Black Patriots and Loyalists Illuminates the Role of Slaves in American Revolution

Article excerpt

During the American Revolution, thousands of slaves escaped to join or at least follow around British forces, stirred up by the offer to fight for them in exchange for emancipation.

Blacks served the British as soldiers, sailors, guides and guerrillas. Eventually, colonists also began reluctantly using Blacks in combat and in supporting roles as cooks, servants and tradesman. A few Black heroes emerged on both sides, respected for their bravery, cunning and fighting ability.

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University of Denver professor Alan Gilbert details this compelling, little-known part of American history in his book Black Patriots and Loyalists (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Gilbert takes a scholarly approach that can be dry at times. But the book is worth reading despite his tendency to pile up not-so-necessary names, dates and numbers and cram in a few too many quotes from original sources rather than summarize.

Black Patriots is valuable to anyone who is seeking a full understanding of the American Revolution--or is simply interested in how societies cope with wrenching change.

Gilbert traces the recruiting of slaves to a British-court decision that held slavery to be illegal in Great Britain, though not in her colonies. The Earl of Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, ran with it, pushing for the British to enlist Blacks to defend the crown in exchange for freedom.

The book adeptly explains the fallout from this recruitment. The colonists, referred to as Patriots, were forced to spend much of their energy trying to prevent their slaves from rebelling and deserting. But thousands of slaves fled anyway, often with their families.

In one entertaining passage, Gilbert says the British were "delighted" to recruit the former slaves of well-known Patriots, including Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson complained in a letter that in Virginia alone, an estimated 30,000 slaves fled to the British in 1781.

Defending slavery became a key issue for the revolution, which ironically stood for freedom from tyranny. In fact, Gilbert maintains, Dunmore's acts helped foment the revolution.

In response to British enlisting efforts, the Patriots began recruiting and emancipating Blacks to fight for the colonies' independence, sometimes as substitutes for their masters.

The circumstances, politics, and extent of the recruitment varied from state to state. Gilbert diligently gives profiles of the key states, which can make some chapters seem fragmented.

But he gives colorful descriptions of how Blacks helped Patriot forces in significant ways in Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. …