John Greenleaf Whittier
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Of the services and sufferings of the colored soldiers of the Revolution no attempt has, to our
knowledge, been made to preserve a record. They have had no historian. With here and there
exception, they have all passed away; and only some faint tradition of their campaigns under
Washington and Greene and Lafayette, and of their cruisings under Decatur and Barry, lingers
among their descendants. Yet enough is known to show that the free colored men of the United
States bore their full proportion of the s acrifices and trials of the Revolutionary War.
The late Governor Eustis, of Massachusetts, - the pride and boast of the democracy of the East,
himself an active participant in the war, and therefore a most competent witness, - Governor
Morrill, of New Hampshire, Judge Hemphill, of Pennsylvania, and o ther members of Congress, in
the debate on the question of admitting Missouri as a slave State into the Union, bore emphatic
testimony to the efficiency and heroism of the black troops. Hon. Calvin Goddard, of
Connecticut, states that in the little circl e of his residence he was instrumental in securing, under
the act of 1818, the pensions of nineteen colored soldiers. "I cannot," he says, "refrain from
mentioning one aged black man, Primus Babcock, who proudly presented to me an honorable
discharge fro m service during the war, dated at the close of it, wholly in the handwriting of
George Washington; nor can I forget the expression of his feelings when informed, after his
discharge had been sent to the War Department, that it could not be returned. At his request it
was written for, as he seemed inclined to spurn the pension and reclaim the discharge." There is a
touching anecdote related of Baron Steuben on the occasion of the disbandment of the American
army. A black soldier, with his wounds unheale d, utterly destitute, stood on the wharf just as a
vessel bound for his distant home was getting under way. The poor fellow gazed at the vessel
with tears in his eyes, and gave. himself up to despair. The warm--hearted foreigner witnessed his
emotion, an d, inquiring into the cause of it, took his last dollar from his purse and gave it to him,
with tears of sympathy trickling down his cheeks. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the poor wounded
soldier hailed the sloop and was received on board. As it moved out from the wharf, he cried
back to his noble friend on shore, "God Almighty bless you, Master Baron!"
"In Rhode Island," says Governor Eustis in his able speech against slavery in Missouri, 12th of
twelfth month, 1820, "the blacks formed an entire regiment, and they discharged their duty with
zeal and fidelity. The gallant defense of Red Bank, in which t he black regiment bore a part, is
among the proofs of their valor." In this contest it will be recollected that four hundred men met
and repulsed, after a terrible and sanguinary struggle, fifteen hundred Hessian troops, headed by
Count Donop. The glory of the defense of Red Bank, which has been pronounced one of the
most heroic actions of the war, belongs in reality to black men; yet who now hears them spoken
of in connection with it ? Among the traits which distinguished the black regiment was devotio n
to their officers. In the attack made upon the American lines near Croton River on the 13th of the
fifth month, 1781, Colonel Greene, the commander of the regiment, was cut down and mortally
wounded; but the sabers of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of
blacks, who hovered over him to protect him, every one of whom was killed. The late Dr. Harris,
of Dunbarton, New Hampshire, a Revolutionary veteran, stated, in a speech at Francistown, New
Hampshire, some year s ago, that on one occasion the regiment to which he was attached was
commanded to defend an important position, which the enemy thrice assailed, and from which
they were as often repulsed. "There was," said the venerable speaker, "a regiment of blacks i n the
same situation, --a regiment of negroes fighting for our liberty and independence, not a white man
among them but the officers,- in the same dangerous and responsible position. Had they been
unfaithful or given way before the enemy, all would have been lost. Three times in succession
were they attacked with most desperate fury by well disciplined and veteran troops; and three
times did they successfully repel the assault, and thus preserve an army. They fought thus through
the war. They were brave and hardy troops."
In the debate in the New York Convention of 1821 for amending the Constitution of the State, on
the question of extending the right of suffrage to the blacks, Dr. Clarke, the delegate from
Delaware County, and other members, made honorable mention of the services of the colored
troops in the Revolutionary army.
The late James Forten, of Philadelphia, well known as a colored man of wealth, intelligence, and
philanthropy, enlisted in the American navy under Captain Decatur, of the Royal Louis, was taken
prisoner during his second cruise, and, with nineteen other colored men, confined on board the
horrible Jersey prison-ship. All the vessels in the American service at that period were partly
manned by blacks. The old citizens of Philadelphia to this day remember the fact that, when the
troops of the North marched through the city, one or more colored companies were attached to
nearly all the regiments.
Governor Eustis, in the speech before quoted, states that the free colored soldiers entered the
ranks with the whites. The time of those who were slaves was purchased of their masters, and
they were induced to enter the service in consequence of a law of Congress by which, on
condition of their serving in the ranks during the war; they were made freemen. This hope of
liberty inspired them with courage to oppose their breasts to the Hessian bayonet at Red Bank,
and enabled them to endure with fortitude t he cold and famine of Valley Forge. The anecdote of
the slave of General Sullivan, of New Hampshire, is well known. When his master told him that
they were on the point of starting for the army, to fight for liberty, he shrewdly suggested that it
would b e a great satisfaction to know that he was indeed going to fight for his liberty. Struck
with the reasonableness and justice of this suggestion, General Sullivan at once gave him his
The late Tristam Burgess, of Rhode Island, in a speech in Congress, first month, 1828, said: "At
the commencement of the Revolutionary War Rhode Island had a number of slaves. A regiment of
them were enlisted into the Continental service, and no braver m en met the enemy in battle; but
not one of them was permitted to be a soldier until he had first been made a freeman."
The celebrated Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, in his speech on the Missouri question, and
in defense of the slave representation of the South, made the following admissions:
"They (the colored people) were in numerous instances the pioneers, and in all the laborers, of our
armies. To their hands were owing the greatest part of the fortifications raised for the protection
of the country. Fort Moultrie gave, at an early period of the inexperienced and untried valor of
our citizens, immortality to the American arms; and in the Northern States numerous bodies of
them were enrolled, and fought side by side with the whites at the battles of the Revolution."
Let us now look forward thirty or forty years, to the last war with Great Britain, and see whether
the whites enjoyed a monopoly of patriotism at that time.
Martindale, of New York, in Congress, 22d of first month, 1828, said: "Slaves, or negroes who
had been slaves, were enlisted as soldiers in the war of the Revolution; and I myself saw a
battalion of them, as fine, martial -looking men as I ever saw, atta ched to the Northern army in
the last war, on its march from Plattsburg to Sackett's Harbor."
Hon. Charles Miner, of Pennsylvania, in Congress, second month, 7th, 1828, said: "The African
race make excellent soldiers. Large numbers of them were with Perry, and helped to gain the
Brilliant victory of Lake Erie. A whole battalion of them were disti nguished for their orderly
Dr. Clarke, in the convention which revised the Constitution of New York in 1821, speaking of
'the colored inhabitants of the State, said:--
"In your late war they contributed largely towards some of your most splendid victories. On
Lakes Erie and Champlain, where your fleets triumphed over a foe superior in numbers and
engines of death, they were manned in a large proportion with men of colo r. And in this very
house, in the fall of 1814, a bill passed, receiving the approbation of all the branches of your
government, authorizing the governor to accept the services of a corps of two thousand free
people of color. Sir, these were times which tried men's souls. In these times it was no sporting
matter to bear arms. These were times when a man who shouldered his musket did not know but
he bared his bosom to receive a death-wound from the enemy ere he laid it aside; and in these
times these peo ple were found as ready and as willing to volunteer in your service as any other.
They were not compelled to go; they were not drafted. No; your pride had placed them beyond
your compulsory power. But there was no necessity for its exercise; they were vo lunteers, - yes
sir, volunteers to defend that very country from the inroads and ravages of a ruthless and
vindictive foe which had treated them with insult, degradation, and slavery."
On the capture of Washington by the British forces, it was judged expedient to fortify, without
delay, the principal towns and cities exposed to similar attacks. The Vigilance Committee of
Philadelphia waited upon three of the principal colored citizens, namely, James Forten, Bishop
Allen, and Absalom Jones, soliciting the aid of the people of color in erecting suitable defenses for
the city. Accordingly, twenty--five hundred colored men assembled in the State -House yard, and
from thence marched to Gra y's Ferry, where they labored for two days almost without
intermission. Their labors were so faithful and efficient that a vote of thanks was tendered them by
the committee. A battalion of colored troops was at the same time organized in the city under a n
officer of the United States army; and they were on the point of marching to the frontier when
peace was proclaimed.
General Jackson's proclamations to the free colored inhabitants of Louisiana are well known. In
his first, inviting them to take up arms, he said: -
"As sons of freedom, you are now called on to defend our most inestimable blessings. As
Americans, your country looks with confidence to her adopted children for a valorous support.
As fathers, husbands, and brothers, you are summoned to rally rou nd the standard of the eagle, to
defend all which is dear in existence."
The second proclamation is one of the highest compliments ever paid by a military chief to his
"TO THE FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR.
"Soldiers! when on the banks of the Mobile I called you to take up arms, inviting you to partake
of the perils and glory of your white fellow citizens, I expected much from you; for I was not
ignorant that you possessed qualities most formidable t o an invading enemy. I knew with what
fortitude you could endure hunger, and thirst, and all the fatigues of a campaign. I knew well how
you loved your native country, and that you, as well as ourselves, had to defend what man holds
most dear, --h is parents, wife, children, and property. You have done more than I expected. In
addition to the previous qualities I before knew you to possess, I found among you a noble
enthusiasm, which leads to the performance of great things.
"Soldiers! the President of the United States Shall hear how praiseworthy was your conduct in the
hour of danger, and the Representatives of the American people will give you the praise your
exploits entitle you to. Your general anticipates them in appla uding your noble ardor."
It will thus be seen that whatever honor belongs to the "heroes of the Revolution" and the
volunteers in "the second war for independence" is to be divided between the white and the
colored man. We have dwelt upon this subject at length, not because it a ccords with our
principles or feelings, for it is scarcely necessary for us to say that we are one of those who hold
"Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war,"
and certainly far more desirable and useful; But because, in popular estimation, the patriotism
which dares and does on the battle--field takes a higher place than the quiet exercise of the duties
of peaceful citizenship; and we are willing that colored soldiers, with their descendants, should
have the benefit, if possible, of a public sentiment which has so extravagantly lauded their white
companions in arms. If pulpits must be desecrated by eulogies of the patriotism of bloodshed, we
see no reason why black defenders of their country in the war for liberty should not receive
honorable mention as well as white invaders of a neighboring republic who have volunteered in a
war for plunder and slavery extension. For the latter class of "heroes" we have ve ry little respect.
The patriotism of too many of them forcibly reminds us of Dr. Johnson's definition of that much
abused term: "Patriotism, sir! ''Tis the last refuge of a scoundrel.''
"What right, I demand," said an American orator some years ago, "have the children of Africa to a homestead in the white man's country ?" The answer will in part be found in the. facts which we have presented. Their right, like that of their white fellow --citizens, dates back to the dread arbitrament of battle. Their bones whiten every stricken field of the Revolution; their feet tracked with blood the snows of Jersey; their toil built up every fortification south of the Potomac; they shared the famine and nakedness of Valley Forge and the pestilential horrors of the old Jersey prisonship. Have they, then, no claim to an equal participation in the blessings which have grown out of the national independence for which they fought? Is it just, is it magna nimous, is it safe, even, to starve the patriotism of such a people, to cast their hearts out of the treasury of the Republic, and to convert them, by political disfranchisement and social oppression, into enemies?