Saturday, May 5, 2012

Alan Gilbert's "Black Patriots and Loyalists"

Alan Gilbert is a John Evans Professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, Democratic Individuality, and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, and reported the following:
After the battle of Yorktown, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private fighting with the Patriots, walked around the field of battle. Most of the corpses, both Redcoat and Whig, he wrote in his diary, were “Mohren” [Moors]. In school, I never learned this central fact about the Revolution.

The Crown liberated a great number of blacks and took free blacks with them to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. But page 99 explores the greatest realization of freedom on the American side during the Revolution: the recruitment of the first Rhode Island regiment composed of freed blacks and Narragansett Indians.

In 1778, Rhode Island was short of white recruits to fight. General Varnum wrote to George Washington, requesting to recruit blacks to answer the British. Washington feared that Lord Dunmore's black troops would grow “like a snowball in rolling.” But his desire to win the war now overcame his zeal for bondage. Military competition for recruits in exchange for freedom propelled the gradual emancipation of slaves in the North during and after the Revolution and might have led to gradual emancipation in the South.

Most white Patriots enlisted as militiamen for 10 months. In contrast, the first Rhode Island regiment fought throughout the war in all the major battles. One in five were killed. At the battle of Fort Oswego, poorly dressed blacks froze (many lost toes). They fought to make American freedom real.

Samuel Johnson mocked the Declaration of Independence: “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?” One is amazed to discover, David Cooper, a New Jersey Quaker, wrote, that by the natural rights of all men, the Patriots mean only white men, and fight over a three-penny tax on tea but not the bondage of a human being for her entire life.

This second Revolution for emancipation, long hidden, is thus the greatest fight for freedom in the American Revolution. That a “gigantic number” of blacks were freed by the Empire compromises the cause of American liberty. But against this, the first Rhode Island regiment represented the Revolution’s integrity and aspiration:
The resolution [that created the Regiment] recalled that the Roman Republic freed slaves to defeat Hannibal, stating that “history affords us frequent Precedents of the wisest, freest, and bravest nations having liberated their Slaves, and enlisted them to fight in Defence of their country.” In Rhode Island, imperial forces had conquered “the Capital…and a great part of this State,” and the legislature declared that “every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave…may inlist into either of the said battalions,” It said that “every slave so inlisting shall be entitled to and receive all the bounties, wages, and encouragements allowed by the Continental Congress.” (p. 99)
Baron von Closen was a military advisor to Washington. On his way to Yorktown, he met black troops from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. A quarter of the troops, they were the most cheerful, sturdy and disciplined, he recorded. At Yorktown, the Regiment marched to take the two crucial British redoubts, under the leadership of John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton. They fixed bayonets to make no sound.

With fifteen minutes walk, Captain Stephen Olney empathized, many must have thought, the journey of life would end with them. The others stood there, in silence, listening. Shots rang out. But black Patriots won the day.

How deep does racism run in the United States? This great story of heroism has been buried for nearly two centuries. It is perhaps not surprising that a very moderate President is today attacked as an “other” or that we have the largest prison system in the world - 2.3 million prisoners, 25% of the world’s prisoners - of whom a majority are black and brown. Those who fought then for freedom need to be recognized and honored. Black Patriots and Loyalists tells their tale.
Learn more about Black Patriots and Loyalists at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue