His plan to create a black regiment in the South failed, but black regiments were created during the war, and some of them were vital to certain battles and victories.
Perhaps the most notable black regiment formed during the war was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which has become legendary in the fight for freedom. Colonel Christopher Greene commanded the Regiment, and it was one of only three black regiments to fight during the war. In fact, many historians feel the war might have ended sooner if more regiments like the 1st Rhode Island had been formed and utilized. The Kaplans note, "Colonel Christopher Greene's First Rhode Island Regiment distinguished itself for efficiency and gallantry throughout the war -- perhaps the war would have ended sooner if its example had been heeded" (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 64). Rhode Island was unable to fill its quota of fighting men for the Continental Army, and so the black regiment was formed. The Rhode Island Legislature declared that any black who fought in the regiment would gain freedom and be paid the same wages as any other soldier (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 64). Washington personally assigned Colonel Greene to train and lead the new recruits.
The Regiment proved itself in many battles. One of the first was the Battle of Rhode Island, where they faced both Hessian and British forces. In fact, they fought so bravely that the Hessian commander returned to New York and refused to fight the black Regiment again (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 65). The unit fought the entire war, and distinguished itself again and again. The Kaplans continue,
In the attack made upon the American lines, near Croton river, on the 13th of May, 1781," wrote Nell, "Colonel Greene, the commander of the regiment, was cut down and mortally wounded: but the sabres 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" (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 65).
Many others wrote of the Regiment's deportment, manners, skill, and devotion to duty. It is clear they played an important part in the war, and in many key battles. Indeed, if more loyal black regiments had fought during the war, then perhaps the war might not have dragged on as long as it did.
While only a few black regiments actually formed and fought during the war, there were an estimated 5000 soldiers who fought on the American side, and perhaps an equal or greater number on the British side. However, not all of the blacks in the war served as fighting men. One extremely important black combatant was James Armistead, also known as James Armistead Lafayette, after the French general. Armistead, owned by a man named William Armistead, asked his master to allow him to enlist in the French Army under General Lafayette in 1781. He took the General's last name when he went into service with him. The French were actively seeking black recruits to help shore up their own forces as they helped the Americans fight the British. James served the General as a spy, and was so good at infiltrating the British that British General Cornwallis never knew James was an American spy until after the war was over (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 39). In fact, many people believe it was James' influence that led Lafayette to begin a crusade to free blacks and set up a territory where they could live without fear and in freedom (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 40). Lafayette wrote of James' service, "His intelligence from the enemy's camp were industriously collected and more faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of'" (Kaplan, and Kaplan 1989, 39). James frequently traveled between the American and British camps, and Lafayette often fed false information to Cornwallis through James. When the war ended, James was still a slave, but in 1786, the General Assembly of Virginia voted to free him.
While many of the blacks who joined the British forces were forced to return to their masters or were resold after the war, some managed to come under the wing of British Commander Guy Carleton, who helped evacuate many black loyalists into Canada after the war. Carleton was the Governor of Quebec, and eventually became the leader of the British forces in North America by the end of the Revolutionary War. He helped negotiate the peace treaties at the end of the war, and organized evacuations of loyal Tories who no longer wished to remain in the country. The Editors of the Black Loyalists Web site note, "Knowing that those citizens who still wanted to be loyal to the British Crown would need a place to live, Carleton looked to the unsettled land in Nova Scotia. Many Loyalists were interested and decided that they would try to build a British colony at this new location" (Editors 2005). Initially, the treaties said that Tories could leave the country, but they had to leave behind any looted property and any Negroes. Carleton felt the blacks were not property, and had been promised their freedom by the British government, and so, they did not fall under the terms of the treaty. Initially, the Americans disagreed, but Carleton promised to compensate the original slave owners, and so, they agreed to allow the blacks to resettle along with the whites. The names of all former slave owners were recorded in a book so they could eventually be compensated for the loss of their slaves. This book came to be known as Carleton's Book of Negroes (Editors 2005). Eventually, hundreds of blacks left the states and resettled in Canada and Great Britain, and it was Guy Carleton's intervention that assured them their freedom and the ability to travel out of the newly formed United States.
In conclusion, black fighting men contributed on both sides during the Revolutionary War. They proved their loyalty and longed for their freedom. Many of them gave their lives in their bid for freedom and recognition as equal citizens. In fact, many of the blacks who fought during the Revolutionary War distinguished themselves on the battlefield, as spies, and as leaders. They often made the difference between victory and defeat in key battles, and many historians believe if more blacks had fought, the war might have been over sooner. While they proved their allegiance to their countries and their commitment to freedom, most did not gain their freedom. In addition, many of the blacks who fought during the Revolutionary War forged alliances that lasted long after the war, and influenced how others felt about black freedom. Men like Guy Carleton, General Lafayette, and George Washington worked to end slavery or aided slaves and free blacks after the war. The war won independence, but not for all. However, it did show black Americans were ready and willing to fight for a just cause. Many historians also believe that black service in the Revolutionary War ultimately paved the way toward the American Civil War and ultimate freedom from slavery for American blacks.
Bradley, Patricia. 1998. Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Dunmore, Lord. 1775. Lord Dunmore's Appeal to the Slaves of Virginia (1775).
Editors. 2005. Black Loyalists: Our History, Our People. Government of Canada's Digital Collections. http://collections.ic.gc.ca/blackloyalists/story/our_story.htm
Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. 1989. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Revised ed. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.