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Defenders of Liberty
African Americans in the Revolutionary War
By Michael Lee Lanning
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2000 Michael Lee Lanning
All rights reserved.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN HEROES OF THE REVOLUTION
It was early on the evening of April 18, 1775, when Paul Revere and William Dawes spotted the two lanterns hung in the steeple of Boston's North Church. In response to this prearranged signal, the two men spurred their horses and rode into the night to warn American rebels. "The British are coming! The British are coming!" shouted the riders as they raced from village to farm. At the alarm, local militiamen rose from their beds in mansions, small houses, and slave quarters to secure their weapons and assemble with their units.
The British were indeed advancing north from Boston toward the villages of Lexington and Concord with six companies of light infantry totaling nearly 400 men. Their orders from Gen. Thomas Gage were simple:
Having received intelligence that a quantity of ammunition, provisions, artillery, tents, and small arms have been collected at Concord, for the avowed purpose of raising and supporting a rebellion against His Majesty, you will march the Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry, under your command, with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy ... all military stores whatever.
Revere and Dawes's warnings provided the local Minutemen time to prepare for the British advance. By morning, Lexington militia company commander Capt. John Parker stood with about seventy-five men in a staggered line across the two-acre common located in the center of the village. The captain's orders to his company typified the feelings of many of the colonists: "Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here."
Parker and his militiamen, tired of British taxation and oppression, were determined to defend their village and their perceptions of freedom and liberty. The irony, of course, was that neither Parker nor any of the other white participants appear to have appreciated the fact that their ranks contained several men to whom freedom would not apply. The very patriots who professed the desire for liberty for all did not mean literally "all." In the small company, several armed African Americans stood alongside their owners, prepared to secure a freedom hitherto denied their race.
The ragtag white and black militia company made little impression on the more experienced, much larger British force. Even the first gunfire of the Revolution, the famous "shot heard round the world," initiated by an unidentified source, failed to convince the British that the Americans were serious. The British commander, Maj. John Pitcairn, merely ordered a volley of fire over the heads of the Lexington militia. He then demanded the surrender of weapons. When Parker apparently instructed his men to comply, some laid down their muskets, while others began to walk away. But then more shots rang out, again their source unidentified, and Pitcairn ordered another volley, this time into the dispersing ranks of the Lexington militiamen.
In a matter of a few minutes, nine American soldiers lay dead, another eight were injured. The casualty list itself is telling of the war effort by all participating Americans, for among the wounded was Prince Estabrook, "a negro man," according to the roster of participants and casualties on Lexington Green that appeared in the Salem (Massachusetts) Gazette of April 21, 1775. Another mention of him, in the Journals of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, also noted the African American's participation in the battle, describing him as "Prince, a negro."
Later broadsides also listed the veterans of Lexington Green. An undated one, probably published a few days after the battle and currently on file at the Massachusetts Historical Society, includes the name "Prince Easterbrooks, a negro Man," among the casualties at Lexington. No "Mr." designation appears in front of his name, as it does before the names of the other participants.
As the British marched from Lexington toward Concord, they encountered more colonial militia units. Again, these ranks contained blacks as well as white members, for African Americans, both free and slave, assembled with their fellow Minutemen to fend off the British. Among those blacks taking part in the ensuing battle were Peter Salem and Samuel Craft of Newton, Cato Bordman of Cambridge, Cuff Whittenmore and Cato Wood of Arlington, and Pomp Blackman, hometown unknown.
While Prince Estabrook had been among the first to shed blood for American independence at Lexington, another black, unidentified, suffered one of the last wounds of the war's initial day. When blocked by the rebels at Concord Bridge, the British retreated. As they retraced their steps, militiamen pursued, adopting the Native American tactic of firing at the withdrawing force from behind trees, fences, and impromptu fortifications. Just outside Boston, at Charlestown Neck, according to the journal of a British lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusileers, "a Negro was wounded near the houses close to the Neck, out of which the Rebels fired to the last."
Although African Americans were among the earliest casualties of the Revolutionary War, Estabrook and his fellow black militiamen were not the first to shed their blood for American independence from Great Britain. Five years earlier, Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave turned sailor, played a major role in the first confrontation between the rebellious colonists and the British military.
In 1770, Americans were chafing under increasing taxes and harsh military occupation by the British Crown. The citizens of Boston particularly disliked the oppression and arrogance of the local British army garrison, and the long, cold winter did little to cool their tempers.
Early in the evening of March 5, Crispus Attucks joined several of his fellow sailors as they warmed themselves around a public-house fire while they awaited their ship to sail from Boston Harbor. Much of their talk focused on the unfair treatment they received at the hands of the British and their animosity toward the redcoat soldiers. Attucks participated little in the white men's conversation, but he shared their feelings of injustice — perhaps even more so, for the black sailor had escaped slavery to go to sea more than twenty years earlier.
Suddenly, the group sharing the fire became aware of excited voices in the street followed by the ringing of the town's alarm bell. Attucks raced to the door to discover the snow-covered street filled with men moving toward the British headquarters on King Street. Some of the men seemed to be agitating the crowd, while others attempted to stop the mob's progress. A few began to flee.
Attucks stopped a young man leaving the scene and asked what was causing the commotion. The youth explained that a British soldier had refused to pay after receiving a haircut and then beat the barber when he demanded his money. Other colonists came to the support of the barber as more soldiers appeared and threatened to shoot if the mob did not disperse. The colonists made a few more verbal retorts at the men in uniform and reluctantly began to drift away. Laughing at the verbal threats, the soldiers marched back to their customhouse barracks.
Several accounts of eyewitnesses describe what happened next. Although the stories vary somewhat, all agree that a "short, stout, curly haired" black man pushed forward and urged the hesitant crowd to stand up against the soldiers. With a leader now in charge, the colonists followed Attucks to the customhouse, where they threw snowballs and rocks at the building and its guards. The frightened sentinels called for reinforcements.
Attucks picked up a heavy piece of firewood and shook the club at the soldiers as he dared them to fire. The swelling mob behind him surged even closer to the customhouse. Despite the missiles hurled by the crowd and the threats of the club-wielding Attucks, the disciplined British soldiers adhered to their instruction to fire only upon the orders of their officers.
British captain Thomas Preston arrived and ensured that his men held their fire as he unsuccessfully attempted to convince the mob to disperse. His efforts only made the Bostonians angrier. Attucks, along with a dozen other men, advanced still closer, and the escaped slave began striking a soldier's bayonet with his wooden stick. He then swung his club at Preston's head. As the officer countered with his arm to ward off the blow, he bumped into one of his soldiers, causing the man to drop his weapon.
Instantly, Attucks seized the musket. The soldier also grabbed for the gun, and the two struggled for control. In wresting the musket from the black man, the soldier stumbled and fell into the icy slosh. The colonists laughed and, now confident that the soldier would not shoot, began to chant, "Why don't you fire? Why don't you fire?" Attucks, leaning on his stick, mockingly stared at the wet, muddy redcoat. Humiliated, the British soldier regained his feet and fired directly into Attucks's chest. Instantly, the other soldiers shot into the crowd.
Attucks and five others lay dead or dying in the street. Despite his color, the colonists hailed the dead Attucks as a hero and the first casualty of what would become the American Revolution. Few acknowledged, however, that Attucks, an escaped slave, would not have been able to share the freedoms for which he sacrificed his life. Attucks would not be the last black man to die for a country and a cause that did not recognize him as an equal or ensure that he benefited from the liberty for which he fought.
The Boston Massacre, as it became known, fanned the flames of revolution that, in turn, led to open warfare at Lexington and Concord. Two months after those skirmishes, the war's first major battle took place. Once again the action occurred in Boston, and as in every fight that followed, black Americans were in the forefront.
After the Battle of Concord Bridge, the British withdrew to Boston. During the following weeks the colonial militias united to surround the port city. In June 1775, as they tightened their cordon around Boston, the rebel commanders decided to send a force to occupy Bunker Hill, on the narrow peninsula at the end of Charlestown Neck, at the city's edge. Upon arrival, the American commander discovered that adjacent Breed's Hill offered more defendable ground and established his force there. History would record the upcoming battle as Bunker Hill, but in actuality it was on Breed's Hill that the patriots and their opponents' blood would soak the ground.
In the militia ranks on Breed's Hill were at least a dozen African Americans, including several veterans of the earlier skirmishes. On June 17 the British attacked in waves from the beach. The dug-in Americans waited, as ordered by Col. William Prescott, until they could "see the whites of their eyes" and initially slowed the attacking redcoats. Black and white Americans stood together to resist the assault, but ultimately a shortage of ammunition and the superior numbers of the British finally forced the rebels to retreat.
One of the last to withdraw was Cuff Whittemore of Capt. Benjamin Locke's Arlington, Massachusetts, militia company. According to Samuel Swett, the earliest historian of the battle, in his Notes to His Sketch of Bunker-Hill Battle, published in 1825, Whittemore "fought bravely in the redoubt. He had a ball through his hat. ..," and he "fought to the last, and when compelled to retreat, though wounded ... he seized the sword ..." of a dead British officer.
Another black soldier achieved even more fame for his valor at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Peter Salem, claiming as his last name the town near his Farmington, Massachusetts, birthplace, was born in about 1750 to a slave owned by Jeremiah Belknap. Peter grew into a tall young man of great physical strength and vigor. Sold shortly before the Revolution began to Maj. Lawson Buckminster, Peter Salem joined his owner's militia regiment and saw his first military action at Concord Bridge on April 19, 1775.
Still a slave, Salem enlisted a few weeks later in the First Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by Col. Thomas Nixon, and on June 17 stood in the trenches on Bunker Hill with his fellow white and black soldiers. Varying accounts exist of Salem's performance in the battle, but all agree as to his courage under fire.
At the center of all the stories is the fate of British Royal Marine major John Pitcairn. Major Pitcairn, a veteran of the Battles of Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, anticipated the battle with relish. Shortly before the fight, the major stopped in a Boston tavern for a glass of brandy. As he spun his finger in the glass, he boasted, "I will thus stir the Yankee blood before night."
After the initial volleys of rebel fire from Bunker Hill into the advancing British, Pitcairn and his fellow officers rallied their troops for repeated assaults. As the British line closed on the rebel trenches, Pitcairn shouted, "The day is ours." Amid the hail of gunfire and smoke, Salem took careful aim at the British officer and calmly shot him through the chest. The mortally wounded Pitcairn fell into the arms of his son, a marine lieutenant in his father's regiment.
Several of the battle's witnesses noted Salem's actions in their diaries or later writings. Jeremiah Belknap, Salem's original owner, wrote in his diary in 1787 that a Bunker Hill veteran told him, "A negro man ... took aim at Major Pitcairn as he was rallying the dispersed British troops and shot him thro' the head."
An eyewitness report, referenced in a letter by Aaron White of Thompson, Connecticut, provides what appears to be the most accurate account. According to White, the eyewitness told him in 1807:
The British Major Pitcairn had passed the storm of our fire and had mounted the redoubt, when waving his sword, he commanded in a loud voice, the rebels to surrender. His sudden appearance and his commanding air at first startled the men immediately below him. They neither answered or fired, probably not being exactly certain what was to be done. At this critical moment, a negro soldier stepped forward and aiming his musket at the major's bosom, blew him through.
Salem's officers later introduced him to Gen. George Washington as "the man who shot Pitcairn." More acclaim for the performances of Salem and other blacks at Bunker Hill resulted from a painting by John Trumbull, who witnessed the battle from Roxbury across the harbor. Eleven years after the battle, Trumbull unveiled The Battle of Bunker Hill, which prominently shows a black servant handing a Connecticut officer a musket in the midst of the fight. At the center-top of the painting is another black soldier.
Trumbull's work, hailed as a classic of realistic military-history paintings, today hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. Engravings of the painting appeared on private notes issued by Boston and other banks.
The painting increased the awareness that blacks played a significant role in America's struggle for independence, but some writers have misidentified the prominent servant at the right of the painting as Salem. Actually, the much smaller image of a black soldier at the top of the painting is more likely the heroic slayer of Major Pitcairn.
While official accounts of the actions by individual soldiers, white or black, during the Revolution are extremely rare, still another African American performed so well at Bunker Hill that his actions, too, made written history. Salem Poor, a twenty-eight-year-old freeman from Andover, Massachusetts, enlisted in Capt. Benjamin Ames's militia company shortly before the battle. Six months after the fight, fourteen officers petitioned the General Court of the Continental Congress to bestow upon Poor "the reward due to so great and distinguished a character."
The document, signed by all fourteen officers, proclaimed:
The subscribers beg leave to report to your Honorable House, (which we do in justice the character of so brave a man) that under our own observation, we declare that a negro man called Salem Poor of Col. Frye's regiment — Capt. Ames's Company — in the Battle at Charlestown [Neck], behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier, to set forth particulars of conduct would be tedious. We would only beg leave to say in the person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier.
Excerpted from Defenders of Liberty by Michael Lee Lanning. Copyright © 2000 Michael Lee Lanning. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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