Although Black Americans have actively participated in every major U.S. conflict, it wasn’t until an executive order by President Harry S. Truman in 1948, that the U.S. military became integrated. As I started doing research for this article, I started thinking about all the battles that African Americans have participated in that we tend to forget. Of course everyone knows the name Crispus Attucks; I must admit it took me way back to a history class years ago that I thought I had forgotten.
Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre, and is considered the first “American” casualty in the American Revolutionary War. Not much is known about Crispus Attucks and it’s debated whether he was a free man or an escaped slave, but in the 18th century he became a face for the anti-slavery movement.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, about 20% of the population in the colonies was black; however, all but 25,000 of the almost 500,000 were slaves. This was an important time for both free and enslaved African Americans, as all of a sudden public officials realized they may need them to win the war. While freedom was the principal motivating factor for the African American soldier, there may have been others such as the desire for adventure, the true belief in justice, or a promise of payment.
There was also the James Somersett ruling. Somersett was a runaway slave who was recaptured by his master and was on his way to Jamaica when he decided to sue his master. This led to the abolition of slavery in England, but did not apply to the British colonies. By 1773, the General Court in Boston received the first of three petitions in which slaves pleaded their freedom with the argument that Mansfield's decision should indeed apply to the colonies where they were "held in a state of Slavery within a free and Christian Country."
Another significant battle for African Americans was the Battle of Red Bank. I admit I knew nothing of this battle until it was recently brought to my attention. The Battle of Red Bank saw four hundred Americans defend Fort Mercer, New Jersey, against 1,000-2,000 Hessians resulting in the second most costly defeat for the British forces after the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was an incredible feat of gallantry and determination by Rhode Island “rebels” who doggedly faced the Hessian attackers’ promise that every defender would be put to the sword. Of those men who stood before the onslaught and devastated the Hessian ranks, one in every five was a black freeman or run-away-slave!
How many of the four hundred defenders of Fort Mercer were African Americans? There is no historical account of an exact number. Some sources on the Internet state that the defenders were mainly black, however, the battle was fought four months before the 1st Rhode Island became a segregated black regiment. As many as 80 African Americans, or one in every five, of the fort’s defenders fought shoulder to shoulder with white patriots pummeling the Hessian force to such an extent the British could not rely on these German mercenaries ever again during the revolution.
During Black History Month, let us celebrate the lives of African Americans who were willing to shed their blood for America’s dream of liberty and justice for all clear back to the Revolutionary War.
By: Sandra Thompson, Director, Alabama Veterans' Museum