If one goes to Boston Common he sees there a monument bearing the name of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution. He was a Negro, a former slave. From the time of the controversies with the French in Colonial days to the latest exploits of the World War, besides all other types of devotion in America, Negroes have paid the supreme price of liberty. If any one doubts the devotion to country and the love of liberty of the Negro, he has only to spend a few hours in searching the records of American history to be convinced that his doubts are ill founded and that these people, although denied the full boon themselves, have given themselves in full measure for the justice and liberty which America promises to all who seek her shores.
Negroes were in practically every white regiment during the Revolutionary War. A Hessian officer after marching through Massachusetts said, "No regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance." Bancroft, the historian, says that there were names of men of color on the rolls of the army at Cambridge from its first formation, that Negroes stood in the ranks with the white soldiers in the militia of different colonies, and that black men were retained in the service under the Continental Congress.
Under General Washington's immediate command, in August, 1778, there are reported to have been 775 Negroes, and it is estimated that there were 4,000 in the Continental Army. A company of Negroes fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Peter Salem, a Negro, when other patriots stood dismayed, fired the shot that mortally wounded Major Pitcairn, leader of the British forces, and thus turned the tide of battle. Solomon Poor during the same engagement won the commendation of the principal officers, who later entered a petition in the Massachusetts Assembly asking recognition for him. A regiment of free men of color fought courageously at the battle of Rhode Island in August, 1778. The Black Legion, a contingent of soldiers from Santo Domingo, by covering the retreat and repulsing the British at Savannah, Ga., October 9, 1779, saved the American and French Armies from defeat.1
At the commencement of the Revolutionary War the question of using Negroes for service was one of no small moment. At first the Continental Congress voted that no slaves or free Negroes should be enlisted. A council of war consisting of General Washington and Major Generals Ward, Lee, and Putnam and six Brigadier Generals after full discussion decided, October 8, 1775, "unanimously to reject all slaves, and by a great majority to reject Negroes altogether." During the same month a committee met in conference at Cambridge to consider the reorganization of the army. This committee decided that free Negroes and slaves were to be "rejected altogether".
The action of the Earl of Dunmore, Governor General of Virginia, however, in a proclamation of November 7, 1775, offering freedom to all indentured servants, Negroes, and others able and willing to bear arms if they should join His Majesty's troops, caused the Colonial leaders to change their policy. Alarmed at the British action, and without waiting for the action of the Continental Congress, on December 30, 1775, General Washington issued general orders authorizing the enlistment of free Negroes. The Continental Congress took no further action when notified by General Washington of what he had done. This new policy met immediate response from Negroes.
1Williams, G. W., History of the Negro Race in America, (2 vols.) is the main source of facts for the first ten pages of this chapter, except where others are cited.
The attitude of the Southern colonists changed. Alexander Hamilton sent Colonel Laurens to John Jay, President of the Continental Congress, with a letter dated March 14, 1779, urging the organization of an army of Negro slaves in South Carolina, who should be emancipated upon completion of their service. He said, "It should be considered that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will, and that the best way to counteract the temptations they hold out will be to offer them ourselves." 1 Free Negroes were allowed to enlist in Virginia regiments, and the temptation to slaves to declare themselves freedmen in order to enlist was so great that the Virginia legislature passed a law prohibiting recruiting officers from enrolling Negroes without certificates of freedom. James Armistead, a slave, was a scout for Lafayette in his Virginia campaign. Along with their white compatriots these black heroes fought and died for American independence, showing heroism at Bunker Hill, valor at Brandywine, fortitude at Valley Forge, and courage, enthusiasm, and endurance in every engagement down to Saratoga and Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered. Can justice in America deny their descendants the full meed of their sacrifices?
1 Johnson, E. A., School History of the Negro Race in America, pp. 58-60.