Editor’s note: Originally published in JAR in May 2013, this important article about the contribution of African Americans to our nation’s liberty was written by the late Thomas Fleming (1927–2017).
African Americans participated in the American Revolution from its first day. That is another reason why it is shameful that for a long time, they received no credit for their courage and enthusiasm for liberty.
The minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, included at least nine Black soldiers. One, Peter Salem, served in a company from the town of Framingham. His owner had given him his freedom so he could enlist. Another minuteman, Pomp Blackman, later became a regular in the Continental Army. Yet another, Prince Estabrook of Lexington, was among the fifty-one American casualties on that historic day.
Two months later, American and British troops fought their first major battle at Bunker Hill. Once again, there were Blacks in the ranks, including former slave Peter Salem. Among the heroes at Bunker Hill was Salem Poor, a free Black man from Groton. Fourteen officers who had fought in the battle submitted a petition to the Massachusetts legislature, praising Poor. “In the person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant fellow,” they declared.
When the Continental Army was organized in July of 1775, there was much discussion about recruiting Blacks. Although it was clear that northern Blacks like Salem Poor made good soldiers, southerners balked at arming the South’s blacks. In many parts of the South, Black slaves greatly outnumbered whites. That made whites reluctant to provide Blacks with weapons lest they start a rebellion of their own.
Some months after George Washington became commander in chief of the Continental Army, he met with his generals to consider including Blacks in the army. The majority voted to exclude all Blacks, both free and slave. When the decision was affirmed by the Continental Congress, Washington informed his Black troops that when their terms of service expired on December 31, 1775, they would not be allowed to re-enlist.
Soon after, a group of African American soldiers appeared at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge to protest the new policy. Sympathizing with their position, the general prevailed upon Congress to reverse its decision and allow free Blacks to re-enlist. No new Blacks would be accepted, however, and slaves would continue to be excluded.
As the war continued, this policy was abandoned. In 1777, the Continental Congress, at Washington’s request, required soldiers to enlist for three years. Each state was assigned a quota. The states ordered each town to come up with a certain number of men. White men, who were unwilling to commit to a three-year enlistment, often hired Blacks to serve in their place.
In 1778, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law allowing General James Varnum to recruit an entire regiment of African Americans. The assembly guaranteed that when the war was over, they would be “absolutely free.” Some two hundred Black men signed up and the First Rhode Island regiment was formed.
A few months later, General John Sullivan arrived in Rhode Island with a plan to attack and destroy the British army around Newport. The French, who had recently become America’s allies in the war, were sending a fleet of warships to help him. The First Rhode Island Regiment was part of Sullivan’s army.
Sullivan and the French admiral worked out a plan of attack. The Americans would land on the north end of Aquidneck Island, where Newport is situated. The French would land troops on the west side of the island and the two armies would meet and assault the British forces.
Sullivan crossed Narragansett Bay and landed on the island with 10,000 troops. While they were marching south, the British fleet appeared off Newport. The French admiral sailed out to fight them without informing General Sullivan of the change in plans. Suddenly, a tremendous storm erupted. The British fleet withdrew to New York and the French ships sought refuge in Boston, leaving Sullivan’s brigades isolated on Aquidneck Island.
Several regiments of part-time American soldiers known as militia gave up and went home. Left with only half of his original army, Sullivan retreated to the north end of Aquidneck. The British troops followed him, confident that they could mount a successful attack as the Americans struggled to get their men and equipment aboard their boats to escape to the mainland.
Sullivan decided to make a stand. He detached the First Rhode Island regiment and several other units, and ordered them to keep the Redcoats at bay so the rest of his army could escape. It was the Black regiment’s first time in battle. When the British infantry blasted away at them, the First Rhode Island stood its ground and put up a ferocious fight against the enemy. Their resistance enabled Sullivan’s men to evacuate the island without serious losses. From that day, the First Rhode Island was considered one of the most reliable regiments in the American army.
One of the African Americans in the First Rhode Island was Jack Sisson, who was already famous. The year before, he had participated in the daring abduction of Major General Richard Prescott, the commander of the British forces in Newport.
Late one night, Sisson and thirty-nine other volunteers sailed across Narragansett Bay to Aquidneck Island. They managed to slip past the British warship anchored in the bay and pull into a deserted cove not far from the house where the general was staying.
After disarming the sentry, they entered the house and Jack Sisson smashed open the door of the general’s bedroom by butting it with his head. This feat enabled the Americans to seize General Prescott before nearby British forces could react. British embarrassment was acute. American morale soared.
In 1781, the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, with a small American army to oppose a British invasion of the state. The British army heavily outnumbered Lafayette’s men. A local patriot, William Armistead, offered him one of his slaves to serve as his valet. The slave, Jim, was a daring and resourceful young man who soon volunteered to become a spy. Pretending to be a runaway, he infiltrated the British camp at Portsmouth and returned with useful information about the enemy’s plans. Jim helped Lafayette and his men survive until George Washington and the main American army arrived.
After the war, Lafayette procured Jim’s freedom. Forty‑three years later, in 1824, the Marquis returned to America for a triumphant tour on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As the French hero rode through Richmond, Jim stepped out of the crowd and shook his hand. Lafayette was pleased to discover that Jim had adopted his surname and now called himself James Lafayette.