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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Friday, February 03, 2012

“Whether there be a Distinction between such as are Slaves & those who are free?”

Although the Continental Congress decided not to order Gen. George Washington to discharge all black soldiers he found in the Continental Army when he arrived in Massachusetts in July 1775, that doesn’t meant that American governments were okay with the idea of African-Americans in arms.

In fact, on 8 July, less than a week after the new commander’s arrival, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress told officers recruiting new men: “You are not to enlist any deserter from the Ministerial Army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy to the liberty of America, nor any under eighteen years of age.” Gen. Horatio Gates, the army’s adjutant general, repeated those instructions in his orders a few days later.

On 5 October, Washington convened his generals in a council of war at his headquarters. He was trying to come up with recommendations to the Congress about the new army that would take the field in January since all the current soldiers had enlisted only till the end of the year or sooner.

Among the questions the generals discussed was: “Whether it will be adviseable to re-inlist any Negroes in the new Army—or whether there be a Distinction between such as are Slaves & those who are free?”

Sending off enslaved men to battle for other people’s liberty was foolhardy, everyone agreed, not to mention hypocritical. But what about free blacks? According to the official minutes of the meeting, the council “Agreed unanimously to reject all Slaves, & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.” Most of the generals wanted to maintain the rules instituted in July. Only a small minority—maybe one to three men out of ten—were willing to accept any black soldiers.

A history student named Patrick Charles looked into this debate and published his findings in Washington’s Decision. And by “published,” I don’t mean he convinced a scholarly journal or press to publish his work. He published it himself through BookSurge.

The resulting paperback has grammatical and typographical errors and sometimes unclear language. But the research looks solid. Charles corrects some misconceptions about the topic, distinguishes facts from supposition, and offers a strong argument for his conclusions.

Among other things, he guesses that the minority in that October meeting included, or consisted of, Gen. John Thomas and Gen. Nathanael Greene. As quoted yesterday, Thomas said the black troops serving under him were as good as the whites. Greene later supported his cousin Christopher Greene’s effort to recruit African-American and Native American men into the First Rhode Island Regiment.

Whatever the generals said in their meeting, they decided against retaining any black soldiers. On 23 October, Washington met with three delegates visiting from the Congress and raised the question again: “Ought not Negroes to be excluded from the new Inlistment especially such as are Slaves—all were thought improper by the Council of Officers?” There’s no doubt about what answer he was pushing for.

Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Lynch, having sat through the previous month’s debate in Philadelphia, agreed that black soldiers should “be rejected altogether.” At the end of the month Gen. Washington issued recruiting orders for the new army specifically excluding “Negroes…, which the Congress do not incline to inlist again.”

That policy lasted for only two months.

TOMORROW: Gen. Washington changes his mind.

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