At the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, there is an exhibit in the core gallery examining the choices, opportunities and constraints of African Americans in Virginia in 1781. Titled “Sometimes, freedom wore a red coat” it seeks to educate people on the effect the British Army had on operating in areas where slavery flourished, and the role of these former slaves in Britain’s war effort. It is here where things can get murky—“joining the army” may not have meant what the phrase implies at face value.
At the very start of the war in America, the British recognized the need for locally-raised forces. American troops had been raised in the colonies for all previous conflicts fought there, and despite the nature of the newest war, the British felt confident that enough Americans remained loyal to bolster their ranks, at least until more troops could be raised in Europe. Troops raised by direction of the commander-in-chief of the Army in America, such as the Royal Highland Emigrants, would be known as Provincials. Regiments in the Provincial Establishment would receive arms, accoutrements, equipage, pay, clothing and provisions the same as British soldiers, be under the same discipline, serve for the duration of the war and be liable for service anywhere, although it was understood they would not leave North America.
Not all troops raised in America would fall under this establishment. The governors of the provinces, those who still held some power or control, could call out their militia or raise new corps on their own authority, paid for by whatever funds were available to them. In Halifax, Gov. Francis Legge raised the Nova Scotia Volunteers; in Saint Augustine, Gov. Patrick Tonyn raised the East Florida Rangers; and in Virginia, Gov. the Earl of Dunmore raised two corps: the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment and the Ethiopian Regiment. The latter was unique among all these corps, being composed of all Black enlisted men, primarily escaped slaves.
The popular misconception is that the British would arm all escaped slaves who joined them. In the case of Dunmore’s regiment, and early recruits to the Provincial Corps, this was mostly true, but the Ethiopian Regiment was a short-lived experiment. After suffering severely from disease, the corps (and the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment), evacuated Virginia with Dunmore and were disbanded on Staten Island on or about September 24, 1776.
In the new corps being raised on the Provincial Establishment, some Blacks did enlist as soldiers carrying arms into such units as the King’s American Regiment, the Queen’s American Rangers and DeLancey’s Brigade. After an American raid onto Long Island in the fall of 1776 captured as many as two dozen men of the 1st Battalion of DeLancey’s, one of the captors described the prisoners as “a motly herd, about one half of them being Negroes and Indians.” The implication was no doubt intended to portray those bearing arms for the British as something less than those fighting for independence.
The compositions of the Provincials did not seem to concern the British until irregularities caused by Robert Rogers and his corps, the Queen’s American Rangers, persuaded British commander-in-chief Sir William Howe to appoint an inspector general to, among other things “attend to their good order and Discipline.” That person was Alexander Innes. Innes, a former British Army captain and most recently secretary to South Carolina Royal Governor Lord William Campbell, set about his duties with a ruthless zeal, removing the troublesome Rogers from command along with thirty of his officers. Innes next broadened his gaze to the other corps under his authority and made recommendations accordingly to Howe’s staff. On March 14, 1777 Innes reported to the British adjutant general that “Negroes, Mullatoes, Indians and Sailors have been inlisted” and recommended they be discharged and none enlisted in the future. Howe concurred, signifying that the intention of the corps was to be composed only of “His Majesty’s Loyal American Subjects” and that all those mentioned by Innes, and “other Improper Persons,” be discharged. It is unknown how many men of all denominations were removed from the different units, but no less than forty-five sailors discharged from Provincial regiments were given over to the Royal Navy immediately following the above order.
The one more or less unwritten caveat in the prohibition was for allowing Blacks to serve in an unarmed role, that of pioneer. Pioneers, in the eighteenth century military sense, were laborers whose duties included building fortifications, removing obstacles and general maintenance. While a number of the corps would have one or perhaps two Black pioneers per company, particularly in the south, there were two companies of Black pioneers on the Provincial Establishment, those commanded by Captains Robert Richard Crowe and George Martin. These two units were combined in 1778 and served the remainder of the war under Capt. Allan Stewart, a North Carolina Loyalist.
An additional mode of service for Blacks in the Provincials was as musicians, either drummers, fifers, trumpeters or bandsman. These functions, particularly the first three, were not so much for entertainment but rather for relaying commands in battle, in camp, and on the march. In the exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution, one of the stories presented is that of a fifteen-year-old Virginia slave named London who became a cavalry trumpeter in Benedict Arnold’s regiment, the American Legion. A South Carolina former slave, Bernard E. Griffiths, aka Barney, was noted for his bravery at Spencer’s Ordinary as a trumpeter with the Queen’s American Rangers.
Cavalry played an important role for both sides in the American Revolution. With limited regular cavalry available in America, the British by necessity turned more and more to Provincial and militia mounted troops to fill the void. Corps such as the British Legion, Queen’s American Rangers and American Legion provided opportunities, albeit limited ones, for Blacks to serve in an important function and be armed at least with a sword and perhaps a brace of pistols. One of these new corps, the King’s American Dragoons, attempted to push the boundaries imposed by Innes and the British commanders.
The King’s American Dragoons was unique in that their formation was solicited in England rather than the normal chain of command in America. Proposed in June 1780 by Daniel Murray, commander of an independent cavalry troop known as Wentworth’s Volunteers, the plan was reviewed by Secretary of State Lord Germain, who laid it before King George III, who gave it his approval and encouragement. The commander recommended for the corps was French and Indian War Massachusetts Gen. Timothy Ruggles, who had commanded the Loyal American Association at Boston earlier in the Revolution. It is unknown whether Ruggles was even aware of his nomination, but at nearly seventy years old, his days of being a soldier were well behind him and he was never appointed to the corps. But the new regiment caught the eye of one of Germain’s undersecretaries in England, Benjamin Thompson.
Benjamin Thompson was born in Woburn, Massachusetts on March 26, 1753. A stout Loyalist, Thompson was settled in New Hampshire at the start of the war, already a major in the militia in his young twenties. After fleeing New Hampshire, Thompson wound up in London where he acquired the patronage of Lord George Germain, who appointed him an undersecretary of state for America. In addition to this post, he served in England under Alexander Innes as a deputy inspector, allowing him access to information on both the war and the American forces fighting for Britain. When Ruggles proved unwilling or unable to take charge of the then-raising King’s American Dragoons, Thompson was in a position to request command of the corps with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Serving in a civil capacity in England left the actual raising of the corps to Daniel Murray, as major.
After arranging for complete uniforms, accoutrements, colors and even light artillery for his new corps, Thompson joined the first available transport for America. With Thompson came a handful of enlistees that he recruited, such as McQueen Bisset, the regimental armorer. Also on board were four trumpeters, all recruited by Thompson that September: Daniel Green, Richard Stanley, John Frederick and William Higginson. Each was a former Black slave, and each was headed for South Carolina.
The fleet on which Thompson and his charges were on, some forty vessels convoyed by HMS Rotterdam, Duc de Chartres and Astrea, set out for New York, not Charleston, at the end of September 1781. When this fleet of provision ships and a few recruits sailed, the war in America was still not decided. One of the passengers on board was Lord Dunmore, far removed from his days leading the Ethiopian Regiment but now ordered back to Virginia to resume his government. Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown that October ended any dream of returning to Virginia and governing. The situation in South Carolina was little better. Despite winning most of the major battles, the British were forced to abandon the backcountry and occupied only the neighborhood of Charleston—Dumore was reduced to sitting around a house in Charleston, provided by some refugees there whom he thanked “for their attention, in the politest manner.” Militarily, the most pressing problem was the want of good cavalry. There were hundreds of Provincial and militia cavalry available, but no competent cavalry officer to put them in order. Lt. Gen. Alexander Leslie, commanding in South Carolina, complained that the cavalry force in the province was little better than mounted infantry.
The unexpected arrival of the fleet at Charleston presented a fortuitous, if temporary, solution to the cavalry dilemma. When Thompson learned that he would not be headed to New York anytime soon, he offered his services to Leslie to put the cavalry into some sort of order, which offer was accepted. The different cavalry units were scattered but ordered to join together from John’s Island and Haddrell’s Point under Thompson, whose camp was an outpost four miles from the city. It included the Provincial South Carolina Royalists, along with a troop of New York Volunteers, British Legion, Queen’s Rangers and North Carolinians. In addition to these he had attached to his corps “Two strong Troops of mounted militia, and a Seapoy Troop (Gens de Couleers).” This last troop was an armed Black cavalry unit of thirty officers and men commanded by a Captain March. Known as the Black Dragoons or Black Pioneer Troop, it served until the evacuation of Charleston in December 1782, and thereafter in the West Indies as a part of the Black Carolina Corps. A militia unit, it was the only the only one of its kind and was unique in being officially commanded by Blacks; while other Blacks in the north served in refugee corps (not Provincials) with the rank of “colonel,” these titles were not formal or official in any way, but were merely honorary recognition of leadership bestowed on them by their followers.
Thompson formed an instant bond with all the officers and men under his new command. “They have all been used to fire, and Sword,” he wrote of his troopers “and are brave to the last degree.” Thompson led the troops, both the Provincials and militia, in maneuvering twice a day, quickly bringing them into a state of proficiency. That training was put to the test in grand style that February, as Thompson led his cavalry and some supporting infantry into the countryside. On February 24, 1782 Thompson’s cavalry, outpacing the infantry, caught up with an enemy force of 500 South Carolina State Troops and militia under Col. Archibald McDonald at Wambaw Bridge. With the loss of just one man wounded, the cavalry charged the whole: “the enemy fired their pistols, broke in confusion, and were pursued with great slaughter.” The following day Thompson repeated his success when he marched the cavalry to Tidyman’s Plantation, two miles from the previous day’s battle, where he attacked none other than Francis Marion and a mixed force under his command. Employing the same tactics as the day before, the Loyalist cavalry charge broke the enemy force, with the loss of just one militiaman wounded. Marion’s losses included his tent and rum.
Returning to camp, Thompson and his men, Black and white, were the toast of Charleston, where people could for a moment forget that the war they were fighting had already been decided. The British commander ordered this commendation published: “Lieut. General LESLIE desires Lieut. Colonel THOMPSON, and the officers and soldiers of the Cavalry and Infantry who served under his command, will accept his best thanks for the service performed by them on the late expedition.” Leslie likewise informed his superior, Sir Henry Clinton, that Thompson “has put [the cavalry] in exceeding good order, and gained their confidence and affection.” The time for the fleet that brought Thompson to finally resume its voyage to New York was rapidly approaching, however, and with it, an end to Thompson’s South Carolina adventure. “I have much regret to part with this enterprising young officer,” Leslie continued, “who appears to have an uncommon share of merit, and zeal for the service.” The service of the Black Dragoons must have made a very favorable impression on Leslie, as he proposed forming an even larger corps of armed Blacks, requesting Clinton “determine in what manner their Officers should be appointed and on what terms their freedom should be given them.” The plan went nowhere, as Clinton was on the point of sailing for home. The war in America was winding down.
When Thompson and his recruits boarded the fleet for New York that March, they were joined by twenty others recruited while in South Carolina, including a soldier aptly named Horsman. Thirteen of these recruits traveled on the Armed Storeship Sally, perhaps as a guard, while Thompson and the remainder were dispersed on other vessels. On April 11, 1782 “arrived at Sandy-Hook, in 10 Days from Charlestown, South-Carolina, a Fleet of 45 Sail of Navy and Army Victuallers (most of which arrived at that Place last Fall from Europe) under Convoy of his Majesty’s Ships Carysfort, Duke de Chartres, Astrea, Charlestown, and Grana. . . . In the Fleet came Passengers, his Excellency the Earl of Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, Colonels [John] Small and [Benjamin] Thompson, and several other Gentlemen of high Rank.”
While Thompson may have been known previously to some of the officers of his regiment, many of whom were fellow New Englanders, he no doubt took some time acquainting himself with the remainder, and the enlisted men under his command. His first order of business was to enlarge the corps. “I mean to Recruit in good Earnest” he wrote Deputy Muster Master Ward Chipman on June 20, and he was as good as his word, with enlisting dozens.
Upon joining the regiment at New York, Thompson made sure each of his five (and later six) troops had at least one Black pioneer. These men came from quite diverse backgrounds. Peter Moses had been a slave in Virginia who had joined Lord Dunmore in 1775. Joseph Kelly was a twenty-four-year-old mulatto from Setauket, Long Island, while Andrew Hilton and Charles Allen were from Maryland, each described as “part Indian.” Edward Hill and Joseph Williams were former slaves from New Jersey and North Carolina respectively but Gabriel Dickenson was a freeborn Black from North Castle, New York. Thompson not only added the Black trumpeters he brought from England, but replaced any white trumpeters already serving with newly recruited former slaves Charles Ferrell, Hector Munro, Edward Lloyd, and Dick Jackson.
Thompson’s corps would recruit 388 men by the end of July 1782, and this at a time when the other Provincial units at New York were struggling to replace losses from death and desertion. Not among those counted as soldiers but who nonetheless had a military role were the Black servants hired by each officer. As Thompson informed Germain:
I Permit no man to be taken from the Ranks to be made a servant of. All our Officers have Black Servants, they are all Dressed in the same Uniform, except the feathers in their Turbans, which are of different Colours according to the Troops their Masters belong to. At Reviews and on all Field Days they Parade with the Regiment and assist in managing the Guns. They get no pay from the King, but they draw Rations, their Masters paying for them at the usual rate (2½d).
The guns in question were four amusettes ordered from England in September, “with Carriages & Harness complete.” A 1782 British Verbruggen brass amusette barrel weighed about 225 pounds, was between five and five and a half feet in length and fired a one pound shot. Thompson was extremely proud of these guns, and included having them fire a “royal salute” after maneuvering on the field with the troops before His Royal Highness Prince William Henry at Fresh Meadows, Long Island on August 1, 1782 to mark the occasion of presenting the regiment with their colors. Using the Black servants to assist with operating these light artillery pieces would have involved them in a fast-paced, complex procedure, as Thompson laid out to Germain shortly after the color ceremony:
I have tried our Guns & find them to answer admirably And have lately astonished all the world by taking them up on Horse back. Three Horses carry the Gun with it[s] Carriage, Ammunition Boxes &c, with the Greatest ease, and at any Pace. I have promised to show the Commander in Chief one of them taking a flying leap at a five Barr’d Gate; and I have little doubt, but I shall be able soon to show him one swimming over a River. I have contrived a Breast-Plate for the Horse, (analogom to the Cork waistcoats) which will effectually prevent his sinking with the weight of the Gun on his back. Our men are already so expert that they take the Gun with all its apparatus from the Horses backs, put it together and fire it in the space of one minute and a Quarter, and in one minute more it is on Horse back again. It carries its round shott further and truer, and shoots its grape [shot] better than any Gun in the Service. I hit a tree the other Evening, (less than a large mans body) at the distance of 300 Yards three time[s] in five shots, with single Bullets.
Despite all New York and the Loyalists within realizing the war was lost, with commissioners in Paris then at work hammering out the treaty, Thompson envisioned carrying his corps to fight against the French in India or the West Indies. In his plans, he contemplated not just the King’s American Dragoons as they then stood, but an expanded number of artillerymen and four companies of light infantry to be raised from among the existing Provincial units at New York. On March 14, 1783, Thompson solicited Sir Guy Carleton, who had replaced Clinton as commander in chief the previous year, for permission to raise just such a corps, which would include his beloved “Four Field Pieces with their Harness &c. complete, for a Troop of Flying Artillery.” Exactly one week later Carleton issued Thompson a warrant to raise and augment his new corps. Another augmentation to the corps was in the number of Black pioneers, specifying fifty-two privates, four corporals and four serjeants, each of whom would receive one guinea bounty along with the pay and clothing of infantry. Carleton did stipulate that “care is to be taken not to permit any Negroes but such as are absolutely free, to inlist in this Corps.”
In the proposed establishment of this expanded corps, it would total 700 officers and men of all ranks and types. Each new company of light infantry was to have a Black drummer and fifer each, while the cavalry would retain their Black trumpeters. The artillery would consist of no officers, but four sergeants, four corporals, two drummers and fifty privates. Upon being formed, the artillery would follow these orders and guidelines:
The Four Pieces of Cannon to be on the flanks of the Batallion, two on the Right, and two on the Left, and the Company of Artillery to be formed in two Divisions, Each Division to be under the Command of a Quarter Master. The Privates of the Company of Artillery to be Blacks. To have no other Arms but Swords, and to be Accoutered for drawing the Guns. The Non-Commissioned Officers to be Whites and to be Armed with Muskets and Bayonnettes. The whole to have Infantry Pay.
Despite all his exertions, not Benjamin Thompson or any other human could change the outcome of the war. Within just a few days of his new warrant, the preliminary articles of peace arrived at New York, putting an effective stop to all plans for the West Indies and the new corps. The prospect of the British leaving America threw all the Loyalists into fear and despair, including Thompson. “It is a thousand pities so fine a Regiment should be anihilated” he lamented to Germain. On April 4, 1783 Thompson formally requested leave to go to England to solicit “in behalf of himself and the Corps, that they may be employed in the East Indies” or elsewhere. In the meantime, he requested the corps be dismounted and turn in their cavalry appointments, then to do duty in Nova Scotia “till further Orders.”
Thompson sailed for England immediately. Upon his arrival in London, he set about writing a slew of letters, not requesting further service but that the King’s American Dragoons be put on the American Establishment, and that the officers’ ranks be made permanent in America and that they be entitled to half-pay upon the regiment being disbanded. Thompson simultaneously lobbied for all Provincial officers to receive half-pay, he being appointed to solicit just that, which was granted. This made his request for his corps more or less moot and the matter seems to have simply faded away. One last request, that which he was most adamant about, was not granted, his promotion to full colonel.
Back in New York that summer, Sir Guy Carleton was fully immersed in evacuating New York City, a logistical challenge of immense proportions given the communications of the times. The one request Thompson had made to him was carried out, that of sending the regiment to Nova Scotia. While all Provincial units at New York would eventually be sent there, the King’s American Dragoons were the first, and unlike any other corps continued doing duty rather than simply disbanding. “The King’s American Dragoons who are dismounted, having desired to be sent to St. Johns River, Bay of Fundy, I have agreed to their request, and they will proceed directly to that place, where they are to encamp, and do duty for present,” Carleton informed the British commander at Halifax on April 26, 1783.
On April 23, 1783 a fleet left New York carrying nearly 2,800 Loyalists to the River Saint John, Nova Scotia (now New Brunswick). Of those, 404 men, women and children belonged to the King’s American Dragoons, including no less than forty-five Black trumpeters, pioneers, and officers’ servants embarked on board the transport ship Lady’s Adventure. Before any of those forty-five could get on board to transport them away from America, they were questioned by commissioners from the British, determining whether or not they were legally allowed to leave under an agreement worked out between both sides. While the Americans were anxious to reclaim what they considered property lost to the British (and not legally allowed to be removed under the treaty of peace), the British were equally insistent in fulfilling Sir Henry Clinton’s 1779 proclamation promising freedom to all Blacks joining them. In addition to the trumpeters and pioneers, each officer typically had one or more servants embarking with them. Lt. Alexander Stewart’s servant, for instance, was named John Stewart, a nineteen year old free-born Black from Charleston, South Carolina; Cornet Arthur Nicholson’s was a twenty year-old female former slave named Hester Walton, also a South Carolinian. All would now be off to new lives in what remained of British North America.
Whatever duty Thompson or the British envisioned for the corps at the mouth of the Saint John River (soon to be the City of Saint John), all they appear to have done for several months was take up space, being gobbled up by more and more Loyalists from New York. They were eventually shunted further up the river, where they were joined by the remainder of the Provincials arriving from New York City at the end of September 1783. Soon thereafter, Maj. Daniel Murray, commanding the corps in Thompson’s absence, received the inevitable order stating, “You are hereby directed to disband the Kings American Dragoons on the tenth Day of October Instant.” The officers and men of Thompson’s regiment, many of whom had never fought in a battle or fired a shot in anger, would now settle into civilian lives with their families. For those of color in the corps who had left bondage and slavery, it was a chance of a free life, one shared with some 3,000 others in Nova Scotia. While old struggles were behind them, new ones lay ahead, with never-ending challenges to life and liberty.
Editor’s note: Benjamin Thompson went on to take the title Count Rumford, wrote many scientific papers, and made significant contributions to the study of thermodynamics. He proved that heat was not a substance but a product of motion, determined that fur causes warmth by inhibiting convective cooling, invented sous-vide cooking, and established basic principles of radiant heating. He invented the double boiler, as well as an improved kitchen range and drip coffee pot, and efficient industrial furnaces; he designed an efficient fireplace design still in use today. Forty-five years after his death, Rumford Baking Powder was named after him.
Dunmore to William Howe, on board the Ship William off Norfolk, Virginia, November 30, 1775, in William B. Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 2 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1976), 1210-1211.
Todd W. Braisted. “Bernard E. Griffiths: Trumpeter Barney of the Queen’s Rangers, Chelsea Pensioner—and Freed Slave,” Journal of the American Revolution (February 21, 2019), allthingsliberty.com/2019/02/bernard-e-griffiths-trumpeter-barney-of-the-queens-rangers/.
Thompson held this last position at least as early as December 1779 and continued into 1781. Benjamin Thompson to George Germain, London, December 22, 1779, Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 156, folios 272-273, TNA.
Thompson was ordered on board HMS Rotterdam heading for New York with a fleet carrying recruits. John Fisher to Philip Stephens, Whitehall, September 28, 1781. Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 255, folio 53, TNA.
Thompson ordered a quarterly allowance to Bisset’s wife of five guineas at the insistence of her husband as a condition of his going to America and leaving her behind. Thompson to Germain, New York, September 12, 1782, Sackville-Germain Papers, Volume 16, CL.
David McConnell, British Smooth-Bore Artillery: A Technological Study to Support Identification, Acquisition, Restoration, Reproduction, and Interpretation of Artillery at National Historic Parks in Canada (Minister of Supply and Services Canada: 1988), 51.
Royal Gazette(New York), August 7, 1782. It was noted during the account of the ceremony that a band of music played, in addition to the trumpeters of the regiment. There was indeed a band of music in the regiment, and while it was probably composed of Blacks, that cannot be said with certainty. “Instruction for Collonell Tomsons Band of Music from the 24thOctobr. ending the 24 of Decemr. ,Ward Chipman Papers, MG 23, D 1, Series I, Volume 29, Part 1, Page 135, LAC.
“Proposed Establishment of a Corps of Light Troops to be raised for His Majesty’s Service to be Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thompson Commandant of the King’s American Dragoons” c-March 1783, Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, PRO 30/55/10368, TNA.
The American Establishment, instituted in 1779, was intended for those corps that had recruited their authorized strength in men. It provided the officers with permanent rank in America and half-pay upon being disbanded, as well as having the regiment order its own clothing directly from England. Germain to Clinton, Whitehall, January 23, 1779, Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 97, folios 2-5, TNA.
Clinton’s proclamation, issued at Philipsburg, New York on June 30, 1779, read in part “I do most strictly forbid any person to sell, or claim right over, any Negro the property of a Rebel, who may take refuge with any part of this army.” Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 62, item 28, CL. Commissioners appointed by the United States would arrive in New York after this initial fleet had sailed. For a fuller account of the process, read Bob Rupert “How Article 7 freed 3000 Slaves,” Journal of the American Revolution (August 4, 2016), allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/how-article-7-freed-3000-slaves/.