By the end of the war from 5,000 to 8,000 blacks had served the American cause in some capacity, either on the battlefield, behind the lines in noncombatant roles, or on the seas.
Several all-black units, commanded by white officers, also were formed and saw action against the British.
Rhode Island’s Black Battalion was established in 1778 when that state was unable to meet its quota for the Continental Army.
The Declaration of Independence promised liberty for all men but failed to put an end to slavery; and although they had proved themselves in battle, the Continental Congress adopted a policy of excluding black soldiers from the army.
In spite of these discouragements, many free and enslaved African Americans in New England were willing to take up arms against the British.
Most British officials were reluctant to arm blacks, but as early as 1775, Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, established an all-black “Ethiopian Regiment” composed of runaway slaves.
By promising them freedom, Dunmore enticed over 800 slaves to escape from “rebel” masters.As soon states found it increasingly difficult to fill their enlistment quotas, they began to turn to this untapped pool of manpower.Eventually every state above the Potomac River recruited slaves for military service, usually in exchange for their freedom.Black participation in the Revolution, however, was not limited to supporting the American cause, and either voluntarily or under duress thousands also fought for the British.Enslaved blacks made their own assessment of the conflict and supported the side that offered the best opportunity to escape bondage.Whenever they could, enslaved blacks continued to join him until he was defeated and forced to leave Virginia in 1776.Dunmore’s innovative strategy met with disfavor in England, but to many blacks the British army came to represent liberation.Early in the 18th century a few New England ministers and conscientious Quakers, such as George Keith and John Woolman, had questioned the morality of slavery but they were largely ignored.By the 1760s, however, as the colonists began to speak out against British tyranny, more Americans pointed out the obvious contradiction between advocating liberty and owning slaves.The legislature agreed to set free slaves who volunteered for the duration of the war, and compensated their owners for their value.This regiment performed bravely throughout the war and was present at Yorktown where an observer noted it was “the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers.” Although the Southern states were reluctant to recruit enslaved African Americans for the army, they had no objections to using free and enslaved blacks as pilots and able-bodied seaman.