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Black Patriots of the American Revolution
Americans have lost much of their knowledge of basic historical facts, particularly
those relating to the American Revolution. In fact, a recent survey of high-performing
college seniors found that more thought that Ulysses S. Grant (a Civil War general
in the 1860s) commanded the troops at Yorktown than George Washington (who actually
did lead those troops in the 1780s). Since advanced college seniors cannot identify
the commander-in-chief of the American Revolution, it is not surprising that
today’s Americans know even less about the thousands of African Americans who
fought during the Revolution, or that they participated in every major battle
of the War.
Although this part of our history is unfamiliar today, it was known in previous
generations because of the writings of black historians such as William Nell,
an award winning young scholar in Boston during the 1830s. He studied law and
became the first black American to hold a post in the federal government. In
1852, he authored Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812,
and three years later, he penned The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution.
This issue is dedicated to a recovery of the knowledge of our black patriot
heroes to whom today’s Americans of all colors owe a debt of gratitude.
James Armistead (Lafayette) (1760-1832)
James Armistead was one of the most important American spies during the Revolution.
As a slave in Virginia, he witnessed much of the War; and following the British
siege of Richmond in 1781, he asked his master, William Armistead, for permission
to serve in the cause of American independence with General Marquis de Lafayette,
a young Frenchman who came to fight with the Americans. His master agreed, and
Lafayette accepted his services. Lafayette dispatched Armistead to the camp
of the patriot-turned-traitor, Benedict Arnold (then a British general), to
pose as an escaped slave looking for work. Arnold accepted Armistead and allowed
him to work in the camp, thus placing him around other British generals, including
British commander-in-chief Lord Cornwallis. Armistead obtained much vital information
about British plans and troop movements, which he daily sent to General Lafayette.
Ironically, Lord Cornwallis so trusted Armistead that he even asked him to become
a British spy to watch the Americans. Armistead agreed and thus became a double-spy,
feeding accurate information to the Americans and inaccurate information to
Upon learning that the British fleet was moving Cornwallis and his troops to
Yorktown, Armistead quickly relayed that information to Lafayette and Washington,
who gathered the American forces at Yorktown. After the British troops had landed
and the British fleet had unsuspectingly departed from Chesapeake Bay, the Americans
engaged the British while the French fleet blockaded the Bay to keep the British
navy from returning. The Battle of Yorktown ensued, and the British – without
their navy to provide reinforcements or supplies and with no way to retreat
off the peninsula on which they were trapped – finally surrendered. Armistead’s
crucial information had helped bring a victorious end to the American Revolution.
Following the War, Armistead returned to slavery on his master’s plantation.
Three years later, in 1784, General Lafayette returned to America for a visit
and met with his friend, Armistead. Lafayette penned a certificate to Virginia
leaders praising the work and important contributions of Armistead. Armistead
then petitioned the legislature for his freedom, which was granted on New Year’s
Day, 1787. (In his latter years, Armistead also received a retirement pension
from the State for his military services.) Following his emancipation, Armistead
adopted the name Lafayette and thereafter called himself James Lafayette. He
remained in the State as a farmer.
General Lafayette became an ardent foe of slavery both in America and in Europe,
and it is believed that it was his association with James Armistead that helped
clarify his views on slavery, leading him to begin his strong public crusade
against that evil.
In 1824, General Lafayette made his final visit to America; his tour across
the nation was greeted by crowds of thousands in city after city. When touring
Richmond, the General recognized in the crowd his black comrade from four decades
earlier (now an old man) and called him out by name and embraced him – the last
time the two patriot friends were to meet.
Jordan Freeman (? – 1781);
Lambo (Lambert) Latham (? – 1781)
In 1781, both black and white soldiers fought side by side at the Battle of
Groton Heights, Connecticut. The American force of only 84 men, led by Lt. Col.
William Ledyard, was attempting to defend the town of New London from a large
invading force led by American traitor-turned-British General Benedict Arnold.
After suffering heavy casualties against the overwhelming British numbers,
Col. Ledyard and his remaining troops retreated to tiny Fort Griswold, equipped
with only a few small cannons. The Americans eventually ran out of ammunition;
and when the British charged the fort, the Americans used their rifles as clubs,
fighting back the British with only bayonets and pikes. The British began scaling
the walls of the fort; upon reaching the top, the British officer leading the
attack – Major Montgomery – was speared and killed by black patriot Jordan Freeman.
The British rushed over the walls and quickly overran the fort, overpowering
the few remaining Americans.
A British officer then asked the American prisoners, “Who commanded the fort?”
Colonel Ledyard replied, “I did once. You do now,” and handed his sword to the
British officer, as was customary with a surrender. The British officer then
took Ledyard’s own sword and thrust it through Ledyard’s body all the way to
That act was witnessed by all the remaining Americans, including black patriot
Lambert Latham. (When the flagpole of the fort had earlier been shot down by
the British during the battle, Lambert grabbed the American flag and held it
high until he was captured.) Latham had stood silently with the other American
prisoners, but upon witnessing the coldblooded murder of his commander, Nell
records what next occurred: “Lambert . . . retaliated upon the [British] officer
by thrusting his bayonet through his body. Lambert, in return, received from
the enemy thirty-three bayonet wounds, and thus fell, nobly avenging the death
of his commander.”
The British – angered by the loss of so many of their soldiers at the hands
of so few Americans – promptly slaughtered all the remaining Americans left
in the fort, including Jordan Freeman.
Interestingly, Freeman had been a slave of Col. Ledyard, the commander of the
fort, but had been freed by him. As a free man, Freeman had remained in the
area and married. When the region came under attack from the British, Freeman
chose to stay and fight for America side by side with the man who had once been
Today, at the site of old Fort Griswold is a plaque showing the moment in which
Jordan Freeman killed the attacking British officer. There is also a huge monument
standing there; the names of Jordan Freeman and Lambert Latham appear on that
monument, along with the other American soldiers who gave their lives defending
American liberty in that battle.
Peter Salem (1750-1816)
Peter Salem was a member of the famous Massachusetts Minutemen and was involved
in a number of important battles, including the battles of Bunker Hill, Concord,
and Saratoga (the first American victory of the Revolution). However, it was
in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, that he gained notoriety.
After the battles of Lexington and Concord, American troops from Massachusetts,
Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island assembled at Boston to confront
the 5,000 British troops stationed there. The outmanned American forces engaged
the British outside the city. The Americans were winning the conflict until
they began running out of ammunition. With the Americans near defeat, British
commander Major John Pitcairn (who had earlier led the British forces against
the Americans at Lexington) mounted the hill and shouted, “The day is ours!”
whereupon Salem promptly shot him, sending the British troops into confusion
and allowing the Americans to escape safely. Peter Salem was honored before
General Washington for his soldierly act.
Salem became a member of the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment and served throughout
the rest of the Revolution – a total of seven years of military service in behalf
of his country, a length of time achieved by few other soldiers in the Revolution.
Salem had entered the Revolution as a slave but finished it as a free man, marrying
in 1783, at the conclusion of the Revolution.
A stone monument was erected to Peter Salem at Framingham, Massachusetts, in
1882; and Salem is pictured in the famous painting of John Trumbull titled,
“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill.”
Prince Whipple (c. 1756 – c. 1797)
Prince Whipple had been part of a wealthy (perhaps even a royal) African family.
When he was ten, he was sent by his family to America for an education; but
while on the voyage, he was shanghaied by the ship’s treacherous captain and
sold into slavery in Baltimore. He was bought by New Hampshire ship captain
William Whipple, a famous leader in that State.
William Nell, in his 1852 The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,
tells the early story of Prince in America:
As was customary, Prince took the surname of his owner, William Whipple,
who would later represent New Hampshire by signing the Declaration of Independence.
. . . When William Whipple joined the revolution as a captain, Prince accompanied
him and was in attendance to General Washington on Christmas night 1776 for
the legendary and arduous crossing of the Delaware. The surprise attack following
the crossing was a badly needed victory for America and for Washington’s sagging
military reputation. In 1777, [William Whipple was] promoted to Brigadier
General and [was] ordered to drive British General Burgoyne out of Vermont.
An 1824 work provides details of what occurred after General Whipple’s promotion:
On [his] way to the army, he told his servant [Prince] that if they should
be called into action, he expected that he would behave like a man of courage
and fight bravely for his country. Prince replied, “Sir, I have no inducement
to fight, but if I had my liberty, I would endeavor to defend it to the last
drop of my blood.” The general manumitted [freed] him on the spot.
Prince Whipple did enter the service of America as a soldier during the Revolution
and is often identified in a number of early paintings of the War, including
that of General Washington after crossing the Delaware. In fact, many identify
Prince Whipple as the man on the oar in the front of the boat in the famous
crossing of the Delaware picture painted in 1851. Although Whipple did not actually
cross the Delaware with Washington in the manner depicted, he was representative
of the thousands of black patriots who did fight for American independence –
and of the many African Americans who did cross the Delaware with Washington.
Prince Whipple fought in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and the Battle of Rhode
Island in 1778. He directly attended General Washington and the general staff
throughout the Revolution, serving as a soldier and aide at the highest levels.
Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833)
Lemuel Haynes was abandoned by his parents when he was five months old. He was
taken in and apprenticed by the David Rose family. According to Haynes: “He
[David Rose] was a man of singular piety. I was taught the principles of religion.
His wife . . . treated me as though I was her own child.”
Haynes was given the opportunity for education – something rare for African
Americans in that day. Haynes explained: “I had the advantage of attending a
common school equal with the other children. I was early taught to read.” He
also educated himself at night by reading in front of a fireplace. He developed
a lifelong love for the Bible and theology, and even as a youth he frequently
held services and preached sermons at the town parish. He also memorized massive
and lengthy portions of the Bible.
In 1774 when he turned 21 and had finished his tradesman apprenticeship, he
enlisted as a Minuteman in the local Connecticut militia. While he was not part
of the Battle of Lexington, he did write a lengthy ballad-sermon about that
famous battle. However, a week following that battle, Haynes and the Connecticut
troops were part of the siege of Boston. Haynes was also part of the military
expedition against Fort Ticonderoga, made legendary by Ethan Allen and the famous
Green Mountain Boys. Haynes became an ardent admirer of George Washington and
remained so throughout his life. In fact, Haynes regularly preached sermons
on Washington’s birthday and was an active member of the Washington Benevolent
After the Revolution, Haynes continued his studies in Latin, Greek, and theology
and became the first African American to be ordained by a mainstream Christian
denomination (the Congregationalists, in 1785), to pastor a white congregation
(a congregation in Connecticut), and to be awarded an honorary Master’s Degree
(by Middlebury College in 1804). Over his life, Haynes pastored several churches
in Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York (often white churches),
published a number of sermons, and was a confidant and counselor to the presidents
of both Yale and Harvard.
Lemuel Haynes died at the age of eighty, having written the epitaph for his
tombstone: “Here lies the dust of a poor helldeserving sinner, who ventured
into eternity trusting wholly on the merits of Christ for salvation. In the
full belief of the great doctrines he preached while on earth, he invites his
children, and all who read this, to trust their eternal interest on the same
In December 1776, the secondin- command of the American Army, General Charles
Lee, was taken prisoner by the British. In order for the Americans to effect
his release through a prisoner exchange, a British general of the same rank
was needed. A bold plan was therefore undertaken by Lt. Col. William Barton.
He would slip past British forces at Newport, Rhode Island, enter the heart
of the British camp, capture British General Richard Prescott in his quarters,
and return him to the American side before the British learned of the raid.
Col. Barton hand-selected about forty elite soldiers, both black and white.
He gathered the group, explained to them his plan, warned them of the risk,
and asked for volunteers. All chose to be part of the daring operation.
Waiting until the middle of the night, the group loaded into small boats, and
with muffled oars, rowed silently past General Prescott’s warships and guard
boats anchored in the harbor. Landing near the general’s headquarters, the Americans
quickly overpowered the guards and surrounded the house of the sleeping general.
They entered his house and, standing outside his locked door, they had only
to break down the door and quickly grab Prescott before he realized what had
At that moment, one of the black commandos, Prince Sisson – a powerful man
– stepped forward and charged the door, using his own head as a battering ram;
on the second try, the locked door gave way and Prince entered the quarters
and seized the surprised general. They safely returned with Prescott to the
American lines where he was subsequently exchanged for the second-in-command
of the American Army, General Charles Lee. The daring act of Sisson is still
celebrated to this day.
Rhode Island Fighters
The First Rhode Island was a regiment of 125 black patriots – both slave and
free – commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene. That regiment, created during
the infamous winter at Valley Forge, became noted for its bravery and courage,
receiving its first baptism by fire during the Battle of Newport in 1778.
When reinforcements failed to arrive during that battle, the Americans were
forced to retreat in the face of heavy British attacks, especially from the
dreaded Hessian mercenaries. The First Rhode Island thrust themselves between
the retreating Americans and the advancing Hessians and repulsed the British
forces three separate times, inflicting heavy casualties on the mercenaries.
(Following the battle, the Hessian commander asked to be transferred to a different
location for fear that his remaining soldiers might shoot him because of the
fearful losses which had been inflicted on them, and the deaths of so many of
In 1781 during the Battle of Croton River, Colonel Greene – commander of the
regiment – was cut down by the British. William Nell, in his 1855 The Colored
Patriots of the American Revolution, described what next occurred:
“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, and every one of whom
While Colonel Greene’s squad was killed, others of the Rhode Island First survived
and served the remainder of the War. A battle-hardened and loyal unit, they
were with George Washington when he accepted the surrender of Lord Cornwallis
at Yorktown to end the Revolution.
Numerous other black patriots distinguished themselves during the American Revolution,
including James Forten, Peter Poor, Cuff Smith, Cesar and Festus Prince, and
thousands of others. It is appropriate that during African American history
month, we should remember these great black patriots who contributed so much
to the establishment of America as the foremost nation of the world.
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