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Blacks in the American Revolution

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, blacks fought on equal ground with whites for a time, but by the end of 1775 black enlistment was made all but impossible by Southern Congressmen. This would change three years later when victory over the British became more important than caving in to the fears and demands of slaveowners.

One of the key events that brought about the war was a clash between the Americans and the British in 1770 called the Boston Massacre. Escaped slave Crispus Attucks died in the clash, along with four other Americans. (The state of Massachusetts later honored Attucks with a statue in Boston.)

During the war blacks served in a variety of posts—as spies, pilots, and infantrymen, as well as laborers, cooks, and teamsters. Some blacks were with the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord; others wintered with George Washington at Valley Forge, crossing the Delaware with him en route to a surprise attack against the Hessians, who were quartered at Trenton. Two blacks, Peter Salem and Salem Poor, were singled out for bravery after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.

By 1778 the Continental Army was racially integrated: on average, each brigade contained 42 black soldiers. All told, between 8,000 and 10,000 blacks served in the armies of the Revolutionary War. And many more served in the Revolutionary Navy. Yet despite their valor and dedication, and their major role in the fight for American independence, blacks were excluded from the military beginning in 1792.

Primary Source Documents

A Primary Source Document is a physical object that existed during the time period being studied and can give you an insider's view of events. These may be letters, diaries, bills of sale, works of art, war documents, or any official records.

British pass issued to black Loyalist, 1783

Runaway ad for Titus, 1775

Bill of Sale for drumheads, Prince Hall to Boston Regiment, 1777

Portrait of a black Revolutionary War sailor, 1780

Boston King's memories of the evacuation from New York, 1798

The Book of Negroes, 1783