In 1619, 401 years ago, the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia — 157 years before the colonists united and declared their freedom from England in 1776. Most Americans are unaware of the pivotal role black soldiers played in helping the colonists to achieve their liberty. This article examines the courage of black soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
Although George Washington did not want black soldiers in the Continental Army, 5,000 African-American men fought, some with conspicuous gallantry, in the American War of Independence. From the beginning of hostilities in 1775, the question of arming blacks, free and enslaved, consistently plagued the patriots. The fear of slave insurrections caused the colonies to exclude blacks from militia service by law.
However, since there were not enough white men to fill militia quotas, necessity required the colonies to recruit free black men as soldiers during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Their enlistments were extended through the first battles of the Revolution; laws prohibiting their enlistment were overlooked. Thus, black soldiers were inducted, fought bravely and proved their worth in the early fights at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775.
Despite their proven bravery, black soldiers were not included in the overall plan for waging the war and, therefore, General Washington, military leaders, and the Continental Congress decided that the service of black soldiers would not be needed to defeat the British. Black soldiers who had fought bravely were summarily dismissed from military service. Robert E. Greene narrates this decision in Black Courage: Documentation of Black Participation in the American Revolution. Washington issued an order on November 12, 1775, instructing recruiters “not to enlist blacks, boys unable to bear arms, or old men unable to endure the fatigues of campaign.”
Washington was unaware that days earlier on November 7, 1775, the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had issued the following proclamation:
I do hereby . . . declare that all indentured servants and blacks free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper dignity.
Immediately, thousands of slaves and indentured servants all over the South fled bondage for the promise of freedom with the British. After the British were defeated they transported nearly 40,000 runaway slaves from the United States. Some former slaves seeded all-black towns in Canada.
So many slaves ran to the British army that in December of 1775, Washington rescinded his order prohibiting the recruitment of black men, fearing that black recruits would give the British an overwhelming advantage in the war. Consequently, free blacks and runaway slaves were allowed to enlist again in the fledgling American army. In addition, pension records show that black soldiers served longer terms than most white soldiers.
By 1777, as much as 10 to 15 percent of the Continental Army was made up of black soldiers. The vast majority of black soldiers served in fighting units comprised primarily of white men. Not only were they in the regiments of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, but they also fought beside white fellow soldiers in Southern states. Hardly any military action between 1775 and 1781 did not involve black soldiers. Their presence is recorded at Lexington, Concord, Ticonderoga, Bunker Hill, Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Bennington, Brandywine, Stillwater, Saratoga, Red Banks, Monmouth, Rhode Island, Savannah, Stony Point, Fort Griswold, and Yorktown.
Why did black men fight in this conflict, well aware that separation from England would not change the conditions of their lives in any way? The answer is more about economic necessity than patriotism. Blacks had been in America since 1619 as slaves, but even as free men they were barely able to raise themselves above the economic condition of slaves. The army was a vehicle for them to find steady, dignified work — as has been the case for many marginalized groups throughout history. Black men could see that their status as soldiers would give them a toehold to a better future more effectively than the poorly compensated work available to free blacks.
Most of the African Americans who served in the War of Independence will forever remain anonymous. There are some, however, who by their outstanding service won recognition from their contemporaries and a conspicuous place in history.
On June 17, 1775, Salem Poor, a soldier in the Andover, Massachusetts, militia, distinguished himself at Bunker Hill. Salem was born a slave in 1747 in Andover, and was owned by John Poor. He was able to purchase his freedom at age 22 for 27 pounds (a colonial currency worth less than British pounds sterling at the time), roughly $5000 today. He found limited work as a free man, so with a wife and son to support, Poor joined the militia, fought in the French and Indian War, and fought at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Monmouth.
Of the 2,000 to 4,000 men who fought at Bunker Hill, only Poor was cited for distinguished service by officers. Poor’s regiment opposed British troops occupying besieged Boston. Poor fatally wounded an important British colonel, which changed the tide of battle. The exact details of his extraordinary military act were not preserved; however, officers who observed Poor wrote the following petition to the General Court of Massachusetts:
…we declare that a Negro man called Salem Poor of Colonel Frye’s Regiment…behave[d] like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent officer, to set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We would only beg leave to say in the person of this Negro centers a brave and gallant soldier.
The General Court of Massachusetts failed to take any action on the petition.
When his first enlistment was up, Poor immediately re-enlisted several times and fought in many other battles during the war until he was discharged in 1780. In 1793, Poor turned up at a Boston almshouse seeking shelter. He died penniless in 1802 and is buried in a cemetery near Boston.
Figure 1. U.S. Scott 1560, one of the Contributors to the Cause issues designed by Neil Boyle in 1975, depicts Salem Poor. His country’s gratitude for his bravery at Bunker Hill and other battles came 200 years too late; he died obscure and penniless.
In 1975, as part of a set of Revolutionary War bicentennial memorials, Poor was honored in the Contributors to the Cause series on U.S. Scott 1560 (Figure 1). Not included in the series: at least a dozen other African-American soldiers who fought with Poor at Bunker Hill, including:
Caesar Brown of Westford, Massachusetts, who was killed in action; Barillai Lew, a fifer and drummer; Titus Coburn and Alexander Ames of Andover; Prince Hall, later an abolitionist and founder of the black Masonic movement in America; Cuff Hayes, Titus Colburn, Caesar Dickerson, Cato Tufts, Grant Cooper, Sampson Talbert, and Peter Salem.
Washington Crossing the Delaware
One of the most enduring symbols of the War of Independence is German-American artist Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although painted 75 years after the event, the painting evokes strong feelings of drama and heroism. Leutze understood deeply the fledgling American democracy, since he had come to the United States at age nine, staying until his return to Germany as a young man to study art. He quickly became involved in the democratic revolutions fermenting in Europe.
Figure 2. Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The painting was gifted to the museum by John Stewart Kennedy in 1897.
The original painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Figure 2). The painting was recreated in 1976 on an American Bicentennial souvenir sheet, U.S. Scott 1688, designed by Vincent E. Hoffman (Figure 3). Leutze’s smaller and final version of the painting hung in the White House for 35 years, until 2014 when it was purchased by the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota. The painting is intended to pay homage to the world’s first modern democratic revolution. Washington’s boat is a metaphor for the young diversified nation. Crossing with Washington there is a woman, a Native American, laborers, soldiers, a farmer and two different African Americans: Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell.
Figure 3. U.S. Scott 1688 is just one of many reproductions of Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting. The souvenir sheet of five 24¢ stamps was issued in 1976, one of many stamps and souvenir sheets commemorating the bicentennial of the United States’ founding.
In his 1856 book Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, William Cooper Nell, an abolitionist preacher, identified the African Americans in Washington Crossing the Delaware as Prince Whipple, a slave of Continental Congress delegate William Whipple of Baltimore, Maryland, and Oliver Cromwell, a free man who enlisted at age 20 and fought in nearly every important battle in the war. Although the roster of Washington’s personal bodyguards was lost in a fire, some researchers report that Cromwell was one of the elite Life Guard group who guarded Washington until the Guard’s disbanding on November 15, 1783.
William Cooper Nell’s book related some then-undocumented anecdotes about Whipple:
Prince Whipple, the dark-skinned man at Washington’s knee with the oar, was an actual African, born [in present day Ghana] to comparatively wealthy parents. When he was ten, his parents sent him and a cousin, Cuff, to America to be educated. An older brother had returned four years earlier from the same experience so his parents thought that the younger child should have the same benefit.
The captain who brought the two over proved to be a treacherous villain. When the ship arrived in Baltimore, the captain sold the children into slavery to William Whipple.
Prince Whipple, himself, authenticated Nell’s account of his arrival in America in 1797 with a document, possibly an affidavit, signed by 20 others who had been seized and sold by the captain at the same time.
Prince Whipple served as a soldier-servant to William Whipple who was an officer assigned to George Washington’s staff. Leutze also painted William Whipple on the boat. (Some researchers report that William Whipple and Prince Whipple could not have crossed with Washington because Whipple was in Philadelphia at that time, but no documentation has ever been produced that places Whipple in Philadelphia during the crossing). After the war, Prince Whipple continued to serve Whipple as a slave. On Prince’s wedding day, February 22, 1781, William Whipple announced Prince’s emancipation, but did not actually sign his manumission papers until 1784.
After William Whipple’s death, his widow donated a portion of land behind the Whipple mansion as a permanent home for Prince and his cousin Cuff. Prince Whipple died in 1797, much esteemed in his community.
Oliver Cromwell is the man at the bow of the boat with his legs dangling over the side. Bi-racial, Cromwell was born free in May of 1752 in Black Horse, (now Columbus), New Jersey, and was raised as a farmer. According to the New Hampshire Town Records, Cromwell served in several companies between 1777 and 1783 at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Monmouth and the final siege of Yorktown.
After Yorktown, Cromwell left the army. George Washington personally signed his discharge papers and presented him with the newly minted Badge of Military Merit, citing Cromwell’s military discipline, superior personal conduct, dedication, and sacrifice. Washington’s words upon the occasion of Cromwell’s retirement mirror the known criteria for membership in the Life Guard – evidence that Cromwell was an honored member of Washington’s personal guard.
Many years after his discharge, Cromwell applied for a military pension but was denied. The government confiscated his discharge papers and the Badge of Military Merit as forgeries. Cromwell, who could not read or write, was rescued by local lawyers, judges and politicians. His military honors were returned and he was awarded a pension of $96 a year, approximately $2600 per month today. With the pension, Cromwell purchased a 100-acre farm outside Burlington, where he lived with his wife and 15 children.
In 1840, he moved into Burlington. It is believed that Cromwell and his descendants took an active part in the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves on their way to Canada. Cromwell died in 1853 at age 100. Numerous monuments in Burlington have been erected in his honor.
In the mid-1950s, Cromwell’s great-great granddaughter applied for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, but her application was denied because of the race of her patriot ancestor.
The Battle of the Cowpens and William Ball
The Battle of the Cowpens on January 17, 1781, was a turning point in the recapture of South Carolina from the British. The battle was commemorated on Figure 4, U.S. Scott UX87, issued on January 17, 1981. Originally, the “cowpens” were a well-known common grazing area in Cherokee County, South Carolina. The National Park Service preserves the site as Cowpens National Battlefield.
Figure 4. The pictured postal card, Scott UX87, was issued in 1981, 200 years after the Battle of Cowpens.
During the battle, Colonel William Washington, a relative of George Washington, was the leader of the patriot cavalry. William Ball, the African-American hero of the battle, was a slave of Colonel Washington. Ball saved Washington’s life as Washington was about to be cut down in a sword fight with the British leader Lieutenant Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton.
Ball, who was described as “a waiter too small to wield a sword,” rode up to and shot Tarleton. Morale collapsed in Tarleton’s brigade and it ceased to be an effective fighting force, which allowed the patriot army to drive the British from the field. This decisive moment is captured in the famous painting, The Battle of Cowpens, by William Ranney (Figure 5).
Figure 5. The painting The Battle of Cowpens by William Ranney currently hangs on display in the South Carolina State House.
Unfortunately, no further information exists about William Ball. He did not file for a pension and Washington’s papers never mention him again. The National Park Service documents 15 other black soldiers who fought at the battle.
Invisible still are countless other black soldiers who helped turn the tide toward liberty of the nascent American republic. After the war, they discovered that “all men are created equal . . .” were just words. Their service, recognized only with small pensions. Their humanity, valued in the Constitution as three-fifths of a white man. Heroic service did not gain them the franchise. Slavery flourished. They disappeared.
The U.S. Post Office Department did not put an African American on a postage stamp until 1940. The proposal to include Booker T. Washington in the American Educators series was so controversial in the P.O.D. that the final decision was made by President Franklin Roosevelt himself. (For more details about the earliest depictions of black history on U.S. stamps, read “Re-evaluating a Philatelic First: The Earliest Depiction of Black History on U.S. Stamps.”) Today, African American stamp collectors are the fastest growing segment of the hobby, ever since the introduction of the Black Heritage series in 1978. ESPER, the national organization that promotes black stamp collectors, has around 200 members who are actively engaged in innovative educational programs in schools and community functions to keep black history relevant.
The ESPER website, maintained by webmaster Clarence McKnight, hosts an archive of resources, including the canon of African-American stamps. Join ESPER today at esperstamps.org.
References and Further Reading
Finkelman, Paul. “From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass,” Encyclopedia of African-American History, 1619–1895. (New York: Oxford University Press; 2006).
“Virginia Negro Soldiers and Seamen in the American Revolution,” Journal of Negro History. (July 1942).
Greene, Robert E. Black Courage: Documentation of Black Participation in the American Revolution. (Washington, D.C.: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution; 1984).
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1965).
Headquarters, Army Service Forces. “Leadership and the Negro Soldier,” Army Service Forces Manual M5 Training. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Offices; 1944).
Nell, William Cooper. Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. (Boston, MA: Egbert F. Wallcut; 1856).
New Hampshire Town Records, Vol III. (Concord, N.H.: New Hampshire State Library at Concord).
Kaufman, Sue. “Oliver Cromwell in Burlington-Fighting the Patriot Cause,” Hidden New Jersey (June 16, 2012).
Editor's Note: "Black Courage" was originally published in the February 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. To read the full February issue and discover back issues of The American Philatelist, log in, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section. Happy Black History Month!