Slaves in the American Revolution


Despite what the founding fathers said or wrote, the “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” began as a slave society.  This unhappy fact has left an indelible imprint on the nation’s soul — if nations have souls.  In its resolution, slavery demanded a terrible price in blood and searing pain to the national psyche.  It still isn’t over.  Some people simply won’t let it go.

In the United States today, millions of people remain enslaved to corrupt politicians and political parties.  The only difference between now and 1863 is that some people, whether black or white, Asian or occidental, adult or child, male or female — seem bound to enslave themselves to a failed ideology.  Millions of blacks, having been freed through the crucible of war, have re-enslaved themselves to their dear old Uncle Sam and an entitlement mentality, all paid for through an abusive tax scheme.  This is not conjecture; it’s a fact.

Moreover, it is not a problem confined to the United States.  Presently, there are more than fifty-million human beings living as slaves.  This number, provided by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights of the United Nations, is the highest number of slaves in all of human history.  It includes children, women, and able-bodied men trapped in modern slavery in every corner of the world.  Whether through the Kafala System, binding migrant workers to their Middle Eastern employers, the prolific number of children being bought and sold in India, the number of young women and boys kidnapped as part of the international sex cartel, or the number of boys kidnapped and forced into African militias, it is out of control — the United Nations is doing nothing about it — and neither is any American, other than pretending that they’re offended by slavery. 

From this point on, my reader may choose to ignore the problem — but they can never again say that they did not know.

Relevant Background

Americans didn’t invent slavery.  They didn’t establish the Atlantic Slave Trade, either.  Americans had nothing to do with the Arab Slave Trade, which, unlike the Atlantic Slave Trade, continues to exist.  But Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall was correct to observe that the U.S. Constitution was defective from its beginning.  It ignored tens of thousands of Americans whose skin color was darker than average, but perhaps worse than this, the people who voiced eloquent objections to slavery had no hesitation voting to adopt an instrument that laid the foundation of all the grief that was to follow.

The word “slave” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the institution of slavery did receive important protections in the Constitution.  The “Three-Fifths Clause” (counting 3/5 of the slave population in apportioning representation) gave southern states extra representation in the House of Representatives and extra votes in the Electoral College.  Were it not for this clause, Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800.[1]  The Constitution also prohibited the U.S. Congress from outlawing the Atlantic Slave Trade for twenty years.  A fugitive slave clause required the return of runaway slaves to their owners, and the Constitution gave the federal government the power to “put down” domestic rebellions — including slave uprisings.[2]

The framers of the Constitution believed that concessions on the issue of slavery were the price for gaining and retaining the support of southern delegates for a strong federalist government.  They were convinced that if the Constitution restricted the slave trade, South Carolina and Georgia would refuse to join the Union.  This is no doubt true.  But by sidestepping the slavery issue, the framers Guaranteed that subsequent generations would have to deal with it.  James Madison touted as the “father of the U.S. Constitution,” wrote, “It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination.”

Of the 55 Convention delegates, 25 owned slaves.  We can say that many of the framers harbored moral misgivings about slavery.  Some, including Benjamin Franklin (a former slave owner) and Alexander Hamilton (who was born in a slave colony in the British West Indies), became members of antislavery societies — which, of course, did nothing to change the direction of the country in 1789.  But no one spoke more plainly than John Rutledge of South Carolina: “Religion and humanity have nothing to do with this question.  Unless regulation of the slave trade is left to the states, the southern-most states shall not be parties to the union.”

George Mason of Virginia owned hundreds of slaves yet spoke out against slavery in ringing terms: “Slavery discourages arts and manufactures.  The poor despise labor when performed by slaves.  And every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant, and they will bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”

Mr. Mason could not have been more correct.

Now About the Revolution

Given the African experience in North America before 1775, why would any enslaved person wish to participate on either side of the American Revolution? If one accepts the argument that we all act in our perceived best interests, then “freedom” would be an obvious answer.

American rebels and British officials offered freedom to enslaved persons if they enlisted as soldiers or made other contributions to either side. Historians claim around 20,000 Africans joined the British cause — as “Black Loyalists.” If accurate, the number of black loyalists would round to about four percent of the enslaved population. Historians also tell us that an additional 9,000 blacks supported the patriot cause. They were called “black patriots.” How anyone could be a patriot and a slave defies logic.

The British Cause 

On 7 November 1775, Virginia Governor John Murray, Fourth Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation to announce (a) the imposition of Martial Law within the colony of Virginia and (b) granted freedom to all “indentured servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining [sic] His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be.”

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation wasn’t promulgated in a few days.  It was months in the making because Governor Murray was in a very vulnerable position.  Throngs of rebels filled the Virginia capital of Williamsburg, and the Governor wisely departed for Norfolk, Virginia.  Amazingly, most of the governor’s troops had deserted him.  At most, he had 300 loyal troops remaining at his new headquarters.

But six months before, in June 1775, a group of enslaved Africans approached him about the prospect of joining forces with the British against their American oppressors.  Murray initially ignored these petitioners; their owners did not.  This willingness to challenge the status quo may have been the seed establishing an overwhelming fear among slave owners of a black insurrection.  When Lord Dunmore boarded his ship at Yorktown, he asked enslaved blacks to accompany him.  He had hoped that the threat of using blacks against the rebels would persuade Virginians to remain loyal to the Crown.

Colonists fearing Negro militias serving the Crown began patrolling the land and water and limited gatherings of black people.  They also attempted to convince blacks that collaborating with the British would be self-destructive.

Virginia’s legislature countered Dunmore’s proclamation by issuing a declaration: enslaved fugitives would forgo punishment if they returned to their owners within ten days — and stiff consequences if they did not.  Any slave who took part in an insurrection would face a death sentence.  Ultimately, between 800 and 2,000 slaves joined Dunmore’s regiment, known as the Ethiopian Regiment.  Their battle jacket featured the words Freedom to Slaves.  In Virginia, smallpox devastated Dunmore’s regiment, and by August 1776, British loyalists (and 300 loyal slaves) sailed away after first destroying most of their ships.  It was a modest number of black loyalists, but historians argue that at least 100,000 slaves attempted to join the British.  If that argument is valid, then just under half of Virginia’s slaves attempted to revolt against oppression.

It wasn’t until June 1779 that General Sir Henry Clinton, serving as Commander-in-Chief of British North America, issued his Philipsburg Proclamation.  In it, he offered freedom to all runaway slaves who took up arms with His Majesty’s Forces.

Dr. John Hannigan (Brandeis University) argues that the 20,000 runaway slaves previously mentioned were merely an estimate.  It could have been more or less — but either way, it represented the largest exodus of North American slaves before the Civil War (1861 – 1865).

Negro slaves supported the British for obvious reasons.  To begin with, most slaves believed that slavery had already been abolished in Great Britain.  It wasn’t true, of course.  Great Britain didn’t relinquish slavery until 1833.  How American slaves came by this misunderstanding was the case of James Somerset, a slave of a British customs official named Charles Stuart.  Somerset sued Stuart in a London Court to obtain his freedom.  Lord Mansfield, the presiding judge, ruled in Somerset’s favor (1772), barring Stuart from selling Somerset.  Mansfield did not (could not) outlaw slavery, but he found it incompatible with English common law — and we can say with certainty that his ruling damaged slavery as an institution within the United Kingdom and sent a terrifying signal to North America.  As the case was widely reported in American newspapers, slaves believed that the days of slavery were coming to an end.[3]

Secondarily, the British Army promised freedom for enslaved people almost from the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  More than 1,500 slaves fled to the Dunmore’s sanctuary — and of those, nearly two-thirds succumbed to the disease.  In the following year, General Sir William Howe extended Dunmore’s promise to slaves living near British Army posts in New York and New Jersey.  The success of these inducements culminated in Sir Henry Clinton’s Philipsburg Proclamation.

British policy, as regularly communicated through Lord Dunmore, General Howe, and General Clinton,  ensured that British military camps functioned as recruitment centers for black refugees.  Unsurprisingly, runaway slaves were numerous in areas controlled by the British Army.  The Black Loyalist exodus that began with Dunmore peaked in South Carolina during the British campaigns of 1779 – 1781 and in Virginia between 1780 and 1781.  Combined with the Somerset case and the army’s proclamations, southern area slaves preferred the risk of running away and an uncertain future with British military forces rather than remain in the great slave centers of Virginia and South Carolina.[4]

It was a different matter in the northern colonies.  Some slaves in Massachusetts did avail themselves of the offer of freedom through service to Great Britain, but not in substantial numbers.  That reality resulted in the departure of the British Army to the southern colonies.  Some estimates (although none are quite certain) reflect fewer than one hundred runaway slaves who sought freedom in Massachusetts.  But in fairness to those poor souls remaining captive, after 1776, they would have had to make their way to new British encampments in either Newport or New York City.  There is no credible record of any Massachusetts slave fighting with British forces during the war — but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any; it only means there are no records of such.

Among the black units known to have served with the British, only a few records listing the names of black soldiers have survived.  Among the more famous was the Black Company of Pioneers.  They served in Rhode Island, New York, and in the southern colonies between 1776 – 1783.  Many of these men left New York City with the British and settled in Nova Scotia.

As the war drew to a close and the British prepared to evacuate New York City in November 1783, thousands of emancipated slaves petitioned to leave with them.  For those African runaways, the British Army offered their best chance of survival in the post-War period.  The British made every effort to make good their promises.  To help facilitate this process, naval officers prepared documents to substantiate claims made by men, women, and children who wished to join white loyalists in British-controlled Canada.  Today, there are three volumes of the so-called “Book of Negroes” that contain the names, and physical descriptions (and, where known, places of origin) of 3,000 freed slaves from the Revolutionary War period.

The British formed many regiments with their African allies.  The largest of these regiments was the pioneer unit, which the British placed in a support role.  The unit was ordered to attend “the scavengers, assist in cleaning the streets, removing all nuances from the streets of Philadelphia — but a smaller portion of this unit served as raiders against Patriot settlements in New Jersey.

When patriot forces threatened Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, the British filled their ranks with black troops.  In October 1779, two-hundred black loyalist soldiers assisted the British in defending Savannah against French and Patriot assaults.

On 21 July 1781, the British evacuated Savannah with more than 5,000 former slaves bound for Jamaica or St. Augustine.  Three hundred former slaves remained behind, but fearing for their safety, they ran off to form a colony in the swamps along the Savannah River.  Within five years, most of these people were back in bondage. 

On the Patriot Side

Of the 9,000 slaves fighting for the revolutionary cause, 5,000 served as field infantry.  If not killed in combat, the average time in service for these “patriots” was 4.5 years (of eight years total), although many did serve for the eight years duration of the Revolutionary War.[5]  Since between 220,000 and 250,000 soldiers and militia served the American cause between 1776 – 1783, black soldiers made up roughly four percent of the Continental armed land force.  We may better understand this phenomenon by realizing that before the Revolution, many enslaved persons participated as part of community militias defending against hostile Indians.  This means that certain slaves were routinely trained in the use of firearms.

Note that such terms as militia and minutemen are sometimes used interchangeably, there were important differences between the two.  Militia were men in arms formed to protect their towns from attack by hostile forces, whereas minutemen were small, handpicked elite forces of highly mobile sharpshooters able to assemble and deploy quickly.  They were selected from militia companies.  They were 25 years old or younger and selected for their enthusiasm, field skills, reliability, and their physical strength/endurance.  Somewhere around 25% of the militia served as minutemen.

Minutemen were generally the first on the scene to become involved in armed conflict.  Historians say that some of the Massachusetts minutemen were blacks who swore an oath to serve against any British force that took offensive measures against any Massachusetts community.  One such individual was Private Peter Salem (1750 – 1816).

Peter was named after the hometown of his owner, Jeremiah Belknap.  In 1775, Belknap sold Peter to Lawson Buckminster.  When the Continental Army commissioned Buckminster a major, he freed Peter Salem so that Salem could enlist in the patriot militia and serve as a minuteman.  Private Salem served alongside Private Titus Coburn, Salem Poor, and Seymour Burr.  Salem fought at the opening engagements at Lexington Green and Concord.

Some argue that Private Salem should be credited with the shooting of British Major John Pitcairn, who, during the fight at Bunker Hill, was shot through the chest by a Negro rifleman.  A witness to the shooting was Mr. Aaron White of Thompson, Connecticut, who in 1807 testified that “ … a negro soldier stepped forward and, aiming his musket at the major’s bosom, blew him through.”

Salem was not the only black rifleman at Bunker Hill, and it may not matter since the battle was a British Victory — but some say that whoever shot Pitcairn bolstered morale among the rebels at a time when they needed it most.  Either way, Private Salem participated in several notable battles; his final honorable discharge being awarded in 1780.  Salem died in 1816 in a poor house in Framingham, Massachusetts.  Despite promises of freedom after the war, many blacks were returned to slavery after the Revolutionary War.  So much for government appreciation for negro patriotism.

It may be worth noting that in colonial times and following the declaration of independence, militia laws required able-bodied males to enroll in the militia, undergo a minimum of military training, and serve for limited periods of time in war or other emergencies.  This was an early form of conscription that involved selective drafts of militiamen for service in particular campaigns.  In 1778, the Continental Congress recommended that states draft men from their militias for a year of military service in the Continental Army.  Although regularly applied, this form of conscription failed to fill the Continental Army’s ranks.[6]

In addition to Peter Salem, other enslaved persons served as infantrymen throughout the American Revolution — men such as Prince Estabrook, Salem Poor, Barzillai Lew, Blaney Grusha, Titus Coburn, Alexander Ames, Cato Howe, and Seymour Burr.  But in addition to these men, many other enslaved persons served the rebellion as local guides, messengers, and spies.  It was a black sentry by the name of John (“Rifle Jack”) Peterson whose clear-thinking threw Benedict Arnold’s treasonous plans into disarray and resulted in the capture of British Major John André.[7]

In 1778, Rhode Island was having difficulty recruiting white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress — so the legislative assembly decided to adopt a suggestion by militia Major General James M. Varnum to enlist slaves into the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.  Varnum made this proposal to General Washington, who forwarded it to the governor of Rhode Island.

On 14 February 1778, the assembly voted to allow the enlistment of “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” who chose to do so, be immediately discharged from slavery — and be absolutely free.  Their former owners were properly compensated.  The number of men so “enlisted” over the following four months was eighty-eight.  Eventually, the regiment numbered 225, with fewer than 140 blacks.  The First Rhode Island was the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of Black soldiers.

In 1781, British Loyalists ambushed Colonel Christopher Greene while leading his black soldiers.  The Loyalists mutilated Greene’s body as a punishment for leading blacks against them.  Forty blacks were also killed. 

In Conclusion

The slave problem in Revolutionary America was acute.  So many slaves had fled to the British Army under General Cornwallis that they “caused serious distress to us all.”  By liberating slaves, Cornwallis hindered the southern economy in significant ways.  But these slaves did make substantial contributions to the British cause as soldiers, laborers, and guides during the Southern Campaign.  At the time of his surrender in 1781, General Cornwallis declined to turn these soldiers over to General Washington unless they went willingly.  General Washington, nevertheless, ordered, “All Negroes, or Mulattoes” that fought for the British held until they could be returned to their former owners.

When the British evacuated Charleston in 1782, they took with them 5,000 black loyalists.  Half of these men were former slaves of British loyalists, and these British loyalists took their former slaves with them to the West Indies and re-enslaved on new plantations.  The British settled “freed” African slaves in Jamaica, eventually granting them land.  Another 500 men were taken to East Florida, which remained under British control.

Life did not substantially improve for these freed slaves.  Among those living in Nova Scotia and London, they struggled for all their lives with racial discrimination.  The British were slow to honor their promises of land grants, and it was no picnic living in Canadian weather.  Supporters living in London formed associations to help establish a colony in West Africa to resettle poor blacks.  The first settlement was named Freetown in Sierra Leone.  Black loyalists in Nova Scotia were also asked if they wanted to relocate — and some did.  On 15 January 1792, dozens of free blacks let Halifax for West Africa and a new life.  After 1807, British ships liberated slaves at sea and transported them to West African settlements or those in the West Indies.

African slaves who aligned themselves with the Patriot cause found few rewards for doing so.  In 1784 and 1785, legislatures in Connecticut and Massachusetts banned all blacks (free or enslaved) from military service.  North Carolina, in contrast, was among the states allowing free people of color to serve in the militia and bear arms — until the 1830s.  In 1792, the U.S. Congress officially excluded Africans from military service.  In 1789, “free black” men could vote in five of 13 states (including North Carolina).

Some African slaves earned their freedom by fighting for either side, but many more did not.  Someone was lying to these desperate people.  Within twenty years of the end of the American revolution, most northern states abolished slavery — some gradually, others during the war.  By 1840, virtually all African Americans in the North were either free or living in “free state” jurisdictions.

Most southern state legislatures maintained slavery, but in the Upper South, numerous slaveholders were inspired by revolutionary ideals to free their slaves.  At this time, Methodist, Baptist, and Quaker preachers also urged manumission — the proportion of free blacks in the Upper South increased from around one percent to more than ten percent.  More than half of the number of free blacks in the United States was concentrated in the Upper South.  In Delaware, nearly 75% of blacks were free by 1810.  Subsequently, with the increased development of cotton, the demand for enslaved people as labor sources also increased.  In 1861, more than one million people were enslaved in the Deep South.


  1. Foner, P.  Blacks in the American Revolution.   Greenwood Press, 1976.
  2. MacLeod, D. J.  Slavery, Race, and the American Revolution.  Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  3. Piecuch, J.  Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South.  University of South Carolina Press, 2008.
  4. Taylor, A.  The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772 – 1832.  Norton & Company, 2013.


[1] Mr. Jefferson was far from being one of our better presidents.

[2] And, apparently, anyone seeking to demonstrate on the property of the U.S. Capitol.

[3] Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution.  Vintage Books, 2008.

[4] See also Cassandra Pybus: Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution.  William & Mary Quarterly, 2005.

[5] Four to eight times longer than the average white soldier, who averaged one year of service.

[6] Under the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. government had no authority to conscript citizens of states.  By cooperative agreement, however, states did conscript their citizens for service with the Continental and, later, the U.S. Army.  The Continental (and later, the U.S.) The Navy could “impress” crewmen for service at sea.  In 1777, Continental Navy captain James Nicholson impressed 30 men from Baltimore, Maryland, but was later ordered to release them.  Impressment had to occur whilst at sea, which Nicholson then proceeded to do until 1780.  Impressment, one will recall, was one justification for the U.S. declaring war on Great Britain in 1812.  Individual states had no qualms with impressment so long as they did it; they did object to impressment by the national government.

[7] Peterson was born into slavery near Peekskill, New York.  He was known as “Rifle Jack” because of his skill as a marksman, and he is known to have distinguished himself during the battles at Saratoga and Peekskill.  In 1780, Peterson was on guard duty with Private Moses Sherwood watching ships sailing up the Hudson River.  One that caught their eye was HMS Vulture.   This particular ship was key to a plot hatched by British Major John Andre and American General Benedict Arnold to hand over West Point to the British.  When Peterson and Sherwood made the presence of this ship known to their officers, patriot artillery forced the ship further upstream, stranding Andre, facilitating his capture, and disrupting Arnold’s treason.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Antebellum Period, British Canada, British Colonies, British Generals, Colonial America, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Indenture & Slavery, New England, New York, North Carolina, Old Florida, Revolution, South Carolina, Spies & such, Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Slaves in the American Revolution

  1. Baysider says:

    It’s always interesting to get more of the back story, the missing pieces that contribute to the mindset and influence the actions of people. I knew nothing of that Somerset court case – or that such a thing were possible in England at that time – and the rumors that spread from it. Still only half way through, but I find that comments often close before I get to the end.


  2. Andy says:

    Mustang, you’ve done well to shine a light on this little known, seldom discussed aspect of American history. However, it’s sad to learn that so few slaves actually benefited from serving on either side of the fight.

    Another interesting piece. Keep it up.


    Liked by 1 person

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