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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than the single colony of Massachusetts.[560] It was a difficult task
to get the whites to enlist at the South. Up to 1779, nearly all the
Negro soldiers had been confined to the New-England colonies. The
enemy soon found out that the Southern colonies were poorly protected,
and thither he moved. The Hon. Henry Laurens of South Carolina, an
intelligent and observing patriot, wrote Gen. Washington on the 16th
of March, 1779, concerning the situation at the South: -

"Our affairs [he wrote] in the Southern department are more
favorable than we had considered them a few days ago;
nevertheless, the country is greatly distressed, and will be
more so unless further reinforcements are sent to its
relief. Had we arms for three thousand such black men as I
could select in Carolina, I should have no doubt of success
in driving the British out of Georgia, and subduing East
Florida, before the end of July."[561]

Gen. Washington sent the following conservative reply: -

"The policy of our arming slaves is in my opinion a moot
point, unless the enemy set the example. For, should we
begin to form battalions of them, I have not the smallest
doubt, if the war is to be prosecuted, of their following us
in it, and justifying the measure upon our own ground. The
contest then must be, who can arm fastest. And where are our
arms? Besides, I am not clear that a discrimination will not
render slavery more irksome to those who remain in it. Most
of the good and evil things in this life are judged of by
comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be
productive of much discontent in those, who are held in
servitude. But, as this is a subject that has never employed
much of my thoughts, these are no more than the first crude
ideas that have struck me upon the occasion."[562]

The gifted and accomplished Alexander Hamilton, a member of
Washington's military family, was deeply interested in the plan
suggested by the Hon. Henry Laurens, whose son was on Washington's
staff. Col. John Laurens was the bearer of the following remarkable
letter from Hamilton to John Jay, President of Congress.

"HEADQUARTERS, March 14, 1779.


"DEAR SIR, - Col. Laurens who will have the honor of
delivering you this letter, is on his way to South Carolina,
on a project which I think, in the present situation of
affairs there, is a very good one, and deserves every kind
of support and encouragement. This is, to raise two, three,
or four battalions of negroes, with the assistance of the
government of the State, by contributions from the owners in
proportion to the number they possess. If you should think
proper to enter upon the subject with him, he will give you
a detail of his plan. He wishes to have it recommended by
Congress to the State: and, as an inducement, that they
should engage to take those battalions into Continental pay.

"It appears to me, that an expedient of this kind, in the
present state of Southern affairs, is the most rational that
can be adopted, and promises very important advantages.
Indeed, I hardly see how a sufficient force can be collected
in that quarter without it; and the enemy's operations there
are growing infinitely more serious and formidable. I have
not the least doubt that the negroes will make very
excellent soldiers with proper management; and I will
venture to pronounce, that they cannot be put into better
hands than those of Mr. Laurens. He has all the zeal,
intelligence, enterprise, and every other qualification,
necessary to succeed in such an undertaking. It is a maxim
with some great military judges, that, with sensible
officers, soldiers can hardly be too stupid; and, on this
principle, it is thought that the Russians would make the
best troops in the world, it they were under other officers
than their own. The King of Prussia is among the number who
maintain this doctrine; and has a very emphatic saying on
the occasion, which I do not exactly recollect. I mention
this because I hear it frequently objected to the scheme of
embodying negroes, that they are too stupid to make
soldiers. This is so far from appearing to me a valid
objection, that I think their want of cultivation (for their
natural faculties are probably as good as ours), joined to
that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life
of servitude, will make them sooner become soldiers than our
white inhabitants. Let officers be men of sense and
sentiment; and the nearer the soldiers approach to machines,
perhaps the better.

"I foresee that this project will have to combat much
opposition from prejudice and self-interest. The contempt we
have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy
many things that are founded neither in reason nor
experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so
valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show
the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme
which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be
considered, that, if we do not make use of them in this way,
the enemy probably will; and that the best way to
counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to
offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to
give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure
their fidelity, animate their courage, and, I believe, will
have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a
door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess,
has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of
the project, for the dictates of humanity, and true policy,
equally interest me in favor of this unfortunate class of

"With the truest respect and esteem,
"I am, Sir, your most obedient servant,

The condition of the Southern States became a matter of Congressional
solicitude. The letter of Col. Hamilton was referred to a special
committee on the 29th of March, 1779. It was represented that South
Carolina especially was in great danger. The white population was
small; and, while there were some in the militia service, it was
thought necessary to keep as large a number of whites at home as
possible. The fear of insurrection, the desertion[564] of Negroes to
the enemy, and the exposed condition of her border, intensified the
anxiety of the people. The only remedy seemed to lie in the employment
of the more fiery spirits among the Negroes as the defenders of the
rights and interests of the colonists. Congress rather hesitated to
act, - it was thought that that body lacked the authority to order the
enlistment of Negroes in the States, - and therefore recommended to
"the states of South Carolina and Georgia, if they shall think the
same expedient, to take measures immediately for raising three
thousand able-bodied negroes." After some consideration the following
plan was recommended by the special committee, and adopted: -

"IN CONGRESS, March 29, 1779.

"The Committee, consisting of Mr. Burke, Mr. Laurens, Mr.
Armstrong, Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Dyer, appointed to take into
consideration the circumstances of the Southern States, and
the ways and means for their safety and defence, report, -

* * * * *

"That the State of South Carolina, as represented by the
delegates of the said State and by Mr. Huger, who has come
hither at the request of the Governor of the said State, on
purpose to explain the particular circumstances thereof, is
unable to make any effectual efforts with militia, by reason
of the great proportion of citizens necessary to remain at
home to prevent insurrections among the negroes, and to
prevent the desertion of them to the enemy.

"That the state of the country, and the great numbers of
those people among them, expose the inhabitants to great
danger from the endeavors of the enemy to excite them either
to revolt or desert.

"That it is suggested by the delegates of the said State and
by Mr. Huger, that a force might be raised in the said State
from among the negroes, which would not only be formidable
to the enemy from their numbers, and the discipline of which
they would very readily admit, but would also lessen the
danger from revolts and desertions, by detaching the most
vigorous and enterprising from among the negroes.

"That, as this measure may involve inconveniences peculiarly
affecting the States of South Carolina and Georgia, the
Committee are of the opinion that the same should be
submitted to the governing powers of the said States; and if
the said powers shall judge it expedient to raise such a
force, that the United States ought to defray the expense
thereof: whereupon,

"Resolved, That it be recommended to the States of South
Carolina and Georgia, if they shall think the same
expedient, to take measures immediately for raising three
thousand able-bodied negroes.

"That the said negroes be formed into separate corps, as
battalions, according to the arrangements adopted for the
main army, to be commanded by white commissioned and
non-commissioned officers.

"That the commissioned officers be appointed by the said

"That the non-commissioned officers may, if the said States
respectively shall think proper, be taken from among the
non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the Continental
battalions of the said States respectively.

"That the Governors of the said States, together with the
commanding officer of the Southern army, be empowered to
incorporate the several Continental battalions of their
States with each other respectively, agreeably to the
arrangement of the army, as established by the resolutions
of May 27, 1778; and to appoint such of the supernumerary
officers to command the said negroes as shall choose to go
into that service.

"Resolved, That Congress will make provision for paying the
proprietors of such negroes as shall be enlisted for the
service of the United States during the war a full
compensation for the property, at a rate not exceeding one
thousand dollars for each active, able bodied negro man of
standard size, not exceeding thirty-five years of age, who
shall be so enlisted and pass muster.

"That no pay or bounty be allowed to the said negroes, but
that they be clothed and subsisted at the expense of the
United States.

"That every negro who shall well and faithfully serve as a
soldier to the end of the present war, and shall then return
his arms, be emancipated, and receive the sum of fifty

Congress supplemented the foregoing measure by commissioning young
Col. Laurens to carry forward the important work suggested. The
gallant young officer was indeed worthy of the following
resolutions: -

"Whereas John Laurens, Esq., who has heretofore acted as
aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-chief, is desirous of
repairing to South Carolina, with a design to assist in
defence of the Southern States; -

"_Resolved_, That a commission of lieutenant-colonel be
granted to the said John Laurens, Esq."[566]

He repaired to South Carolina, and threw all his energies into his
noble mission. That the people did not co-operate with him, is
evidenced in the following extract from a letter he subsequently wrote
to Col. Hamilton: -

"Ternant will relate to you how many violent struggles I
have had between duty and inclination, - how much my heart
was with you, while I appeared to be most actively employed
here. But it appears to me, that I should be inexcusable in
the light of a citizen, if I did not continue my utmost
efforts for carrying the plan of the black levies into
execution, while there remain the smallest hopes of

The enemy was not slow in discovering the division of sentiment among
the colonists as to the policy of employing Negroes as soldiers. And
the suspicions of Gen. Washington, indicated to Henry Laurens, in a
letter already quoted, were not groundless. On the 30th of June, 1779,
Sir Henry Clinton issued a proclamation to the Negroes. It first
appeared in "The Royal Gazette" of New York, on the 3d of July, 1779.

"By his Excellency Sir HENRY CLINTON, K.B. General and
Commander-in-chief of all his Majesty's Forces within the
Colonies laying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to
West-Florida, inclusive, &c., &c., &.


"Whereas the enemy have adopted a practice of enrolling
NEGROES among their Troops, I do hereby give notice That all
NEGROES taken in arms, or upon any military Duty, shall be
purchased for [_the public service at_] a stated Price; the
money to be paid to the Captors.

"But I do most strictly forbid any Person to sell or claim
Right over any NEGROE, the property of a Rebel, who may take
Refuge with any part of this Army: And I do promise to every
NEGROE who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full security to
follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall
think proper.

"Given under my Hand, at Head-Quarters, PHILLIPSBURGH, the
30th day of June, 1779.


"By his Excellency's command,

"JOHN SMITH, _Secretary_."

The proclamation had effect. Many Negroes, weary of the hesitancy of
the colonists respecting acceptance of their services, joined the
ministerial army. On the 14th of February, 1780, Col. Laurens wrote
Gen. Washington, from Charleston, S.C., as follows: -

"Private accounts say that General Prevost is left to
command at Savannah; that his troops consist of the Hessians
and Loyalists that were there before, re-enforced by a corps
of blacks and a detachment of savages. It is generally
reported that Sir Henry Clinton commands the present

Lord Cornwallis also issued a proclamation, offering protection to all
Negroes who should seek his command. But the treatment he gave them,
as narrated by Mr. Jefferson in a letter to Dr. Gordon, a few years
after the war, was extremely cruel, to say the least.

"Lord Cornwallis destroyed all my growing crops of corn and
tobacco; he burned all my barns, containing the same
articles of the last year, having first taken what corn he
wanted; he used, as was to be expected, all my stock of
cattle, sheep, and hogs, for the sustenance of his army, and
carried off all the horses capable of service; of those too
young for service he cut the throats; and he burned all the
fences on the plantation, so as to leave it an absolute
waste. _He carried off also about thirty slaves. Had this
been to give them freedom, he would have done right_; but it
was to consign them to inevitable death from the small-pox
and putrid fever, then raging in his camp. This I knew
afterwards to be the fate of twenty-seven of them. I never
had news of the remaining three, but presume they shared the
same fate. When I say that Lord Cornwallis did all this, I
do not mean that he carried about the torch in his own
hands, but that it was all done under his eye; the situation
of the house, in which he was, commanding a view of every
part of the plantation, so that he must have seen every
fire. I relate these things on my own knowledge, in a great
degree, as I was on the ground soon after he left it. He
treated the rest of the neighborhood somewhat in the same
style, but not with that spirit of total extermination with
which he seemed to rage over my possessions. Wherever he
went, the dwelling-houses were plundered of every thing
which could be carried off. Lord Cornwallis's character in
England would forbid the belief that he shared in the
plunder; but that his table was served with the plate thus
pillaged from private houses, can be proved by many hundred
eye-witnesses. From an estimate I made at that time, on the
best information I could collect, I suppose _the State of
Virginia lost, under Lord Cornwallis's hand, that year,
about thirty thousand slaves; and that, of these,
twenty-seven thousand died of the small-pox and camp-fever,
and the rest were partly sent to the West Indies and
exchanged for rum, sugar, coffee, and fruit; and partly sent
to New York, from whence they went, at the peace, either to
Nova Scotia or to England. From this last place, I believe,
they have been lately sent to Africa._ History will never
relate the horrors committed by the British Army in the
Southern States of America."[569]

Col. Laurens was called from the South, and despatched to France on an
important mission in 1780. But the effort to raise Negro troops in the
South was not abandoned.

On the 13th of March, 1780, Gen. Lincoln, in a letter to Gov. Rutledge
of South Carolina, dated at Charleston, urged the importance of
raising a Negro regiment at once. He wrote, -

"Give me leave to add once more, that I think the measure of
raising a black corps a necessary one; that I have great
reason to believe, if permission is given for it, that many
men would soon be obtained. I have repeatedly urged this
matter, not only because Congress have recommended it, and
because it thereby becomes my duty to attempt to have it
executed, but because my own mind suggests the utility and
importance of the measure, as the safety of the town makes
it necessary."

James Madison saw in the emancipation and arming of the Negroes the
only solution of the vexatious Southern problem. On the 20th of
November, 1780, he wrote Joseph Jones as follows: -

"Yours of the 18th came yesterday. I am glad to find the
Legislature persist in their resolution to recruit their
line of the army for the war; though, without deciding on
the expediency of the mode under their consideration, would
it not be as well to liberate and make soldiers at once of
the blacks themselves, as to make them instruments for
enlisting white soldiers? It would certainly be more
consonant with the principles of liberty, which ought never
to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty: and, with
white officers and a majority of white soldiers, no
imaginable danger could be feared from themselves, as there
certainly could be none from the effect of the example on
those who should remain in bondage; experience having shown
that a freedman immediately loses all attachment and
sympathy with his former fellow-slaves."[570]

The struggle went on between Tory and Whig, between traitor and
patriot, between selfishness and the spirit of noble consecration to
the righteous cause of the Americans. Gen. Greene wrote from North
Carolina on the 28th of February, 1781, to Gen. Washington as
follows: -

"The enemy have ordered two regiments of negroes to be
immediately embodied, and are drafting a great proportion of
the young men of that State [South Carolina], to serve
during the war."[571]

Upon his return to America, Col. Laurens again espoused his favorite
and cherished plan of securing black levies for the South. But
surrounded and hindered by the enemies of the country he so dearly
loved, and for the honor and preservation of which he gladly gave his
young life, his plans were unsuccessful. In two letters to Gen.
Washington, a few months before he fell fighting for his country, he
gave an account of the trials that beset his path, which he felt led
to honorable duty. The first bore date of May 19, 1782.

"The plan which brought me to this country was urged with
all the zeal which the subject inspired, both in our Privy
Council and Assembly; but the single voice of reason was
drowned by the howlings of a triple-headed monster, in which
prejudice, avarice, and pusillanimity were united. It was
some degree of consolation to me, however, to perceive that
truth and philosophy had gained some ground; the suffrages
in favor of the measure being twice as numerous as on a
former occasion. Some hopes have been lately given me from
Georgia; but I fear, when the question is put, we shall be
outvoted there with as much disparity as we have been in
this country.

"I earnestly desire to be where any active plans are likely
to be executed, and to be near your Excellency on all
occasions in which my services can be acceptable. The
pursuit of an object which, I confess, is a favorite one
with me, because I always regarded the interests of this
country and those of the Union as intimately connected with
it, has detached me more than once from your family; but
those sentiments of veneration and attachment with which
your Excellency has inspired me, keep me always near you,
with the sincerest and most zealous wishes for a continuance
of your happiness and glory."[572]

The second was dated June 12, 1782, and breathes a despondent air: -

"The approaching session of the Georgia Legislature, and the
encouragement given me by Governor Howley, who has a
decisive influence in the counsels of that country, induce
me to remain in this quarter for the purpose of taking new
measures on the subject of our black levies. The arrival of
Colonel Baylor, whose seniority entitles him to the command
of the light troops, affords me ample leisure for pursuing
the business in person; and I shall do it with all the
tenacity of a man making a last effort on so interesting an

Washington's reply showed that he, too, had lost faith in the
patriotism of the citizens of the South to a great degree. He wrote
his faithful friend: -

"I must confess that I am not at all astonished at the
failure of your plan. That spirit of freedom, which, at the
commencement of this contest, would have gladly sacrificed
every thing to the attainment of its object, has long since
subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place. It
is not the public but private interest which influences the
generality of mankind; nor can the Americans any longer
boast an exception. Under these circumstances, it would
rather have been surprising if you had succeeded; nor will
you, I fear, have better success in Georgia."[574]

Although the effort of the Legislature of Connecticut to authorize the
enlistment of Negroes in 1777 had failed, many Negroes, as has been
shown, served in regiments from that State; and a Negro company was
organized. When white officers refused to serve in it, the gallant
David Humphreys volunteered his services, and became the captain.

"In November, 1782, he was, by resolution of Congress,
commissioned as a Lieutenant-Colonel, with order that his
commission should bear date from the 23d of June, 1780, when
he received his appointment as aide-de-camp to the
Commander-in-chief. He had, when in active service, given
the sanction of his name and influence in the establishment
of a company of colored infantry, attached to Meigs',
afterwards Butler's, regiment, in the Connecticut line. He
continued to be the nominal captain of that company until
the establishment of peace."[575]

The following was the roster of his company: -



Jack Arabus, Brister Baker, John Ball,
John Cleveland, C├Žsar Bagdon, John McLean,
Phineas Strong, Gamaliel Terry, Jesse Vose,
Ned Fields, Lent Munson, Daniel Bradley,