One of the biggest atrocities of the Revolutionary War was committed not by our enemies the British or even the Hessians, it was committed within our hallowed halls and ultimately enshrined in the Constitution and that atrocity was slavery. Eighteenth Century white men all felt that they were morally and intellectually superior to men of African origin and it would not be until the middle of the 20th Century that we will come to understand the intolerance and ignorance incumbent in this belief. George Washington wholeheartedly fell into the camp of racial bigots not just for his ownership of slaves, Mount Vernon was home to 317 slaves, but also to his regard for freedmen who attempted to enlist in the Continental Army – they were initially barred! Thomas Gage was not better – the British Army similarly banned black enlistment until it became politically advantageous. Ironically, some of the most loyal and effective troops on both sides of the conflict were African American.
The first casualty at the Boston Massacre was Cripus Attucks, a local dockworker of mixed racial heritage. In 1778, Rhode Island, having had problems enlisting enough men into their militia, formed the 1st Rhode Island “Black Regiment.” These troops held their positions while the balance of General Greene’s army retreated at the Battle of Rhode Island (1778). These troops defended upstate New York from marauding bands of “cowboys” who sought to disrupt supply lines and cripple the Continental Army in New Jersey. These troops were some of the first men to breech the ramparts at Yorktown forcing Cornwallis to surrender. Despite Washington’s discomfort with black soldiers, they were some of the most effective soldiers in the war.
Black participation in the Revolution, however, was not limited to supporting the American cause, and either voluntarily or under duress thousands also fought for the British. Most British officials were reluctant to arm blacks, but as early as 1775, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, established an all-black “Ethiopian Regiment” composed of runaway slaves. By promising them freedom, Dunmore enticed over 800 slaves to escape from “rebel” masters. Whenever they could, enslaved blacks continued to join him until he was defeated and forced to leave Virginia in 1776.
Ironically, despite the overt racism of their Commander-in-Chief and most of the Continental Congress, black soldiers were almost universally integrated into armies they served. Unlike future wars where blacks would only serve in segregated units (by law until the Korean War), black soldiers lived and fought side by side with their white counterparts. They served a nation that both had enslaved them and would seek to keep them enslaved for another 80 years (longer if you consider “Jim Crow” laws).
In recognition of the accomplishments of our African American bothers in arms, I brewed a black cider. Its dark, its strong, and it will serve you well but you better learn to respect it.