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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Monday, March 02, 2015

Talk on Washington’s Black Soldiers in Cambridge, 12 Mar.

On Thursday, 12 March, I’ll again speak at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge honor of the upcoming Evacuation Day anniversary. This year’s talk is titled “When Washington Changed His Mind: The Question of African-American Soldiers in the Continental Army.”

In his first report back to the Continental Congress after taking command in Boston, Gen. George Washington wrote on 10 July 1775 that they shouldn’t expect quick results. The New England recruiters, he said, had already scraped the bottom of the barrel for soldiers:
Upon finding the Number of Men to fall so far short of the Establishment, & below all Expectation I immediately called a Council of the general Officers whose Opinion as to the Mode of filling up the Regiments; & providing for the present Exigency, . . . From the Number of Boys, Deserters, & Negroes which have been listed in the Troops of this Province, I entertain some Doubts whether the Number required can be raised here…
For a Virginia planter like Washington, whose entire life depended on managing enslaved people of African descent, the sight of black soldiers in fighting regiments wasn’t just a surprise. It was a profound contradiction of the social order.

That day Washington’s hand-picked adjutant general, Horatio Gates, issued recruiting orders that barred “any Stroller, Negro, or Vagabond” from enlisting. The Massachusetts legislature, which had approved all the existing regiments with black soldiers, reversed itself and told officers to stop signing up such men, whether free or enslaved.

At a council of war in October, Washington quizzed his generals on the issue. All but two agreed with the policy of excluding African-Americans from the army. So did the committee of the Continental Congress who met with Washington soon afterwards. Which wasn’t a surprise when the agenda for that meeting expressed the question this way:
Ought not Negroes to be excluded in the New Inlistment? especially such as are Slaves—By a Council of Officers both are.
On 31 October Washington’s general orders put that policy into practice by inviting all American soldiers around Boston to sign up for another year in the army—“(Negroes excepted, which the Congress do not incline to inlist again).”

And yet on 30 Dec 1775 Washington wrote in his general orders that recruiting officers could sign up “Free Negroes.” The next day he took responsibility for that new policy in a letter to the Congress:
I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them, & have given Licence for their being enlisted, if this is disapproved of by Congress, I will put a Stop to it.
As he anticipated, the Congress did not overrule that policy.

In this talk I’ll explore the factors that pressed the commander-in-chief change his mind, and the repercussions of that decision for the Continental Army and for Washington personally.

I’m scheduled to begin speaking at 6:30 P.M. in the Longfellow carriage house. Parking restrictions ease up along Brattle Street to the west at 6:00—not that this winter is making parking easy. This event is free, but because of limited seating the site asks people to make reservations by calling 617-876-4491.


steve mark said...

Perhaps Washington was able to get a proper briefing on the action at the redoubt some six months earlier. One Salem, a "negro" was credited with fatally shooting Pitcairn though he was hit by several musket balls.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think there's evidence for such a message to Washington from some of his officers, in an indirect way. I'll talk about that possibility.