Revolutionary soldier, spoke thus complimentarily of the Rhode-Island
Negro regiment: -
"Yes, a regiment of _negroes_, fighting for _our_ liberty
and independence, - not a white man among them but the
officers, - stationed in this same dangerous and responsible
position. Had they been unfaithful, or driven away before
the enemy, all would have been lost. _Three times in
succession_ were they attacked, with most desperate valor
and fury, by well disciplined and veteran troops, and _three
times_ did they successfully repel the assault, and thus
preserve our army from capture. They fought through the war.
They were brave, hardy troops. They helped to gain our
liberty and independence."
From the opening to the closing scene of the Revolutionary War; from
the death of Pitcairn to the surrender of Cornwallis; on many fields
of strife and triumph, of splendid valor and republican glory; from
the hazy dawn of unequal and uncertain conflict, to the bright morn of
profound peace; through and out of the fires of a great war that gave
birth to a new, a grand republic, - the Negro soldier fought his way to
elseif (getClientWidth() > 430)
undimmed glory, and made for himself a magnificent record in the
annals of American history. Those annals have long since been
committed to the jealous care of the loyal citizens of the Republic
black men fought so heroically to snatch from the iron clutches of
 Bancroft, vol. vii., 6th ed., p. 421.
 An Historical Research, p. 93.
 History of Leicester, p. 267.
 Orations and Speeches of Everett, vol. iii. p. 529.
 MS. Archives of Massachusetts, vol. clxxx, p. 241.
 Memoir of Samuel Lawrence, by Rev. S.K. Lothrop, D.D., pp. 8, 9.
 Frank Moore's Diary of the American Revolution, vol. i. p. 468.
 Thatcher's Military Journal, p. 87.
 Arnold's History of Rhode Island, vol. ii. pp. 427, 428.
 Chastellux' Travels, vol. i. p. 454; London, 1789.
LEGAL STATUS OF THE NEGRO DURING THE REVOLUTION.
THE NEGRO WAS CHATTEL OR REAL PROPERTY. - HIS LEGAL STATUS
DURING HIS NEW RELATION AS A SOLDIER. - RESOLUTION INTRODUCED
IN THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES TO PREVENT THE
SELLING OF TWO NEGROES CAPTURED UPON THE HIGH SEAS. - THE
CONTINENTAL CONGRESS APPOINTS A COMMITTEE TO CONSIDER WHAT
SHOULD BE DONE WITH NEGROES TAKEN IN VESSELS OF WAR IN THE
SERVICE OF THE UNITED COLONIES. - CONFEDERATION OF THE NEW
STATES. - SPIRITED DEBATE IN CONGRESS RESPECTING THE DISPOSAL
OF RECAPTURES. - THE SPANISH SHIP "VICTORIA" CAPTURES AN
ENGLISH VESSEL HAVING ON BOARD THIRTY FOUR NEGROES TAKEN
FROM SOUTH CAROLINA - THE NEGROES RECAPTURED BY VESSELS
BELONGING TO THE STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS. - THEY ARE DELIVERED
TO THOMAS KNOX, AND CONVEYED TO CASTLE ISLAND. - COL. PAUL
REVERE HAS CHARGE OF THE SLAVES ON CASTLE
ISLAND. - MASSACHUSETTS PASSES A LAW PROVIDING FOR THE
SECURITY, SUPPORT, AND EXCHANGE OF PRISONERS BROUGHT INTO
THE STATE. - GEN. HANCOCK RECEIVES A LETTER FROM THE GOVERNOR
OF SOUTH CAROLINA RESPECTING THE DETENTION OF NEGROES. - IN
THE PROVINCIAL ARTICLES BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
AND HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY, NEGROES WERE RATED AS
PROPERTY. - AND ALSO IN THE DEFINITE TREATY OF PEACE BETWEEN
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY. - AND
ALSO IN THE TREATY OF PEACE OF 1814, BETWEEN HIS BRITANNIC
MAJESTY AND THE UNITED STATES, NEGROES WERE DESIGNATED AS
PROPERTY. - GEN. WASHINGTON'S LETTER TO BRIG. GEN. RUFUS
PUTNAM IN REGARD TO A NEGRO IN HIS REGIMENT CLAIMED BY MR.
HOBBY. - ENLISTMENT IN THE ARMY DID NOT ALWAYS WORK A
When the Revolutionary War began, the legal status of the Negro slave
was clearly defined in the courts of all the colonies. He was either
chattel or real property. The question naturally arose as to his legal
status during his new relation as a soldier. Could he be taken as
property, or as a prisoner of war? Was he booty, or was he entitled to
the usage of civilized warfare, - a freeman, and therefore to be
treated as such?
The Continental Congress, Nov. 25, 1775, passed a resolution
recommending the several colonial legislatures to establish courts
that should give jurisdiction to courts, already in existence, to
dispose of "cases of capture." In fact, and probably in law, Congress
exercised power in cases of appeal. Moreover, Congress had prescribed
a rule for the distribution of prizes. But, curiously enough,
Massachusetts, in 1776, passed an Act declaring, that, in case
captures were made by the forces of the colony, the local authorities
should have complete jurisdiction in their distribution; but, when
prizes or captives were taken upon colonial territory by the forces of
the United Colonies, the distributions should be made in accordance
with the laws of Congress. This was but a single illustration of the
divided sovereignty of a crude government. That there was need of a
uniform law upon this question, there could be no doubt, especially in
a war of the magnitude of the one that was then being waged.
On the 13th of September, 1776, a resolution was introduced into the
Massachusetts House of Representatives, "to prevent the sale of two
negro men lately brought into this state, as prisoners taken on the
high seas, and advertised to be sold at Salem, the 17th inst., by
public auction." The resolve in full is here given: -
"IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, SEPT. 13, 1776:
"Whereas this House is credibly informed that two negro men
lately brought into this State as prisoners taken on the
High Seas are advertised to be sold at Salem, the 17th
instant, by public auction,
"_Resolved_, That the selling and enslaving the human
species is a direct violation of the natural rights alike
vested in all men by their Creator, and utterly inconsistent
with the avowed principles on which this and the other
United States have carried their struggle for liberty even
to the last appeal, and therefore, that all persons
connected with the said negroes be and they hereby are
forbidden to sell them or in any manner to treat them
otherways than is already ordered for the treatment of
prisoners of war taken in the same vessell or others in the
like employ and if any sale of the said negroes shall be
made, it is hereby declared null and void.
"Sent up for concurrence.
"SAM'L. FREEMAN, _Speaker_, P.T.
"IN COUNCIL, Sept. 14, 1776. Read and concurred as taken
into a new draught. Sent down for concurrence.
"JOHN AVERY, _Dpy. Secy._
"IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, Sept. 14, 1776. Read and
non-concurred, and the House adhere to their own vote. Sent
up for concurrence.
"J. WARREN, _Speaker_.
"IN COUNCIL, Sept. 16, 1776. Read and concurred as now taken
into a new draft. Sent down for concurrence.
"JOHN AVERY, _Dpy. Secy._
"IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, Sept. 16, 1779. Read and
"J. WARREN, _Speaker_.
"JER. POWELL, JABEZ FISHER,
W. SEVER, B. WHITE,
B. GREENLEAF, MOSES GILL,
CALEB CUSHING, DAN'L HOPKINS,
B. CHADBOURN, BENJ. AUSTIN,
JOHN WHETCOMB, WM. PHILLIPS,
ELDAD TAYLOR, D. SEWALL,
S. HOLTEN, DAN'L HOPKINS."
On the Journal of the House, p. 106, appears the following record, -
"David Sewall, Esq., brought down the resolve which passed
the House yesterday, forbidding the sale of two negroes,
with the following vote of Council thereon, viz _In
Council_, Sept. 14, 1776. Read and concurred, as taken into
a new draught. Sent down for concurrence. Read and
non-concurred, and the House adhere to their own vote. Sent
up for concurrence."
The resolve, as it originally appeared, was dragged through a tedious
debate, non-concurred in by the House, recommitted, remodelled, and
sent back, when it finally passed.
"LXXXIII. Resolve forbidding the sale of two Negroes brought
in as Prisoners; Passed September 14, [16th,] 1776.
"Whereas this Court is credibly informed that two Negro Men
lately taken on the High Seas, on board the sloop
_Hannibal_, and brought into this State as Prisoners, are
advertized to be sold at _Salem_, the 17th instant, by
"_Resolved_, That all Persons concerned with the said
Negroes be, and they are hereby forbidden to sell them, or
in any manner to treat them otherwise than is already
ordered for the Treatment of Prisoners taken in like manner;
and if any Sale of the said Negroes shall be made it is
hereby declared null and void, and that whenever it shall
appear that any Negroes are taken on the High Seas and
brought as Prisoners into this State, they shall not be
allowed to be Sold, nor treated any otherwise than as
Prisoners are ordered to be treated who are taken in like
It looked like a new resolve. The pronounced and advanced sentiment in
favor of the equal rights of all created beings had been taken out,
and it appeared now as a war measure, warranted upon military policy.
This is the only chaplet that the most devout friends of
Massachusetts can weave out of her acts on the Negro problem during
the colonial period, to place upon her brow. It attracted wide-spread
and deserved attention.
During the following month, on the 14th of October, 1776, the
Continental Congress appointed a special committee, Messrs. Lee,
Wilson, and Hall, "to consider what is to be done with Negroes taken
by vessels of war, in the service of the United States." Here was a
profound legal problem presented for solution. According to ancient
custom and law, slaves came as the bloody logic of war. War between
nations was of necessity international; but while this truth had stood
through many centuries, the conversion of the Northern nations of
Europe into organized society greatly modified the old doctrine of
slavery. Coming under the enlightening influences of modern
international law, war captives could not be reduced to slavery.
This doctrine was thoroughly understood, doubtless, in the
North-American colonies as in Europe. But the almost universal
doctrine of property in the Negro, and his status in the courts of the
colonies, gave the royal army great advantage in the appropriation of
Negro captives, under the plea that they were "property," and hence
legitimate "spoils of war;" while, on the part of the colonists, to
declare that captured Negroes were entitled to the treatment of
"prisoners of war," was to reverse a principle of law as old as their
government. It was, in fact, an abandonment of the claim of property
in the Negro. It was a recognition of his rights as a soldier, a
bestowal of the highest favors known in the treatment of captives of
war. But there was another difficulty in the way. Slavery had
been recognized in the venerable memorials of the most remote nations.
This condition was coeval with the history of all nations, but nowhere
regarded as a relation of a local character. It grew up in social
compacts, in organized communities of men, and in great and powerful
states. It was recognized in private international law; and the
relation of master and slave was guarded in their local _habitat_, and
respected wherever found. And this relation, this property in
man, did not cease because the slave sought another nation, for it
was recognized in all the commercial transactions of nations. Now,
upon this principle, the colonists were likely to claim their right to
property in slaves captured.
The confederation of the new States was effected on the 1st of March,
1781. Art. IX. gave the "United States in Congress assembled" the
exclusive authority of making laws to govern the disposal of all
captures made by land or water; to decide which were legal; how prizes
taken by the land or naval force of the government should be
appropriated, and the right to establish courts of competent
jurisdiction in such case, etc. The first legislation under this
article was an Act establishing a court of appeals on the 4th of June,
1781. It was discussed on the 25th of June, and again, on the 17th of
July, took up a great deal of time, but was recommitted. The committee
were instructed to prepare an ordinance regulating the proceedings of
the admiralty cases, in the several States, in instances of capture;
to codify all resolutions and laws upon the subject; and to request
the States to enact such provisions as would be in harmony with the
reserved rights of the Congress in such cases as were specified in the
Ninth Article. Accordingly, on the 21st of September, 1781, the
committee reported to Congress the results of their labor, in a bill
on the subject of captures. Upon the question of agreeing to the
following section, the yeas and nays were demanded by Mr. Mathews of
South Carolina: -
"On the recapture by a citizen of any negro, mulatto,
Indian, or other person from whom labor or service is
lawfully claimed by _another citizen_, specific restitution
shall be adjudged to the claimant, whether the original
capture shall have been made on land or water, a reasonable
salvage being paid by the claimant to the recaptor, not
exceeding one-fourth part of the value of such labor or
service, to be estimated according to the laws of the State
_of which the claimant shall be a citizen_: but if the
service of such negro, mulatto, Indian or other person,
captured below high-water mark, shall not be legally claimed
_by a citizen of these United States_, he shall be set at
The delegates from North Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, and
Connecticut, refrained from voting; South Carolina voted in the
negative: but it was carried by twenty-eight yeas, against two nays.
After a spirited debate, continuing through several days, and having
received several amendments, it finally passed on Dec. 4, 1781, as
"On the recapture by a citizen of any negro, mulatto,
Indian, or other person, from whom labor or service is
lawfully claimed by _a State or a citizen of a State_,
specific restitution shall be adjudged to the claimant,
whether the original capture shall have been made on land or
water, _and without regard to the time of possession by the
enemy_, a reasonable salvage being paid by the claimant to
the recaptor, not exceeding 1-4th of the value of such labor
or service, to be estimated according to the laws of the
State _under which the claim shall be made_.
"But if the service of such negro, mulatto, Indian, or other
person, captured below high water mark, shall not be legally
claimed _within a year and a day from the sentence of the
Court_, he shall be set at liberty."
It should be carefully observed that the above law refers only to
_recaptures_. It would be interesting to know the views the committee
entertained in reference to slaves captured by the ministerial army.
Nothing was said about this interesting feature of the case. Why
Congress did not claim proper treatment of the slaves captured by the
enemy while in the service of the United Colonies, is not known.
Doubtless its leaders saw where the logic of such a position would
lead them. The word "another" was left out of the original measure,
and was made to read, in the one that passed, "_a State or citizen_;"
as if it were feared that, by implication, a Negro would be recognized
as a _citizen_.
By the proclamation of Sir Henry Clinton, already mentioned in the
preceding chapter, Negroes were threatened with sale for "the public
service;" and Mr. Jefferson in his letter to Mr. Gordon (see preceding
chapter), says the enemy sold the Negroes captured in Virginia into
the West Indies. After the capture of Stony Point by Gen. Wayne,
concerning two Negroes who fell into his hands, he wrote to
Lieut.-Col. Meigs from New Windsor on the 25th of July, 1779, as
"The wish of the officers to free the three Negroes after a
few Years Service meets my most hearty approbation but as
the Chance of War or other Incidents may prevent the officer
[owner] from Compling with the Intention of the Officers it
will be proper for the purchaser or purchasers to sign a
Condition in the Orderly Book.
" ... I wou'd cheerfully join them in their Immediate
Manumission - if a few days makes no material difference I
could wish the sale put off until a Consultation may be had,
& the opinion of the Officers taken on this Business."
In June, 1779, a Spanish ship called "Victoria" sailed from
Charleston, S.C., for Cadiz. During the first part of her voyage she
was run down by a British privateer; but, instead of being captured,
she seized her assailant, and found on board thirty-four Negroes, whom
the English vessel had taken from plantations in South Carolina. The
Spaniards got the Negroes on board their ship, disabled the English
vessel, and then dismissed her. Within a few days she was taken by two
British letters-of-marque, and headed for New York. During her passage
thither she was re-captured by the "Hazard" and "Tyrannicide," armed
vessels in the service of Massachusetts, and taken into the port of
Boston. By direction of the Board of War she was ordered into the
charge of Capt. Johnson, and was unloaded on the 21st of June. The
Board of War reported to the Legislature that there were thirty-four
Negroes "taken on the high seas and brought into the state." On the
23d of June  the Legislature ordered "that Gen. Lovell, Capt.
Adams, and Mr. Cranch, be a committee to consider what is proper to be
done with a number of negroes brought into port in the prize ship
called the Lady Gage." On the 24th of June, "the committee
appointed to take into consideration the state and circumstances of a
number of negroes lately brought into the port of Boston, reported a
resolve directing the Board of War to inform our delegates in Congress
of the state of facts relative to them, to put them into the barracks
on Castle Island, and cause them to be supplied and employed."
The resolve passed without opposition.
"CLXXX. _Resolve on the Representation of the Board of War
respecting a number of negroes captured and brought into
this State_. Passed June 24, 1779.
"On the representation made to this Court by the Board of
War respecting a number of negroes brought into the Port of
Boston, on board the Prize Ship Victoria:
"_Resolved_, that the Board of War be and they are hereby
directed forthwith to write to our Delegates in Congress,
informing them of the State of Facts relating to said
Negroes, requesting them to give information thereof to the
Delegates from the State of _South Carolina_, that so proper
measures may be taken for the return of said Negroes,
agreeable to their desire.
"And it is further _Resolved_, that the Board of War be and
they hereby are directed to put the said Negroes, in the
mean time, into the barracks on Castle Island in the Harbor
of Boston, and cause them to be supplied with such
Provision and Clothing as shall be necessary for their
comfortable support, putting them under the care and
direction of some Prudent person or Persons, whose business
it shall be to see that the able-bodied men may be usefully
employed during their stay in carrying on the Fortifications
on said Island, or elsewhere within the said Harbor; and
that the Women be employed according to their ability in
Cooking, Washing, etc. And that the said Board of War keep
an exact Account of their Expenditures in supporting said
The Negroes were delivered to Thomas Knox on the 28th of June, and
were conveyed "to Castle Island pr. Order of Court." The Board of War
voted the "34 Negroes delivered" rations. Lieut.-Col. Paul Revere was
instructed to "issue to the Negroes at Castle Island - 1 lb. of Beef, 1
lb. of Rice pr. day." The following letter is not without interest: -
"WAR OFFICE, 28 June, 1779.
"Agreeable to a Resolve of Court we send to Castle Island
and place under your care the following Negroes, viz.:
lately brought into this Port in the Spanish retaken Ship
Victoria. The Men are to be employed on the Fortifications
there or elsewhere in the Harbor, in the most useful manner,
and the Women and Children, according to their ability, in
Cooking, Washing, etc. They are to be allowed for their
subsistence One lb. of Beef, and one lb. of Rice per day
each, which Commissary Salisbury will furnish upon your
order, and this to continue until our further orders.
"_By Order of the Board_."
In accordance with the order of the Legislature, made on the 24th of
June, the president of the Board of War, Samuel P. Savage, wrote a
letter to the Massachusetts delegates in Congress, dated "War Office
June 29th 1779," calling attention to the re-captured Negroes. The
letter closed with the following: -
"Every necessary for the speedy discharge of these people,
we have no doubt you will take, that as much expense as
possible may be saved to those who call themselves their
The writer was at pains to enumerate, in his letter, such slaves as he
was enabled to locate.
"5 Men 4 Women 4 Boys 1 Girl belonging to Mr. Wm. Vryne.
"9 Men 1 Woman belonging to Mr. Anthony Pawley.
"1 Man belonging to Mr. Thomas Todd.
"2 Men 3 Women belonging to Mr. Henry Lewis.
"2 Men 2 Women belonging to Mr. William Pawley.
"One of the negroes is an elderly sensible man, calls
himself James, and says he is free, which we have no reason
to doubt the truth of. He also says that he with the rest of
the Negroes were taken from a place called Georgetown."
Pending the action of the _lawful_ owners of these captives, the
council instructed the commandant of Castle Island, Col. Paul Revere,
to place out to service, in different towns, some of the Negroes, with
the understanding that they should be delivered up to the authorities
on their order. Some were delivered to gentlemen who desired them as
servants. But in the fall of 1779 quite a number were still on the
island, as may be seen by the following touching letter: -
"BOSTON, Oct'r. 12. 1779. A Return of y'e Negroes at Castle
"1. ANTHONY. 6. BOBB. 11. JUNE.
2. PARTRICK. 7. ANTHONEY. 12. RHODICK.
3. PADDE. 8. ADAM. 13. JACK.
4. ISAAC. 9. JACK. 14. FULLER.
5. QUASH. 10. GYE. 15. LEWIS.
"_The above men are stout fellows_.
"No. 1. SMART.
"_Boys very small_.
"NEGRO WOOMEN. NEGRO GIRLS.
"No. 1. KITTEY. No. 1. LYSETT.
2. LUCY. 2. SALLY
3. MILLEY. 3. MERCY.
"_Pretty large_. _Rather stout_.
"The Scituation of these Negroes is pitiable with respect to
"I am, Gen't.
"Your very hum. Serv't.
"OCT. 12, 1779."
In the mean time some of the reputed owners of the Negroes at Castle
Island had come from Charleston, S.C., to secure their property. When
they arrived in Boston they secured the services of John Codman, Isaac