Out of the Shadows: African Descendants-Revolutionary Combatants in the Hudson River Valley; a Preliminary Historical Sketch

Article excerpt

One key battleground in the Revolutionary War of 1776 was the Hudson River Valley, located in the British colony of eastern New York. The valley was a microcosm of other such war theaters in the thirteen mainland colonies in which the British engaged colonial combatants in a desperate attempt to squelch what was perceived as an act of treason. Among the combatants on that battlefield on both sides could be found nobility, landed gentry, small farmers, merchants, bankers, and common laborers. Strategically, the Hudson River was an important lifeline for British Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, while the valley linked the New England colonies to those of the Middle and Southern regions. In order for the British to bring a quick end to the rebellion, it first had to capture the Hudson River Valley, thus severing the thread that linked the rebellious thirteen colonies. The victory, in augmenting the war effort, would allow the free flow of men and supplies on the river between New York City and Canada. Moreover, the valley would become an ideal staging ground for punitive military raids, and eventual mopping up campaigns into the Middle and New England colonies.

A presence among the combatants that is seldom if ever mentioned on this crucial Hudson River Valley battlefield is that of African Descendants--both free and enslaved. It was their presence in the battles fought in this theater of the Revolutionary War that aided the Americans in their military efforts to hold the valley, and eventually use it as the staging ground for the final assault against the British by a combined force of American and French soldiers under General George Washington headed for Yorktown, Virginia. This paper, therefore, is about that presence of African Descendants who were on that battleground but, because of a glitch in historical methods, were relegated to the shadows of their white, fellow combatants. Yet, nevertheless, their heroic deeds afforded the Americans ultimate victory. For those who fought with the British, either as black Englishmen or were with the Hessian Drummer Corps, unfortunately their heroic deeds were overwhelmed by defeat.

Since this paper is a preliminary attempt to tell the role of African Descendants in the Revolutionary War of 1776, and because most of the evidence speaks to African Descendants in New York, the core of the paper will reconstruct their involvement. Two later sections will succinctly address those African Descendants who supported the British war effort, either within the ranks of England's fighting forces or with her ally, the Hessians. The second of the two, a tantalizing postscript composed of some recently unearthed historical shards, will demonstrate the potentially rich possibilities for research into those African descendants who supported the British war efforts. Thus it can be said that no longer should these unsung Heroes be relegated to the margins of history. Now they can come out of the shadows and claim center stage.

FOREVER THE WARRIOR--BOTH THE FREE AND THE ENSLAVED

When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, he, and his co-conspirators, had only white colonists in mind. What he did not anticipate was that thousands of Africans held in bondage (and those that were free) would view the Declaration and the ensuring conflagration between the two groups of whites as a means to their own freedom. Because the modus vivendi between masters and the enslaved in New York remained precarious, the African had no qualms about choosing either of the combatants to assist him in becoming his own liberator. In the words of Benjamin Quarles, "Insofar as [the African] had freedom of choice, he was likely to join the side that made him the quickest and best offer in terms of those 'inalienable rights' of which Mr. Jefferson had spoken." (2) For the African the Declaration of 1776 was his call to arms to battle for independence and freedom. Caught up in the rhetoric of the Declaration, the African's undeclared war on the peculiar institution became an open campaign against the evil of slavery. …