Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution

Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution

by Judith L. Van Buskirk


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The Revolutionary War encompassed at least two struggles: one for freedom from British rule, and another, quieter but no less significant fight for the liberty of African Americans, thousands of whom fought in the Continental Army. Because these veterans left few letters or diaries, their story has remained largely untold, and the significance of their service largely unappreciated. Standing in Their Own Light restores these African American patriots to their rightful place in the historical struggle for independence and the end of racial oppression.

Revolutionary era African Americans began their lives in a world that hardly questioned slavery; they finished their days in a world that increasingly contested the existence of the institution. Judith L. Van Buskirk traces this shift to the wartime experiences of African Americans. Mining firsthand sources that include black veterans’ pension files, Van Buskirk examines how the struggle for independence moved from the battlefield to the courthouse—and how personal conflicts contributed to the larger struggle against slavery and legal inequality. Black veterans claimed an American identity based on their willing sacrifice on behalf of American independence. And abolitionists, citing the contributions of black soldiers, adopted the tactics and rhetoric of revolution, personal autonomy, and freedom.

Van Buskirk deftly places her findings in the changing context of the time. She notes the varied conditions of slavery before the war, the different degrees of racial integration across the Continental Army, and the war’s divergent effects on both northern and southern states. Her efforts retrieve black patriots’ experiences from historical obscurity and reveal their importance in the fight for equal rights—even though it would take another war to end slavery in the United States.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In Judith Van Buskirk’s Standing in Their Own Light, black soldiers wage their own American revolution. They liberated themselves and helped to start slavery’s long and difficult destruction, only to be scorned, forgotten, and excluded from the new republic’s blessings. This thoughtful, deeply researched, well-written book makes a big contribution to understanding the Revolution in its liberating but tragic ambiguity.”—Edward Countryman, author of Enjoy the Same Liberty: Black Americans and the Revolutionary Era

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806161877
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 07/02/2018
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #59
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Standing In Their Own Light

African American Patriots in the American Revolution

By Judith L. Van Buskirk


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5635-4



Their World before the War

The Revolutionary War gave black soldiers a face and a voice in American history. Unlike previous wars, the Revolution's ideals spoke to the condition of the enslaved. To understand this pivotal change, one must appreciate the world in which they were formed. Work regimes, masters' and slaves' personalities, their proximity to one another, the percentage of blacks in a colony's population, the economic value of slave labor to a region, and the ability to remain in one's family — all of these mixed to produce a myriad of combinations that formed each black soldier's spirit. All, however, lived under a code of laws in each colony that set out to quash free will, stifle a sense of self, and consign people of color to the drudgery of ceaseless work. These laws went unquestioned by all but a few before the revolution. The general message of white authorities to blacks was to work and be cheerful, or at the very least to work and shut up, and this was so throughout the thirteen colonies. To speak up or go against the grain was a hazardous enterprise, reinforced by law and custom.

Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder and expert on Chesapeake slavery, distilled the essence of the institution in a metaphor convenient to all masters, calling it a state of war. Whites and blacks in America would never see true peace, explained Jefferson, because of deep-rooted white prejudice and the "ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they had sustained." To control the enemy was therefore key. It was important that the master class not be lulled into the mistaken notion that slaves could become free and equal in this country. Such an experiment, claimed the master of Monticello, would lead to "convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."

What Jefferson had not taken into account when predicting the future were persons like fellow Virginian Tim Jones and Isham Carter from South Carolina, both men from slave societies where fabulous wealth was generated by enslaved labor. These two men took part in "convulsions" but not of the Jeffersonian variety. Both black men were on Jefferson's side in the Revolutionary War, having marked their Xs on enlistment papers of the Continental Army, where they served for several years. They saw the possibility of freedom that Jefferson did not. Tim Jones's service resulted in his freedom from slavery. Isham Carter, one of the few free blacks in South Carolina, might have hoped that his service would result in freedom for his wife and children, not to mention a more secure position for himself in the postwar world. These men not only survived the war, each was awarded a Badge of Merit. The war provided a platform for them, from which to build a legacy contributing to a world very different from Jefferson's Armageddon. All the more important it is, then, to examine the societies from which these southerners sprang. We will begin with Isham Carter's South Carolina, focusing on the legal bonds of slavery, and then move on to Tim Jones's Virginia, where the focus will be on plantation life.

South Carolina

Never was Jefferson's warfare imagery made more concrete than in the center of South Carolina's slave society, where a building called the workhouse loomed over the western fringes of Charles Town, the colony's capital. With massive towers and crenellated walls, it functioned as a "house of confinement and correction," supplementing another prison in town. For people of color, the "correction" going on within those walls made the workhouse a dreaded place to contemplate. Any blacks "playing the rogue at unseasonable hours of the night" would be deposited there. Any found on the roads without a master's pass, called a ticket, would end up in a cell there. Uncooperative slaves whose spirit could not be broken on the plantation would be handed over to professional torturers, whose techniques, it was thought, would render the resistant ones sufficiently docile to return to work. In the nineteenth century, witnesses wrote of the screams that could be heard through the thick walls of the facility.

One of these, Angelina Grimke, brought up in an upper-class family in early nineteenth-century Charles Town, called the workhouse "the house of blood." Once, passing the place, she became weak in the knees, believing herself to be in "the precincts of hell." She saw the results of a stay there on individuals who had been gregarious, lively house servants before their incarceration. "But the exercise of the slaveholder's power," claimed Grimke, "had thrown the fierce air of tyranny even over these." This was the purpose of the workhouse — to drive its inmates to permanent docility and despair.

When the two Griffin brothers and the three Jeffers brothers — all black Continental Army privates from central South Carolina — approached Charles Town for the first time, the outlines of the workhouse would have been apparent on the skyline, along with church steeples and perhaps the small tower over the Exchange Building, where slave auctions occurred. These soldiers fought to keep the British out of Charles Town, but to no avail. Osborne Jeffers lost his life in the attempt. Morgan Griffin and Allan Jeffers somehow survived their confinement as prisoners of war after the battle.

Isham Carter joined Griffin and Jeffers in prison after the debacle at Charles Town. He was the son of an Indian woman and a black man, making him free under the laws of South Carolina. As a nineteen-year-old he had enlisted in the South Carolina artillery. He did not remember the date he signed up but reckoned it was shortly after the disastrous Battle of Brier Creek on March 3, 1779. (The patriot force in eastern Georgia was surprised and routed that day.) Subsequent battles in which Carter participated were no more encouraging: Stono Ferry, Savannah, and Charleston. He served his unit's colonel for a short time, but for the long haul he was a matross (gunner's assistant) who loaded and fixed guns until the end of the war.

These African Americans, engaged in the most aggressive of pursuits, came from a society that tied their hands, where sadism, rape, and pedophilia went unchecked against people of their color. African Americans lived under special laws that applied only to them and rendered them helpless, for example, when a slaveholder laid covetous eyes on a ten-year-old. Obviously the few blacks of the South Carolina line did not fight to uphold this system into which they had been born. Each as an individual probably thought he could change his situation for the better. They were not defeatist men who shrugged their shoulders and whined "what can we do?" Along with all men of color who took active roles in the American Revolution, they lived with enormous risk in order to change their world. That world prominently featured laws that treated black people as enemies of whites, making for a virtual war, as Thomas Jefferson had asserted. Jefferson was stumped over how to resolve slavery, but he knew what he was talking about when he described volcanic masters who lost control and victimized people whose hands were legally and literally tied behind them.

Laws and Life: South Carolina

The South Carolina assembly, one of the much-vaunted examples of representative government in the colonies, passed the laws that determined who would inhabit the workhouse. Naturally those who committed a crime would be sent there. But the difference between paying a fine and languishing in prison was often determined by skin color. Certain crimes could only be committed by people of color. As the American revolutionary generation grew up in South Carolina, the code that governed the lives of "Negroes and other Slaves" was passed in 1740, one year after the Stono Rebellion, in which approximately one hundred slaves made a break for Spanish Florida, killing twenty-five whites along the way. The act clamped down on movement, assembly, and independent economic activity on the part of people of color. The preamble explained that the law kept the slave in "due subjection and obedience" as well as restrained the cruelty of the master, as if this were a matter of balance. But only six of the law's fifty-eight subsections dealt with reining in the slave owner, and those clauses were vague and very difficult to prosecute. For instance, clause 38 dictated that owners provide enough food and clothing for slaves under their charge. How was the owner brought to justice for violating this clause? A white person had to bring a complaint to the parish justice on behalf of the slave. If positive proof were missing, the owner could clear his name by taking an oath that he adequately provided for his slaves. What constituted positive proof? The law did not say. What was deemed sufficient food and clothing? The law remained mute.

When it came to restricting slave behavior, however, the law was very specific. On the subject of clothing, no slave could dress above his station. Thus, a slave could wear no apparel finer or of greater value than "Negro cloth, duffels, kerseys, osnabrigs, blue linen, check linen, or course garlix or calicoes, checked cottons, or Scotch plaids." The colony's legislators bothered about this because, they claimed, slaves used "sinister and evil methods" to procure clothes above their station. But unsaid in the law was the concern that poor whites might chafe at seeing a slave better dressed than they.

On violent crimes, the law was far from impartial but made a show of protecting the slave. A slave who was beaten while on business for the master got the satisfaction of seeing his attacker pay a fine that went to the local parish. If the slave were "maimed or disabled" by the beating, the attacker had to pay the owner fifteen shillings a day for "lost time" until the victim could again work. If the attacker were short on cash, he could be sent to jail until the penalty was paid. The owner here is the protected party, and the victim is lost in the penalties and fines around his monetary value to the master.

But what if the master killed or cruelly used a slave? If done "willfully," a master would have to pay the very substantial fine of seven hundred pounds and would be henceforth prohibited from holding any office in the state. If a master killed a slave in the "sudden heat of passion or by undue correction," the fine went down to 350 pounds, still a substantial sum, but the master could hold office in the state. And finally, if a master willfully cut out the tongue, put out the eye, castrated, or cruelly scalded, burned or deprived any slave of any limb or member, the master would be fined one hundred pounds for every offense. The law specifically protected corrections like "whipping or beating with a horse whip, cow-skin, switch, or small stick or ... putting irons on or confining or imprisoning such slave."

The fines noted above were substantial. A healthy, skilled slave could be purchased for two hundred pounds, so a seven-hundred-pound fine was serious money. In the wake of the Stono Rebellion, the powerful planters in the assembly indubitably thought about why the slaves had rebelled. Among the limited number of large plantation owners, they knew who among their number practiced sadism. So the assembly members were likely sending a message not only to those in their elevated fraternity but also to up-and- coming planters. The worst punishment was reserved for those without the cash to pay such a fine. If a planter could not pay a seven-hundred-pound fine, the law said that he could be — though rarely if ever was he — consigned to a frontier garrison or committed to the workhouse for seven years of hard labor.

There was a way out for even these offenders because the law sanctioned violence against the enslaved in certain cases. For example, if a slave were off the plantation and defied a white person who wanted to see his ticket, he could be killed with impunity. The owner could also always claim self-defense or claim that his slave had been fomenting rebellion. And who was to bring charges against the master? A slave could not testify in a trial involving whites. Overseers and other white employees would lose their livelihoods if they turned against the owner. These laws against cruelty were at best a warning to those masters prone to losing control on their plantations. If need be, there was now a law in place to punish them in future.

Elsewhere in the 1740 South Carolina act, the legislature shut down every avenue that was seen as possibly leading to rebellion. A slave could not travel anywhere without a ticket from his master. It became chancier for slaves to assemble. The law forbade more than seven slaves in a group to travel the high roads. And the farther south one traveled, the greater the risk. The colony paid good money to retrieve runaway slaves. A dead slave was seen as being better than a slave in Spanish Florida who could inspire others to flee, so the legislature paid for dead slaves too, provided one produced a scalp and two ears. The state was, of course, providing unholy temptation to kill any black man for his body parts.

Slaves could not use a gun unless in the presence of a white man or with a ticket from the master saying the slave could hunt. Slaves were forbidden to carry drums or horns because they could be a means of summoning rebels to gather. (Drums were prominent in the Stono Rebellion.) No tavern or punch house could serve a slave strong liquor without express permission of the master. Slaves could no longer sell produce for their own benefit. Slaves at the market in Charles Town had to have a ticket from their masters stipulating that all proceeds would go to the master. Money meant latitude for potential rebels, seen by slaveholders as dangerous. Slaves could therefore no longer have boats or raise horses for their own benefit because both situations allowed slaves to move about. No slave could rent a room on his own because "nefarious circumstances" could follow. It was illegal to teach slaves to write (there is no mention of reading in this act), since slaves might then forge tickets. Indeed, the fine for teaching a slave to write was greater than the reward for killing a runaway slave. "Thus the legislature deemed educating slaves far more malevolent than even slaves fleeing their masters," wrote legal scholar A. Leon Higginbotham. Finally, to prevent any "barbarous murders" as had been committed at Stono the year before, any white could kill "rebellious negroes" in self-defense with no legal repercussions.

Although the 1740 code included laws previously passed, the masters had further narrowed the parameters of slave life. In the wake of Stono, the assemblymen made it their business to understand the enemy. Suspects were interrogated. Masters of the slaves involved provided information about their suspect slaves to legal officials. The legislators understood that excesses in the system should be eradicated but did not move decisively to do this. The slaves' best protection was not the legal system but their economic value to their masters, and this would continue to be the case.

Three years later, when the law governing blacks was to be renewed, the assembly tacked on another precaution. To protect the population from the wickedness of African Americans, the legislators ordered all men between the ages of sixteen and sixty to attend church services with either a gun or a pair of horse pistols, along with at least enough powder and ball for six shots. One had to produce this hardware every time a church warden asked to see it. If one did not come to church loaded, there was to be a fine, half of which was to go to the church for the relief of the poor — this was inducement for the men of the cloth to cooperate. White churchgoers in Charles Town could travel lighter, as the city watch served as their first line of defense. After all, the Stono Rebellion had started on a Sunday morning. The men who benefited from the free forced labor of others had to be ever ready for action. They could never relax their guard, even in church. Houses of worship provided no asylum from the fear that planters carried with them everywhere.

In the years leading up to the Revolution, assemblymen filled in any chinks in the security wall around their lives. In 1751 the assembly dictated that patrols be prompt in breaking up groups of three or more fugitive slaves who had absented themselves from the plantation for more than thirty days. No slave could carry any firearms off the master's plantations. No black could work at an apothecary shop, for fear of access to poisons. Enslaved doctors could only practice at the specific direction of a white person. There was no limit to the fear these laws manifested.


Excerpted from Standing In Their Own Light by Judith L. Van Buskirk. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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