Black Soldiers in the Revolution
Sadly, today we are routinely taught the negatives of American history — we emphasis the bad and the ugly with nearly no mention of the good. Consequently, we hear the many ways that Americans did not always live up to the ideals of our founding, especially that black Americans were despised and enslaved. This is indeed part of the story, but there is much more. For example, on the positive side, did you know that many black Americans played key roles in the War for Independence? Consider just three.
James Armistead from Virginia worked closely with Marquis de Lafayette. He was able to infiltrate the camp of the patriot-turned-traitor, Benedict Arnold (then a British general after his defection from the Americans), and later the camp of British General Lord Cornwallis. Armistead obtained vital information about British plans and troop movements that he fed back to Lafayette and George Washington. His information allowed the American forces to initiate the Battle of Yorktown, which led to the end of the American Revolution. For his military services, Armistead was granted a retirement pension from Virginia.
In December 1776, the second-in-command of the American Army, General Charles Lee, was taken prisoner by the British. To obtain his release, a prisoner exchange for a British general of the same rank was needed. Lt. Col. William Barton therefore undertook a daring plan to slip into the British stronghold at Newport, Rhode Island, capture British General Richard Prescott, and return him to the American side before the British learned of his capture.Barton hand-selected about forty elite soldiers, who silently slipped past the main British force and overpowered the guards protecting the general. They had only to break down the door to his room and grab Prescott.One of the black commandos on the mission, Prince Sisson – a powerful man – stepped forward and charged the door. Using his own head as a battering ram, the locked door gave way and Prince entered the quarters and seized the surprised general. The group safely returned with Prescott, who was subsequently exchanged for General Charles Lee. The daring act of Sisson is still celebrated to this day.
Wentworth Cheswell, grandson of a slave, had a long career in public office. Elected in 1768 as a town constable in New Hampshire, he became the first black elected to office in America. In 1770, he was a town selectman, considered as one of the “town fathers” in the community. Other public offices he held included that of Auditor, Assessor, Coroner, Moderator (presiding over town meetings), and Justice of the Peace. In the latter role, he oversaw trials, settled disputes, and executed legal documents. Altogether, Cheswell held some form of public office for 49 years.During the Revolution, he was a messenger for the Committee of Safety, carrying intelligence and messages back and forth between strategic operational centers. It was in this position that Cheswell made an all-night ride, similar to the one undertaken by Paul Revere, warning citizens of imminent British invasion. In 1777, Cheswell enlisted in a company of Light Horse Volunteers commanded by Colonel John Langdon, who later became a signer of the U.S. Constitution.Cheswell has a lasting legacy as a patriot, teacher, church leader, historian, archeologist, educator, judge, and elected official. He is a black patriot worthy of honoring and remembering.
In the WallBuilders library, we are blessed to have some military pay documents that were issued to various black soldiers during the Revolution (such as those pictured below) as well as some documents signed by Wentworth Cheswell (pictured above).
This February, let’s put some of the good stories back into Black History Month by acknowledging courageous black patriots in the American Revolution.
* Originally published: December 31, 2016.