During the American Revolution, thousands of black Americans jumped into the war, on both sides of the conflict. But unlike their white counterparts, they weren’t just fighting for independence—or to maintain British control. In a time when the vast majority of African Americans lived in bondage—their forced labor fueling the economy of the fledgling nation—most took up arms hoping to be freed from the literal shackles of chattel slavery. In fact, when enslaved people had choice in the matter, according to historian Edward Ayres of the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, Virginia, they signed on with whichever side seemed most likely to grant them personal freedom.
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For some slaves-turned-soldiers, the Revolution’s promise of liberty became a reality. But despite the patriots’ lofty rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, America’s war for independence didn’t herald widespread emancipation for enslaved people of color. America’s northern states didn’t pass laws to abolish slavery until 1804—and even then, some areas phased it out slowly. Southern states would cling to the brutal practice for more than a half-century longer.
Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African-descended people participated in the Revolution on the Patriot side, and that upward of 20,000 served the crown. Many fought with extraordinary bravery and skill, their exploits lost to our collective memory. Below are the stories of several exceptional African American figures—a martyr, a poet and a double agent among them—whose crucial contributions to the conflict have been remembered to history.
Crispus Attucks, Martyr
Crispus Attucks, whom many historians credit as the first man to die for the rebellion, became a symbol of black American patriotism and sacrifice. In 1770, as tension mounted between British and colonial sailors in Massachusetts ports, distrust and competition among them grew. These pressures came to a head on March 5th, when an angry confrontation turned into a slaughter known as the Boston Massacre.
Witnesses say that Attucks, a middle-aged runaway slave of African and native American descent, who worked as a sailor and a rope maker, played an active role in the initial scuffle. Of the five colonists killed, he was said to be the first to fall—making him the first martyr to the American cause. He was taken down by two musket balls to the chest.
READ MORE: 8 Things We Know About Crispus Attucks
Salem Poor, Patriot Soldier
Salem Poor began life as a Massachusetts slave and ended it as an American hero. Born into bondage in the late 1740s, he purchased his own freedom two decades later for 27 pounds, the equivalent of a few thousand dollars today. Soon after, Poor joined the fight for independence.
Enlisting multiple times, he is believed to have fought in the battles of Saratoga and Monmouth. He’s most famous, however, for his heroism at the Battle of Bunker Hill—where his contributions so impressed fellow soldiers, that after the war ended, 14 of them formally recognized his excellent battle skills with a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts. In it, they called him out as a “brave and gallant soldier,” saying he “behaved like an experienced officer.” Poor is credited in that battle with killing British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, along with several other enemy soldiers.
Colonel Tye, Loyalist Guerrilla
Colonel Tye earned a reputation as the most formidable guerilla leader in the Revolutionary War. During his years fighting for the British, Patriots feared his raids, while their slaves welcomed his help in their liberation.
Tye, originally known as Titus during his early years in slavery in New Jersey, escaped a particularly brutal master in 1775 and joined the British army after the Crown offered freedom to any enslaved person who enlisted. While Tye stood out as a soldier from the start, the British didn’t station him at pitched battles. They saw more value in using his knowledge of the coveted New Jersey territory, which sat between British-occupied New York and the Patriot’s center of government in Philadelphia. The Redcoats needed to take this middle land—and believed Tye could help.
The British were right. Tye excelled at raid warfare there. His familiarity with the area gave him an advantage in attacks on Patriots’ lands. And his daring, skillful execution kept his Black Brigade soldiers largely unscathed as they plundered homes, took supplies, freed slaves and sometimes even assassinated Patriot slaveholders renowned for their cruelty. The British recognized Tye’s impact on their success and, out of respect for all his contributions, bestowed on him the honorific title of Colonel. He remains an important symbol of fearless resistance.
READ MORE: The Ex-Slaves Who Fought with the British
The First Rhode Island Regiment, Integrated Revolutionary Force
The First Rhode Island Regiment, the first Continental Army unit largely comprised of New England blacks, showcased African Americans’ skill as soldiers and commitment to their brethren on the battlefield. In the late 1770s, dwindling manpower forced George Washington to reconsider his original decision to ban blacks from the Continental Army. So in 1778, a Rhode Island legislature declared that both free and enslaved blacks could serve. To attract the latter, the Patriots promised freedom at the end of service.
Though relatively small—only about 130 men—the First Rhode Island Regiment had an outsized impact. Commanding General John Sullivan praised its soldiers for their success against attacks in the Battle of Newport, saying they displayed "desperate valor in repelling three furious Hessian (German) infantry assaults." When the Rhode Islanders journeyed to Virginia, where several thousand other soldiers were assembling, they stood out, according to aFrench military officer there, as “most neatly dressed, the best under arms and the most precise in all their maneuvers."
And one early historian, William Cooper, lauded their fierce loyalty. When their commander Colonel Christopher Greene was cut down during a surprise early-morning attack in May 1781, he wrote, “the sabers of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of blacks, who hovered over him to protect him, and every one of whom was killed.”
Phyllis Wheatley, Patriot Poet
Phillis Wheatley was a revolutionary intellectual who waged a war for freedom with her words. Captured as a child in West Africa, then taken to North America and enslaved, Wheatley had an unusual experience in bondage: Her owners educated her and supported her literary pursuits. In 1773, at around age 20, Wheatley became the first African American and third woman to publish a book of poetry in the young nation. Shortly after, her owners freed her.
Influential colonists read Wheatley’s poems and lauded her talent. Her work, which reflected her close knowledge of the ancient classics as well as Biblical theology, carried strong messages against slavery and became a rallying cry for Abolitionists: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” She also advocated for independence, artfully expressing support for George Washington’s Revolutionary War in her poem, “To His Excellency, General Washington.” Washington, who himself had been forced to end his formal education at age 11, appreciated Wheatley’s support and extolled her talent. The commander even invited her to meet, explaining he would “be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses.”
Peter Salem, Colonial Hero
Peter Salem is best known for his crucial contributions at the outset of the Revolution. Born into slavery in Massachusetts in the mid-18th century, Salem joined the Patriots in the earliest battles of the war, participating as a “minute man” at Lexington and Concord. His owners supported this decision and freed him so that he could remain enlisted.
Salem earned his place in history for his role in one the most important Revolutionary War fights, the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. Although the British defeated the Continental Army in this encounter, it wasn’t a total loss for the Patriots: Their killing of many Redcoats encouraged them to keep up the fight. Many historians credit Salem with killing a key officer of the crown, Major John Pitcairn, just as he was scaling the top of the American redoubt and demanding that the Patriots surrender. Salem’s role is believed to have been memorialized in John Trumbull’s painting The battle of Bunker's Hill.
James Armistead Lafayette, the Double Agent
During the Revolution, James Armistead’s life changed drastically—from an enslaved person in Virginia to a double agent passing intel, and misinformation, between the two warring sides. When Armistead joined the Patriots’ efforts, they assigned him to infiltrate the enemy. So he pretended to be a runaway slave wanting to serve the crown, and was welcomed by the British with open arms. At first they assigned him menial support tasks, but he soon became a more strategic resource due to his vast knowledge of the local terrain. Armistead’s role got more interesting when the British directed him to spy on the Patriots. Since his loyalty remained with the colonists, he claimed to be bringing the British intel about the Continental Army, but he was actually pushing incorrect information to foil their plans. In the meantime, he was learning details of the British battle plans, which he brought back to his commander, General Marquis de Lafayette.
This served the Americans well. Because of Armistead’s efforts, they got the insight they needed to successfully execute the decisive Siege of Yorktown, which effectively ended the war. Years later, after a testimonial from the French general helped secure Armistead’s freedom, the former slave changed his surname to Lafayette.