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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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Gen. Washington Changes His Mind

For the last three days I’ve been tracing the debate within the Revolutionary leadership over whether to enlist black troops in the Continental Army in 1775. There were, in fact, already African-American soldiers among the troops besieging Boston. But when Gen. George Washington arrived, he saw their presence as a sign of weakness.

The Continental Congress had a heated debate about whether to discharge all those men right away. John Adams made inquiries. Washington and his fellow generals discussed whether to let black men enlist for the new year, and voted strongly against. As of the end of October 1775, that was the clear Continental policy, approved by two levels of government and pushed by the commander-in-chief himself.

And then on 30 Dec 1775 Washington announced in his general orders:
As the General is informed, that Numbers of Free Negroes are desirous of inlisting, he gives leave to the recruiting Officers to entertain them, and promises to lay the matter before the Congress, who he doubts not will approve of it.
And the next day he wrote to the Congress:
it has been represented to me that the free negroes who have Served in this Army, are very much disatisfied at being discarded—as it is to be apprehended, that they may Seek employ in the ministerial Army—I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them, & have given Licence for their being enlisted, if this is disapproved by Congress, I will put a Stop to it.
Once again the legislature followed their generalissimo’s lead and approved a new policy.

The stricture that only blacks who had already been in the army could join “but no others” doesn’t appear to have taken hold in practice. There were new black soldiers every year of the war.

Furthermore, they enlisted on the same terms as white soldiers, and for the most part they served in the same units. There were some companies composed entirely of African-American and Native American men from Rhode Island in the late 1770s, but their regiments were eventually integrated as well. Washington supported the move “to abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps.” The Continental Army was thus the last American army to be integrated—if only at the enlisted level—until after World War 2.

What caused Gen. Washington to make a 180° turnaround on that issue in two months? I’ve been studying Washington’s work in Cambridge during the siege, and see multiple influences on his thinking:
  • At the end of 1775, the general was worried that his troops would all go home when their enlistments were up and the British would try an attack. He didn’t feel he could afford to send away any men willing to fight.
  • He could see that the black soldiers in the army were doing their duty, not weakening the army. Officers even singled out Salem Poor for praise in that period.
  • In Virginia, Governor Dunmore’s offer of freedom for enslaved blacks who joined his royal troops changed the politics of the question—though the importance of that factor has also been overstated.
  • Washington couldn’t have missed that he was supposed to be leading a fight for natural liberty. He enjoyed his lifestyle, based on slavery, but he actually believed in that value.
Boston National Historical Park historian Marty Blatt and I will discuss Washington’s change of mind and other parts of black history in Revolutionary America in a public conversation scheduled for noon on 3 March at the park’s visitor center, 15 State Street. This was initially planned as a briefing for park employees and interpreters, but the public can attend as well.

(At top is John Trumbull’s painting of Washington from 1780, with an African-American groom in the background, courtesy of the George Washington Papers.)


EJWitek said...

Washington would not have been unfamiliar with the presence of free Blacks in the militia since as Colonel and Commander of the Virginia militia he would have been used to their presence in the Virginia militia. Virginia allowed them to enlist as drummers, musicians and laborers. It would have been the sight of "free negroes" handling muskets that would have aroused Washington and his Virginia sensibilities.
It should also be noted that John Adams, although personally opposed to slavery, supported the policy of banning the enlistment of blacks since he thought to do otherwise would alienate White Southerners and fracture the delicate union of the Continental Congress.

Charles Bahne said...

I'm curious how George Middleton's all-black unit called the "Bucks of America" fits into the Revolutionary War chronology. Col. Middleton, as you may recall, was one of the owners of a circa 1795 house on Pinckney St., Beacon Hill, which still stands. In the Revolution he had commanded the Bucks, whose flag still exists, and who were commended for their bravery by Mass. Gov. John Hancock.

I'm guessing that the Bucks of America may have been active later in the war, and that they may have been part of the Massachusetts militia rather than the Continental Army.

But in all the references I've seen, they are described as an all-black unit.

J. L. Bell said...

As commander of the Virginia troops in the French & Indian War, Col. George Washington even wrote about assigning black men as “pioneers”—a support role. But as armed soldiers alongside white men, that he hadn’t seen before.

Adams’s willingness to go along with the Congress’s no-black-soldiers policy shows how strong that consensus was in the fall of 1775. Which makes Gen. Washington’s about-face at the end of the year all the more striking.

Just as striking, I haven’t come across any public debate on the issue, or anyone strongly arguing the case for free black soldiers. Some folks must have argued that they had proven themselves equal to the white soldiers, but—unlike the situation during the Civil War—that argument doesn’t seem to have made it into print.

J. L. Bell said...

After more than a century of searching, no one has found any record of the “Bucks of America” in the Continental Army. Similarly, there’s no record of George Middleton as a Continental soldier, much less a colonel.

Other sources say Middleton was a coachman to Dr. James Lloyd, who was a Loyalist who stayed behind in Boston. That doesn’t mean Middleton was in Lloyd’s employ for the entire war, but it does raise questions.

My theory is that the Bucks of America was a post-war militia unit that Boston’s free and newly free blacks formed in a bid to gain the respect of the white-dominated society. I think William C. Nell misinterpreted the anecdotes he heard about the group when he wrote about them in the mid-1800s. The Bucks are undoubtedly part of the city’s African-American history, but I think they represent a struggle to participate in the new republic, not to form it.