When the American Revolution began, around twenty percent of the population of the thirteen colonies came from African descent. Most of these people were slaves, but some were freemen. African Americans played a major role in the Revolutionary War in different roles including patriots, soldiers, and even spies.
Were there any African American patriots?
Yes. Many African Americans took up the cause against the British and became patriots. They joined the local militias and some were members of the Sons of Liberty.
Crispus Attucks by Unknown
Perhaps the most famous African American patriot was Crispus Attucks. Crispus was leading a protest against taxes in the streets of Boston when he was killed by British soldiers in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Crispus was the first man killed at the Boston Massacre and his death is often considered the first casualty of the American Revolution.
Which side did African Americans fight for?
Just like the other colonists, different African Americans had different loyalties. Some fought for Britain while others fought on the side of the colonists.
The British Welcome African American Soldiers
Early on in the war, the Continental Army did not officially accept black soldiers. The British decided to take advantage of this and offered freedom to any black slaves or indentured servants who joined their army.
Were they allowed to join the Continental Army?
The Continental Army eventually started to accept free black soldiers in 1775. By 1776, slaves were accepted as well, usually with the promise of freedom when the war ended.
Did they fight in separate regiments?
For the most part, black soldiers and white soldiers were integrated during the Revolutionary War. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, however, consisted of mostly black soldiers and was known as a black regiment.
James Armistead by John B. Martin
African American Patriots
James Armistead - Armistead was an American spy who worked as a double agent. He fed the British false information and also provided important information to the Americans that helped lead to victory at the Battle of Yorktown.
Crispus Attucks - Attucks was the first patriot killed at the Boston Massacre.
Austin Dabney - Dabney fought for the Georgia Militia as an artilleryman. He was shot and wounded at the Battle of Kettle Creek.
Lambert Latham - Latham was a member of the Continental Army. He was killed trying to defend his commander at the Battle of Groton Heights.
William Lee - William Lee was a slave of George Washington. He served as Washington's personal aide throughout the war. He was freed from slavery in Washington's will.
Peter Salem - Salem first served in the Massachusetts Militia and then later in the Continental Army. He fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill where he killed the British leader Major John Pitcairn.
After the War
Most of the African American men who fought in the war did receive their freedom as promised. However, they soon found out that the "freedom and equality" they had fought for did not apply to African Americans. Slavery continued in the United States for over 80 years after the Revolutionary War ended.
Interesting Facts about African Americans During the Revolutionary War
Most estimates put the number of black soldiers in Continental Army at 5,000.
Around 20,000 blacks worked for the British Army. The British evacuated many of them to Nova Scotia in Canada after the war.
Despite their help during the war, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1792 preventing African Americans from joining the military.
Blacks served as sailors for both the Continental Navy and the British Navy.