ABOVE: Four Soldiers (Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, circa 1781) From left to
right, a black soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, a New England militiaman,
a frontier rifleman, and a French officer. (Source: Brown University)
Over the last few months I have written a few pieces, some for magazines and others for this blog, dealing with the sensitive issue of race in Colonial America. One feature for PAR magazine presented the way that slavery is now being interpreted at the new Monticello Visitor’s Center. A recent post dealt with George Washington's slaves and their emancipation according to his will. The subject of racial conflict, albeit uncomfortable at times, has become an interesting topic to say the least. I have examined it briefly in my previous work, when presenting the history of the split between the white and black members of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church prior to the Civil War, but never to the extent that I am researching it now.
I am nearing the completion of an outstanding study by Edward G. Lengel titled General George Washington: A Military Life. What I really enjoy about this book is the unbiased and balanced presentation that the author, a military historian and professor from UVA, has achieved. Readers are presented with an excellent portrait of a brilliant, but not infallible commander. One chapter near the end of the book speaks frankly to Washington’s prejudice and ardent refusal to enlist and arm African-Americans.
Lendel’s version of this subject is perhaps the most unsympathetic, yet fairest that I have read. His take on the matter has provoked much thought in regards to the general that I was familiar with. I now see a distinct difference between the Washington at war, initially refusing to diversify his forces despite a tremendous lack of manpower, and the one we see conflicted over the institution of slavery while freeing his servants in death. Much like Lincoln, Washington evolved in his attitudes toward minorities over the course of his life.
This is understandable, but what I can’t understand is the manner in which an otherwise stellar commander would compromise his troops (and cause) due to a racial bias. In fact, at this point in the conflict, why would anyone, soldier or politician, racist or not, restrict the addition of more men in the field? Washington was not the only one guilty of discrimination. Congress echoed his sentiments and even went further in their own restrictions.
Unlike the American Civil War, in which preserving the institution of slavery was a major factor behind secession, the Revolutionary War was a fight for independence from England. So while I can easily understand why the Confederacy would refrain from arming slaves, why wouldn’t the Continental Congress call for every able-bodied male to fight against the most well equipped and trained army in the world?
Simply put, Washington and his peers were shooting themselves in the foot. Regardless of one’s personal feelings on equality, why wouldn’t they take anyone who wished to serve? This, in my opinion, speaks to how racism and the institution of slavery held a tight grip on society in order to maintain the status quo.
As the supreme commander of a fledgling army and a Virginia planter, Washington was obviously put in a very complicated position. If he armed blacks (freed or slave), he risked infuriating his fellow slaveholders. If he refused, his forces would continue to dwindle. What this future politician did was hold out as long as he could and allow others to take steps toward an integrated army. This absolved him of responsibility either way and preserved his favor in the eyes of both sides of the argument. It was brilliant.
Still, I find it difficult to comprehend how a man whose forces were in such desperate need of reinforcements could refuse volunteers. (The notion of arming blacks was only considered after the British Army began padding their own ranks with both African and Native Americans.) Why? Was Washington cognizant of the political-ramifications of integrating the army and simply protecting his own future? Or was his racial prejudice at the time too stubborn to compromise? I just don’t know, but I think it would make for an interesting discussion.
What are your thoughts on this subject? What do you think were General George Washington's motivations for preventing blacks from serving under his command as long as he did? Were they personal or professional? Political? Military? Racist? Or all of the above?
Rather than simply extracting data points from Lengel’s book, I am quoting a portion of it here in it’s entirety with hopes that it may generate some feedback. I am also going to email the professor with an open invitation to comment and/or guest post on this subject.
Excerpt taken from General George Washington: A Military Life by Edward G. Lengel (Random House Trade Paperbacks, January, 2007) BUY THE BOOK:
[Quote] Social considerations-or, to put it more acutely, prejudice-also prevented Washington from welcoming blacks into the Continental Army; but his attitudes on this subject shifted over time. In July 1775 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he had expressed consternation at the number of “Boys, Deserters, and Negroes” in the ranks. At his instigation the adjunct general promptly directed recruiting officers not to enlist “any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond.” Three months later, when Washington asked his officers whether blacks already in the army should be reenlisted, they “agreed unanimously to reject all Slaves, & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether.” The commander-in-chief agreed, and on November 12th he ordered that “neither Negroes, Boys unable to bare Arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of campaign, are to be enlisted.” Blacks, the directive implied, were just as “unfit” to serve as boys or old men.
Washington issued these orders unaware that days before, on November 7th, royal governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia had declared his willingness to grant freedom to slaves and indentured servants who joined the British standard. This socially subversive proclamation outraged Virginia slaveholders. Writing to Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee on December 26th, Washington denounced Dunmore’s “diabolical schemes” and rumbled that “if My Dear Sir that Man is not crushed before Spring, he will become the most formidable Enemy America has-his strength will Increase as a Snow ball by Rolling; and faster, if some expedient cannot be hit upon to convince the Slaves and Servants of the Impotency of His designs.” Washington’s feeble “expedient” amounted to allowing recruiting officers to enroll new volunteers who were free blacks, but not slaves. Congress promptly undercut him by resolving only to enlist “the free negroes who have served faithfully in the army at Cambridge,” but not to accept any new applicants.
[The chapter then goes on to describe the efforts by other officers to start integrated units including the consolidated 1st- and 2nd Rhode Island Battalion which was ¾ black. It then presents the tireless petitioning by one of the commander-in-chief’s aides, John Laurens, to arm freed slaves. Washington remained steadfast.]
…In any event Washington offered no public support for the proposal. And a year later, as Laurens still struggled to make his dream a reality, Washington dismissed it as infeasible. The idea “has never employed much of my thoughts,” he admitted in a March 20, 1779, letter to Henry Laurens, but “the policy of arming Slaves in my opinion a moot point, unless the enemy set the example, for should we begin to form Battalions of them, I have not the smallest doubt…of their following in it, and justifying the measure upon our own ground. The upshot then must be who can arm fastest-and where are our Arms?” The last thing America needed was for the British to put muskets in the hands of thousands of ex-slaves. “Besides,” Washington continued, “I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more Irksome to those who remain in it-Most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison and I fear Comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude.” In short, he seems to have feared that arming blacks on a large scale would spur an exodus from the plantations that might destroy the institution of slavery altogether. And that was something he feared to contemplate. [End quote]Despite these issues African-Americans did serve in the Continental Army with distinction (only about 6% of troops were black), and much like the Loyalists of New Brunswick, they are now receiving recognition. Colonial Williamsburg’s website features an extraordinary paper by Noel B. Poirier titled Brave and Gallant Soldiers: African Americans and the Continental Army.