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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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Congress Argues about the Black Soldiers in the Continental Army

The official record of the Continental Congress on 26 Sept 1775 says:
The Committee appointed to prepare an answer to General [George] Washington’s letters, reported the same, which was read and agreed to.

Ordered, That the same being transcribed be signed by the president and forwarded immediately.
In fact, there was quite a vigorous debate that day, but secretary Charles Thomson (shown above) was suppressing news of any potential rifts among the colonies.

New Jersey delegate Richard Smith kept a private diary of the proceedings, and his entry for that day began:
Tuesday 26 Septr. Comee. brought in a Letter to Gen Washington, in the Course of it E[dward] Rutledge [of South Carolina] moved that the Gen. shall discharge all the Negroes as well Slaves as Freemen in his Army, he (Rutledge) was strongly supported by many of the Southern Delegates but so powerfully opposed that he lost the Point
The presence of black soldiers in the Continental Army remained a potent issue. On 5 October, John Adams wrote to two of Massachusetts’s generals asking for more information. This is what he told William Heath:
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 Action 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 Rifle Men [from the Middle Colonies].
Presumably Adams wrote much the same thing to Gen. John Thomas, but that letter appears to have gone underground since a sale in 1948. I discussed Heath’s and Thomas’s replies back here.

Gen. Washington himself had grumbled to the Congress back in July about “the Number of Boys, Deserters, & Negroes” in the Massachusetts force. However, only the black men had become such a bone of contention in the Congress. And though Rutledge didn’t carry his point in September, the southerners won the debate the next month: Washington and a three-man Congress committee that included two southern planters agreed to remove all black soldiers from the Continental Army at the end of the year.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, as I’ll describe tomorrow evening in Cambridge.

1 comment:

Joshua Sweatt said...

Your depth of knowledge and detail is fantastic. Keep up the good work.