African Americans, both free and enslaved, served in the armies of both sides of the American Revolution and hoped to be served by it. It can be argued that they fought not so much to defend as to gain country and rights. The Earl of Dunmore tapped into that desire when he issued a call for servants and slaves to join the British army. Many responded, sneaking away to the British encampment in Norfolk, Virginia. Some survived soldiering and servitude with that army to gain their freedom at war’s end. African Americans enlisted in the Continental Army as freemen, were enlisted into it as substitutes for white masters, or worked for it in auxiliary positions. Slaves whose masters allowed them to serve, and those who were used as substitutes, were to be freed when the war was over. Other slaves who endured the hard campaigns in such roles as servant, waggoner, and pioneer (performing engineering tasks such as ditch-digging) were not guaranteed freedom, though recognition of services rendered sometimes gained them that reward. Although the American forces had no problem with using blacks in ancillary roles, they did debate the propriety of arming and serving with them as soldiers. This controversy began with the creation of the American army and then rose and ebbed with the need for manpower (see Dummone’s Proclamation). Furthermore, Anglo- and European-Americans recognized that revolutionary rhetoric could as easily be turned against them as slaveholders as against the king as despot. Many tried to refute the comparison by arguing that slaves were property. Others argued that the new nation must live up to its declared principles of liberty and equality for all.
I do hereby . . . declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others [belonging to the Rebels,] free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty’s crown and dignity.
John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia 7 November 1775
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Virginia’s Response to Dunmore’s Proclamation Printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette WILLIAMSBURG, November 29.
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Lord Dunmore’s cruel policy begins at length to be discovered by the blacks, who have lately deserted from him to a considerable number. When his Lordship first went down to Norfolk he gave great encouragement to unwary Negroes, but, such was his baseness, some of them, it is confidently said, he sent to the West Indies, where these unfortunate creatures were disposed of to defray his Lordship’s expences; and others, such as he took any dislike to, he delivered up to their masters, to be punished. Since the troops under Col. Woodford’s command began their march, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation inviting the slaves of rebels, as he pleased to say, to repair to his standard. A considerable number at first went to him, but upon their masters taking the oath of allegiance, they were immediately told they must return. Some runaways, however, remained, but these were kept constantly employed in digging entrenchments in wet ground, till at length the severity of their labour forced many of them to fly. Those that were left behind have made several attempts to get off, but such is the barbarous policy of this cruel man, he keeps these unhappy creatures not only against their will, but intends to place them in the front of the battle, to prevent their flying, in case of an engagement, which, from their utter ignorance of firearms, he knows they will do.
Last Tuesday night a party of men, chiefly blacks, from a tender, came up to Mr. Benjamin Wells’s, at Mulberry island, pillaged his house of every thing valuable, such as bedding, wearing apparel, liquors, a watch, the stock of poultry, and carried off two negroe girls. They told Mrs. Wells, that they had orders to burn the house; which they would certainly have put in execution, had it not been for her earnest entreaty to spare it that time, as she had some sick children in bed, who must perish in the flames.
Dec. 2. Since Lord Dunmore’s proclamation made its appearance here, it is said he has recruited his army, in the counties of Princes Anne and Norfolk, to the amount of about 2000 men, including his black regiment, which is thought to be a considerable part, with this inscription on their breasts:Ñ—”Liberty to Slaves.”—However, as the rivers will henceforth be strictly watched, and every possible precaution taken, it is hoped others will be effectually prevented from joining those his Lordship has already collected.
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Nine Negroes (two of them women) who had been endeavouring to get to Norfolk in an open boat, and put ashore on Point Comfort, were fired upon by some persons in pursuit, taken, and brought here on Thursday; two of the fellows are wounded, and it is expected the rest will soon be made examples of.
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From Newspaper Response, the Pennsylvania Gazette, 13 December 1775, in Accessible Archives CD ROM, Folio III (1766–83).
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After Order Headquarters Near York – 25 October 1781 It having been represented that many Negroes and Mulattoes the property of Citizens of these States have concealed themselves on board the Ships in the harbor; that some still continue to attach themselves to British Officers and that others have attempted to impose themselves upon the officers of the French and American Armies as Freemen and to make their escapes in that manner, In order to prevent their succeeding in such practices All Officers of the Allied Army and other persons of every denomination concerned are directed not to suffer any such negroes or mulattoes to be retained in their Service but on the contrary to cause them to be delivered to the Guards which will be establish’d for their reception at one of the Redoubts in York and another in Gloucester. Mr. David Ross will have the superintendency and will give passes to enable them to return to their Masters or where that is not practicable will have directions to make other provision for them. Any Negroes or mulattoes who are free upon proving the same will be left to their own disposal. The Gentlemen of the American Army who have made return to the Orderly Office of negroes in their possession agreeably to the Order of the 9th. instant are desired to deliver them to the above mentioned Mr. David Ross this day or tomorrow.
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From George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745Ð1799, vol. 23, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: GPO, 1937), pp. 264–65.
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Legislative Petition to Free Slave For Service
That Whereas William Beck Mullato Slave formerly the property of Major Thos. Meriwether & purchased by said Thos. Walker Junr. of his heirs for the sum of Seventy pound has during his servitude behaved in a most exemplary manner, while with him, under Colo Charles Lewis in several Campaigns to the northward & having paid the said Thos. Walker Junr. the (first) purchace, fully expecting his freedom for the same, your petitioner does therefore most humbly request your hon. house would declare the said William Beck to be free. . . .
Thomas Walker, Jr., Albemarle County, to Virginia Government 23 October 1779 Passed by Virginia House and Senate on 30 October 1779
From Walker petition to free Beck in Legislation Petitions, Archives of Library of Virginia.
[From Newspaper Response, the Pennsylvania Gazette, 13 December 1775, in Accessible Archives CD Rom, Folio III (1766–83). Washington’s After Orders, Headquarters near York, 25 October 1781 in George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745Ð1799, vol. 23, Ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: GPO, 1937), pp. 264–65. Walker petition to free Beck in Legislation Petitions, Archives of Library of Virginia.]