ABOVE: A cropping of The Death of Major Peirson by John Singleton Copley (Image © Tate, London 2008.) The artist painted a black soldier not present at the battle, wearing the uniform of a Royal Ethiopian. Copley knew of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment before his loyalty forced him to flee Boston. It is telling that he chose to include a Royal Ethiopian soldier in a battle at which the regiment never fought.
As Black History Month comes to an end, I can't think of a better post to share today than the extraordinary story of the "Black Loyalists in New Brunswick." Without a doubt, one of the most highly controversial and contested subjects in today's historical studies (both in the public and academic arena) is the questionable history of Black "Confederates" during the American Civil War. In recent months this subject has been debated ad nauseum across the blogosphere and I touched on the subject in my recent book on Confederate encampments in Spotsylvania County.
The quarrel of course is why anyone would willingly take up arms on behalf of a cause that sought to keep them in bondage - vs. - the notion that many Africans fought beside their masters in order to protect their state's from Federal occupation. Those of you who read Campfires at the Crossroads may recall that I found the examples of black Confederates whom I cited to be slaves acting in the capacity of servants, not soldiers. The letters that I included testified to that conclusion.
Although that argument will continue for generations it seems, America's first revolution did, IN FACT, find blacks fighting alongside their white counterparts.
At the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), it is estimated that there were over a half million African-Americans living in the thirteen colonies. As the rebellion's patriotic call to fight for liberty grew, the British government sought to undermine the expanding Continental Army by soliciting slaves who ran away from their masters. By promising to grant them their freedom and security, the Redcoat ranks were able to boost their manpower on the battlefield instead of constantly relying on the importation of additional troops who took months to travel to the Americas from England. Some of these all-black units even flourished as in the example of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment and later, the Black Pioneers.
According to the Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives website Black Loyalists in New Brunswick: "In November 1775, Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore, hoping to bolster the British war effort, encouraged slaves and indentured servants of the Patriots to join His Majesty's army. Many did so. When the British evacuated their army from Boston to Halifax in 1776, a "Company of Negroes" was part of the entourage. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton extended the policy of appealing to African Americans in his Phillipsburg Proclamation of 1779 in which he offered security behind British lines to 'every negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard.'"
Following the British Army's surrender, it is estimated that nearly 35,000 loyalists fled the United States to settle north in the provinces of Canada including the maritime regions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Nearly 3,500 free black loyalists were among them including many who had fought alongside the Redcoats on behalf of the English crown. New Brunswick saw thousands of African-Americans settle in as new citizens and many went on to fight again for Britain in the War of 1812. Despite their service to the king, many black loyalists and their families still faced racial discrimination, although it paled in comparison to the institution of slavery that continued to thrive in the southern United States.
For a complete history, visit Black Loyalists in New Brunswick 1783-1854. This outstanding project is a digital collection hosted by the Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives and features document and petition transcripts, rare images, as well as lesson plans and resources for teachers.