Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Bill Backus to the blog.
Fighting for Independence, Patriots commonly argued they were combating an attempt by the English Crown to reduce the American colonies to slavery. The irony that most leaders crowing against “English slavery” owned enslaved African-Americans is one of the greatest contradictions of American history. In a struggle about slavery, enslaved people played an important role. In her new book, Standing in Their Own Light: African-American Patriots in the American Revolution, Professor Judith L. Van Buskirk explores African-American participation in the Patriot cause.
The foundation for Van Buskirk’s study is the pension claims for nearly 500 soldiers made decades after the war. To obtain a pension, veterans had to prove in a county court that they had served in the military during the war. In addition to their recollection of when they enlisted, with whom they fought with, and where they campaigned, aspiring pensioners routinely recruited serving comrades and officers to offer testimony on their behalf. While the pension records are an important source for historians, these documents were intended to prove wartime service and thus offered only a cursory examination of their military career. The limitations of using these sources become apparent throughout the study
The book is divided into six chapters. Van Buskirk first examines slavery prior to the American Revolution with South Carolina standing in for the Deep South, Virginia for the Upper South, Pennsylvania for the Middle Atlantic, and Massachusetts for New England. In the second chapter, Van Buskirk utilizes the pensions to explore the life of an African-American patriot soldier, from enlistment, to camp life, and battle. The subsequent two chapters explore two case studies of attempts to recruit, African-American soldiers: the segregated 1st Rhode Island Infantry and the story of the Laurens family connection of the recruit of African-Americans in South Carolina. The final two chapters explore the pensions after the war.
The study on the 1st Rhode Island is outstanding. On May 14,1781, a detachment of the regiment on picket duty was ambushed outside of Peekskill, New York, by a local loyalist unit. In the space of a few minutes, the Continentals lost eight killed, including both its colonel and major killed or mortally wounded, four wounded and twenty-four captured. The majority of the killed were black while those captured tended to be white. Stories of the field officers either bayonetted or shot while in their beds added a salacious detail to this American disaster. While its unknown if race played a crucial factor, the Battle of Pines Bridge foreshadowed the bloody battles involving African-American soldiers 80 years later in the Civil War.
While inconclusive, enough evidence survives in various pension claims that some of the first soldiers who entered the British fortifications at the Battle of Stoney Point weren’t officers, but black enlisted men. Finally how subsequent generations of Americans used black soldiers involved in the Revolutionary War is another important contribution to the literature.
The limitation of the source material becomes evident in several places throughout the study. For example in exploring the Battle of Stoney Point, Van Buskirk prefaces many observations with “probably” and “likely”. At other sections, Van Buskirk generalizes the service of the men, an example being Jacob Francis and his military career. Van Buskirk fleshes out Francis’ pension claim with an overly generalized overview of a battle experience in a Revolutionary Era army. Sources for 18th century battles can be somewhat sparse compared with other events, but the qualifying terms that Van Buskirk uses diminishes some of the conclusions that she reaches
These quibbles aside, Standing in Their Own Light: African-American Patriots in the American Revolution is a tremendous addition to the historiography of the American Revolution, such as the sections about the 1st Rhode Island and black patriots after the war. Anyone interested in African-American history or the Continental Army should pick up this book.
A native of Connecticut, Bill Backus graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a bachelor’s degree in Historic Preservation. Currently working as a historian for multiple Civil War sites in Northern Virginia, Bill has worked for the National Park Service at Vicksburg National Military Park and Petersburg National Battlefield. Bill currently resides in historic Brentsville, Virginia, with his wife, Paige, and their dog, Barley.