The Yorktown Tragedy: Washington’s Slave Roundup

The War Years (1775-1783)

October 19, 2021
by Gregory J. W. Urwin Also by this Author


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On October 19, 1781, Gen. George Washington attained his apex as a soldier. Straddling a spirited charger at the head of a formidable Franco-American army, Washington watched impassively as 6,000 humiliated British, German, and Loyalist soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, emerged from their fortifications to lay down their arms in surrender outside Yorktown, Virginia. The following day, Washington voiced the elation filling his heart in a general order congratulating his subordinates “upon the Glorious events of yesterday.” Ordinarily a stickler for discipline, Washington authorized the release of every American soldier under arrest “In order to Diffuse the general Joy through every breast.”[1]

Five days later, October 25, the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief issued quite a different order. Thousands of Virginia slaves—“Negroes or Molattoes” as Washington called them—had fled to the British in hopes of escaping a lifetime of bondage. Washington directed that these runaways be rounded up and entrusted to guards at two fortified positions on either side of the York River. There they would be held until arrangements could be made to return them to their enslavers. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Washington converted his faithful Continentals—the men credited with winning American independence—into an army of slave catchers.[2]

This is not the way that Americans choose to remember Yorktown. When President Ronald Reagan attended the festivities marking the battle’s bicentennial in October 1981, a crowd of 60,000 nodded in approval as he described Washington’s crowning triumph as “a victory for the right of self-determination. It was and is the affirmation that freedom will eventually triumph over tyranny.”[3] For the African Americans who constituted one fifth of the young United States’ population in 1781, however, Yorktown did not mark the culmination of a long and grueling struggle for freedom. Rather, it guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery for eight additional decades.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Washington’s fugitive-slave roundup is that the document authorizing it has lain hidden in plain sight for more than two centuries. A copy exists among Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress, and more can be found at other archives in the surviving compilations of daily orders maintained by every Continental brigade and regiment under the dauntless Virginian’s immediate command. Most historians who cover Yorktown are content to celebrate Washington’s military genius. The blinders imposed by the lingering effects of American exceptionalism deter them from grappling with issues that would complicate the traditional triumphalist narrative. A clear-eyed look at the sources—including those recorded by British and German participants—reveals that for the 200,000 African Americans who composed 40 percent of the Old Dominion’s population, freedom wore a red coat, not blue, in 1781.[4]

In the leadup to the War of Independence, prominent white colonists feared that British authorities would liberate their enslaved persons in retaliation for rebellion. The African American population certainly hoped that would be the case. After conversing with two Blacks in service to a Pennsylvania family fleeing the Redcoats’ advance on Philadelphia, Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister, confided to his diary on September 20, 1777: “They secretly wished that the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom. It is said that this sentiment is almost universal among the Negroes in America.”[5]

These aspirations struck George III’s soldiers with shocking force once the war’s focus shifted from New England and the Middle Colonies to the South in 1778. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, the hell-for-leather British cavalryman, bore witness to this phenomenon following the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780. “All the negroes,” he testified, “men, women, and children, upon the approach of any detachment of the King’s troops, thought themselves absolved from all respect to their American masters, and entirely released from servitude: Influenced by this idea, they quitted the plantations, and followed the army.”[6] Lord Cornwallis, who would soon take command of British forces in the South, expressed his irritation at this road-choking Black exodus as he penetrated the prostrate Palmetto State. “The number of Negroes that attend this Corps,” he complained, “is a most serious distress to us.”[7]

This pattern of behavior continued after Virginia became the conflict’s decisive theater in 1781. The Old Dominion—the largest, most populous, and richest of the young republic’s thirteen states—absorbed three British invasions that year. On December 20, 1780, nearly 1,800 troops under Benedict Arnold, who had betrayed the Continental cause to become a British brigadier general, set sail from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, for Chesapeake Bay. Without pausing to give the Virginia militia a chance to mobilize, the Connecticut-born Arnold swept up the James River and became the first Yankee general to capture Richmond, the state’s new capital, on January 5, 1781. Arnold then retired downstream to Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River, which he converted into a fortified naval base. More than 2,000 British reinforcements landed at Portsmouth on April 1, which facilitated another amphibious lunge up the James that culminated at Petersburg twenty-four days later. Lord Cornwallis showed up at Petersburg on May 20 with the survivors of the arduous winter campaign he had conducted in North Carolina.[8]

Along with additional British reinforcements from New York that reached Cornwallis almost immediately, he now mustered more than 6,500 fit officers and men—a big enough force to march almost anywhere in Virginia that he desired while still retaining his hold on Portsmouth. With the king’s soldiers able to penetrate parts of the Old Dominion that had hitherto escaped the touch of war, more and more enslaved persons rose to meet them. As Robert Honyman, a local physician, scribbled in his diary: “Many Gentlemen lost 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 Negroes besides their stocks of Cattle, Sheep & Horses. Some plantations were entirely cleared, & not a single Negro remained.” Richard Henry Lee, a prominent leader in the independence movement, confided fearfully to his brother, “Tis said that 2 or 3000 negroes march in their train, that every kind of Stock which they cannot remove they destroy.”[9]

Just one year earlier, Cornwallis had regarded fugitive slaves as impediments to his operations. Once he reached Virginia, however, he gave clear indications that he now viewed these Black freedom seekers as military assets. After the earl’s army reached Dr. Honyman’s neighborhood, the latter observed, “Where ever they had an opportunity, the soldiers & inferior officers likewise, enticed & flattered the Negroes, & prevailed on vast numbers to go along with them.”[10]

These runaways contributed immeasurably to Cornwallis’ mobility by bringing him the choicest thoroughbreds from their enslavers’ stables. This steady infusion of prime horseflesh gave the earl the most fearsome cavalry force fielded during the Revolutionary War, and he had enough horses left over to mount hundreds of his infantry. Some Blacks found jobs as officers’ servants, and others worked as foragers or menial laborers. Black labor raised the fortifications that protected Portsmouth and later encircled Cornwallis’s second base at Yorktown. A few fugitive slaves served the British as guides, and one daring man assumed the role of a double agent, helping to lead a force of Continentals and militia into a costly ambush at Green Spring on July 6, 1781.[11]

A few weeks after that engagement, Gov. Thomas Nelson wrote Cornwallis to enquire if there were any way Virginia planters could recover what they considered to be their property. The British commander responded with a politely worded note that gave Nelson scant comfort: “Any proprietor not in Arms against us, or holding an Office of trust under the Authority of Congress and willing to give his parole that he will not in future act against His Majesty’s interest, will be indulged with permission to search the Camp for his Negroes & to take them if they are willing to go with him.” In other words, Cornwallis declared he would force no enslaved person to return to an enslaver—even those claimed by Loyalists. Had the earl prevailed in Virginia, this de facto emancipation proclamation might have drastically altered the course of U.S. history. Washington and the French squelched that prospect three months later, however, when they trapped the British at Yorktown.[12]

Historians still debate over the exact number of Virginia Blacks who sought British protection in 1781. Thomas Jefferson, the Old Dominion’s governor during the first half of that year, claimed that the state lost 30,000 enslaved to Cornwallis—a gross exaggeration. A database compiled from affidavits filed by Rebel planters in nineteen counties and residents of Portsmouth yielded a list of 1,119 runaways, but that figure is only a partial sample of the whole.[13]

Even if Cornwallis had achieved military success, things would have still ended tragically for many Black fugitives who joined their fortunes to his. Smallpox, possibly the eighteenth century’s greatest killer, marched in the earl’s ranks, and African Americans sickened and died in droves after he entered Virginia. Brig. Gen. Edward Hand, one of Washington’s senior staff officers, recorded this trenchant comment during the Yorktown siege: “almost every Thicket Affords you the Disagreable prospect of a Wretched Negroes Carcase brought to the earth by disease & famine. the Poor deluded Creatures are either so much Afraid of the displeasure of their owners that they voluntarily starved to death or were by disease unable to Seek Sustenance.” Among the inhabitants of Revolutionary America who gave their all for liberty, these “Wretched Negroes” should join those in the forefront.[14]

The institution of slavery’s victory at Yorktown reveals the corruption that infected the American Revolution. Throughout United States history, liberty and opportunity have been purchased for some through the oppression of others. Our revered Founders—intent on rallying mass support for a revolt intended to replace one set of colonial elites with another—indulged in egalitarian rhetoric that most of them did not believe. What redeemed the Revolution is the fact that so many common Americans took that rhetoric literally. Over the centuries, various outgroups have agitated to expand the frontiers of freedom, and their efforts have made this country a fitter place to live. If we think of the Revolution as an ongoing process rather than a sanitized relic to be cloaked by myth, that movement can still serve as a positive force in American society and its professed principles remain worthy of celebration.


[1]“G.O. after orders,” October 20, 1781, in George Fleming, “Orderly Book, Second Regiment of Continental Artillery, 1 October 1781-26 April 1782,” MS 2003.12, Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Research Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.

[2]“After Orders,” October 25, 1781, in Fleming, “Orderly Book.”

[3]“Excerpts From President’s Remarks,” New York Times, October 20, 1981, A6; and Kurt Andersen, “A Last Bicentennial Bash,” Time, 2 November 1981, 31.

[4]Operational histories covering 1781 Virginia in which Blacks are barely mentioned or not at all include: Henry P. Johnston, The Yorktown Campaigns and Surrender of Cornwallis 1781 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881); Thomas J. Fleming, Beat the Last Drum: The Siege of Yorktown (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1866); Burke Davis, The Campaign That Won America: The Story of Yorktown (New York: Dial Press, 1970); Brendan Morrissey, Yorktown 1781: The World Turned Upside Down (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, 1997); William H. Hallahan, The Day the Revolution Ended, 19 October 1781 (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004); Richard M. Ketchum, Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004); Jerome A. Greene, The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown (New York: Savas Beatie, 2005); and Ian Saberton’s otherwise perceptive The American Revolutionary War in the South: Re-evaluation from a British Perspective in the Light of the Cornwallis Papers (Tolworth, Surrey: Grosvenor House Publishing Limited, 2018).

[5]David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 210; Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein, trans., The Journal of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1942-58), 3: 78.

[6]Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (1787; reprint, New York: New York Times and Arno Press, 1968), 89-90.

[7]Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, to Sir Henry Clinton, May 17, 1780, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

[8]“Extract of a Letter from New-York, Dec,” St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London), January 25-27, 1781; Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Diary, trans. and ed., Joseph Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 258-78, 294-99; John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps Called the Queen’s Rangers, Commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution (1844; reprint, New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1968), 159-204; Cornwallis, to Clinton, May 20, 1781; Cornwallis to Clinton, May 26, 1781; “Return of the Troops sent to Virginia ——— Since Oct. 80,” circa June 1, 1781; Benedict Arnold to Clinton, May 12, 1781; “Return of the Troops in Virginia on Lord Cornwallis’s arrival and including the Corps with his Lordship,” circa June 1781, all in Clinton Papers; Tarleton, Southern Campaigns, 285, 294-95; Charles Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, 2 vols. (Dublin: P. Wogan, P. Byrne, J. Moore, and W. Moore, 1794), 2: 393-94;  Johann Ewald, “Diary Kept by Captain Ewald of the Honourable Field Jager Corps concerning the Expedition under Brigadier-General Arnold,” December 21, 1780—January 21, 1781, Knyphausen Correspondence, Part 2, GG 360, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, NJ, microfilm at the David Library of the American Revolution, Washington Crossing, PA.

[9]Richard Henry Lee to William Lee, July 15, 1781, in James Curtis Ballagh, ed., The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1911-14), 2: 230; Richard K. MacMaster, ed., “News of the Yorktown Campaign: The Journal of Dr. Robert Honyman, April 17-November 25, 1781,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 79 (October 1971): 394.

[10]MacMaster, “Honyman Journal,” 400; Ewald, Journal, 335.

[11]Royal Gazette (New York), August 29, 1781; Regimental Orders, July 28, 1781, After Orders, August 4, 1781, Morning Regimental Orders, August 25, 1781, all in “British Order Book: H.B.M. 43rd Regiment of Foot, General Orders, May 23 to August 25, 1781,” British Museum, London; William Phillips to Clinton, April 3, 1781, P.R.O. 30/11/96, Alexander Ross to Lieutenant Paterson, June 20, 1781, PRO 30/11/87/15-16, and Cornwallis to Charles O’Hara, August 4, 1781, PRO 30/11/89/5, all in Charles Cornwallis: Papers, National Archives, Kew; Headquarters, Cox’s Plantation, June 5, 1781, “’Cornwallis’ Orderly Book,’ February 8, 1781-July 13, 1781,” Orderly Book Collection, 1764-1815, William L. Clements Library; Joseph G Rosengarten, trans. and ed., “Popp’s Journal, 1777-1783,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 26 (1902): 38; Edmund Pendleton to James Madison, September 10, 1781, in David John Mays, ed., The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, 1734-1803, 2 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967), 1: 371; Robert J. Tilden, trans, “The Doehla Journal,” William and Mary College Quarterly History Magazine 2nd Series, 22 (1942): 243; Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, July 20, 1781, in Louis Gottschalk, ed., The Letters of Lafayette to Washington, 1777-1799 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1976), 209; Tarleton, Southern Campaigns, 353.

[12]Thomas Nelson to Cornwallis, October 20, 1781, P.R.O. 30/11/90/17-18, and Cornwallis to Nelson, August 6, 1781, PRO 30/11/90/19-20, both in Cornwallis Papers.

[13]Thomas Jefferson to William Gordon, July 16, 1788, in Julian P. Boyd, et al., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 43 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-2018), 13: 363-64; Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 58 (April 2005): 243, 247-48, 258-59, 261. The author and his wife, Cathy Kunzinger Urwin, constructed that database from the numerous complaints pertaining to citizens’ property lost and destroyed by the British, which were sent to the Virginia General Assembly in 1782. Those records reside today at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. It bears noting, however, that the complaints from a dozen counties affected by the British invasions are missing.

[14]Edward Hand to Jasper Yeates, October 12, 1781, Edward Hand Papers, 1775-1801, MssCol 17927, Archives & Manuscripts, New York Public Library, New York, NY.


  • Very interesting article containing an important action by Washington that I had no idea about. Thanks for highlighting this to help fully understand the Yorktown surrender and its aftermath. Also provides new information on Washington and his stealthy support of slavery which has been lost to history.

  • Many of these slaves got their freedom and arrived in Nova Scotia. They arrived with the British after the Revolution and the 1812 War. There is an alternate history here which is not a pretty one and casts shame on how they were treated here but — they were free. There is a Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne, Nova Scotia well worthwhile visiting. Shelburne itself is a wonderful example of Loyalist buildings. My own ancestor arrived from Charleston to Halifax on November 21, 1782. Research showed that he and his brother had gone to the farm of a Patriot neighbour and absconded with his slave “Jack”. I can only hope that “Jack” remained free and got to Canada. Thank you Mr. Urwin for this article. ps My ancestor and his brother and many of his neighbours in 96 District, SC served at Kings Mountain with Ferguson and escaped later to fight at the battle of Ninety Six Star Fort in 1781.

  • Thank you for the analysis of an important aspect of the war that is often overlooked.

    It would be interesting to compare & contrast the different ways that enslaved Soldiers were treated, depending on which cause they supported. I mean this both in terms of how they were treated by their officers and peers while serving, and also how they were treated after the war. Was there any benefit to being on the winning side after Yorktown?

    It would also be interesting- but perhaps out of scope- to compare Cornwallis’ campaign through the South with that of Sherman 7 decades later. The Union Army was also keen to liberate slaves as they marched through the South, both as liberators and as a form of economic warfare, but Sherman ultimately abandoned them to their own fates when it became a burden on his Army deep in hostile territory.

    1. Slaves who served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution were granted freedom, often before the end of the war.
      Slaves – such as those who died at Lexington & Concord – and fugitives – such as Crispus Attucks – joined the Patriot cause because slavery had nothing to do with the causes that led to the Revolution.

      Slavery was not invented in the British colonies in the 18th century; the Founders inherited the institution.
      Exposure to the Enlightenment led the Founders to enunciate the principle that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
      The Declaration inspired states to abolish slavery or pass manumission laws that led to gradual emancipation; it inspired many Southerners to manumit their slaves when possible; it inspired France to abolish slavery during the French Revolution.
      The Founders recognized that slavery infringed the natural rights they enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.
      They tried to abolish it or at least to contain it and prevent its expansion through legislation – sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
      P.S. When I say “Founders” I am referring to the big names – Washington, Jefferson, J. & S. Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Paine, Jay, Madison, Richard Henry Lee etc.
      Of course most in the Lower South favored slavery, they’re the reason why the rest of the founders were only allowed to set slavery on the way to extinction rather than abolishing it altogether during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

      This article is based on the ahistorical narrative that makes slavery one of the main causes – if not THE main cause – that sparked the revolution.
      Under the law slaves who aided the enemy were considered confiscated property.
      Washington couldn’t change the law, even if he did not agree with it.

  • Greg – thanks for the great article. If I may add one point: slaves were the only issue Washington and Rochambeau ever were at odds over. If I may add to your fn 12: Scott, Samuel F. ” Strains in the Franco-American Alliance: The French Army in Virginia, 1781-82″ in: Virginia in the American Revolution Richard A. Rutyna and Peter C. Stewart, eds., (Norfolk, 1983), pp. 80-100.

    Virginians were convinced that French officers were hiding their slaves by claiming them as their servants, trying to spirit them out of the state. During a dinner he gave for the officers of the Legion as they were passing through Richmond on their way to Charlotte Court House, Governor Harrison had raised the issue with them. Lt. Col. Hugau claims to have issued an order to Captain de Trentinian to have all blacks traveling with the Legion arrested, but Trentinian chose to ignore the order. Pressed by his fellow Virginians, Harrison instructed Colonel Thomas Read to recover the blacks with the Legion whom Virginians by definition assumed to be run-away slaves. On 22 March, Read informed Harrison that he had sent a Sergeant and guard with proper authority to Charlotte to receive the African-Americans and to return them to their rightful owners. Dillon refused, saying that arrangements had already made with the governor concerning their return. Seeing that it would be impossible to proceed any further, Read dismissed the guard but felt it was his duty to inform Harrison that “there is a number of negroes with the Troops” and unless they were quickly reclaimed, “those who have Property of that kind in the vicinity of the Camps will suffer by their going off.” This became impossible once the Legion was in Charlotte and Hugau did indeed try to meet his obligations to Harrison: on 6 April 1782 he records Lieutenant Jacques Laurent Le Blanc of the Grenadier Company as having been sent to the various posts to collect the blacks there, but no record has been found to show how successful he was in his efforts.
    Many French officers from Rochambeau on down had Black servants, either slaves they had purchased or free Blacks they had hired, and Rochambeau was determined to protect the property rights of his officers against claims that they were hiding stolen property. Many of the slaves French officers may have stolen had long since been spirited away on de Grasse’s vessels to be sold in the French West Indies. Perron recorded that “there were many Negroes taken and sold on our return to our colonies. Entire corps indulged in this indecency and after pocketing the birds [literally the seagulls, meaning the African-Americans] secretly made fun of those who had been more scrupulous.” (Perron 1898:176).

    See also the letter by William Dandridge to Governor Harrison of May 1782 in which he complained that “from the fontness for the idle and dissipated life they had lead,” while with the British army, many of his slaves had now fled to the French Army. One of his slaves, a “very likely and valuable fellow” was employed by a French Major who refused to turn him over since the man claimed to be a freeman, and he had therefore a right to employ him. Since then that slave had disappeared only to be replaced by another run-away. Calendar of State Papers, p.183.

    1. Thanks, Robert. As always, I appreciate your comments. The diplomatic snarls created by French officers taking on some of the runaway slaves as servants will be discussed in my book. As you point out, there is extensive correspondence pertaining to this issue, which further illuminates the hold that slavery had on the young United States.

    2. Just as an aside: In what may have been a pre-public sale, as he was getting ready for the march to New York and eventuall to Yorktown, Rochambeau on 5 June 1781 acquired an unnamed African-American slave “fait prisonnier lors de la prise de ‘La Molli’ – taken prisoner in the capture of the ‘Molli’” on 19 February 1781. On 9 February 1781, Captain Le Gardeur de Tilly had sailed from Newport for Virginia on the 64-gun l’Eveillé accompanied by the frigates La Gentille and La Surveillante plus the cutter La Guêpe. His task was to assist in the capture of Benedict Arnold, who had disembarked with 1,200 men at Portsmouth on 31 December 1780, captured Richmond on 5 January 1781 and was wreaking havoc on the plantations along the James and York rivers. On 18 February 1781, Tilly’s small flotilla arrived off Cape Henry where it took the corsair Earl Cornwallis (16 guns and a 50-man crew), the Revenge (12 guns and a 20-man crew), a third corsair of 8 guns and a 25-man crew (possibly called Duke of York) as well as a sloop carrying a load of flour. On the 19th she chased and took the Romulus of 44 guns and a 260-man crew and also took a brick with 59 réfugies from Virginia. Many of the refugees were slaves who had run away from their owners in the hope of gaining their freedom upon reaching British lines. One of the 59 refugees captured on the brick, i.e. the “La Molli – the “Molly”, was Rochambeau’s slave. The poor guys had mistaken the French vessel for a British vessel and instead of becoming free were sold in Newport – never mind that that based on a 1774 Rhode Island law forbidding the importation of slaves they should have been freed. The whole story is in my W3R in RI report

  • I am not an apologist for slavery but this article fails to look at the aftermath of the Yorktown victory from the perspective of Washington as the commander in chief. First, slavery was legal. The runaway slaves were valuable personal property and they belonged to someone; it was desired to locate the owners who had a property interest. The white people living on the Yorktown peninsula certainly would not have wanted over 1,000 runaway slaves wandering about trying to sustain themselves and living off the land and perhaps stealing from the locals.

    Washington had one of his own slaves run away and join the British. After the war he went to Nova Scotia for a period of time but eventually returned to Africa. Washington knew that there were other slave owners looking for their slaves and the only responsible course of action at the time was to detain and then reunite slave with owner.

    Not all the British were for freedom for the slaves. The engineer at Savannah, Montcrief I believe was the name, was reported to have gathered up slaves owned by the rebels and shipped them off to be sold out of the country. He was reported to have pocketed the money. When Savannah was evacuated the British took the former slaves who had worked with them to Nova Scotia recording their names in the “Book of Negros” . Many black people in Nova Scotia and throughout Canada can trace their ancestors back to that event.

    It was a relatively common occurrence during the war for each side to steal the slaves of the other side. Thus, Patriots stole the slaves of Loyalists and vice versa. This happened all the time along with burning down homes and stealing crops and provisions.

    I think it is interesting to consider from an historical perspective what would have happened if the British had won the war–it might have prevented our subsequent Civil War. The British abolished slavery in all their colonies in 1836 (best recollection of year) and after Summerset vs. Stewart, slavery was not legal in England because there were no laws permitting slavery. If the colonies had remained part of the British empire then slavery would have been abolished around 1836. What would have become of the slaves one can only guess.

    1. Good point James.
      In regard to the British winning the war, I’m convinced that the problem with slavery for America was caused by the South.
      Hadn’t the Lower South – Georgia & the Carolinas – joined the Union, slavery would have been abolished in the Constitution of 1787.
      By 1840 all blacks in the North were free.
      The South stuck to a backward, feudal society.
      My question is: if the British had won the war, would the Lower South have accepted the abolition of slavery in 1833? Considering that that was the region most loyal to the Empire, one can only speculate.
      Good continuation,

    2. Your question is an interesting one that I have thought often on. Despite the fact that the Brits eliminated slavery in the early 1800s, it did not mean that they were above seeing Blacks as either a convenience or a curse and using them in less than a co-equal capacity throughout the Revolution, most notably in the South.

  • I appreciate the fact that the author brought this tragedy to light but could have done without his proselytizing of his opinion on American exceptionalism. Have enough respect for your readers to allow them to form their own opinions. Thank you.

  • Almost any historian understands that the truest rendition of our past comes not immediately during or after the death of said person, but two to three generations afterwards. For General Washington, the stories of cherry trees getting chopped down and wooden dentures have been well exaggerated. That he was strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Delaware river was fun to hear about, but also fell into the same mythology about our first President.

    A writer in the first century after his death can best ascertain truth from myth. In later generations, there can also be an exaggeration of the factual evidence. It is true that a writer can misunderstand the time in which a person lived, by the vantage point of a different time, but if so, the intention of that life can be missed entirely.

    There were two great Henry Cabot Lodges in the past 150 years. Henry C Lodge Jr. served under four different Presidents. But Henry Cabot Lodge Sr was not just a well-known statesman from Massachusetts, but an imminent historian. He received four degrees from Harvard and was widely published throughout the world as a historian.

    He wrote of Washington the following words in 1898:
    [While] it is important to know that Washington’s opinions in regard to an institution which was destined to have a powerful influence upon the country, it seems most appropriate to consider these opinions at the moment when slaves became a practical factor in his life as a planter.

    Washington accepted the system as he found it, as most men would accept the social arrangements to which they were born. He grew up in a world where slavery had always existed [during his life], and where its rightfulness was never questioned.

    [As a frontier surveyor, and later with regards to his leadership during the Revolution] He never had occasion to really consider the matter until he found himself at the head of large estates, with his own prosperity dependent upon the labor of slaves.

    Another writer of this time, Richard Parkinson (Tour in America, 1798-1800) wrote, “Washington was incapable of wrong-doing, but did to all men as he would they should do to him.” None the less, he was a slave holder and plantation master.

    “Washington was convinced that slavery was utterly repugnant,” Cabot went on the write, “to the ideas upon which the Revolution was fought and the government of the United States was founded.” With an unusual presence of mind regarding slavery in his day, he saw slavery as hostile, both socially and economically, both sides of which would fight for supremacy, which he felt would imperil the Union. For that reason, he didn’t introduce the question of slavery into the first Congress, because of the fear and strain of what it would bring to our young country.

    Interestingly enough, not unlike Thomas Jefferson’s views on the subject, because of the inherent wrong of the system, he knew that the continuance of America’s practice would be impossible. But there was a plan. In John Bernard writings, Retrospections of America, 1797–1811, p. 91, he recalled the account of a conversation he had with Washington in 1798, in which George Washington stated, “Not only do I pray for it [the cessation of slavery], on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”

    His plan was to institute a gradual emancipation by helping the former slaves to have all the rights and privileges of every American, and then perhaps also to offer compensation to slave owners. In his conversations with two Methodist clergyman (referenced in the diary of George Washington), Rev. Francis Asbury and Dr. Thomas Coke, Washington said that he was in favor of emancipation, and was ready to write a letter to the Assembly to that effect. He also wished that the people of the United States would overwhelmingly take his advice. His plan was written about in the Magazine of American History, 1880, p. 158.

    By the time he had passed away, he had impressed his views upon citizenry, and as most people are aware, had directed that his slaves would all be freed upon the death of his wife. Regretfully, Washington’s perspective and example in this matter went unheeded for many a generation.

    Henry Cabot Lodge finished up his thoughts by saying that, “But now that slavery is dead, to the joy of all men, it is well to remember on this terrible question [that] Washington’s opinions were those of a humane man, impatient of wrong, [and] watchful of the evils that threatened his country.”

    What we can so easily see from the vantage point of over 200 years removed, that this was the issue of the ages for our young country and would continue to offer us the scars of our wrongdoing, and those scars are always more easily recognized from centuries past, than in the forming of a Union, already broken and fragile from years of war.

    1. Thank you Rob Thomas for your thoughtful, well researched and referenced post in defense of President Washington on the subject of slavery. It is always too easy to look back and judge from the position of succeeding generations. Yet, it is wiser still to remember that we too will one day pass into dust and be likewise judged with as little understanding of the times and the people of it.

  • In October, 1781, at Yorktown, Cornwallis forced the blacks still with his army to move outside of his protected perimeter. They had to hide from the bombardment of Yorktown in the small no-man’s land between the British and American/French lines, or accept re-enslavement by surrendering to the Americans.

    I have also read the reason for sending the blacks out was that Cornwallis was low on food and he needed what was left for his troops.

    1. It was on the 15th of October and the incident was recorded by Hessian Captain Johann Ewald in his “Diary of the American War” at page 335:

      “I would just as soon forget to record a cruel happening. On the same day of the enemy assault, we drove back to the enemy all of our black friends, whom we had taken along to despoil the countryside. We had used them to good advantage and set them free, and now, with fear and trembling, they had to face the reward of their cruel masters. Last night I had to make a sneak patrol, during which I came across a great number of these unfortunates. In their hunger, these unhappy people would have soon devoured what I had; and since they lay between two fires, they had to be driven on by force. This harsh act had to be carried out. however, because of the scarcity of provisions; but we should have thought more about their deliverance at this time”.

      Ewald had estimated previously that there were four thousand runaway slaves following the British and Hessian baggage train as they headed towards York and Cornwallis had allowed them to be assigned out to the soldiers as servants. Ewald said” Yes, indeed, I can testify that every soldier had his negro, who carried his provisions and bundles.” Describing the foraging taking place, “Any place this horde approached was eaten clean, like an acre invaded by a swarm of locusts…fortunately, the army seldom stayed in one place longer than a day or a night.”

      Washington could not have ignored the presence of the large group of blacks driven out of the British lines.

  • I’m glad that slavery was abolished and all that. But we find ourselves trying to erase history just because it doesn’t go with today’s standards. I don’t like how you try to put Washington in a bad light, it was how things were back then. And every race on this planet has been subjected to slavery, so one race isn’t as important as another. At the rate we are going now all of history will be altered or erased. Whether we like it or not we must learn and understand history so it’s never repeated. In my opinion this article is more about trying to cause division instead of education. And education is what the world needs now days. I subscribed because I love Revolutionary War history , not to see it being used to cause controversy. Just my opinion

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. This article is enlightening but its tone is another example of demeaning the foundation and scope of this country’s idealism and principles of liberty.

      1. I teach United States History I to mostly Latino and African American students and they have a vastly different idea of what the nations “ideals and principals of Liberty” are from their vantage point. I also highlight the story of Ona Judge and Hercules Posey which is emblematic of the cruelty of slavery. Washington may have found slavery distasteful but his actions with these two runaways show that when it affected him personally, he had rather strong views on slavery.

  • Nice article, well researched and presented. However, the current social tendency is to apply our contemporary values to life in 1775. Not defending slavery, it was wrong, so was killing Native American because they were savages. Cornwallis liberated thousands of slaves as when routed Patriot forces in Virginia in 1781. He also unleashed a small pox epidemic on these same individuals. At least 500 small pox victims suffered in Portsmouth and Norfolk as the British army moved to Yorktown. Hundreds if not thousands died as a result of massing susceptible individuals together.

    Can’t keep count the family members who died serving in the Union Army in an effort to end slavery during the Civil War (1861-65). Washington did what he needed to do in 1781 to keep support of the population and restore civil order. He was always cautious not to interfere with the established order and deferred to the authority of the political policy makers. Generals do that today, when they don’t, they get fired. Be cautious on applying either historian’s fallacy or presentism to Washington’s decision-making process.

    Today, October 19, is an important day in the development of the United States and the military as evidenced by the success represented by the Victory at Yorktown. As witnessed by all of us recently on live broadcasts, contemporary politicians and policy makers do what they need to do to satisfy their policy positions. Only time will tell if they got it right, then again, the world of politics and supporting policy decisions is filled with shades of gray.

  • I was surprised after reading this thought provoking article that the “Dunmore Proclamation” of November 1775 isn’t mentioned anywhere that I saw. I am aware that is occurred years before Yorktown, but surely many of the very same slaves involved in this story were impacted and a direct result of the same proclamation. I find it hard not to wonder had Washington or any of his men been faced with the same decision/choice to take advantage of the Dunmore Proclamation how ironic it is to hold them accountable for a choice almost ALL of his men had made when it was similarly offered to them with the reading of the Declaration of Independence. In fact there are words to that affect in Jefferson’s famous words about how the British, or the King treated American colonists no better than slaves, or as slaves in bondage…Easy to see now all these years later, but somehow it’s hard to fathom that back in that time period surely other people yearning for liberty wouldn’t have thought the same…

  • I can add little to the comments from luminaries above such as Selig, Lodge and Hannum, but feel compelled to say something. The article has extraordinary merits, but is a bit tainted with “historian’s fallacy” (an article skewed and biased by way of hindsight and assuming decision makers of the past could view events from the same perspective and knowledge base as now exists per David Hackett Fischer). Because of this, it might incur a few inaccuracies in interpretation and may fall short in true contextual understanding; understanding historiography is important and may explain how this article draws it modern conclusions. While some truly relevant use of history and much excellent research, it unfortunately evaluates the Founding Fathers through today’s lens, using contemporary values, and applying modern knowledge and mores not yet available to people in 1781. When the Yorktown surrender occurred, slavery had been a norm around the world for over 9,000 years. Washington was simply abiding by generally prevalent global norms and practices. Slaves were, unfortunately, an economic necessity in America just as they were in much of Europe, most of Africa, and parts of Asia (Mauritania didn’t make slavery a crime until 2007). You actually don’t need to look very far to realize the very Articles of Capitulation dictated that all “property” confiscated by the British be returned to rightful owners; that “property” nomenclature refers to slaves. British captured American slaves and kept them under British servitude, and also impressed them into serving and fighting for the British. The British frequently and falsely promised freedom to those slaves who took up arms against the American rebels, such as was somewhat the case of the “Ethiopians” who fought for British Governor Dunmore against Woodford and the Americans at Great Bridge (VA) in 1775 (few survived, and most never enjoyed any “freedom”). Those African Americans who fought on the side of the Americans (including the slaves and freed Blacks who made up a major part of the Rhode Island militia soldiers who captured Redoubt 10 per Robert Geake) had nothing to worry about from any “slave roundup.” They remained free or earned freedom, showing that race was not the simple discriminator, but rather social status and societal standing. England did not abolish slavery until 1834 (Spain permitted slavery in colonies into the 1870s) and actually would have continued to capture slaves and employ them against the Americans after the Yorktown victory on this date 240 years ago had Washington not prevailed. One might even assume that the “rightful owners” would treat their slaves better than would the British Loyalists who depended less on the slavery supported economy. But to be critical of Washington for recovering “property” and reinstituting the work-force that would be needed to support the emerging economy of a fledgling new United States demonstrates some dismissal of the economic realities and prevalent social structure of the 18th century. Washington absolutely had to enforce the intent and policies of the political policy makers; not supporting the institution of slavery in 1781 would near certainly have fractured the tenuous union of colonies, and thereby doomed the Revolution – perhaps there would be no United States without Washington’s recovery (vice “round-up”) actions. Washington did, indeed, take a strategic view, and a realistic position, contrary to what we might expect today because times have changed and institutions evolve. But he also most certainly also maintained the prevalent order to facilitate the remarkable American Revolution that paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery (and many other inhumane practices) around the world. Thanks for sharing some good facts and a partly valid contemporary assessment, but the article can be used as a suitable example of “historian’s fallacy.” In my view, we should celebrate October 19th for the occasion it is – the important day when Washington sealed the deal for gaining “liberty, sovereignty and independence in commerce and in governance.” It could be said that America was really born on the fields of Yorktown and our Nation’s maturing began immediately thereafter.

  • A most enlightening yet disturbing article on the terrible scourge of American slavery. There is a reason this episode in American history has rarely been explored and remains obscure. The unfortunate tradition of historical apology for bad events and behavior continues as I read the comments of some of these reviews particularly those comments and observations by Mr. Kienle. We are now living today with the disgrace and ignominy of the American institution of slavery and it’s legacy for generations to come. Shame on of all the apologists! All you do is continue to promote excuses for a horrific human experience. The demon of American slavery can never be extirpated if you continue to make excuses for it. I am indeed offended by some of these comments I have read. Absolutely incredible.

  • “The ‘demon’ of American slavery was extirpated 156 years ago”….to the contrary, the ‘demon’ of private slave ownership was not extirpated. Private slave ownership was criminalized. Today the ‘demon’ is called “human trafficking “. What was “extirpated” was the interruption of the transfer of tariffs and duties collected in Southern portsand transferred to the US Treasury. The comparison of Washington and the Confederates is inevitable. Washington succeeded in ending the transfer of taxes from the United Colonies to the Crown, which in its wars in America issued no less than three emancipation proclamations: Dunmore (1775), Clinton (1779) and Cochrane (1814).

    1. The Continental Congress and various states also granted freedom to the slaves who served either in the Continental Army or in state militias during the war; thus the Americans can be credited with issuing “emancipation proclamations” as well – I put it in quotes because none was a true emancipation proclamation, neither that of the British nor that of the Americans.
      Washington, as well as other prominent Founders, can’t be compared to Confederates, because the former realized that slavery went against the principle upon which the new republic had just been founded and took action to abolish it or at least to prevent its expansion.
      Confederates went as far as labelling black people as non-human, in order to justify the institution of slavery in front of the “All Men Are Created Equal … right to Life, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS” principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
      The reason why slavery was not abolished during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or by the 1st United States Congress is not because of the various Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, etc., but rather because of Southern representatives, who were overwhelmingly pro-slavery – I’m referring to the likes of James Jackson of Georgia, William Smith and Pierce Butler of South Carolina, Benjamin Hawkins of North Carolina, etc.

  • Thanks, Robert. As always, I appreciate your comments. The diplomatic snarls created by French officers taking on some of the runaway slaves as servants will be discussed in my book. As you point out, there is extensive correspondence pertaining to this issue, which further illuminates the hold that slavery had on the young United States.

  • As can be seen in the previous comments, Gregory J.W. Urwin’s article on the role of slaves/slavery in the Virginia Campaign of 1781, focusing on GW’s order to collect slaves who had fled to the British opens several lines of discussion. Unwin is surely correct that the course of liberty and equality has been a process, but he sems to undervalue what the Revolution achieved, or could achieve, in its time.
    The blanket statement that Yorktown guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery for the eight decades is an oversimplification and overstatement. The stated goals of the Revolution particularly the demand for “liberty,” triggered considerable reflection on the part of many, including the elites. This led to the rolling emancipation laws in the colonies/states north of Maryland. It even, through the 1790s, resulted in a wave of manumissions in Virginia and Maryland. The failure of the movement to continue, and reverse in the southern states, had many causes, the cotton gin figuring prominently among them.
    Washington’s order to secure the and return the freed slaves to their owners is unsurprising, if disappointing to modern readers. While the Revolution unleashed the cause of abolition, and as noted above, led to slavery’s demise in the North, the war was not fought for emancipation as was the case in the Civil War after 1863. Even if he were so inclined, Washington could not have turned a blind eye to the escaped slaves who had fled to Cornwallis’ lines. Neither the laws of the Virginia nor the acts of the Continental Congress recognized the freedom of those escaping bondage, but they did uphold the legal rights of the owners to their return. Throughout the war, Washington always took care to follow the policies and authority of the civilian governments. The same factors motivated Washington’s actions two years later as the British prepared to evacuate New York. Washington endeavored to persuade Sir Guy Carleton to return former slaves who were within British lines. Carleton declined and as many as three thousand liberated slaves sailed off with the British into a very uncertain future. Washington’s personal journey regarding slavery is well known, but it was an evolution, one which was affected by his experiences with black soldiers during the war.
    Mr. Unwin seems dismissive regarding he stated objectives of the Revolution stating it was led by elites who wanted to exchange one set of elites for another. His statement that the Revolution was a matter of one set of elites ruling another overlooks the significant changes social and governmental leadership occurring during the Revolutionary period. A full discussion of this process 17775-1800 can be found in Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution. To be sure, the socio-political situation was deficient by twenty-first century standards, but it is ahistorical to expect it to reflect modern expectations and assumptions.
    Rather than labelling slavery the “corruption” at the heart of the Revolution the terms “contradiction” or “compartmentalization” are more useful. The contradictions, the language of liberty and independence coupled with the perpetuation of slavery, proved impossible to ignore, and the compartmentalization– freedom for an increasing number of whites coupled with the continuance of slavery for the larger number of blacks—could only be maintained by a double-think that increasingly short-circuited and ultimately collapsed.
    The cause and course of liberty and equality were achieved through a process or an evolution, often painful and sometimes even seen in retreat. But the Revolution established an (so far) enduring republic that created the freest nation at the time and laid down principles and government forms that were increasingly expanded to provide to the entire population the rights and guarantees first pledged in 1776. For this reason, the Revolution was not just one event in the expansion of American liberty, but the foundational event. It should be possible to celebrate the Revolution, and the victory at Yorktown, while remaining cognizant of limitations and constraints imposed by the time and place.
    The practice of capitalizing black and not white is not only an abandonment of correct English standards, but it also symbolizes a racial hierarchy that has no place in serious writing. Authors should not employ it, and editors should reject it.

  • I tend to agree with you John. I know that I have relatives that fought in the Civil War and the American Revolution most if not all from Virginia and I find myself often thinking about what is or was their true motivation deep down? If “freedom” was at the core and liberty was the motivation then how can you fight for freedom for “just you” if true freedom is what you’re after. Wouldn’t you want it for all human beings??? Otherwise its something altogether different…History has taught us that again and again…Truth is stranger than fiction, just look at the events of the past 12 months…I’m glad my Dad didn’t live long enough to see the events of Jan. 6th, the total lack of any accountability afterwards. Then having a sitting President tell the WHOLE WORLD (and continue to tell) that our election of 2020 are fraudulent or fake simply because he didn’t win…Its bad enough one person stated that, the fact that he has MILLIONS of enablers and supporters who believe the same is at the core of what you’re talking about…And I consider myself a conservative, for limited government, and according to DJT I’m what’s wrong with America

  • What Richard Welch wrote. Hear, hear.

    And now my own thoughts. While historical writing needs the corrective of historical revisionism (and I use that term in its most positive sense) to reassess and redirect how we think about the past and how we listen to voices that have been ignored, it surely must be infused with historical perspective that recognizes the goals and limitations of those who lived that history, rather than play a “coulda/shoulda” game that doesn’t reflect the historical reality and constrictions under which those historical figures operated.

    Far too much of modern historical writing seems to be lacking in that perspective. What happened after Yorktown to those who had escaped enslavement by making their way to the British is a tragic and important story that must be told. I’m glad it was told here. But a sense of historical perspective would have recognized that the institution of slavery would have continued unabated had Yorktown and the War turned out differently — with a British victory (and without the ideals expressed in the Declaration left intact to inspire abolitionist and republican/egalitarian movements in the Northern and Middle colonies and throughout the world), since slavery persisted in the British Empire until the 1830s (and might have gone on longer if placating Southern Loyalists had to be considered). This line: “The institution of slavery’s victory at Yorktown reveals the corruption that infected the American Revolution.” is grossly lacking in such perspective and is not in line with the historical analysis I have come to expect from JAR, especially if serious historical scholarship, as opposed to agitprop polemic, is regarded as the goal of this publication.

  • Many thanks to the author for illuminating yet another lost aspect of the history of African Americans in this country and the shameful conduct of our slave-holding Founding Fathers. My ancestors were slaves on the James River plantations, not far from Williamsburg, and mentioned in this article. It makes me weep to think about the conditions they endured. I believe that some of them supported the British simply because they wanted their freedom. Two of them ran away several years after Yorktown and claimed their freedom. I thank God for them and what they did so I can be here today.

    1. Thank you for sharing your family history, Sheilah. Your two ancestors who risked so much in their quest for freedom are among those Americans who helped make the egalitarian rhetoric of the Revolution more than mere window dressing. Yours is a proud heritage.

  • Why bring this stain on our history up at a time when there is such division in our country. You just drove a bigger wedge between us. I never thought that the Journal would be weaponized like this. I couldn’t finish this piece because it did nothing to bring us together.

    1. History is not meant to make you feel comfortable. History is the truth laid bare. Resolving divisions means confronting uncomfortable truths.

  • I love the summation of this article.

    The American Revolution is indeed an ongoing process. It is a never-ending story rooted in an ugly past but striving for the lofty goals that were originally set by the founders’ rhetoric. The founding fathers deserve credit for creating an environment in which genuine egalitarianism could be incubated and developed. What they accomplished was a radical departure from the norms of the Monarchical Age. They deserve credit for setting up mechanisms through which we can all play our part to create ‘a more perfect Union’. They deserve criticism for failing to strive to make their rhetoric a reality in their lifetime.

  • It is astonishing, and appalling, to see the British presented here as noble and selfless emancipators while the Americans are assigned the role of Lucifer himself. In 1781 the British were up to their lobster-back eyeballs in the grotesque business of international slave-trafficking. In fact, just a month after Yorktown, British slave-traffickers aboard the slave ship Zong sadistically threw approximately 140 slaves into the sea in an insurance fraud scheme. In total, the British kidnapped and trafficked 2.5 million slaves. So if the American slaves were running into the British lines for protection, I hope they brought their life jackets.

  • The foreign historian is struck, as so often, by the typically ideological and always disappointing version of 1775-83 that infuses the historically innocent comment above (“Why bring this stain on our history up at a time when there is such division in our country…”); but one would hope that the NPS authorities at Yorktown would make something public of Prof. Urwin’s observation that “Black labor raised the fortifications that protected Portsmouth and later encircled Cornwallis’s second base at Yorktown.” American visitors to the site, Blacks especially, would profit from it not least because its a conundrum that would oblige them to rethink the ongoing myths that infuse popular history, to the modern country’s detriment.

  • Hi,
    I’m a descendant of Black Loyalist, Henry Gwin, husband of Peggy Gwin whose failed petition to General Carleton is part of the public record. I am also a Black historian…

    Firstly, the term is Black, not “black”, honestly, if you can describe people as a colour, you might want to recuse yourself from any serious discussion on this subject until you’ve read some modern social history.

    On erasing history. As a researcher in this field, I can say we are only starting to understand this history. Only twenty years ago, historians were still writing dismissive accounts of the Black Loyalist experience. I recently contacted the Gwin Island Museum, who were unaware that the descendants of Virginia Black Loyalists still existed as a cohesive community. The United States has some real serious issues with its addiction to a founding myth that marginalized Black and Indigenous people.

    I could go on in great detail, but I encourage people to actually pursue the scholarship and fret less about “erasing history”. It isn’t being erased. People like David George (founder of the first churches in three seperate countries), Thomas Peters (champion of Black civil rights) and Titus Cornelius (viewed as one of the best commanders during the Revolutionary War) are finally getting the attention they deserve.

    Washington was NOT a passive slave holder. He lead efforts to re-enslave FREE people, leading to the hostilities in the War of 1812, that generated a peace that Americans strenuously emphasized payment for the self-emancipated.

    Blacks who self emancipated were no longer slaves, please stop describing them as such. Many were Africans who were born free, kidnapped and held in captivity. Referring to them as “slaves” is reductive and I would suggest that there is an element of racism in this continued mislabelling. We don’t call people who fled indentures, indentured throughout the rest of their lives.

    And finally, referring to slavery from 9000 years ago, or from non-industrial countries is counterproductive. There is no analogue to the turn of the nineteenth century’s labour requirements and the legislation enacted to force Indigenous people and Africans to work themselves to death feeding mechanized supply chains. Additionally, focussing on slavery ignores the brutality levelled at free Blacks of the period like Jerry the Pilot in Charlestown and his burning at the stake after being denied even the rights of free peoples to defend himself in court.

    The Revolution was incomplete and those chickens have come home to roost as different people now have access to the sources and can interpret the information for themselves and tell their own stories. Bias exists everywhere and most “modern historians” find a lot of previous work very problematic in its uncritical analysis of hagiographic sources.

  • I’m struck by the number of negative replies to this piece in which people do not want to confront this ugly stain on America’s past. History is not intended to comfort us. Indeed, we will receive no comfort at all if we continue to ignore our country’s transgressions – wounds will not heal by ignoring them. It is certainly possible to praise the accomplishments of someone like Washington while criticizing his policies and behavior towards enslaved persons. I find no fault with Mr. Urwin’s criticism of the historians’ tendency to omit this part of the Yorktown campaign and it is fair to question why they did so when the evidence was readily available. If not wanting to tarnish Washington’s reputation was not the reason for the omission, than what was? I’ve heard no better reason.

    As a public historian, I continually hear the refrain that the standards of today should not be applied to those in the past. But the idea that slavery was evil did exist in the 1700s and there were plenty of prominent people, including Benjamin Rush, John Adams, and Thomas Paine, who all spoke openly against the institution.

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