought
to be made to the owners for the loss of their service, -

"It is further voted and resolved, that there be allowed,
and paid by this state, to the owner, for every such slave
so enlisting, a sum according to his worth; at a price not
exceeding £120 for the most valuable slave; and in
proportion for a slave of less value.

"Provided, the owner of said slave shall deliver up to the
officer, who shall enlist him, the clothes of the said
slave; or otherwise he shall not be entitled to said sum.

"And for settling and ascertaining the value of such
slaves, -

"It is further voted and resolved, that a committee of five
be appointed, to wit:

"One from each county; any three of whom, to be a quorum, to
examine the slaves who shall be so enlisted, after they
shall have passed muster, and to set a price upon each slave
according to his value, as aforesaid.

"It is further voted and resolved, that upon any ablebodied
negro, mulatto, or Indian slave, enlisting as aforesaid, the
officer who shall so enlist him, after he shall have passed
muster, as aforesaid, shall deliver a certificate thereof,
to the master or mistress of said negro, mulatto, or Indian
slave; which shall discharge him from the service of his
said master or mistress, as aforesaid.

"It is further voted and resolved, that the committee who
shall estimate the value of any slave, as aforesaid, shall
give a certificate of the sum at which he may be valued, to
the owner of said slave; and the general treasurer of this
state is hereby empowered and directed to give unto the said
owner of the said slave, his promissory note, as treasurer,
as aforesaid, for the sum of money at which he shall be
valued, as aforesaid, payable on demand, with interest at
the rate of six per cent. per annum; and that said notes,
which shall be so given, shall be paid with the money which
is due to this state, and is expected from Congress; the
money which has been borrowed out of the general treasury,
by this Assembly, being first re-placed."[550]

This measure met with some opposition, but it was too weak to effect
any thing. The best thing the minority could do was to enter a written


"We, the subscribers, beg leave to dissent from the vote of
the lower house, ordering a regiment of negroes to be raised
for the Continental service, for the following reasons,

"1st. Because, in our opinion, there is not a sufficient
number of negroes in the state, who would have an
inclination to enlist, and would pass muster, to constitute
a regiment; and raising several companies of blacks, would
not answer the purposes intended; and therefore the attempt
to constitute said regiment would prove abortive, and be a
fruitless expense to the state.

"2d. The raising such a regiment, upon the footing proposed,
would suggest an idea and produce an opinion in the world,
that the state had purchased a band of slaves to be employed
in the defence of the rights and liberties of our country,
which is wholly inconsistent with those principles of
liberty and constitutional government, for which we are so
ardently contending; and would be looked upon by the
neighboring states in a contemptible point of view, and not
equal to their troops; and they would therefore be unwilling
that we should have credit for them, as for an equal number
of white troops; and would also give occasion to our enemies
to suspect that we are not able to procure our own people to
oppose them in the field; and to retort upon us the same
kind of ridicule we so liberally bestowed upon them, on
account of Dunmore's regiment of blacks; or possibly might
suggest to them the idea of employing black regiments
against us.

"3d. The expense of purchasing and enlisting said regiment,
in the manner proposed, will vastly exceed the expenses of
raising an equal number of white men; and at the same time
will not have the like good effect.

"4th. Great difficulties and uneasiness will arise in
purchasing the negroes from their masters; and many of the
masters will not be satisfied with any prices allowed.


Upon the passage of the Act, Gov. Cooke hastened to notify Gen.
Washington of the success of the project.

"PROVIDENCE, February 23d, 1778.

"SIR: - I have been favored with your Excellency's letter of
the [3d instant,][552] enclosing a proposal made to you by
General Varnum, for recruiting the two Continental
battalions raised by this state.

"I laid the letter before the General Assembly at their
session, on the second Monday in this month; who,
considering the pressing necessity of filling up the
Continental army, and the peculiarly difficult circumstances
of this state, which rendered it in a manner impossible to
recruit our battalions in any other way, adopted the

"Liberty is given to every effective slave to enter the
service during the war; and upon his passing muster, he is
absolutely made free, and entitled to all the wages,
bounties and encouragements given by Congress to any soldier
enlisting into their service. The masters are allowed at the
rate of £120, for the most valuable slave; and in proportion
to those of less value.

"The number of slaves in this state is not great; but it is
generally thought that three hundred, and upwards, will be

"I am, with great respect, sir,

"Your Excellency's most obedient, humble servant,


Where masters had slaves in the army, they were paid an annual
interest on the appraised value of the slaves, out of the public
treasury, until the end of the military service of such slaves.[554]
If owners presented certificates from the committee appointed to
appraise enlisted Negroes, they were paid in part or in full in
"Continental loan-office certificates."[555]

The reader will remember, that it has been already shown that Negroes,
both bond and free, were excluded from the militia of Massachusetts;
and, furthermore, that both the Committee of Safety and the Provincial
Congress had opposed the enlistment of Negroes. The first move in the
colony to secure legal enlistments and separate organizations of
Colored troops was a communication to the General Assembly of
Massachusetts, 3d of April, 1778.

"_To the Honorable Council, and House of Representatives,
Boston, or at Roxbury._

"HONORED GENTLEMEN, - At the opening of this campaign, our
forces should be all ready, well equipped with arms and
ammunition, with clothing sufficient to stand them through
the campaign, their wages to be paid monthly, so as not to
give the soldiery so much reason of complaint as it is the
general cry from the soldiery amongst whom I am connected.

"We have accounts of large re-enforcements a-coming over
this spring against us; and we are not so strong this
spring, I think, as we were last. Great numbers have
deserted; numbers have died, besides what is sick, and
incapable of duty, or bearing arms in the field.

"I think it is highly necessary that some new augmentation
should be added to the army this summer, - all the
re-enforcements that can possibly be obtained. For now is
the time to exert ourselves or never; for, if the enemy can
get no further hold this campaign than they now possess, we
[have] no need to fear much from them hereafter.

"A re-enforcement can quick be raised of two or three
hundred men. Will your honors grant the liberty, and give me
the command of the party? And what I refer to is negroes. We
have divers of them in our service, mixed with white men.
But I think it would be more proper to raise a body by
themselves, than to have them intermixed with the white men;
and their ambition would entirely be to outdo the white men
in every measure that the fortune of war calls a soldier to
endure. And I could rely with dependence upon them in the
field of battle, or to any post that I was sent to defend
with them; and they would think themselves happy could they
gain their freedom by bearing a part of subduing the enemy
that is invading our land, and clear a peaceful inheritance
for their masters, and posterity yet to come, that they are
now slaves to.

"The method that I would point out to your Honors in raising
a detachment of negroes; - that a company should consist of a
hundred, including commissioned officers; and that the
commissioned officers should be white, and consist of one
captain, one captain-lieutenant, two second lieutenants; the
orderly sergeant white; and that there should be three
sergeants black, four corporals black, two drums and two
fifes black, and eighty-four rank and file. These should
engage to serve till the end of the war, and then be free
men. And I doubt not, that no gentleman that is a friend to
his country will disapprove of this plan, or be against his
negroes enlisting into the service to maintain the cause of
freedom, and suppress the worse than savage enemies of our

"I beg your Honors to grant me the liberty of raising one
company, if no more. It will be far better than to fill up
our battalions with runaways and deserters from Gen.
Burgoyne's army, who, after receiving clothing and the
bounty, in general make it their business to desert from us.
In the lieu thereof, if they are [of] a mind to serve in
America, let them supply the families of those gentlemen
where those negroes belong that should engage.

"I rest, relying on your Honor's wisdom in this matter, as
it will be a quick way of having a re-enforcement to join
the grand army, or to act in any other place that occasion
shall require; and I will give my faith and assurance that I
will act upon honor and fidelity, should I take the command
of such a party as I have been describing.

"So I rest till your Honors shall call me; and am your very
humble and obedient servant,


"In Col. Craft's Regiment of Artillery, now on Castle

"CASTLE ISLAND, April 3, 1778."

A few days later he addressed another letter to the same body.

"_To the Honorable Council in Boston._

"The letter I wrote before I heard of the disturbance with
Col. Seares, Mr. Spear, and a number of other gentlemen,
concerning the freedom of negroes, in Congress Street. It is
a pity that riots should be committed on the occasion, as it
is justifiable that negroes should have their freedom, and
none amongst us be held as slaves, as freedom and liberty is
the grand controversy that we are contending for; and I
trust, under the smiles of Divine Providence, we shall
obtain it, if all our minds can be united; and putting the
negroes into the service will prevent much uneasiness, and
give more satisfaction to those that are offended at the
thoughts of their servants being free.

"I will not enlarge, for fear I should give offence; but
subscribe myself

"Your faithful servant,

"CASTLE ISLAND, April 7, 1778."[556]

On the 11th of April the first letter was referred to a joint
committee, with instructions "to consider the same, and report." On
the 17th of April, "a resolution of the General Assembly of Rhode
Island for enlisting Negroes in the public service" was referred to
the same committee. In the Militia Act of 1775, the exceptions were,
"Negroes, Indians, and mulattoes." By the act of May, 1776, providing
for the re-enforcement of the American army, it was declared that,
"Indians, negroes, and mulattoes, shall not be held to take up arms or
procure any person to do it in their room." By another act, passed
Nov. 14, 1776, looking toward the improvement of the army, "Negroes,
Indians, and mulattoes" were excluded. During the year 1776 an order
was issued for taking the census of all males above sixteen, but
excepted "Negroes, Indians, and mulattoes." But after some reverses to
the American army, Massachusetts passed a resolve on Jan. 6, 1777,
"for raising every seventh man to complete our quota," "without any
exceptions, save the people called Quakers." This was the nearest
Massachusetts ever got toward recognizing Negroes as soldiers. And on
the 5th of March, 1778, Benjamin Goddard, for the selectmen, Committee
of Safety, and militia officers of the town of Grafton, protested
against the enlistment of the Negroes in his town.

It is not remarkable, in view of such a history, that Massachusetts
should have hesitated to follow the advice of Thomas Kench. On the
28th of April, 1778, a law was draughted following closely the
Rhode-Island Act. But no separate organization was ordered; and,
hence, the Negroes served in white organizations till the close of the
American Revolution.

There is nothing in the records of Virginia to show that there was
ever any legal employment of Negroes as soldiers; but, from the
following, it is evident that free Negroes _did_ serve, and that there
was no prohibition against them, providing they showed their
certificates of freedom: -

"And whereas several negro slaves have deserted from their
masters, and under pretence of being free men have enlisted
as soldiers: For prevention whereof, _Be it enacted_, that
it shall not be lawful for any recruiting officer within
this commonwealth to enlist any negro or mulatto into the
service of this or either of the United States, until such
negro or mulatto shall produce a certificate from some
justice of the peace for the county wherein he resides that
he is a free man."[557]

Maryland employed Negroes as soldiers, and sent them into regiments
with white soldiers. John Cadwalder of Annapolis, wrote Gen.
Washington on the 5th of June, 1781, in reference to Negro soldiers,
as follows: -

"We have resolved to raise, immediately, seven hundred and
fifty negroes, to be incorporated with the other troops; and
a bill is now almost completed."[558]

The legislature of New York, on the 20th of March, 1781, passed the
following Act, providing for the raising of two regiments of blacks: -

"SECT. 6. - And be it further enacted by the authority
aforesaid, that any person who shall deliver one or more of
his or her able-bodied male slaves to any warrant officer,
as afore said, to serve in either of the said regiments or
independent corps, and produce a certificate thereof,
signed by any person authorized to muster and receive the
men to be raised by virtue of this act, and produce such
certificate to the Surveyor-General, shall, for every male
slave so entered and mustered as aforesaid, be entitled to
the location and grant of one right, in manner as in and by
this act is directed; and shall be, and hereby is,
discharged from any future maintenance of such slave, any
law to the contrary notwithstanding: And such slave so
entered as aforesaid, who shall serve for the term of three
years or until regularly discharged, shall, immediately
after such service or discharge, be, and is hereby declared
to be, a free man of this State."[559]

The theatre of the war was now transferred from the Eastern to the
Middle and Southern colonies. Massachusetts alone had furnished, and
placed in the field, 67,907 men; while all the colonies south of
Pennsylvania, put together, had furnished but 50,493, - or 8,414 _less_