Early on, it looked as though the issue of African-Americans serving in the Continental Army would be resolved simply enough. Only days after taking command in 1775, Gen. George Washington decreed that no black, free or enslaved, could be recruited to fight.
As a Virginian and slave owner, Washington was reacting to southerners' fear that arming blacks would lead to slave rebellions. Additionally, many white soldiers expressed disdain at the notion of fighting alongside men they considered inferior. So a deal was struck: Those free blacks serving in northern regiments, most of which first fought in state and local militias, would be able to finish their terms of service. Then Washington would have an all-white Army.
But his plan didn't last long. Military realities soon forced him to reverse course, and blacks would fight on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Everything from a drastic shortage of soldiers to the differing colonial economies affected which side blacks ended up on, but by far the most important factor was the promise of freedom.
For both armies, the need for manpower trumped most other calculations. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, issued a decree that infuriated colonists. "I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops."
It would be a monumental moment in the Revolution's history, says Sylvia Frey, a Tulane University historian and author of Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. "The proclamation had more the psychological impact than the military impact. It created the image of the black warrior who was willing and capable to fight for freedom."
For the British Army, Dunmore's reasoning was twofold. Escaped slaves would bring economic hardship to their rebel masters and strengthen the ranks of the British Army. For slaves, the promise of freedom drew tens of thousands to the British side. "Whenever there is a war that the masters are involved in, the enslaved people take advantage of the situation," says Edward Rugemer, a Yale University assistant professor of history and African-American studies. "The American Revolution was no different."
Dunmore's decision, however, did not indicate an absence of bigotry. Blacks were generally barred from fighting alongside loyalist soldiers, and most of the newly freed slaves—men and women—were relegated to manual labor. They built fortifications in Savannah, Ga., foraged neighboring towns for provisions, worked as cooks and servants for British officers, and plied the rivers of the South as boat pilots.
On the rebel side, meanwhile, the Colonies' inability to fill soldier quotas forced Washington in January 1777 to retract his decision barring free blacks. Roughly a year later, enough slaves in Rhode Island—promised freedom in exchange for military service—enlisted to fill two battalions. Most northern colonies soon followed suit. In a common practice, runaway slaves passed themselves off as free to join up. Often, particularly in Virginia, slaves fought as substitutes for their masters.
Deep South. For South Carolina and Georgia, it was a different story. Even with increasing pressure from Congress for additional manpower, those colonies would not arm slaves. In fact, many South Carolina rebels pledged loyalty to King George III to keep their slaves.
In the end, an estimated 5,000 African-Americans picked up arms to fight for independence, while many, many more worked as manual laborers. "They made a difference in terms of the size of the Continental Army," says Adele Logan Alexander, an associate history professor at George Washington University. "Washington, who was a brilliant general, understood that you could not have the disruptive impact of all those people going over to the British."