Other than Chrispus Attucks, the African American who died in the 1774 Boston Massacre and the British attempts to induce slaves to fight on the side of the King, historical accounts are generally devoid of the contributions of blacks who fought on the side of the rebels. Judith Van Buskirk ably addresses this void with a new account of black soldiers in the Continental Army and state patriot militias. What distiguishes Van Buskirk’s volume from other writings is the detailed research of pension applications and land bounty records.
The book opens with accounts of the motivations for slaves and free blacks to join the Patriot ranks. Many willingly joined the army to gain the potential for their freedom while others were conscripted to serve in the place of their masters. Generally, free blacks joined for the same patriotic or economic reasons as their white comrades. Interestingly, the percentage of African Americans in New England regiments might range up to 10 percent while fewer blacks served in the regiments of the southern states.
In a bold move, Rhode Island formed an all black regiment to meet its manpower obligations to the Continental Army. Led by Col. Chrisopher Greene, all white officers and NCO’s, Black soldiers were restricted to privates and had no advancement opportunities. The Rhode Island regiment faced considerable and invective racism and was not trusted with major military responsibilities.
Moving south, Van Buskirk recounts the efforts of South Carolinian John Laurens, a Continental Army officer to create an all-black unit for the state. The son of Henry Laurens the President of the Contintental Congress, John obtained a more enlightend view of racial relations from his studies in Switzerland. Even with considerable efforts, John was unsuccessful in obtaining permission from the state officials to create an all Black unit. Critically, the author points out inconsistencies in John’s thinking as on one hand, he advocated for freedom from slavery for military service but on the other hand was willing to forceably break up families to populate his regiment. Killed in a pointless skirmish, all thoughts of an all black South Carolinian regiment ended with John’s death.
In the remainding two chapters, Van Buskirk presents her research of the first and second Revolutionary Veteran Pension Acts. Favorably, the author states that in 1818 blacks were more likely than whites (3% versus 6% rejection rates) to have their pension applications accepted. However, this flipped in the 1832 Pension Act with blacks being denied 31% of the time versus 13% for whites. The Federal pension department changed the rules for the 1832 Act prohibiting pensions for persons who worked as laborers or servants for the army. This rule disproportionately affected African Americans.
Poignantly, Van Buskirk recounts the persistent and extensive efforts of individual black soldiers to recieve their pensions. Positively, the author describes the support blacks recieved from community leaders, officers and fellow soldiers to testify on behalf of the African American veterans to qualify for pensions. In some cases, members of Congress and other senior leaders strongly advocated for pensions for blacks they knew and served together. Further a “band of brothers” relationship between black and white soldiers was sometimes present including mutual trust and support for each other. However, after the war ended, black soldiers encountered brutal and systematic racism as they returned to late 18th Century civilian life.
I highly recommend “Standing in their Own Light” to both revolutionary scholars and readers interested in knowing more about Revolutionary era culture. The book fills a valuable gap in our historical record. One area that would improve the books usefulness would be to include a database of the author’s extensive and ground breaking pension record research. This would provide more opportunities to understandand extending the historial record. Increasingly book authors are developing companion web sites to display original research and provide table and other forms of historical data. This is a encouraging trend to further extend our knowledge and understanding of the Revolutionary Era.
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For readers interested in researching Africans Americans in the Revolution, click on African Americans for a list of additional books and other reference sources.