7 Examples of Black Heroism During the American Revolution
I’ve never been a particularly patriotic person. Even if you’ve only studied American History in school, you know that America hasn’t been (isn’t) kind to non-white people, and that’s putting it mildly. I don’t really think of the Fourth of July as Independence Day because on July 4, 1776 chattel slavery existed and enslaved Black Americans were building the young nation into a world power for free. I think of the Fourth as another opportunity to spend time with family and friends, as I do with most holidays including Christmas and Thanksgiving. This year, though, many of us Black folks are acknowledging Juneteenth or June 19th — the day in 1865 when the enslaved people of Galveston, TX learned they were free two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation became official across the rest of the country — as our Independence Day, instead of July 4, 2020. We’re tired of celebrating a nation that oftentimes doesn’t acknowledge that our lives matter. But in not acknowledging the Fourth of July, we also fail to recognize the Black people who displayed heroism and bravery during the American Revolution.
Thousands of Black people joined the war effort on both sides of the conflict. Historians estimate that 5,000 to 8,000 Black people served on the side of the Patriots, and more than 20,000 served the British Crown, according to History.com. When afforded the choice, most enslaved people enlisted with the side they thought was most likely to grant them personal freedom. Enslaved and free Blacks not only fought for the future of the colonies — independence or maintaining British control — but also to end the forced labor of chattel slavery that fueled the fledgling country’s economy. Although it would take decades for the northern states to begin abolishing slavery in 1804 and nearly a century from 1776 for the southern states to end the inhumane practice of forcing Blacks into bondage, we can’t negate the freedom-fueled efforts of Black heroes during the American Revolution. These heroes, the ones history remembers, include the Revolutionary War’s first martyr, a guerrilla, a poet, a spy, a minute man, and an entire regiment.
Crispus Attucks: Patriot Martyr
Crispus Attucks was a middle-aged man of African and Indigenous descent who escaped chattel slavery and earned a living as a sailor and rope maker in Massachusetts. On March 5, 1770, tensions, fueled by distrust and competition, between British and colonial sailors came to a head and an angry confrontation ensued. This event turned into the slaughter we know as the Boston Massacre. Attucks actively participated in the conflict and was one of five colonists killed, reports History.com. Two musket balls to the chest took Attucks out, and witnesses said he was the first to fall during the Boston Massacre. As a result, Attucks became the first martyr to die for American independence from British rule and a symbol of Black American patriotism and sacrifice.
Phyllis Wheatley (also Phillis and Wheatly): Patriot and Abolition Poet
If you remember your Black History, then you will recall that Phyllis Wheatley’s experience as an enslaved Black woman was rare. Her white owners educated her, as well as encouraged her literary pursuits into the ancient classics and Biblical theology. At the age of 20, the woman who had been captured in West Africa as a child and enslaved in North America became the first Black person and third woman to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. Her enslavers freed Wheatley shortly after her book was released. The messages in her work were anti-slavery, and abolitionists adopted her words as a rallying cry, reports History.com. One such example is: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” Wheatley also promoted independence from the Crown, and wrote a poem in support of George Washington’s Revolutionary War, titled To His Excellency, George Washington. Washington, who was a slaveholder himself, appreciated Wheatley’s support and talent, and invited her to meet him, saying he would “be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses,” according to History.com.
Salem Poor: Patriot Soldier and Bunker Hill Hero
Salem Poor was born into bondage in the late 1740s in Massachusetts, and purchased his freedom two decades later. He enlisted in the Continental Army several times and fought in the battles of Saratoga, Monmouth, and Bunker Hill. Poor is most famous for his heroism during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. If you’re remembering that the colonists lost that battle, you’re right. However, the Patriots killed many Redcoats during the Battle of Bunker Hill, which encouraged them to continue fighting. Poor reportedly killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie and several other British soldiers. After the war ended, 14 of Poor’s fellow soldiers lauded his excellent battle skills. They acknowledged his heroism with a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts, writing that Poor was a “brave and gallant soldier” who “behaved like an experienced officer,” according to History.com.
Peter Salem: Patriot Soldier and Bunker Hill Hero
Peter Salem was born into bondage in the mid-18th Century in Massachusetts. He is best known for fighting alongside the Patriots during the early battles of the war, becoming a “minute man” at Lexington and Concord. Salem’s owners freed him so he could remain enlisted in the Continental Army. Like Poor, Salem is remembered for his fighting and heroism during the Battle of Bunker Hill, even though the Patriots lost the conflict. Salem killed British key officer, Major John Pitcairn, “just as he was scaling the top of the American redoubt and demanding the Patriots surrender,” according to History.com. Artist John Trumbull reportedly memorialized Salem’s role in his painting The Battle of Bunker Hill.
James Armistead Lafayette: Double Agent
James Armistead has the unique distinction of going from enslaved man in Virginia to a double agent passing intelligence to the Patriots and misinformation to the British. The Patriots assigned Armistead the task of infiltrating the British, and they welcomed him into their fold when he pretended to be a runaway slave desiring to serve the Crown. Initially, Armistead performed menial support tasks, but then the British realized his vast knowledge of the local terrain and later directed him to spy on the Patriots. He claimed to be bringing the British intel about the Patriots, but was actually feeding them incorrect information. Armistead, instead, passed factual details of the British battle plans to his commander, French General Marquis de Lafayette, as his loyalty remained with the colonists. The intelligence Armistead gave the Americans allowed them to successfully execute the Siege of Yorktown, a decisive battle that effectively ended the Revolutionary War, reports History.com. Armistead changed his last name to Lafayette after his former general helped secure his freedom years later.
The First Rhode Island Regiment: Integrated Revolutionary Force
Initially, George Washington banned Black people from Continental Army, but had to reverse that decision when manpower dwindled in the late 1770s, according to History.com. In 1778, the Rhode Island legislature voted to allow free and enslaved Black to serve. The Patriots promised freedom to the enslaved in exchange for their service. The First Rhode Island Regiment consisted of about 130 men but had an “outsized impact” on the Patriots effort. They achieved success against attacks during the Battle of Newport, which is also known as the Battle of Rhode Island and the Battle of Quaker Hill, by displaying "desperate valor in repelling three furious Hessian (German) infantry assaults,” said Commanding General John Sullivan. The Rhode Islanders stood out among thousands of their fellow soldiers when they assembled in Virginia, with one French military officer acknowledging that they were “most neatly dressed, the best under arms and the most precise in all their maneuvers,” according to History.com. Historian William Cooper wrote about their loyalty and sacrifice when the British killed their commander, Colonel Christopher Greene, in a surprise early-morning attack in May 1781: “The sabers of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of [B]lacks, who hovered over him to protect him, and every one of whom was killed.”
Colonel Tye: Loyalist Guerrilla
Unlike everyone else on this list, Colonel Tye was loyal to the British army after the Crown offered freedom to any enslaved person who enlisted. Tye, who was known as Titus during his early years of bondage in New Jersey, escaped a particularly barbarous and ruthless slaveholder in 1775. The British valued Tye for his knowledge of the New Jersey territory, an area that was essential to the war efforts of both the Continental Army and the Crown because it sat between British-occupied New York and the center of the Patriot’s government in Philadelphia, according to History.com. Tye’s familiarity with the area provided him an advantage in attacking Patriot lands, and he excelled at guerrilla warfare. He and his Black Brigade soldiers plundered homes and took supplies from Patriots, and remained largely unscathed while doing so. Tye and his soldiers were feared by Patriots, and earned a reputation for freeing enslaved people and assassinating especially cruel Patriot slaveholders. Recognizing Tye’s integral role in the loyalists’ success, the British bestowed the honorific title of Colonel on him. Although Tye was a loyalist he remains a symbol of fearless resistance for his success in freeing enslaved Blacks during the American Revolution.