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 09, 2015

The Massachusetts Government on Black Soldiers in the Summer of 1775

On 20 May 1775, one month into the Revolutionary War, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety made this statement about the war it had undertaken and the troops it would employ:
Resolved, That it is the opinion of this committee, as the contest now between Great Britain and the colonies respects the liberties and privileges of the latter, which the colonies are determined to maintain, that the admission of any persons, as soldiers, into the army now raising, but only such as are freemen, will be inconsistent with the principles that are to be supported, and reflect dishonor on this colony, and that no slaves be admitted into this army upon any consideration whatever.
That policy barred slave owners from enlisting their human property, who presumably had less stake in the conflict. It preserved the public image, and self-image, of the New England army as freemen fighting for their traditional rights.

On that same day the committee asked that “Nicholas, a black fellow, now under guard,” be brought to Cambridge and jailed for examination. That was Thomas Nichols of Natick. He was accused of trying to entice black slaves to resist their masters, showing that the Patriot leadership was well aware that other people might fight for freedoms as well.

Seven weeks later, on 8 July, the committee proposed a further restriction on the types of soldiers who could enlist in its army:
Resolved, That the instructions to be given to the officers of the regiments, be sent to the council of war, and if approved, be forwarded: they are as follow:
Instructions for the officers of the several regiments of the Massachusetts Bay forces, who are immediately to go upon the recruiting service.

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.

As the cause is the best that can engage men of courage and principle to take up arms, so it is expected that none but such will be accepted by the recruiting officer; the pay, provision, &c., being so ample, it is not doubted but the officers sent upon this service, will, without delay, complete their respective corps, and march the men forthwith to camp.

You are not to enlist any person who is not an American-born, unless such person has a wife and family, and is a settled resident in this country.

The persons you enlist, must be provided with good and complete arms.
The new commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington, and his council evidently did approve that language because it appeared on handbills over the signature of Gen. Horatio Gates two days later.

Back when the war had started on 19 April, the first day’s casualties included Prince Estabrook, still legally a slave and yet in the Lexington militia. Yet a month later, Massachusetts pulled back from enlisting slaves in its army. And in July, the authorities barred enlisting any black men at all. In October, the Continental Army commanders, in consultation with members of the Continental Congress, agreed further to bar any black soldiers already in the ranks from reenlisting in the new year.

The New England authorities almost certainly made those changes under the influence of Gen. Washington, a Virginia plantation owner. They also probably reflected what people thought the Congress that appointed Washington would want. Indeed, the black soldiers already in the ranks became an issue in Philadelphia, as I’ll discuss tomorrow.

I think most Americans see our national history as a story of gradually but unstoppably growing liberties, with equality and legally protected rights spreading from white men of property to poorer white men and then black men and then women and so on. But of course the story isn’t so simple. Progress in achieving individual rights hasn’t always been smooth and one-way. The end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow laws are the clearest example of retrograde motion.

This period in 1775 is a smaller example as Massachusetts’s Patriot government deferred to a Virginia slaveowner on the question of the black men already in its army. Had the new summer policy prevailed, the enlisted ranks of the Continental Army would have become racially exclusive. The consequences could have been far-reaching: a smaller, weaker army, to judge by estimates from late in the war of how many American soldiers were black men; and less cultural pressure for abolishing slavery, as happened in New England and Pennsylvania in the 1780s.

On Thursday evening I’ll speak at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site about how Washington changed his mind at the end of 1775. That talk starts at 6:30 P.M., and the site asks people to reserve seats by calling 617-876-4491.

[The photo above shows the Edmund Fowle House in Watertown, used by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for committee meetings in 1775 and 1776.]


Anonymous said...

Washington - and the Massachusetts government - weren't the only ones struggling with the question. The orderly books of De Lancey's loyalist Brigade, on Long Island, contains the following:

Head Quarters, N York March 16th (1776) For his Majesties Provincial Troops - The Commander in Chief being desirous that the provincial Forces should be put on the most respectable Footing & according to his first Intention to be Composed of his Majestys Loyal American Subjects has Directed that all Negroes Mulattoes & other Improper Persons who have been admitted into this Corps may be Immediately Discharged...

R. Doctorow

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting talk. Will your thoughts eventually be posted for those of us who cannot make the trip from Far Off Texas?

J. L. Bell said...

De Lancey and other Loyalists in 1776 probably had to wrestle with the spectre of Lord Dunmore, who had invited people enslaved in Virginia to join his forces, only to anger the white planters and farmers more and then to lose.

Later in the war the British changed strategy on that question again. But in early 1776 they probably wanted to assure potential allies that they wouldn't interfere with the established social and economic system.

J. L. Bell said...

If the Park Service makes a video of this talk and then posts it online, I'll post the link here.