J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Two Massachusetts Generals on Their Black Troops

In October 1775, some members of the Continental Congress were criticizing the quality of American troops besieging Boston. Among their complaints was the number of black soldiers. Most of the army then came from Massachusetts, so John Adams took those remarks personally. (Of course, he took a lot personally.)

Adams sent similar letters to the two brigadier generals from Massachusetts, William Heath (shown here) and John Thomas, asking for their frank assessments of the troops:

It is represented in this city by some persons, and it makes an unfriendly impression upon some minds, that in the Massachusetts Regiments, there are great numbers of boys, old men, and negroes, such as are unsuitable for the service, and therefore that the Continent is paying for a much greater number of men than are fit for active or any service. I have endeavoured to the utmost of my power to rectify these mistakes, as I take them to be, and I hope with some success, but still the impression is not quite removed.

I would beg the favour of you therefore, Sir, to inform me whether there is any truth at all in this report, or not. It is natural to suppose there are some young men and some old ones and some negroes in the service, but I should be glad to know if there are more of these in proportion in the Massachusetts Regiments, than in those of Connecticutt, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, or even among the Riflemen.
The riflemen were from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland.

Gen. Thomas wrote back:
I am Sorrey to hear that any Prejudice Should take Place in any of the Southern Colony’s with Respect to the Troops Raised in this; I am Certain the Insinuations you Mention are Injurious; if we Consider with what Precipitation we were Obliged to Collect an Army. The Regiments at Roxbury, the Privates are Equal to any that I Served with Last war, very few Old men, and in the Ranks very few boys, Our Fifers are many of them boys, we have Some Negros, but I Look on them in General Equally Servicable with other men, for Fatigue and in Action; many of them have Proved themselves brave…
And Heath said:
Rhode Island has a Number of Negroes and Indians, Connecticut has fewer Negroes but a number of Indians. The New Hampshire Regiments have less of Both. The men from Connecticut I think in General are rather stouter than those of either of the other Colonies, But the Troops of our Colony are Robust, Agile, and as fine Fellows in General as I ever would wish to see in the Field.
While writing favorably about black soldiers, Thomas was still a slaveholder. His servant Oakley was in the American camp, trying to look after the general’s son, during the final advance onto the Dorchester peninsula.

Heath, though not saying anything bad about non-white soldiers in 1775, was clear about his racism two years later when he wrote that black soldiers were “generally able bodied, but for my own part I must confess I am neaver pleased to see them mixed with white men.”

TOMORROW: Turning consensus into army policy.


Rob Baker said...

Good article.

Any word on the 'negro' soldiers representing an all black company or are we looking at total integration within the ranks?

J. L. Bell said...

At this point, the American soldiers of African ancestry were interspersed in many regiments, depending on the towns where they enlisted. There was a unit from Stockbridge consisting mainly of Native American soldiers, who lived and fought separately from the main regiments (some of whom contained soldiers of Native ancestry who had assimilated more into British-American culture).