“Regiments of both enslaved and free Africans fought on both sides of the War of Independence.”
NEARLY 200,000 blacks fought in the U.S. Army’s so-called “colored” regiments during the American Civil War.
Among the first (and probably the most famous) of these regiments was the 54th Massachusetts. In fact, the story of this trailblazing unit was the focus of a 1989 Oscar winning epic starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington – Glory. It’s even been argued (although not too convincingly) that a ‘significant number’ of African Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War as well. Interestingly, black regiments had existed in other armies for decades prior to the formation of these Civil War units. In fact, regiments of both enslaved and free Africans fought in America as far back as the War of Independence.
In honour of February being Black History Month in both Canada and the U.S., MHN thought it would be fitting to take a look at some of these first African American regiments.
America’s First Black Regiments
While the 13 American colonies denied slaves their freedom, military commanders in the state of Rhode Island apparently saw little irony in pressing African Americans into the fight for liberty. By the fourth year of the war, the state’s legislature was growing increasingly desperate to supply the Continental Army with the agreed-upon number of able-bodied recruits. James Mitchell Varnum pushed the state to induct free blacks, ‘mulattos’, Indians and even slaves into the rebel cause. The notion of calling upon non-white volunteers had been considered as far back as 1775, but General Washington himself rejected the idea at the start of the war — arming non-whites and training them to fight seemed risky to many Patriot slave owners. But by 1778, manpower shortages, not to mention the well-publicized British policy of granting freedom to any American slave that joined the King’s army, forced the Continentals to change their tune. On Feb. 14 of that year, a Rhode Island black regiment was formed. In addition to free blacks and Indians, slaves were permitted to join – the latter were guaranteed their freedom upon discharge, their owners having been compensated. The regiment did also include white volunteers, but the companies were segregated by race. By the spring, the 225-man unit included 140 blacks. The 1st Rhode Island “Black Regiment” as it became known tasted combat at the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778 where it suffered 12 casualties. The unit was later merged with another regiment from the state after which it took part in the Siege of Yorktown.
By the last years of the war, 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental Army. According an estimate by a French officer fighting at Yorktown, up to a quarter of the rebel forces were made up of blacks.  In 1777, a Hessian wrote: “No regiment is to be seen in which there are not negroes in abundance; and among them there are able bodied, strong and brave fellows,” he wrote. 
The Fighting “Ethiopians”
While the Continentals were at first reluctant to enlist African Americans into the rebel army, the British had no such compunctions. The Dunmore Proclamation of 1775, named for the governor of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, promised freedom to any slave that volunteered to serve the King. Within a month of the issuing the decree, as many as 800 slaves joined the Tories from Virginia alone. Tens of thousands more would follow from other colonies, draining Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas of much of their slave populations and crippling the southern economies. Historians have pointed out that the policy was in fact the first widespread emancipation of slaves in American history. 
While the bulk of runaways would serve in pioneer or engineering units, the British army also raised fighting regiments from these loyal refugees. One was called the Ethiopian Regiment. Officered by whites, the 300-man outfit was given rudimentary training and thrown into battle between 1775 and 1776.
The Ethiopians saw action for the first time at the Battle of Kemp’s Landing in Virginia in late 1775 where it scattered a larger force of Patriot militia. Nine rebels were killed, while only one of the former slaves was wounded. Within days, the regiment would take part in the disastrous Battle of Great Bridge near Norfolk, where a dozen of black soldiers as well as more than 50 British regulars were cut down by rebel sharp shooters. The unit would serve into 1776, after which point it was be disbanded and its members sent to other units.
A core of veterans from the regiment formed the nucleus of an elite force of former slaves known as the Black Brigade. The group was characterized by later historians as a sort of ‘commando unit’ that specialized in guerrilla-style warfare. It was led by a runaway by the name of Tye. Although British regulations barred non-whites commissions, the band’s unlikely commander would earn an honorary rank of colonel. Tye was wounded in action in 1780 and died later from his injuries.
The French Army’s First Black Unit
The largest all black regiments to fight in the American War of Independence was neither American nor British, but French. The Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue was a 550-man unit from what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The unit was raised in 1779 for free black volunteers on the island of Saint-Domingue. It was the first black regiment in the history of the French Army. Shortly after being formed, the regiment was added to the 3,000-strong French expeditionary force that was dispatched to aid the rebellion. Upon arriving in the American south, the Chasseurs took part in the second battle of Savannah. While the joint Franco-American force captured the city in the autumn of that year, a British counter attack led to the greatest defeat of the revolution for the Continentals. More than 800 French and American troops were killed or wounded. The reversal led to a French retreat from Georgia. The Chasseurs were assigned to cover the withdrawal, during which time they held off a British attack long enough for the main French force to make it to safety. The unit was pulled from the American war and returned to Saint Domingue where it would be disbanded in 1783. While their time in the Revolutionary War was limited, the battle experience the Chasseurs gained would help the cause of Haitian independence 10 years later. The first three leaders of the post revolutionary Haiti were all members of the regiment. 
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