Whose War for Independence?

Well, the school year is winding down for me.  My two AP History sections are set to take their big test on Friday and I am confident that they will do just fine.  I am always on the lookout for additional readings to supplement their textbook and other primary documents.  The latest issue of the New Yorker includes an excellent review by historian Jill Lepore of two new studies which explore the lives of slaves who escaped to the British army during the Revolution.

This is an important perspective to introduce in the classroom.  Most of my students are "hard-wired" to think narrowly when it comes to thinking about freedom and what it means to Americans during the conflict with Great Britain.  It is a war between white people and about abstract concepts of taxation, slavery, and representation.  Most of my students know nothing about the experiences of black Americans who fought in both the Continental and British armies.  Keep in mind that most of my students last learned American history in the 7th grade.  I use the story of black fugitive slaves who fought with the British as a way to challenge this traditional "Whig" interpretation.  This is not meant in any way as part of a broad attack on the Founding Fathers; I am very careful to encourage my students to critically examine their ideas about slavery and freedom within the bounds of the Founders’ experiences and their sense of what was possible.  Gordon Wood has made this point numerous times in various books.  I want my students to learn the importance of perspective in analyzing the past.  The past looks different depending on what you read and who is included in the narrative.  While a significant number of black men fought with Washington I emphasize those slaves who risked their lives to escape to the British lines in hopes of attaining their freedom. 

This forces students to re-think the overly simplistic good guys v. bad guys paradigm.  In fact, just a few weeks after the delegates to the Second Continental Congress formerly parted with Britain, Harry Washington left Mount Vernon for Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment.  He wore a uniform with the stitched motto: "Liberty to Slaves."  It is estimated that between 80,000 – 100,000 former slaves (1 in 5) fled their homes for the freedom of the British army.  Many of course died in battle, from disease, ended up in places they did not desire to be or were returned to their owners.  One fifteen year old who was returned to her master following a failed attempt to locate Dunmore’s regiment was whipped 80 times by her master.  If that wasn’t sufficient punishment he also applied hot embers to her wounds.  Those that were "lucky" enough to find their way to the British armies ended up in England, Sierra Leone, and Nova Scotia.

Lepore speculates on why these stories of escaped slaves who left America following the war have been largely forgotten.  She suggests that 19th century abolitionists are partly to blame:

But those who did leave America also left American history.  Or, rather, they have been left out of it.  Theirs is not an undocumented story; it’s just one that has rarely been told, for a raft of interesting, if opposing reasons.  A major one is that nineteenth-century African-American abolitionists decided that they would do better by telling the story of the many blacks who fought on the patriot side during the Revolution, and had therefore earned for their race the right to freedom and full citizenship and an end to Jim Crow. 

Lepore’s suggestion that African-Americans are partly responsible for the disappearance of black men who fought with the British is disturbing on two levels.  First, is simply the idea that African-Americans must remind white Americans of their service in a war for independence that is already growing dimmer by the year.  More importantly, it looks like the project of crafting a story of black participation in the burgeoning national narrative pushed black Americans further from a much richer history of independence and the deeply entrenched desire for freedom.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

3 comments… add one
  • elementaryhistoryteacher May 7, 2006 @ 8:58

    I finally changed by links….glad I got around to it. Interesting post. The elementary texts are decent enough these days to include information about African American service in the American Revolution. I try to refer back to their treatment when we discuss the 3/5 compromise and the events leading up to the Civil War. They got the shaft all the way through and it wasn’t just from Southerners.

  • Kevin Levin May 4, 2006 @ 13:35

    Cash, — Thanks for the kind words and book recommendation.

  • Cash May 4, 2006 @ 13:33


    What a fascinating post. This is why you have one of the best history blogs around.

    I’ve noticed a novel in Borders called _Washington and Caesar,_ which gives parallel Revolutionary War stories of George Washington and an escaped Mount Vernon slave named Caesar who fights for the British. While historical fiction is problematical it does have the advantage of sparking interest in its readers, so this novel might be good reading for students who like historical fiction.


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