Slavery through the Eyes of Revolutionary Generals

Exhibit at Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture, Washington DC by Author

Generally when people think about slavery in the United States, they harken back to the Civil War period when Northern states had abolished slavery and slavery was the center of the southern plantation economy. However, during the Revolutionary era, the noxious institution of slavery prospered in both Northern and Southern states. While there were substantially more slaves in the Southern states, legalized slavery was condoned and rife throughout all thirteen colonies. Among the white population, slavery was widely accepted with only hints of the upcoming nineteenth-century abolition movement.

The Revolutionary era institution of slavery was typified by slave ownership by the richest segment of society. Wealthy individuals and those with leadership positions in the community employed slaves in agriculture, manufacturing and household services. As a group, the Continental Army major generals fit the definition of people who were most likely to own slaves.[1] Looking at the major generals’ views on slavery and their slave ownership is a window on how the entire leadership class and population viewed slavery.

Not counting George Washington, there were twenty-nine major generals, of which twenty-three lived before or after the war in the United States.[2] Over half of these major generals owned slaves, which is a bit lower in proportion to the slave owning signers of the Declaration of Independence. While certainly a small percentage, the proportion of the major generals who advocated ending slavery is not certain.[3] The contradiction between fighting for political liberty and fighting for personal liberty did not seem to manifest itself (or be important enough) in the minds of this group of Revolutionary leaders.

What complicated the situation for the major general, however, is that they were faced with severe manpower shortages and had to decide whether to enlist slaves into the army. During an October 1775 council of war, George Washington and seven current and future major generals considered the question of enlisting both freed and enslaved African Americans. They “agreed unanimously to reject all slaves and by a great majority to reject all Negroes altogether.”[4] At the same time, Brig. Gen. (later Maj. Gen.) John Thomas disagreed and welcomed Blacks into the ranks, saying in a letter to John Adams “…. we have Some Negros, but I Look on them in General Equally Servicable with other men, for Fatigue and in Action; many of them have Proved themselves brave …”[5]   With his back to the wall during the 1777 Saratoga campaign, Philip Schuyler, a New York major general, complained to Maj. Gen. William Heath on the quality of his reinforcements, stating, “one third of the few that have been sent are boys, aged men and negroes, who disgrace our arms.” Raising the contradiction of slaves fighting for white people’s freedom, Schuyler went on to say, “Is it consistent with the Sons of Freedom to trust their all to be defended by slaves?”[6]

As the war continued longer than expected and the need for additional soldiers increased, Thomas’s point of view won out and most major generals changed their views to freely enlisted both free and enslaved African Americans. Even large slaveholders such as Maj. Gen. William Smallwood actively advocated for enlistment of enslaved people. In the end, major generals had to lead and rely on slaves – up to ten percent of the Continental Army were free and enslaved African Americans, especially in the later years of the war and among the Continental line outside of the deep south.[7]

Contrary to popular perceptions, both Northerners and Southerners owned slaves. All six of the major generals from states south of the Mason Dixon line owned slaves while five out of seventeen Northern major generals owned slaves. Rather than regionalism, slave ownership most closely correlated with income; the wealthiest major generals owned slaves. Similar to civilian slave owners, the major generals either used slaves as exploited labor or as house servants.

Other than George Washington, Maj. Gen. William Moultrie, owner of a South Carolina planation, owned the largest number of slaves with over two hundred. The war ravaged his plantation, however, and he died both penniless and without slaves. Other large slave owning major generals include William Smallwood (fifty-six slaves), Adam Stephen (thirty slaves) and Robert Howe (thirty slaves), all southerners. With the exception of Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler (thirteen slaves), Northern major general slave owners tended to own at most a handful of slaves.

A number of the major generals were guilty of hypocrisy when it came to slavery. Raised a Rhode Island Quaker but not practicing by the outset of the rebellion, Nathanael Greene owned slaves during the war and may have brought them with him on campaign.[8] When military exigencies became extreme, however, he strongly advocated for slave enlistment.[9] Further, after the Revolution, the states of South Carolina and Georgia rewarded his military services by deeding him sequestered loyalist plantations. Greene stated that he was forced to use slaves to make those properties financially successful. Like others, Greene changed his views on slavery when it suited his economic interests. Another example of hypocrisy is the case of Alexander McDougall. As a pre-war merchant he bought and sold slaves and he owned at least one slave by the name of Colerain.[10] Joining the nascent New York Manumission Society late in life, McDougall may have had a change in heart. It is not clear whether he continued to own slaves after the war and while a member, as there were other slaveholders in the Manumission Society,[11] including its principal founder, John Jay.[12]

Israel Putnam was the only major general to have likely freed his slaves prior to the onset of Revolutionary hostilities. As with most other events in Putnam’s life, it is hard to separate fact from fiction, notable events from embellishment. A mid-nineteenth century biographer recounted a story about Putnam helping subdue a Connecticut neighbor’s unruly slave. To prove a point, Putnam placed a single noose around the necks of both master and slave, thereby ending the dispute.[13] Later, there was a story about Putnam rescuing a slave named simply Dick from mistreatment by his Cuban masters in 1762. Putnam returned to Connecticut with Dick who functioned as a freely employed manservant for the rest of Putnam’s life.[14]

One would have thought that fighting for the ideals of the Revolution and having African-American soldiers serving under them would have changed the views of slave-owning major generals. With one partial exception, this appears not to have been the case. Horatio Gates has been praised for freeing all slaves who operated his Virginia plantation called Travelers Rest shortly after the war.[15] However, closer examination reveals that this is a misstatement. Actually, per the terms of a September 14, 1790 deed of sale, Gates sold his slaves for £800 with the stipulation that five would be free after five years and the remaining eleven when they reached the age of twenty-eight.[16] Financially, it became easier for Gates to manumit his slaves as he became wealthy through marriage to his second wife. While this is a much different story than commonly reported, none of the other major generals took steps while living, no matter the motivations, to emancipate their slaves.

Certainly, Washington freed his (though not Martha’s) slaves at the time of his death. Several major generals including Richard Montgomery, Charles Lee and Adam Stephen bequeathed their slaves to heirs. The other slave owners’ last wills and testaments cite only property to be bequeathed with the assumption that slaves would be divided just like other property.  Two large pre-war slaveholders, William Moultrie and Robert Howe, died destitute and likely sold all of their slaves prior to death to discharge debts.

Only Samuel Holden Parsons, Arthur St. Clair and William Health publically expressed opposition to slavery or expansion of slave-owning territory, all of them never have owned slaves during their lifetimes. After the Revolution, both Parsons and St. Clair politically advocated for prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territories.[17] Moving from Connecticut, Parsons became a leading settler in the Ohio region and later was appointed by Washington as a territorial judge. Parsons’ opposition was widely known and gave support to those opposing slavery as the 1787 Northwest Ordinance was drafted.[18] In 1802, St. Clair made an impassioned speech in Cincinnati supporting the prohibition of slavery when forming the laws of the new state of Ohio.[19] Parsons’ and St. Clair’s efforts were instrumental in defeating Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican efforts to open the territory north of the Ohio River to slavery. While his views were more nuanced, William Heath publically opposed slavery during the 1787 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Although Heath did not believe it possible to eradicate existing slavery due to the states’ rights provisions of the Constitution, he opposed any expansion of territories allowing slavery and prognosticated that slavery would wither away due to the non-importation clause and likely decline in economic productivity.[20]

In posterity, biographers have sought to burnish the reputations of our most revered Revolutionary War generals. Several biographers ignored their slave ownership or played it down. For example, Philip Schuyler’s highly comprehensive biographer Don R. Gerlach ignored his slave ownership all together.[21] A good example of playing down slave ownership is the David Mattern biography of Benjamin Lincoln in which the author attempts to put a good face on Lincoln’s slave ownership by asserting that Northern slavery was not as bad as Southern slavery. Further, Mattern concludes that as a result of his Southern campaign, Lincoln changed his views to oppose slavery.[22] William Moultrie’s biographer C. L. Bragg even goes so far as to depict him as a benevolent slave master who engendered loyalty and commitment from the enslaved.[23] While abhorrent today, this view that “some slavery was better than other slavery” has survived for a long time.

What biographers do recount are the major generals’ attempts to employ slaves as military assets. After the initial period of non-use, most major generals engaged slaves as soldiers, laborers or servants and actively sought ways to inhibit slaves from fleeing to the British lines. In some cases, they advocated granting freedom in exchange for enlistment. This was especially the case in the southern theater where the numbers of soldiers were few, recruitment was difficult, and there was a high proportion of slaves in the population. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene even offered a persuasive pecuniary argument to the governor of South Carolina that arming blacks would allow the Patriots to recapture from the British the most agriculturally fertile regions and restore the war ravaged economy. Notwithstanding the economically compelling argument but fearing more a slave uprising, the South Carolina Patriot politicians dismissed Greene’s proposal.[24]

Beyond noting the ownership of slaves and their military value, biographies rarely discuss the major generals’ views on slavery. Perhaps this is because slavery was so widely accepted during the Revolutionary period that it is not considered notable or a controversial issue. Another factor maybe that with only a few exceptions, the major generals lost considerable wealth during the war and were largely financially unsuccessful after the war; therefore they did not have the economic capacity to purchase slaves. Most importantly, the incongruity of leading both free and enslaved soldiers in the fight for liberty and freedom from oppression is proof of the prevailing wide spread support for slavery in all segments of the Revolutionary era population.

In rare and nuanced cases such as Benjamin Lincoln or Horatio Gates, military service may have altered a few major generals’ opinions on slavery. As a group, however, their views were consistent with other prominent leaders in society. They fought for independence and freedom from “British slavery” but not for the freedom of enslaved African Americans.

 

[1] As the most senior army officers, the Continental Army major generals as group were representative of the highest level of authority and responsibility within Revolutionary America.

[2] The six other major generals are foreign volunteers who served in the Continental Army and returned to their homeland or did not survive the war. I did include in the twenty-three major generals Prussian volunteer Frederick von Steuben as he purchased a large tract of land in New York State after the war and had the opportunity to engage in slavery (but never did).

[3] For a listing of Continental Army major generals and statistics on slave ownership and views, see http://researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/major-generals/.

[4] George Washington, The Papers of George Washington. 2 2: Revolutionary War Series September – December 1775, William Wright Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, ed. (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 125.

[5] Thomas to John Adams, October 24, 1775, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Recipient%3A%22Adams%2C%20John%22%20Author%3A%22Thomas%2C%20John%22&s=1111311111&sa=thomas&r=1, accessed October 5, 2017.

[6] Philip Schuyler to William Heath, July 28, 1777, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Seventh Series, Vol. IV (Boston, MA: Published by the Society, 1904), 135-6.

[7] For a good analysis of the role of blacks in fighting for American independence, see Judith L. Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution, Campaigns and Commanders, volume 59 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).

[8] Nathanael Greene, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill, NC: Published for the Rhode Island Historical Society [by] the University of North Carolina Press, 1976), Volume VI, 93.

[9] Greene to Washington, March 9, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07940.

[10] Bibliographic Directory of the United States Congress 1774 – Present, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/guidedisplay.pl?index=M000415, accessed October 3, 2017.

[11] The New York African Free School, https://www.nyhistory.org/web/africanfreeschool/history/manumission-society.html, accessed October 3, 2017.

[12] Joanne Retano, The Restless City: A Short History of New York from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2010), 29.

[13] William Cutter, The Life of Gen. Putnam, 4th ed. (Boston: John Philbrick, 1854), 29–30.

[14] George L. Clark, The History of Connecticut: Its people and Institutions (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1914), 157.

[15] Samuel White Patterson, Horatio Gates Defender of American Liberties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), 368.

[16] Paul David Nelson, General Horatio Gates: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 288.

[17] There are sources which lack supporting citations that allege Arthur St. Clair owned and even purchased slaves during his tenure as Northwest Territorial governor. For an example, see, http://www.lib.niu.edu/1998/iht519802.html.

[18] Charles S. Hall, Life And Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons Major General in the Continental Army and Chief Judge of the Southwestern Territory 1787-1789 (Binghamton, NY: Otseningo Publishing Col., 1905), 606.

[19] William Henry Smith, ed., The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair Soldier of the Revolutionary War, President of the Continental Congress and Governor of the North-Western Territory with His Correspondence and Other Papers (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1882), 587–90.

[20] Debate in Massachusetts Ratifying Convention,

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_9_1s11.html, accessed October 3, 2017.

[21] Don R. Gerlach, Proud Patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987); Don R. Gerlach, Philip Schuyler and the American Revolution in New York, 1733-1777 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964).

[22] David B. Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 19.

[23] C. L. Bragg, Crescent Moon over Carolina: William Moultrie and American Liberty (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 12.

[24] Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light, 169.

 

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12 Comments

  • Excellent article Gene. Lots of information about the Major Generals and slavery that I didn’t know. Glad you did this research. Keep up the good work. We need articles like this.

  • Your use of the words “major general” is quite strange to me. As a military veteran, the term “Major General” is a two star general officer by rank. But since you do not capitalize these words, I find it somewhat puzzling to understand your intention with these words. My questions: What do you mean by major general? Is a Brigadier General is not “major general” too? Is your major general someone who played a major role in the revolution? Please clarify. Thanks.

    • Standard editorial convention is to capitalize the names of military ranks when used as part of a person’s title, but not otherwise. For example, “A lieutenant name John Smith was promoted and became Captain John Smith.”
      For more information about our editorial conventions, refer to our style guide:
      https://allthingsliberty.com/style/

    • To add to the editor’s comment, the Continental Army had three ranks of general officers. George Washington’s commission was general and commander-in-chief. Below Washington were major generals and then brigadier generals. The article only focuses on major generals. Francis Heitman’s “Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution” is an authoritative source for officer ranks.

  • Excellent article! I find this subject very interesting.

    In my various research for a novelization of the period, I have found that slavery was quite abundant. Slaves were owned by large numbers of people, North and South, in small counts of one or two slaves, and they would be loaned out to each other to help with harvests.

    And the Contintental Army, in the North at least, permitted “substitution,” where conscripted men could, and would, send servants and slaves in their stead. Men would buy a slave for just that purpose if they didn’t have one. Hence the Hessian quote “…no [Continental] regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance…” Estimates I recall reading had one or two regiments that were as much as 1/2 black and/or substitutes. But, the name of the slave owner/payor of the substitute was kept in the muster, so there’s no way to be sure.

    And that they even considered enlisting freemen and slaves into the army gives evidence that slavery at the time was not yet the wholesale dehumanizing abomination it became.

  • I would like the available documentation re how many slaves joined the British
    Army, where they served, who’s regt, etc etc

  • I was surprised that there was no mention of General Henry Knox, a Bostonian and one of George Washington’s most trusted generals. From my readings of several biographies of Knox,and Francis Drake’s Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox, I believe he never did own slaves.

    In discussing African Americans in the Continental Army one should mention Rhode Island’s Black Regiment which was subsequently disbanded and integrated into another R.I. Regiment and served from 1777 to 1782.

    • Martin, I also believe that Henry Knox did not own slaves. He fits into the category of generals with limited financial means. The more wealthy a general, the more likely they were to own slaves.

  • Thank you for this important contribution. I am particularly pleased to see the record of Horatio Gates clarified. I did not have space to cover the topic in my own writing on Gates, but like Schuyler before him he objected to having blacks in the Northern Army. Gates was an Americanized former British officer, but his adopted Whiggish beliefs were qualified in his adopted Virginia. Slavery was legal in every one of the founding thirteen colonies in 1776. Vermont took the lead in abolishing it when it declared its own statehood in 1777, but New England abolitionists still had work ahead of them. It seems strange now in retrospect, but there was a lot of ambivalence about slavery even in the North during the American Revolution.

  • Interesting article on an often-overlooked topic. Another thing to note is that some of the Major Generals and high-profile figures in New England didn’t have any income coming in once they entered the war. Take Arnold and Silas Deane of CT. (Arnold didn’t own slaves, I don’t think Deane did but I’m not positive)

    Both were merchants that made their money trading/selling. If they personally weren’t on the sea or making deals they weren’t making money. We all know that these two eventually resorted to corrupt business deals/arrangements to generate some personal income. It’s unfortunate in that both were highly successful merchants prior to the war, but they both had a flaw, as many do, in their desire for wealth.

  • Nice work, Gene. It’s an interesting approach to look at one small but influential segment of American society.

    Oddly enough, I just finished reading Jeremy Black’s “A Brief History of Slavery: A New Global History” (London: Robinson, 2011, ISBN 978-1-84901-689-6). I read it for two reasons—it presents centuries of the history of slavery from around the world and it is written from a British perspective. Considering the provincial American view to which we have been constantly bombarded for decades … centuries—that we are a nasty culture for utilizing and tolerating slavery—the book is something of an eye-opener. Although I knew in the back of my mind that slavery existed just about everywhere world-wide at the time of the Revolution (and still does to some degree), Black’s work presented a considerable amount of information that turned my vague suspicions into concrete knowledge. Every western country as well as the Africans themselves had a hand in slavery and the slave trade. American slavery had little uniqueness to it—far from it. It’s not one of America’s finer points but we should stop giving ourselves a guilt trip over it.

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