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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: The Home Front
Recruiting African Americans into the Continental Army

Throughout the war, Washington, the Continental Congress, and the state governments struggled with the issue of recruiting sufficient troops to carry on the fight. In 1775, Washington recommended, and the Congress agreed, that the recruitment of African Americans for service in the Continental Army be discontinued. By mid-1777, however, the attitude of colonial leaders began to change. In the documents below, what evidence can you find concerning the patriot leaders' attitudes toward African Americans? What evidence can you find concerning why the patriot leaders changed their minds about recruiting blacks into the army? What limits would be placed on the use of black troops?

View the original documents by clicking on the links below. The documents are located in the Journals of the Continental Congress, in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, and the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


President of Georgia Congress, April 1776

To Archibald Bulloch, John Houstoun, Lyman Hall, Button Gwinnett and George Walton, Esquires, or to such of them, who shall repair to and join the Congress at Philadelphia.

Gentlemen,

Our remote Situation from both the Seat of Power and Arms, keep us so very ignorant of the Counsels and ultimate designs of the Congress, and of the Transactions in the Field, that we shall decline giving you any particular instructions, other than strongly to recommend it to you, that you never lose sight of the peculiar situation in the Province you are appointed to represent. The Indians both South and North-westardly upon our backs, the fortified Town of Saint Augustine made a continual Rendezvous for Soldiers in our very Neighbourhood, together with our blacks and tories within us. Let these weighty truths be the powerful Arguments for support. At the same time we also recommend it to you, always to keep in view the general Utility, remembering that the Great and Righteous Cause in which we are engaged is not Provincial but Continental. . . .

By Order of the Congress,
"Archd Bulloch, President.
"Savannah, 5th April, 1776.

Henry Laurens to George Washington, March 16, 1779

Our affairs in the Southern department in more favorable light, than we had viewed them in a few days ago; nevertheless, the Country is greatly distressed, and will be more so, unless further reinforcements are sent to its relief. had we Arms for 3000 such black Men, as I could select in Carolina I should have no doubt of success in driving the British out of Georgia and subduing East Florida before the end of July.

George Washington to Henry Laurens, March 20, 1779

The policy of our arming Slaves is, in my opinion, a moot point, unless the enemy set the example; for should we begin to form Battalions of them, I have not the smallest doubt (if the War is to be prosecuted) of their following us in it, and justifying the measure upon our own ground; the upshot then must be, who can arm fastest, and where are our Arms? besides, I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it; most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude; but as this is a subject that has never employed much of my thoughts, these are no more than the first crude Ideas that have struck me upon the occasion.

Continental Congress, March 29, 1779

Congress resumed the consideration of the report of the committee on the circumstances of the southern states, and the ways and means for their safety and defence: wherein the committee report:

That the circumstances of the army will not admit of the detaching of any force for the defence of South Carolina and Georgia.

That the continental battalions of those two States are not adequate to their defence.

That the three battalions of North Carolina continental troops now on the southern service are composed of draughts from the militia for nine months only, which term with respect to a great part of them will expire before the end of the campaign.

That all the other force now employed for the defence of the said States consists of militia, who from the remoteness of their habitations and the difficulties attending their service ought not to be relied on for continued exertions and a protracted war.

That the State of South Carolina as represented by the delegates of the said State and by Mr. Huger, who has come hither at the request of the governor of the said State, on purpose to explain the particular circumstances thereof, is unable to make any effectual efforts with militia, by reason of the great proportion of citizens necessary to remain at home to prevent insurrections among the negroes, and to prevent the desertion of them to the enemy.

That the state of the country and the great numbers of those people among them expose the inhabitants to great danger from the endeavours of the enemy to excite them, either to revolt or to desert. That it is suggested by the delegates of the said State, and by Mr. Huger, that a force might be raised in the said State from among the negroes which would not only be formidable to the enemy from their numbers and the discipline of which they would very readily admit, but would also lessen the danger from revolts and desertions by detaching the most vigorous and enterprizing from among the negroes. That as this measure may involve inconveniences peculiarly affecting the states of South Carolina and Georgia, the committee are of opinion that the same should be submitted to the governing powers of the said states, and if the said powers shall judge it expedient to raise such a force, that the United States ought to defray the expence thereof; Whereupon,

Resolved, That it be recommended to the Governing Powers of the States of South Carolina and Georgia, to consider of the Necessity, and Utility of arming [if they shall with Congress think it expedient to take measures for immediately] raising a force of able bodied Negroes, either for filling up the continental Battalions of those States, or for forming separate Corps, to be commanded by white Commissioned and NonCommissioned Officers, the commissioned officers to be appointed by the said governing Powers respectively, or for both purposes.

Resolved, That it be recommended to the states of South Carolina and Georgia, if they shall think the same expedient, to take measures immediately for raising three thousand able bodied negroes.

That the said negroes be formed into separate corps as battalions, according to the arrangements adopted for the main army, to be commanded by white commissioned and non commissioned officers. . . .

Resolved, That congress will make provision for paying the proprietors of such negroes as shall be inlisted for the service of the United States during the war, a full compensation for the property at a rate not exceeding one thousand dollars for each active able bodied negro man of standard size, not exceeding thirty five years of age, who shall be so inlisted and pass muster.

That no pay or bounty be allowed to the said negroes, but that they be cloathed and subsisted at the expence of the United States.

That every negro who shall well and faithfully serve as a soldier to the end of the present war, and shall then return his arms, be emancipated and receive the sum of fifty dollars.

Continental Congress, December 9, 1780

The committee, to whom was referred the motion of the Delegates of Georgia; Beg leave to report

That the several acts of the 29th. of March 1779, recommending the Levy of Blacks for the defence of Georgia and South Carolina, were never received by the Legislature of the former, and consequently, could not be carried into execution by that State. That although the measure was not adopted in South Carolina at that time, the necessity of the present juncture, and the difficulty of compleating the Continental quotas of those States in the ordinary method makes it incumbent on them to employ this resource for their own and the general Interest.

Your Committee therefore submit the following Resolutions viz.

Resolved, That an officer be appointed to levy a Corps of one thousand able bodied negroes in Georgia and South Carolina, under the authority of the Executives of those States and that the said Executives be requested to give every possible support to the measure. . . .

Resolved, That the conditions offered to the Black Soldiers, be the same as expressed in the act of the 29th. of March 1779, and that Congress will make provision for paying a reasonable price to the proprietors of such negroes, provided they be not adherents to the Enemy.

Resolved, That the Board of War be directed as soon as possible to procure and send forward a sufficient number of arms and accoutrements together with the necessary cloathing for the said Corps.

Continental Congress, January 2, 1781

The board have considered the letter of Lieut Col Laurens on the subject of certain engagements into which he entered with a view of furnishing a Corps of Blacks to the Southward, and beg leave to inform Congress, that the Board gave orders to the Commissary General of Military Stores to procure to be made four hundred Cartouch Boxes, and to have repaired of the public Arms four hundred stands on Lieut Col Laurens's furnishing the money, for the repair of the Arms and purchase of the accoutrements, these monies to be repaid him when the public circumstances would admit. That in consequence of the orders and in a private engagement from Col Laurens to him Mr Hodgdon procured to be made and repaired four hundred Cartouch Boxes and the like number of stands of Arms for the payment whereof Mr Hodgdon pledged himself to the workmen who have made and repaired the Arms and accoutrements and having performed their part of the contract now most importunately press Mr Hodgdon for payment. . . .

That the clothing agreed for by Col Laurens stated in his letter appears to be contracted for at reasonable prices and in the opinion of the Board it ought to be taken for the public use it being much wanted.

The following resolution is therefore submitted:

Ordered, That bills of exchange, to the amount of three thousand seven hundred dollars, be put into the hands of the paymaster of the Board of War and Ordnance, for the purpose of enabling the said Board to take for public use, a number of cartouch boxes and a quantity of cloathing, contracted for by Lieutenant Colonel Laurens, and to pay for the repairs of a number of arms, for which Colonel Laurens became engaged.
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View the original documents by clicking on the links above. The documents are located in the Journals of the Continental Congress, in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, and the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.