Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode, in which we address the ludicrous claim that the British army was a haven of freedom and happiness for those enslaved black Americans who risked their lives to fight therein.
AC: …while the British actively recruited slaves to fight—
British soldier: Hear ye, hear ye! All who fight for the Crown shall be free!
AC: —the patriots didn’t even allow it at first. And when they did, they made no promises of freedom:
American soldier: Hear ye, hear ye! All who fight for liberty will still be slaves. [As black Americans walk past] Sucks for you.
AC: Due to this, there were up to 20 times more slaves fighting for the British, than for the patriot side.
The show then tells the story of James, an enslaved black American in Virginia who fought for the Continental Army. He was a hero who won the admiration of the Marquis de Lafayette, and was eventually helped by the Marquis to win his freedom and become James Lafayette.
We suppose we will just mention that the show misspells Lafayette’s name as “da Lafayette” instead of “de”. It’s all part of the slipshod, half-baked research paper feel of the show.
More importantly, the episode glosses over the facts of the British offer of freedom to enslaved Americans who fought for them. The show says that after the war, which James helped to win, he was returned to slavery, which implies that if Britain had won, he would have been freed. The truth is abysmally different.
Let’s look into the article they cite—incompletely, of course, by failing to give the name of the article. All they say is “Lloyd Dobyns, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 2007.” I think we all know from high school research paper writing that you have to include the title of the article you’re citing. We put Dobyns and the Journal into a search engine and found it: “Fighting… Maybe for Freedom, but Probably Not” in which we read this:
Those who sided with the British were told, more or less, that they were manumitted and would be given land and self-government. They had a better hope for freedom with the British than they had with Americans. But the British found it easier to promise liberty and land than to provide them. Slaves who departed with the redcoats when the conflict was over were in their new lands—Canada, England, Australia, and Sierra Leone—still treated much as they had been before.
The first wholesale promise from the British of freedom to slaves came just as the war was starting, in November 1775. The last royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, having fled Williamsburg for his safety first to HMS Fowey and then to HMS William, offered freedom to slaves and indentured servants “able and willing to bear arms” for the British. There was, however, a catch.
Dunmore’s proclamation applied to slaves owned by rebels, not to slaves held by loyalists. His offer, the realization of an oft-repeated threat, was intended as much to terrify and punish rebels, and to furnish himself with more troops, as to help the slaves. Though slavery had been limited in England three years before—the Court of Kings Bench ruled in 1772 that slaves could not be taken out of the realm for sale—it was still legal and would be until 1834. Nevertheless, the rumor spread in the colonies that slaves had been freed in Britain, and it proved a powerful magnet for bondsmen.
Blacks who answered Dunmore’s call suffered hunger, disease, and bombardment. Eight times as many died of sickness as did of battle wounds. After Yorktown, where for practical purposes, the fighting ended six years later, they found that their sacrifices would profit them little. Yorktown meant victory for the American cause, but spelled disaster for the enslaved.
…As the war proceeded, some rebel slaves were given to loyalist slave owners or shipped to English slave properties in the Caribbean or, for that matter, sent back to their rebel owners when they proved of little or no value to the British.
—So we see that the British offer of freedom was not an honest one. Enslaved Americans were either not freed, or shipped off to barren lands to live in as free, yet utterly impoverished, people.
Those black Americans who risked all for freedom found only misery, virtual enslavement, and death:
…Carleton sent a fleet with five thousand settlers to Nova Scotia, including white loyalists and black runaways. We do not know how many of either. Historian Simon Schama identifies the episode as “a revolutionary moment in the lives of African-Americans.” It may also have been the high point in their search for freedom.
Nova Scotia, on the southeast coast of Canada, extends farther south than northern Maine and is all but surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean—basically, a flat almost-island first settled by the French in 1605. Scots came in 1621, hence the name of the place, Latin for New Scotland.
The refugees landed in a cold, sparsely settled, forested place, populated by Scots, Protestants from France, Switzerland, and Germany, and a few of the Mi’kmaq tribesmen who were the original residents. In no time at all, it was clear that whatever the American blacks were called, and whatever they had been promised, they would be treated like slaves and live a life not much better, and a lot colder, than they had lived in the American colonies.
They were segregated in housing enclaves and churches, economically oppressed, cheated, and lied to. When, infrequently, land was parceled out, theirs was the worst. One of the few ways to survive was to sign on for pitiful wages as indentured servants to white loyalists, some from the slave-owning South. The major difference was that the former slaves could and did sue for redress of wrongs in the Nova Scotia courts and sometimes won against whites. In Virginia, by contrast, blacks could not, in district courts, so much as testify against whites.
—How on earth ARE read this article and decided that the “fact” to pull out of it was that the British offered freedom to enslaved people we will never know. Especially when the same article includes this:
The Continentals, including George Washington’s troops, had such a mixture of black and white soldiers that a French staff officer referred to them as “speckled.” American combat troops were not integrated as they were in the 1770s and 1780s until the Korean War 170 years later.
Free blacks and slaves often enlisted from New England. The First Rhode Island, a majority black unit, was well known. In the South, there was a congressionally approved plan—never realized—to arm, and eventually to free, three thousand slaves for service as a military unit for South Carolina and Georgia. Slaves sent to take the place of white owners were commonplace in the ranks, particularly in southern state militias. British commanders other than Dunmore encouraged rebel slaves to run away, and run away they did. The figures are guesstimates, but they are the best we have. Dunmore’s promise attracted eight hundred to a thousand blacks, about a third of them women, though his proclamation applied only to males. In the South, perhaps eighty thousand to one hundred thousand slaves ran to British lines.
—What’s this? The Continental Army did have black soldiers? How could ARE have missed this? All you have to do is search “black soldiers in Continental Army” and hundreds of sites come up. Let’s choose one at random for the story ARE chose not only not to tell, but to hide: Black Soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
At the start of the war, Washington had been a vocal opponent of recruiting black men, both free and especially slaves. He wasn’t alone: Most southern slave owners (and many northern slave owners), found the idea of training and arming slaves and thereby abetting a possible slave rebellion far more terrifying than the British. Black men had long served in colonial militias and probably even saw action during the French and Indian War, explained retired Maj. Glenn Williams, a historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, but they had usually been relegated to support roles like digging ditches. In fact, he continued, most southern militias had been created precisely to fight off slave insurrections.
As war with Britain broke out in the spring of 1775, however, Massachusetts patriots needed every man they could get, and a number of black men — both slave and free — served bravely at Lexington and Concord and then at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In fact, according to documents archived on http://www.fold3.com, a former slave named Salem Poor performed so heroically at Bunker Hill — exactly what he did has been lost to history — that 14 officers wrote to the Massachusetts legislature, commending him as a “brave and gallant Soldier” who deserved a reward. Valor like this wasn’t enough, however, and shortly after his appointment as commander in chief, Washington signed an order forbidding the recruitment of all blacks.
The British saw an opportunity to divide the colonies, however, and the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to any slave who ran away to join British forces. Thousands took him up on it, and Washington relented almost immediately. In fact, the famous picture of him crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776, also features a black Soldier who many historians, according to “Come all you Brave Soldiers” by Clinton Cox, believe is Prince Whipple, one of Washington’s own bodyguards, who had been kidnapped into slavery as a child and was serving in exchange for freedom. Another black Soldier, Primus Hall, reportedly tracked down and single-handedly captured several British soldiers after the battle of Princeton a week later.
—Yes, Washington opposed arming black men to fight as soldiers. Knowing Washington, it was less because of racism and much more likely because he didn’t want southern states to oppose the war effort because a) they feared it would lead to a rebellion of enslaved Americans, and b) they didn’t want any avenue to be created that could justify freeing enslaved Americans.
We also see that the British did not offer freedom to the enslaved because the British were awesome. It was a cynical divide-and-conquer tactic, the true nature of which was revealed by what they actually did to their black soldiers.
…Washington still wasn’t prepared to go as far as recruiting and freeing slaves, but many northerners had begun to question how they could call for freedom and enslave others. As that terrible winter at Valley Forge dragged on, the state of Rhode Island learned it needed to raise more troops than it could supply. State legislators not only promised to free all black, Indian and mulatto slaves who enlisted in the new 1st Rhode Island Regiment, but offered to compensate their owners. Desperate for manpower, Washington reluctantly agreed, and more than 140 black men signed up for what was better known as the “Black Regiment,” according to Williams, and served until Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Va., in 1781.
In fact, they fought so bravely and inflicted so many casualties on Hessian mercenaries during the battle of Newport, R.I., in the summer of 1778, that Williams said one Hessian officer resigned his commission rather than lead his men against the 1st Rhode Island after the unit had repelled three fierce Hessian assaults. He didn’t want his men to think he was leading them to slaughter.
The 1st Rhode Island was a segregated unit, with white officers and separate companies designated for black and white Soldiers. It was the Continental Army’s only segregated unit, though. In the rest of the Army, the few blacks who served with each company were fully integrated: They fought, drilled, marched, ate and slept alongside their white counterparts. There was never enough food or clothes or even pay for anyone, but they shared these hardships equally.
After watching a review of the Continental Army in New York, one French officer estimated that as much as a quarter of the Army was black. He may have been looking at the 1st Rhode Island or units from Connecticut and New Jersey, which also had high rates of black enlistment, Williams explained. Many muster roles have been destroyed so there isn’t an exact count, but Williams said most historians believe that 10 to 15 percent is a more accurate representation of black Soldiers who served in the Revolution. They served in almost every unit, in every battle from Concord to Fort Ticonderoga to Trenton to Yorktown.
“I’ve heard one analysis say that the Army during the Revolutionary War was the most integrated that the Army would be until the Korean War,” Williams said…
It was a war for freedom, not only for their country, but for themselves. After the men of the1st Rhode Island and other black Soldiers served bravely at Yorktown alongside southern militiamen whose jobs it had been to round up runaway slaves, the war gradually drew to a close. Soldiers began to trickle home. Some black soldiers like those in the 1st Rhode Island, went on to new lives as freemen. Far too many, however, returned to the yoke of slavery, some for a few years until their masters remembered promising to free them if they served, but others, having fought for freedom, were doomed to remain slaves forever.
—Clearly, we are not saying that all black Americans who enlisted in the Continental Army were treated fairly after the war. We’re saying:
a. Yes, there were black soldiers in the Continental Army. Many soldiers.
b. They were promised freedom by northern states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
c. This promise was fulfilled for some black soldiers, but not all.
d. It was their experience of living and fighting alongside black Americans that led many northern Americans to question, and finally abandon, race-based slavery.
And, we’d also like to say that there should be some research done on black women who contributed to the war effort—you know they did. They must have; if anyone knows of research on that, please share it.
Next time, we’ll finally conclude our close-reading of this horribly misleading and damaging episode by addressing their final pack of myths about Paul Revere.