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Monday, October 7, 2013

Early Black Military Experiences: Colonial America and the Revolutionary War

White Americans have been ambivalent over the years about Black participation in military organizations and in most instances have encouraged or allowed Blacks in military activities only when forced by circumstances to do so.  -

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, defending one's city or country was the responsibility of all male citizens. Wealthy, prominent men became prestigious officers and lower class men served as regular soldiers for service overseas. Similar military practices were adapted in the New World, where settlers from Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands established colonies in America.

The institution of slavery was also brought to America.  A range of policies existed for militia participation of both Free Blacks and Enslaved Africans. Major milestones during the Colonial Era and Revolutionary War listed below gives us a foundation on prevailing attitudes prior to forced desegregation of the armed forces. Early Black Military Experiences included outright banning, and eventually inclusion.  Many of the heroic contributions were quickly forgotten.

Reenactment Soldier

Colonial Era

  1. 1639 - the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a bill excluding Negroes from being provided with arms or ammunition.
  2. Dutch West Indian Colony of New Amsterdam (New York) armed slaves with a "tomy hawk and a half pike" to assist in fighting murderous Indians (Native Americans).
  3. 1653 - Massachusetts Colony required all Negroes and Indians from sixteen to sixty years of age "inhabitants or servants", to attend Military training along with the English.
  4. New England later followed Virginia in excluding Blacks from the militia. However, this led to Blacks having the same social standing as upper class men who were excluded from the militia. Blacks were then assigned laborer type tasks, such as building defensive fortifications.
  5. South Carolina, on the other hand allowed for "trusty" servants to help in defending the colony in 1703.
  6. Other Southern colonies did not allow for Blacks to become members of militia. There were larger populations of Blacks in the South and the power establishment feared slave mutinies and revolts.
  7. North Carolina, did make an exception when it came to Indian uprisings. In these cases every able bodied man was allowed to help terminate Indian uprisings.

Revolutionary Hero Salem Poor* 

American Revolution (America's Independence from Britain) (1775-1783)

  1. 20% of the Colonial population of 22 million was Black.
  2. April 1775 - Black Minuteman fought at Lexington and Concord.
  3. May 1775 - Massachusetts adopted a resolution that no slaves be admitted into the Continental Army. 
  4. July 1775 - Under General George Washington and General Horatio Gates, Continental Amy recruiting officers were not to enlist any "stroller, Negro, or vagabond."
  5. November 1775 - John Murray, Royal Governor of Virginia, representing the opposing British, offered freedom to enslaved Blacks willing to bear arms against the colonists. Murray was known as the Earl of Dunmore or Lord Dunmore.
  6. December 1775 - 300 Blacks joined on the British side with "Liberty to Slaves" etched on their uniforms, calling themselves the "Ethiopian Regiment."
  7. December 1775 - As a result of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, Washington changed part of his policy and allowed free Blacks in the Continental Army.
  8. 1777 - It was reported that some slaves substituted for their masters despite the policy barring slaves.
  9. 1778 - Washington's Continental Army integrated a number of African Americans. There was also an all Black battalion from Rhode Island and Black companies from Connecticut and Boston, called the Colonials and Bucks of America.
  10. 5,000 Black Soldiers fought in the 300,000 Continental Army


 1775 -  Several states paid bonuses to Black crew members and granted freedom. In short, the Continental Navy did not bar Blacks. The Navy was supplemented by individual state and private funding. Ship crews were integrated and Black crew members came with prior maritime experience. (It was reported that some made it up the ranks of pilots; pilots are responsible for navigating a ship through narrow or congested waterways.)

Secretary of War James McHenry
Established Policy Banning Negroes in the Marines.


  1. A dozen or more African Americans served in the Marines.
  2. First African American to fight as a Marine was John Martin (Keto). He was enlisted without his Delaware slave owner's permission and saw combat on the USS Reprisal. He was at sea for a year and a half and perished when his ship sank in October, 1777.


***1798 - Marines re-instituted. Secretary of War James McHenry proclaimed, "No Negro, mulatto, or Indian to be enlisted." Following British protocol, the United States Marine Corps enacted a policy which "set a higher standard of unit cohesion for Marines so that they would remain loyal, maintain shipboard discipline and help put down mutinies."

The Marines did not change their long standing policy until 1942, when Howard P. Perry became their first African American recruit and launched the history of the Montford Point Marines. Protests, letters to Congress, and the Axis Powers' machinations of World War II, led to the signing of Executive Order 8802. It ended discrimination in the National Defense Industry. No longer could Blacks be prevented from enlisting in the United States Marine Corps.

Throughout history it has been shown that Black participation in military service has been met with reservations. Reasons given include fear of slave revolts and mutinies, not wanting African Americans to ascend the socio-economic ladder, and the belief that Blacks were not intelligent enough to fight in combat situations. In reality, since the American Revolutionary War, Blacks had received high marks and praise from their commanding officers and demonstrated bravery. It is indeed unfortunate that Blacks were able to participate in military service only after military organizations were forced to allow them. So little faith was behind the Montford Point Marines in the 1940s that these soldiers were considered an experiment, and they were sent to outlying regions of the Pacific.

Early Black Military Experiences demonstrate the willingness for men, who in some cases, did not have their freedom, but were ready to fight. The Colonial Era and the Revolutionary War provided a preview of what Blacks in combat could achieve.


Notes:  * Despite Salem Poor's surname, he was able to purchase his freedom as a slave with a year's salary in 1769. Salem Poor was sent to build a fort in Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. He killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie in Charlestown, MA during combat. The Battle of Bunker Hill had approximately 1,000 African American casualties. 14 American Officers sent a petition to the Massachusetts legislature, proclaiming that Poor "Behaved like an experienced officer as well as an excellent soldier." Salem Poor was featured on an American Postal Stamp two centuries later. From

In 1736, Blacks served as officers in a military unit to defeat the Natchez Indians in Mobile, Alabama.  This marked the first time Negroes were officers.

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