“His Britannic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any Destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other Property of the American inhabitants, withdraw . . . from said United States.” These words from the 1783 Treaty of Paris that officially brought the seven-year American Revolution to a close guaranteed America’s independence from Great Britain and the freedom of its citizens to live according to their own terms. Although up to 9,000 Black Americans had served alongside whites during the war, at its end, African Americans were excluded from the freedoms guaranteed to white citizens. Not recognized as citizens but as property, it would take another eighty-two years and a bloody war before the abolition of slavery.
“They were always present, but never seen,” remarked author and historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar of African Americans during the Revolutionary War and the years that followed. Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, could just as well have been speaking about the artwork of the Revolutionary period. As in life, Blacks in the historical paintings of John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, and others occupy subordinate positions, are rarely identified by name, and are most often used as props, background accessories, or foils.
At the start of the war, more than half a million African Americans were living in the thirteen colonies, all but 4 percent enslaved. They represented 20 percent of the country’s residents. From 5,000 to 9,000 African Americans served the American cause during the war, many in noncombatant roles such as cooks, waiters, and carpenters. Others fought alongside white soldiers on the battlefield. Rhode Island even formed an all black and Native American regiment headed by white officers to meet its enlistment quota.
African Americans entered the war for multiple reasons, ironically some out of a sense of loyalty to the country that enslaved them. Harriet Beecher Stowe said of this participation, “It was not for their own land they fought, not even for a land which had adopted them, but for a land which had enslaved them, and whose laws, even in freedom, oftener oppressed than protected.” Others took part to fill their state’s military quota or as a substitute for their enslaver’s service. All of these reasons were secondary to the goal of gaining their freedom at the end of the war, a promise often given but rarely kept. Relying on early British promises of freedom for service, more than 20,000 Black men joined the enemy and fought against America believing that England offered a greater hope of liberation from slavery than the nation that produced the Declaration of Independence.
In September 1774, with the first rumblings of war in the Boston area, restive enslaved men began to barter their freedom for service to the cause. In a September 22 letter to her husband, Abigail Adams, a fierce opponent of slavery, said, “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” Yet at the war’s conclusion, George Washington worked feverishly to return all Blacks who had fought on either side to their pre-war owners. And even after the Civil War, at the 1876 Centennial Celebration of the Revolution in Philadelphia, not a single speaker acknowledged the contributions of Black Americans in winning the war and helping to establish a free America. When the artists of the Revolution tried to capture the drama of the war, both its glory and its horrors, they also unwittingly told the story of the unheralded Blacks who served in it.
Among the major artists of the American Revolution, four stand out: John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, John Singleton Copley, and Gilbert Stuart. Their work was influenced by Benjamin West, an American expatriate painter of great talent who lived in London and served as royal court painter for King George III. He revolutionized history paintings, being the first to aggrandize contemporary events, rather than mythological, biblical, or ancient times—the original focus of historical paintings—and to clothe the figures in contemporary dress. When urged by Sir Joshua Reynolds and others to paint the figures for The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, in togas, he refused, saying “the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist.” Although he maintained a strong allegiance to the United States, he understandably was reticent to paint events that glorified the American side.
As mentor to Trumbull and Stuart, West indirectly shaped the visual history of the Revolution. Although often regarded as the greatest artist of the Founding period, Stuart’s emphasis was portraiture; the story of the Revolution and the African Americans who participated in it is told in the historical paintings of Trumbull, Peale, and Copley, as well as several other artists less identified with the Revolution who, nevertheless, produced compelling paintings depicting events of the war.
The Death of General Warren at Bunker’s Hill, 1786: Trumbull
According to George Quintal’s Patriots of Color, more than 100 African Americans fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Yet in the first great historical painting of the American Revolution, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill by John Trumbull, none have been identified by name, and only one is clearly seen. One can barely make out a second African American above the heads of other participants. Completed in 1786, controversy still surrounds the identification of the two Black portraits. No such uncertainty exists regarding the other figures, both American and British. In The Death of General Warren, Warren, Israel Putnam, William Prescott, John and William Pitcairn, Henry Clinton, Thomas Grosvenor, and William Howe are easily identifiable.
After graduating from Harvard College in 1773 at the age of seventeen, Trumbull joined the army first as an aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington and in June 1776 as deputy adjutant-general to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. He observed the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, through his field glass from a position in Roxbury about four miles from Boston. Although unable to see the details of the battle, he never forgot the sound of the gunfire and clash of bayonets or the smoke-filled sky of this first major battle of the war. It was this awesome scope that he wanted to capture ten years later when he started his powerful painting in London under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Closely mirroring West’s The Death of General Wolfe, Trumbull created a composite of people and events to illustrate not only the horrors of the battle, but also its humanitarian side—while the painting shows the fallen physician and American general about to be bayoneted by a British grenadier, it also highlights a British soldier trying to prevent it. Indeed, one of its most poignant images is that of the pain-filled face of twenty-one-year-old Lt. William Pitcairn as he holds his dying father Maj. John Pitcairn in his arms. When Abigail Adams viewed the sketch for the composition, she claimed her “blood shivered” at the sight, so vivid was Trumbull’s depiction of the tragedy. Yet, the identification and actions of the African Americans in the painting remain murky. The two men most often cited as being those in Trumbull’s painting are Peter Salem and Salem Poor. The names of these two have often been conflated, resulting, at times, in references to “Salem” being attributed to Peter Salem when they were intended for Salem Poor. That slaves were usually identified only by their given name partly explains this confusion. During the course of his exhaustive research for Patriots of Color, Quintal found undeniable evidence that both men were at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1750, Peter Salem was temporarily released by his enslaver at the outbreak of the war so that he could serve in the army. According to Quintal’s research, he most likely participated in more Revolutionary War battles—from Lexington to Stony Point—than any other African American. He was discharged from service on March 1, 1780. For most of the painting’s history, he was thought to be the Black at the far-right crouching behind American Lt. Thomas Grosvenor.
The other African American frequently thought to be the figure with Grosvenor is Salem Poor. Born into slavery sometime in the 1740s, he bought his freedom from John Poor of Andover, Massachusetts, for twenty-seven pounds in 1769. In the manumission document signed by John Poor, he refers to Salem Poor as “my Negro man servant, named Salem,” using only his given name. Already a freeman, it’s hard to know why Salem Poor joined the army. Whatever the reason, his presence at Bunker Hill is established in a petition attesting to his bravery and asking that he be given an award, signed by fourteen officers who fought in that battle with him. The petition was denied, his specific acts of bravery were not recorded, and this hero has been largely forgotten.
Trumbull himself cast doubt on both of these possible identifications. The painter labeled the Black man at the right side of his painting simply as Thomas Grosvenor’s “faithful negro.” He maintained that he intended to show the moment when the wounded Grosvenor, “attended by a faithful negro” hesitated over whether to save himself or return to assist Warren. Trumbull solidified his explanation of the man’s identity when ten years after completing the original painting he did an oil sketch of the detail of master and slave and titled it Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor (1744-1825) and His Negro Servant. Quintal has documented that Asaba, Grosvenor’s slave, was with Grosvenor at Bunker Hill. Further, there was no known relationship between Grosvenor and either Peter Salem or Salem Poor.
That Trumbull was silent as to the identity of this figure underscores how Blacks were taken for granted during this period. The measure of devotion and bravery this figure demonstrated was not worthy of attention or even recognition by name. As recently as 2020, legal historian Farah Peterson in “The Patriot Slave” explains Trumbull’s intent, saying, “the enduring memory of black participation in that war would become the image of the faithful slave.”
The second African American in the painting seen just above the heads of Colonel Knowlton and General Putnam could have been Peter Salem or Salem Poor, but no evidence exists to support either identification.
George Washington, 1780: Trumbull
Another Trumbull painting, George Washington, also includes an African American man whose identity has been the subject of debate by art historians and museum curators, with some contending it is William Lee, Washington’s enslaved valet and huntsman. Lee, a skilled horseman, spent the entirety of the war with Washington, often riding into battle with him. This portrait, painted in 1780, positions a calm and confident Washington high above the Hudson pointing across the river toward West Point. Trumbull places the servant in the background to the right. Whereas the servant, perhaps Lee, and his horse are for the most part in dark colors, thereby receding further into the background, he wears a feathered red turban. Trumbull’s use of this unlikely headdress was an affectation common to that era often used to indicate the master’s wealth. It also probably followed the artistic convention at that time of portraying Blacks as exotic. According to French arts scholar Elisabeth Martichou, in “Bridging the Gap between Self and Others? Pictorial Representation of Blacks in England in the Middle of the Eighteenth Century,” Blacks “were visible only at the margins, secondary figures included as ethnic signs of otherness.” Further, she asserts, “In secular portraiture, exoticism takes the form of the black servant . . . looking respectfully at his master.” The man behind Washington has his eyes firmly fixed on his enslaver.
Trumbull served as an aide-de-camp to Washington early in the war, so he certainly would have known Billy, the name usually attributed to Lee. Described in Washington’s will as his “mulatto man,’’ Lee probably would have had light skin rather than the dark skin of the servant in the portrait. If Trumbull intended this to be a portrayal of Lee, it is likely his inaccurate depiction is because he chose to follow the tradition of employing elements of otherness—the turban, the adoring gaze, a darker skin tone, placing the figure in the background—to indicate the inferior position of Blacks. As in The Death of General Warren at Bunker’s Hill, Trumbull did not name the African American despite there being only two humans in the painting.
Washington at Princeton, 1779: Peale
One year earlier, Charles Willson Peale painted a similar portrait, Washington at Princeton. Washington’s expression, far from revealing the chaos of the battle in which he charged into the line of fire after forcing his Continental soldiers to reverse their retreat, is serene and thoughtful. Peale, a captain in the army, fought at Princeton and could have chosen that climactic moment for the portrait, but instead chose the aftermath of victory with a confident Washington looking directly at his audience.
The portrait contains symbols of battle—Hessian and British flags, a captured cannon, and the American blue battle flag unfurled in the breeze. As in Trumbull’s George Washington, a groom and his horse recede into the background. Again, mystery surrounds the groom. Farah Peterson in “The Patriot Slave” asserted that he as well as the groom in Trumbull’s George Washington is Billy Lee. She explains how the groom in the two paintings can differ so in appearance: “Unlike Washington’s, Lee’s actual features were not important to the portraitists. He is present in these images not as a person but as one of the tools of Washington’s greatness, and as a symbol of the essential fidelity of the black American.” Author James C. Thompson, in Who Was Billy Lee: George Washington’s Mulatto Man, disagrees and claims that Lee is the groom only in the Peale portrait, as evidenced by the lighter skin of a mixed-race person. Not only was Peale with Washington at the Battle of Princeton, he also spent time with him at Valley Forge and had more exposure to Billy Lee than any other artist of the period. Regardless, neither he nor Trumbull identified the groom in their paintings by name.
Interestingly, a domestic portrait by American painter Edward Savage includes a Black servant standing in the shadows behind Martha Washington. Savage finished the painting in London in 1796, where he may have been influenced by the European practice of depicting the aristocracy with a servant, often exotically dressed, standing in attendance in the background. The servant looks more similar to the servant in Peale’s portrait than in Trumbull’s and has sometimes been identified as Billy Lee, although others say the model for Savage’s generic servant was John Riley, a free Black man employed by the American ambassador in London at that time. That John Riley has also been said to be the model for the servant in Peale’s Washington at Princeton lends some credence to this assertion.
Savage named all the individuals in the painting, The Washington Family: George Washington, his Lady, and her Two Grandchildren by the Name of Custis, except the Black servant, whose presence is not even acknowledged. In 2019, when Janine Boldt co-curated the exhibition “Mapping a Nation: Shaping the Early Republic” at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia, she included a large reproduction of the painting. Among the reasons for including the reproduction, she explained, was that the unnamed man’s presence is a reminder of slavery’s existence in early America, while his marginalized position in the portrait represented the marginalization of African Americans in society at that time. His identity remains unknown.
Watson and the Shark, 1778: John Singleton Copley
Born in Boston in 1738, John Singleton Copley emigrated to England in 1774 when his marriage to Susanna Clarke, daughter of a prominent Loyalist family, made his presence in pre-Revolutionary America precarious. Although not a war scene, his first and most famous historical painting, Watson and the Shark, illustrates the prevalent attitude toward persons of African ancestry at the time.
Commissioned by Brook Watson, an English merchant and later Lord Mayor of London, Watson and the Shark depicts a traumatic event that took place almost thirty years earlier when a shark severed the leg of the fourteen-year-old Watson as he swam in Havana Bay. The composition, completed in 1778, includes nine men tightly packed in a small boat, two of them strenuously leaning forward trying to grasp the nude Watson as a harpooner in military attire attempts to spear the shark. One of the two standing figures is a Black man who holds the end of a rope that lies limply across the arm of Watson before it disappears into the water very close to the shark’s open mouth.
Multiple interpretations of the Black man’s role in the painting persist today, most of which center around its triangular composition with the Black figure at the peak and Watson at the base. The rope he holds has often been seen as an umbilical cord between him and the horror-stricken Watson, giving the Black man power to save him in an act of reconciliation. A more problematic interpretation offered by Bucknell University professor Michael Drexler, in “The Problem of Slavery in the Career of William Dunlap,” saw the rope as a hangman’s noose which would offer “an alternative end to Watson’s existence should the harpooner strike true and save Watson from the omnivorous shark.”
Several aspects of the Black man arouse interest, the first being that in the preliminary sketches for the painting this figure had been white. Why then did Copley place a Black man at the apex of his painting, a place usually reserved for the most important figure? Most critics assume that Watson, who commissioned the painting, made that decision either to conform with facts (there were many Black seamen in Havana) or, more likely, to highlight the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence, which claimed all men are created equal yet left Blacks enslaved in America after the war. Despite what has often been said about his dominant position, an underlying bias toward the Black man’s inferior status is apparent. Albert Boime, for example, focuses on his equivocal passivity, “Apparently the majestic black man functions as a servant, waiting to hand the rope to the others when called upon to do so.” He and others argue that it is the harpooner who is in the dominant position. According to Elisabeth Martichou, the Black man’s apparent helplessness is shown in sharp opposition to the harpooner and the two white men who are desperately trying to grasp the ill-fated Watson. She attributes this esthetic representation as a way to subtly introduce the then-accepted stereotype of the passivity of Africans as opposed to the active nature of white Europeans. Martichou explains, “heroic stature was given to the black man, but as if reluctantly, under stereotypical forms.”
Watson, politically ascendant in Tory circles in 1778, saw the painting as a way to aggrandize his personal struggle as a youth. Proponents of the grand genre of historical painting like William Dunlap condemned Copley for portraying Watson as a heroic figure when the event was nothing more than one of personal misfortune. But Copley, intent on furthering his lucrative career, gave English Tories the flattering images they wanted. In doing so, the unnamed Black man, while at the apex of the painting, is nevertheless portrayed as quietly ineffectual.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851: Leutze
Similarities exist between Copley’s Watson and the Shark and Washington Crossing the Delaware by German American artist Emmanuel Leutze. Both are monumental water scenes portraying men crowded together in a relatively small boat on choppy waters. The paintings each convey a sense of community and urgency and have two standing men forming the apex of a compositional triangle. And each painting includes one Black man.
Dissimilarities are evident as well, especially in the reversed position of the Black figure, who occupies the base of the triangle in Leutze’s painting versus the apex in Watson and the Shark. Probably most significant, Watson and the Shark violates the prerequisite of the historical painting genre in glorifying a personal misfortune, while Washington Crossing the Delaware commits to it by dramatizing an important historical event, the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Eve 1776.
The enormous 1851 painting measuring twelve feet by twenty-one feet exemplifies the historical painting genre in other ways as well. The American flag that James Madison hoists with its stars and stripes was not in use until September 1777, and Washington’s stance, the crossing at daybreak, and the lack of falling snow are all inaccurate, thereby adhering to West’s dictate not to let historical accuracy interfere with producing a picture of honor, valor, and drama.
The Black man in Leutze’s painting has often been inaccurately identified as Prince Whipple, the slave of William Whipple of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Abolitionist author and historian William Cooper Nell, in his well-researched The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, 1855, suggested Prince was the man in the painting, and the noted historian Henry Wiencek in 2003 continued the misconception in An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, claiming “The famous patriotic painting by Emmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, depicts a black soldier at his side—his name was Prince Whipple.” However, a letter from William Whipple to John Langdon dated December 24, 1776, and posted from Baltimore, Maryland, is proof that General Whipple was not at the turbulent crossing, but at a meeting of the Continental Congress in Baltimore. It is highly likely that a man he enslaved would have been with him and not 130 miles away in Trenton.
Most scholars today agree that the Black oarsman was a member of Col. John Glover’s regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts. Blacks frequently worked on New England fishing vessels, and it is well-known that Glover recruited sailors, both Black and white, for his regiment and that it was his Marblehead sailors in their short tarpaulin jackets who ferried Washington across the Delaware on that fateful night. Leutze, an abolitionist and supporter of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, hoped to encourage the struggle for democracy with this painting. In doing so, he elected to represent an unnamed generic Black sailor along with men of other ethnicities crossing the frozen river to a surprising victory over the Hessian encampment in Trenton.
The Sad Truth
The retelling of history, be it through books, drama, monuments, or paintings, is always impacted by the teller’s experiences and objectives. The famous historical paintings of the Revolutionary period are sometimes thought of as snapshots in time, faithful representations of actual events. No doubt, these artists wanted to powerfully convey the bravery and grit of men who dared to challenge a far superior enemy. To a large measure they succeeded. It is hard to look at Trumbull’s The Death of General Warren at Bunker’s Hill without understanding what Abigail Adams meant when she said her “blood shivered” or Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware without being in awe of how these tired, beaten men navigated those frozen waters. Even so, following Benjamin West’s lead, they didn’t let complete historical accuracy stand in the way of their objective—to record, commemorate, and pass on to future generations images of heroic and selfless men fighting to create a new and virtuous nation.
Just as their objectives are evident in their historical paintings, so too are their experiences. Why is it that to this day the identities of the Black men in the paintings of the major artists of the American Revolution are murky or unknown? All of the works discussed above contain an unidentified Black figure. Hidden in plain sight, all are marginalized just as they were marginalized in life. Art mirrors the culture of the time, where only 4 percent of more than half a million those of African descent were freemen and the rest enslaved. As slaves they were expected to be efficient and skillful, at the ready for their master, but also docile, obedient, and unobtrusive. As Dunbar said of enslaved peoples, “They were always present, but never seen.”
Billy Lee, who served as Washington’s huntsman, valet, and servant and rode with him throughout the war, is a particularly poignant example of this depiction. Scholars still debate if the servant in Trumbull’s George Washington, Peale’s Washington at Princeton, and other paintings is Lee despite divergent features in each painting. “If Billy Lee had been a white man,” wrote historian Fritz Hirschfeld, “he would have had an honored place in American history because of his close proximity to George Washington during the most exciting periods of his career. But because he was a black servant, a humble slave, he has been virtually ignored by both black and white historians.” While Benjamin West’s directive to capture and honor the intensity of the American Revolution for future generations was achieved in the historical paintings of these artists, the bravery and role of Black men in the war was not honored. George Washington was silent on the issue of slavery in his Farewell Address; Revolutionary War art is rife with that same silence.
Harriet Beecher Stowe penned this statement for an Introduction to William C. Nell’s The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution with Sketches of Several Distinquished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855).
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 49-50. Christopher Klein, “The Ex-Slaves Who Fought with the British,” History,February 13, 2020.
Harry Schenawolf, “George Washington Never Set a Single Slave Free in His Lifetime! The Legacy of His Silent Condemnation of Slavery,” Revolutionary War Journal, September 15, 2015. Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 363.
Edward Ayres, “African Americans and the American Revolution,” Jamestown & American Revolution Settlement Museum at Yorktown, www.historyisfun.org.
Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 55, 57. Dr. Bryan Zygmont, “Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe,”Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, smarthistory.org/benjamin-wests-the death of general-wolfe/.
George Quintal, Jr., Patriots of Color: ‘A Peculiar Beauty and Merit,’ African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill (Division of Cultural Resources, Boston National Historical Park, 2004), Preface by Alfred F. Young, 1.
General Orders, Head Quarters, Cambridge, July 27, 1775, in George Washington Papers, Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785, Subseries 3G, General Orders, 1775-1783, Letterbook 1: July 3, 1775-Sept. 30, 1776.
Recommendation of Salem Poor a free Negro for his Bravery at Battle of Charlestown, December 5, 1775, Massachusetts State Archives, Columbia Point, Boston (Archives 180:241). Quintal, Patriots of Color, 175-79.
John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull, From 1756 to 1841 (New Haven, CT: B.L. Hamlen, 1841), 412-13.Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor (1744-1825) and His Faithful Negro Servant, by John Trumbull, 1797, Yale Center for British Art, Slavery and Portraiture in 18th Century Atlantic Britain, Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1932.302, artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/lieutenant-thomas-grosvenor-1744-1825-and-his-negro-servant.
Farah Peterson, “The Patriot Slave: The Dangerous Myth that Blacks in Bondage Chose Not to Be Free in Revolutionary America,” The American Scholar (Washington, DC: Phi Beta Kappa Society, 2020), 1.
Davis Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 19. Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 111.
Elizabeth Martichou, “Bridging the Gap Between Self and Other? Pictorial Representation of Blacks in England in the Middle of the Eighteenth Century,” 2015. Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, XIII, no. 3, 34. Peterson, “The Patriot Slave,” 12.
“The Washington Family, 1796,” Historical Documents, Africans in America, Part 2, www.pbs.org. Martichou, “Bridging the Gap,” 34.
Michael J. Drexler, “Those ‘Old Colonial Establishments’ and the New Negro: The Problem of Slavery in the Career of William Dunlap,” Faculty Journal Articles (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University, 2011), 24.
William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), 198.
William Whipple to John Langdon discussing the progress of the American Revolution, December 24, 1776, The Gilder Lehrman Collection, 1493-1859. Richard S. Walling, “Prince Whipple: Symbol of African Americans at the Battle of Trenton,” December 2001. Walling prepared this essay on the anniversary of the crossing in 2001 using multiple sources. He concludes, as William Whipple’s letter confirms, that Prince Whipple was with him in Baltimore, MD, at the time of the crossing.