‘They Were Good Soldiers’: African Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775–1783

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They Were Good Soldiers: African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 by John U. Rees (Solihull, England: Helion & Company, 2019)

John U. Rees addresses an interesting yet difficult subject in his recent work, ‘They Were Good Soldiers’: African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783. Rees and others interested in the lives and experiences of the common soldier find that many primary source records containing the details needed to accurately tell their stories failed to survive the test of time. This is understandable, given the Continental Army grew from a collection of state militias during wartime into a national army. Locating records for African American soldiers can be particularly challenging for many reasons. Rees found many African American Continentals often used multiple names, in part attributable to their social and economic status during and after the revolution. Post war racial prejudices compounded the challenges of daily life for African American veterans. Even with these challenges, Rees identified numerous soldiers and produced a well-researched, creditable and interesting analysis of African American service in the Continental Army. His work is helpful in placing the contributions of African American soldiers in the greater context of the revolutionary experience.

Rees organized his 200-page work into nineteen short chapters supplemented by an introduction, afterword and four appendices. The informative chapters range in length from five to sixteen pages; he includes a number of direct quotes from primary source documents. He begins his narrative with four chapters that address various aspects of the African American experience during the revolution, focusing on service in the Continental Army. His research, citing surviving records from 1778, indicates that between three and five percent of the soldiers serving in the Continental Army were African American. This finding is important considering African Americans constituted an estimated sixteen to twenty percent of the population of thirteen colonies at the start of the war and a full one-third of the population of Virginia, with even larger percentages in the Carolinas and Georgia. About ninety-five percent of African Americans were slaves. Freeing slaves to fight or just the thought of arming former slaves was not a popular idea in the South because of the economic impact on the labor force and the threat of a slave rebellion. In reflecting on Rees’s work, African Americans did not serve in numbers representative of their relative population because of slavery.

Rees elected to relate individual soldier experiences in thirteen chapters, one for each state. He begins each of these state chapters with a summary of the state’s contributions to the Continental Army, providing context for each soldier’s individual service and stories that follow. He outlines details of the individual soldiers’ service and experiences through analysis of surviving pension records supplemented by other records and previous research by other scholars. Taken collectively each soldier’s story provides valuable insight into the unique African American experience as well as contributing to the collective understanding of the common soldier serving the Continental Army. One short but enlightening account relates to the experiences of Anthony Gilman, who served in multiple units beginning in 1775; during 1781, as part of a New Hampshire unit, while attempting to drive “Cow-boys” out of the Bronx, Gilman became a prisoner of the British. Sold as a slave in New York City, Gilman accompanied his loyalist owner to Nova Scotia, where he escaped after the war’s end.

Rees summarizes his work with several short chapters that highlight and amplify the findings in the preceding chapters. He supplements the material in the basic text with several appendices. Filled with human stories, readers will find this text useful in understanding the overall contributions of African American soldiers to the Continental Army and will gain insight into the experiences they faced along the way. Any reader with an interest in learning more about the common soldier serving in the Continental Army would benefit from reading this text.

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