Mary Church Terrell

George Washington's Colored Soldiers - 1932

Mary Church Terrell
January 01, 1932
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Mary Church Terrell

1615 S St. N.W

Washington, D.C.


George Washington’s Colored Soldiers:

Hundreds of colored soldiers fought in the Revolutionary War. For several reasons, however, comparatively little is known about the valuable service they rendered. As a general rule, they fought side by side with white soldiers, and not in separate companies. The credit for the deeds of valor they performed, therefore, has gone to the military units to which they belonged, rather than to the race with which they were identified.

On the 5th of March 1776 when George Washington repaired to the entrenchment, he thus appealed to the patriotism of his soldiers: “ Remember it is the 5th of March, and avenge the deaths of your brethren.”

If you had happened to be in Boston on the 5th of March 1770 walking down King Street (now known as State Street) you would have witnessed the incident to which George Washington referred. You would have seen a crowd of colonists who were excited and angry lead by one who was darker in complexion than the others. You would have heard these men challenge with great spirit some British soldiers standing on guard. You would have seen these soldiers fire into the menacing crowd and kill the ringleader, then later on you would have seen three of his comrades fall. The first victim of this clash between the colonies and Great Britain was Crispus Attucks, a colored man.

The tragedy created a great sensation in Boston. The bells of the town were rung, an impromptu town meeting was called and an immense assembly was gathered. Three days afterwards a public funeral of the men who were called “martyrs” took place. The shops in Boston were closed and again all the bell of the place and the neighboring towns were rung. It was said that a greater number of persons assembled on this occasion than had ever gathered together on this continent for a similar purpose.

According to an account of the funeral, given by a writer of that period “the body of Crispus Attucks, the mulatto, had been placed in Fanueil Hall with that of Caldwell.” The funerals of the other two who were killed were held elsewhere. “The four hearses formed a junction in King Street” continues the chronicle,” and then the procession marched in columns six deep with a long file of coaches belonging to the most distinguished citizens to the middle burying ground where the four victims were deposited in one grave over which a stone was placed with the inscription:

“Long as freedom’s cause the wise contend,

Dear to your country shall your fame extend,

While to the world the lettered stone shall tell

Where Caldwell, Attucks, Gray and Maverick fell.”

For a long time afterward the anniversary of what was called the “Boston Massacre” was publicly commemorated by an oration and other exercises every year till our national independence was achieved, when the Fourth of July was substituted for the Fifth of March as the most fitting day for a general celebration.

It was conceded by all that Crispus Attucks lead the crowd who attached the British soldiers. In his capacity as counsel for the soldiers John Adams, second president of the United States, declared that Crispus Attucks appeared to have been the hero of the night and lead the people. The colored man had formed the patriots in Dock Square and from there they marched up King Street, passing through the street up to the British soldiers whose presence in Boston was so hotly resented by the people.

Referring to the “Boston Massacre” Daniel Webster said in his Bunker Hill oration “From that moment we may date the severance of the British Empire.” Thus did a runaway slave start the struggle for independence which George Washington brought to such a glorious end.

Colored soldiers began to give a good account of themselves at the very beginning of the conflict- at the Battle of Bunker Hill- the first engagement of real consequence in the struggle for independence. And one of them, Peter Salem, won eternal fame. Feeling sure that the victory was in their grasp, one of the British officers, Major Pitcairn, mounted the redoubts and shouted to his soldiers- “The day is ours.” The words had hardly escaped his lips when Peter Salem fired and killed him instantly, thus temporarily checking the British advance.

In relating this story Swett in his “Sketches of Bunker Hill” declares that later on the army took up a contribution for the colored soldier and he was personally presented to General Washington as having performed this feat. There is no doubt whatever that Peter Salem was one of the heroes of that memorable battle. Orator, poet, historian, all give the colored patriot credit for having been instrumental in checking the British advance and saving the day.

When the statue erected to Gen. Joseph Warren, who fell at Bunker Hill, was unveiled, the Honorable Edward Everett, the orator of the occasion, referred to “Peter Salem”, the colored man, who shot the gallant Pitcairn as he mounted the parapet.” This sable patriot served seven years in the Revolutionary War. He was at Concord, Bunker Hill and Saratoga. He, too, was a slave when he enlisted, but was afterward freed.

Salem Poor was another colored man whose bravery at the Battle of Bunker Hill attracted the attention of the officers and the soldiers who bestowed upon him their warmest praise.

Colonel Trumbull’s historical picture of the Battle of Bunker Hill was painted only a few years after it was fought, while the scene was still fresh in his mind. At the time of the battle the artist, who was then acting as adjutant, was stationed with his regiment at Roxbury, only a short distance away, and saw the action from this point. Even though comparatively few figures appear on this canvas it is a significant, historical fact that more than one colored soldier can be distinctly seen.

Major William Lawrence who fought through the Revolutionary War enjoyed relating an incident in his military experience in which he was saved from death by his colored soldiers. At one time he commanded a company when he was out reconnoitering one day that he was surrounded by the enemy and was about to be taken prisoner. As soon as his men discovered his peril, however, they rushed to his defense and fought desperately till they rescued him. The courage, fidelity and military discipline of colored soldiers was, therefore, one of Major Lawrence’s favorite themes.

Colored soldiers fought in practically ever battle of the Revolutionary War. During the first three years of the war they were represented in 10 of the 14 brigades in the main army under General Washington. After the battle of Monmouth June 28, 1778 they were to be found in 18 brigades. One who was interested in the record of the colored soldiers during the Revolutionary War declared “I have gone over the muster rolls and the descriptive lists of the Continental army and it is clearly established that nearly all the regiments from the eastern colonies contained negro soldiers. This was true also of many regiments from the southern colonies. They fought from Bunker Hill to Brandywine, from Valley Forge to Monmouth, from Saratoga to Yorktown.

In the Battle of Rhode Island August 29, 1778, the colored soldiers of that State made a notable record for themselves as well as in all other engagements in which they took part. This regiment was composed entirely of Negroes- not a white man among them except the officers. In describing a battle in which they engaged a veteran of the Revolution declared: “Three times in succession they were attacked with most desperate valor and fury by well-disciplined and veteran troups, and three times did they successfully repel the assaults and thus preserve our army from capture. They fought through the war. They were brave, hardy troops. They helped to gain our liberty and independence. Had they been unfaithful, or given way before the enemy all would have been lost.”

The Black Regiment was one of three that prevented the enemy from turning the flank of the American army. In referring to this regiment the Marquis de Chastellux described it in his book “Travels” as follows: “The greatest part of them are Negroes or Mulattoes: but they are strong, robust men and they had a very good appearance.” As late as 1783 this Black Regiment was still in service and George Washington ordered a detail from it to effect a forced march to surprise the enemy’s post at Oswego.

One of the most daring feats of the Revolution was performed by Lieutenant-Colonel Barton of the Rhode Island militia and the success of this exploit was largely due to the assistance rendered by Prince, a colored soldier.

Colonel Barton wished to capture Major General Prescott, the commanding officer of the royal army at Newport, in order to effect the release of General Lee whom the British had taken prisoner and who was of the same rank as General Prescott.

In the dead of night Colonel Barton took forty men with him in two boats. By muffling their cars they managed to pull safely by both the ships of war and the guard boats without being discovered. They were mistaken for sentinels, so that it was possible for them to reach General Prescott’s quarters without being challenged. The General was not alarmed till his captors were at the door of his room where he was peacefully sleeping. Then Prince, whom Colonel Barton had brought along to assist him in his dangerous project, threw the weight of his powerful frame against the door, broke it open and with his strong, black hands seized the General while he was still in bed and bore him triumphantly off a prisoner.

There was great joy and exaltation in the Continental army as it brought to it a British officer of equal rank with General Lee and made it possible to effect an exchange.

At the siege of Savannah which resulted so disastrously for the American army, one of the bravest deeds accredited to foreign troops fighting in defense of the colonies was perfored by the Black Legion. Count D’Estaing had been commissioned to recruit men from Saint Domingo. The question of color was not raised, so the French officer gathered together 800 young freedmen, blacks and mulattoes, who offered to come to America and fight for the independence of the Colonies. It was known as Fontages Legion and was commanded by Viscount de Fontages who was noted for his courage.

Count D’Estaing had come with the French fleet to help wrest Savannah from the British. The attacking column under command of the American General Lincoln and Count L’Estaing was met with such a severe and steady fire that the head of it was thrown into confusion and after finding it impossible to carry any part of the works a general retreat was ordered. As soon as the American army started to retreat the British Lieutenant-colonel Maitland with the grenadiers and the marines incorporated with them charged the retreating army and tried to annihilate it. Then it was that the Black Legion met the fierce charge of the British and saved the army at Savannah by bravely covering its retreat. In an official record prepared in Paris the credit of having made this signal contribution to the cause of American independence is given the colored soldiers who came from Saint Domingo. One of the soldiers in this Black Legion was Henri Cristophe, the future king of Haiti.

The opinion concerning the advisability of arming colored men was by no means unanimous even in the North and East. In Massachusetts there was little, if any, opposition to allowing colored men to enlist. The only question which agitated the public mind there was whether colored men should be formed into separate organizations or be enlisted with white men. But Massachusetts decided overwhelmingly that in raising her army she would not discriminate between her citizens on account of color or race. So she literally mixed her children up. On the 4th and 5th of March 1776 colored men helped General Washington to build the fortification at Dorchester Heights in a single night which greatly surprised the British and forced them to evacuate Boston. Reference has already been made to the role played by the colored men of Massachusetts at the Battle of Bunker Hill. There were very few towns in the State that did not have at least one colored representative in the Continental army.

At the close of the war John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, presented a colored company called the Bucks of America with a banner, bearing his initials, as a tribute to their devotion and courage throughout the struggle. In front of the Hancock mansion in Beacon Street Governor Hancock and his son united in making the presentation a memorable one. It is interesting to note in passing that the Bucks were under the command of a colored man, Colonel Middleton.

In Connecticut there was great difference of opinion concerning the wisdom of allowing colored men to enlist in the army. The question was hotly debated in the Legislature several time. Those who advocated the measure were defeated by its opponents when the bill was put to a vote. There came a time, however, when it was very difficult to get recruits. Then it was that the Colony of Connecticut decided to form a corps of colored soldiers. A battalion was soon enlisted and a company was commanded by Colonel David Humphrey who had been commissioned Lieutenant-colonel by Congress and had been appointed aide-de-camp to General Washington. He remained their captain till the close of the war. But this company was not the only unit of colored soldiers from Connecticut who saw service in the Revolutionary war. In many of her white regiments both the bond and the free might have been found.

In Rhode Island the sentiment favoring the enlistment of colored men was so strong that the General Assembly passed an act to enlist “every able-bodied negro, mulatto or Indian man slave in the State.” They were placed in either one of two battalions. Rhode Island, therefore, was the first colony which voted to send regiments composed entirely of Negroes into the field.

In March 1781 the legislature of New York passed an act providing for the raising of two regiments of colored men.

Since there was such a great difference of opinion concerning the question of allowing colored men to enlist, it was finally submitted to a Committee of Safety composed of such men as Dr. Franklin, Benjamin Harrison and Thomas Lynch with the Deputy Governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island. It was the duty of this Committee which met at Cambridge to consider the condition of the army and to devise means of improving it.

“Ought not negroes to be excluded from the new enlistment, especially those such as are slaves?” was the question discussed seriously and long. General Washington was present at this meeting and took part in the deliberations. It was agreed that they should be rejected altogether. But so many northern officers and soldiers who had fought with colored men and knew their worth protested against their exclusion and the dissatisfaction among their white comrades was so great that General Washington decided to take the matter into his own hands and wrote the following letter is the President of Congress in 1775: “It has been represented to me that free negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they will seek employment in the Ministerial army I have presumed to depart from the resolution respecting them and have given license for their being enlisted.” But the General promised, of course, “to put a stop to it” if his decision to allow colored men to enlist was disapproved by Congress.

General Washington’s letter was submitted to Congress and his action was sustained by the passage of the following resolution: “That the free Negroes who served faithfully in the army in spite of the fact that, acting upon the advice of the Committee of Safety, Congress had taken a stand against it and despite the opposition to the measure which he knew existed in a large section of the country to which he himself belonged.

However, there were many in the South as well as in the North who strongly believed that General Washington was right in accepting the colored man as a soldier. Especially did the number of those who took this view increase when conditions in the army enabled them to call the public’s attention to the necessity of taking this step. Washington needed reinforcements. The army as it lay in camp at Valley Forge was in desperate straits. The encampment consisted of huts and there was danger of famine. The soldiers were nearly destitute of comfortable clothing. Many had no shoes and walked barefoot on the ground. Few, if any, had blankets for the night. Great numbers sickened. Nearly 3000 at a time were incapable of bearing arms. Moreover, the British army was in Philadelphia, only 15 miles away. It was then that the advocates of enlisting colored men in the army again put forth strenuous efforts to carry out their plan.

After the British transferred their military activities from the North to the South some of the ablest men in that section strongly advocated enlisting colored men.

The necessity for recruiting the army became so great that Congress for the second time debated enrolling the colored man as a soldier. A series of resolutions were adopted recommending to Georgia and South Carolina that 3000 able-bodied negroes should be armed.

Col. John Laurence a distinguished South Carolinian, went to his native State to use his personal influence to induce the Legislature to authorize the enlistment of colored men. He had been commissioned Lieutenant Colonel by Congress, had acted as aide-de-camp to General Washington and had seen service in Rhode Island and elsewhere. In a letter to Alexander Hamilton he wrote “It appears to me that I should be inexcusable in the light of a citizen, if I did not continue my utmost efforts for carrying out of the black levies into execution, while there remains the smallest hope of success.”

Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to John Jay concerning Col. Laurens” mission to South Carolina and strongly approved of it. He urged that the slaves be given their freedom with their muskets.. He declared that “the dictates of humanity as well as true policy equally interest me in favor of this class of men.” Hon, James Madison also favored the plan of arming colored men.

General Lincoln, who commanded the American forces at Charleston, S.C. wrote to Governor Rutledge of that State: “Given me leave to add once more that I think the measure of raising a black corps a necessary one: that I have reason to believe that if permission is given for it, that many men would soon be obtained. I have repeatedly urged this matter, not only because Congress has recommended it and it thereby becomes my duty to have it executed, but because my own mind suggests the utility and importance of the measure, as the safety of the town makes it necessary.”

But the advice of her own great military leaders was not heeded by the South, neither were the recommendations of Congress adopted. Nevertheless the slaves of the South rendered invaluable service to the cause of Independence by building breastworks, driving teams and piloting the army through dense woods, swamps and across rivers. Some of them acted as spies and scouts. James Armistead was a spy for General Lafayette during his campaign in Virginia, and on one occasion he informed the Marquis that the British intended to surprise his forces. There is no doubt that this information enabled the French officer to prevent what would probably have been a rout of his army. After the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown Armistead was returned to his master. But the Legislature of Virginia passed a special act to free the slave in recognition of the great service he had rendered the American army.

Referring to Cornwallis recalls to mind what a colored soldier is reported to have said to him after his surrender. “You used to be named “CORNWALLIS” said the colored soldier to the British officer, “but it is “CORNWALLIS” no longer; it must now be COBwallis, for General Washington has shelled off all the corn.”

When General Washington wrote Congress that he had “presumed to depart from the resolution” which had disbarred colored men from the army, he declared that it was “to be apprehended that they would seek employment in the Ministerial army”, if they were not allowed to fight with and for the colonies. The Commander-in-Chief proved himself a prophet when he made the prediction.

As early as 1775 Lord Dunmore had issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves who would join the British army. An English historian quotes Lord Dunmore as saying that “since the Colonists were so anxious of the Mother Country and the charter of the Colony, that since they were so anxious to abolish a fanciful slavery in a dependence on Great Britain, he would try how they liked abolition of real slavery by setting free all their negroes and indentured white servants who were, in fact, little better than white slavery”.

Five months after he issued the proclamation Lord Dunmore wrote to the Secretary of State, “Your Lordship will observe that I have been endeavoring to raise two regiments here” (in Virginia) “one of white people, the other black. The former goes on very slowly, but the latter very well and would have been in great forwardness, had not fever crept in amongst them which carried off a great many fine fellows. Had it not been for that horrid disorder” he wrote later on, “I am satisfied I should have had no doubt of penetrating into the heart of this colony.”

It is a well established fact that many colored men fought under the British flag. Thomas Jefferson declared that under Lord Cornwallis alone the State of Virginia probably lost 30,000 slaves and that of this number 27,000 died of smallpox and camp fever. Of those remaining, he declared, that some were sent to the West Indies and exchanged for rum, sugar, coffee and fruit. Some were sent to New York and went to Nova Scotia or England after the peace and some of them were sent to Africa. “History,” declared Thomas Jefferson, “will never relate the horrors committed by the British army in the Southern States of America.”

But justice was not always meted out to the colored man who fought in the Continental army by those for whom he fought. In practically every State from which they entered the army freedom was promised to the slaves after they had served a certain length of time, (usually three years) and had been honorably discharged. But in spite of these fair promises many negroes who had fought for American independence were reenslaved.

Placing colored men who had fought in the war into bondage again, after they had been honorably discharged, was such a flagrant violation of the pledges that had been made them that in 1783 the Legislature of Virginia passed an act directing the emancipation of those “who had served as soldiers in this State and for the emancipation of the Slave Aberdeen.” Aberdeen,” said the Legislature “hath labored a number of years in the public service in the lead mines and for this meritorious service is entitled to freedom. Be it therefore enacted “That the said slave Aberdeen, shall be, and is hereby emancipated and declared free in as full and ample a manhood as if he had been born free.”

General Washington was greatly exercised when he heard that a man by the name of Hobby claimed as his property a colored man who was serving in a Massachusetts regiment. He wrote to General Putnam and ordered that a Court of Inquiry “consisting of five as respectable officers as can be found in your brigade should inquire into the validity of the claim and the manner in which the person in question came into service.” After this information had been secured, General Washington ordered that the report should be sent to General Putnam and then forwarded immediately to himself.

In many instances the master placed his slave in the army as a substitute for himself. In commenting upon this a Hessian officer wrote “the Negro can take the field instead of his master, and no regiment can be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance, and among them are able-bodied, strong fellows.”

General Washington is usually pictured as an aristocrat of the first water, but his attitude toward his subordinates and particularly toward colored men with whom he came into close personal contact was very democratic indeed. This side of his nature was clearly shown once when he paid an officer a visit. Colonel Pickering was one of General Washington’s best friends. There was no officer to whom he unbosomed himself more freely in discussing his plans and with whom he enjoyed taking counsel when they were stationed within a short distance of each other more than with Colonel Pickering.

Once when the Commander-in-Chief had visited his friend and remained till one night came on he told the Colonel he would like to remain till morning, provided he had a spare blanket and straw. The Colonel appealed to Primus Hall, his body servant, who was a freeman. “O, yes”, said Primus, “there is plenty of straw and blankets.” Being thus reassured General Washington continued to confer with Colonel Pickering till it was time to retire.

“Two humble beds were spread side by side in the tent,” said a well known minister of the period who related the incident in a magazine, “and the officers laid themselves down, while Primus seemed busy with duties which required his attention before he himself could lie down, He worked or appeared to work until the breathing of the prostrate gentle-men satisfied him they were sleeping. Then seating himself upon a box or a stool he leaned his head on his hands to obtain such repose as so inconvenient a position would allow. In the midst of the night Washington awoke. He looked about and descried the negro as he sat. He gazed at him a while and then spoke.

‘Primus!’ said he calling; ‘Primus.’

Primus started up and rubbed his eyes. ‘What, General?’ said he.

Washington rose up in his bed. ‘Primus’ said he, ‘what did you mean by saying that you had blankets and straw enough? Here you have given up your blanket and straw to me, that I may sleep comfortably, while you are obliged to sit through the night.’

‘It’s nothing, General’, said Primus. ‘It’s nothing. I’m well enough. Dont trouble yourself about me, General, but go to sleep again. No matter about me. I sleep very good.’

‘But it is matter- it is matter’, said Washington, earnestly. ‘I cannot do it Primus. If either is to sit up, I will, But I think there is no need of either sitting up. The blanket is wide enough for two. Come and lie down here with me.’

‘Oh, no, General’, said Primus, starting and protesting against the proposition. No, let me sit here. I’ll do very well on the stool.’

‘I say, come and lie down here!’ said Washington authoritatively. ‘There is room for both and I insist upon it.’

He threw open the blanket, as he spoke, and moved to one side of the straw. Primus professes to have been exceedingly shocked at the idea of lying under the same covering with the Commander-in-Chief, but his tone was so resolute and determined that he could not hesitate. He prepared himself, therefore, and laid himself down by Washington, and on the same straw and under the same blanket the General and the Negro servant slept till morning.”

This same Primus Hall served throughout the Revolutionary War and was among those who in the War 1812 went to Castle Island in Boston Harbor to assist in building fortifications. He was the son of Prince Hall, founder of the Masonic Lodge of that name in Boston.

There is a well-known engraving of Washington crossing the Delaware on the evening previous to the Battle of Trenton, Dec. 25, 1779. In this picture a colored soldier in seen on horseback near the Commander-in-Chief. It is the same figure that is seen pulling the car in other sketches of that memorable crossing. Prince Whipple is the name of this colored soldier, body guard to General Whipple of New Hampshire. He was born in Africa of wealthy parents and was sent to this country to be educated as an elder brother had been. But the captain who brought the young African and his cousin over took them to Baltimore and sold them to Portsmouth men, one of whom was bought by General Whipple.

When the British officer, Major Montgomery was lifted upon the walls of Fort Griswold and called upon the Americans to surrender, it was John Freeman, a colored man, who pinned him to the earth with his pike.

But, one bent upon ascertaining the colored man’s contribution to the triumph of the Colonies over Great Britain has set himself a task which is herculean indeed. It is possible to wade through tome after tome of the histories of that time without finding the information which one seeks. Of course, there is a reason for the historian’s failure to give the colored man the credit he so richly deserves. In the majority of cases colored men did not fight in organizations exclusively their own, as has already been stated. They were scattered throughout the army, two or three in a company composed of whites, a squad in a regiment, a few companies with an army, so that it was almost impossible to separate the record which they made as a racial group from that of their white comrades with whom they fought side by side.

One must undertake the gruelling job of reading painstakingly the history of villages and towns. One must browse carefully among the archives of the States, must go over army rolls patiently name by name in order to distinguish colored men from their white compatriots, so close was the comradeship which existed between them. It is possible only to give a bird’s eye view of the services rendered by colored man- citing a few of the battles in which they engaged- relating their deeds of prowess either as individuals or small groups.

One of the finest tributes ever bestowed upon colored soldiers i[n] the Revolutionary War was delivered in the House of Representatives in 180[illegible] by the Honorable Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. Among other things he declared that “negroes were then as they still are as valuable part of our population to the union as any other equal number of inhabitants. “They were,” said he, “in numerous instances the pioneers, and in all the laborer of your armies. To their hands were owing the erection of the greater part of the fortifications raised for the protection of our country, some of which, particularly Fort Moultrie gave at the early period of the inexperience and untried valor of our citizens immortality to American arms; and in the Northern States numerous bodies of them were enrolled into, and fought side by side with the whites, the battles of the Revolution.”

In this day and generation practically everybody clothed in his right mind stands aghast at the very thought of War. Therefore it seems decidedly out of tune with the times to be sounding the praises of those who engaged in the wholesale slaughter of human beings which for centuries has been sanctioned by civilized nations under the name of War. Nevertheless, in reviewing the valuable contributions made by colored soldiers in the struggle for Independence many will agree with John Greenleaf Whittier, the quaker poet, who was asked to give some facts relative to the military service of Colored Americans in the Revolution of 1776 and the War of 1812.

Being a member of the Society of Friends Mr. Whittier disclaimed any desire to deliver a eulogy upon those who shed human blood. “But,” said he, “when we see a whole nation doing honor to memories of one class of defenders, to the total neglect of another class, who had the misfortune to be of darker complexion, we can not forego the satisfaction of inviting notice to certain historical facts, which for the last half century have been quietly elbowed aside.”

Mary Church Terrell.

1615 S St. N.W

Washington, D.C.

Terrell, Mary Church. “George Washington's Colored Soldiers.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. 1932.