Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the speakers and topics for our 2021 Symposium, Hindsight is 2020: Revisiting Misconceptions of the Revolution, taking place on May 22nd. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the Symposium will be virtual. Today we highlight historian and author John U. Rees who will be covering a much overlooked and misunderstood part of the Revolution, the role of African American Continental soldiers during the war.
John Rees is an independent writer and researcher specializing in the common soldiers’ experience during the War for American Independence, and North American soldiers’ food, 1755 to the modern era. Since 1986 he has produced almost 200 monographs on these and associated subjects. His work has been published in a number of journals and books, including Military Collector & Historian, the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, and the Thomson Gale edition of Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. His first book, “They Were Good Soldiers”: African Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 was published by Helion Books in 2019.
A list of his publications, plus a number of complete works, may be viewed online at https://tinyurl.com/JohnURees-articles . He will be presenting his talk “They Were Good Soldiers”: An Overview of African Americans in the Continental Army at the May symposium.
Do you believe the study of African American soldiers in the American Revolution has been overlooked and why?
To my mind the core cause for this lack of knowledge is American willingness to gloss over history, in this case American history. Add to that, many of our fellow citizens, past and present, through wilfulness, mis-education, or lack of caring, think of the American Revolution as a white man’s conflict, with little to no contribution by Americans of African descent. Artwork and films portraying the period have done little to disabuse us of that notion.
I think, in the 1960s and 70s, many Americans knew of Crispus Attucks’ participation and death in the 1770 Boston Massacre; I know I learned of him as a child in the early 60s. Others may have seen the U.S. Postal Service stamp in the mid-70s featuring Massachusetts African American soldier Salem Poor, but other than those instances most people didn’t (and don’t) really consider black participation on either side of the American Revolution. It also seems that when Americans do become aware of their role as soldiers, they learn about the “black” 1st Rhode Island Regiment (which only existed for two and half years of an eight-year war), when the greatest number of African Americans fighting for the cause of American independence were in integrated units. And then, there were the black women and children, among the hundreds of women and children who accompanied the troops and contributed to their welfare, who no one is aware of.
What first attracted you to the study of early American history?
My parents, especially my mother, were avid readers, and I followed suit very early on. I read many of the Landmark history and biography books, and those likely guided my interest in stories of individual people in extraordinary circumstances. I loved military history early on, and in my pre-teens focused on the Second World War; I then moved on to the Napoleonic era and the American Civil War, all the while reading a great deal of fiction. In 1984 I got involved with Revolutionary War living history, and the fact I had a hard time getting answers about the unit we portrayed led me to begin researching that regiment.
I had the good fortune to live very close to the David Library of the American Revolution, and in 1986 I produced my first (never published) manuscript. As I pored through books and microfilmed manuscript collections, I came across tidbits of interesting information I then had no need of; I copied it and put it aside for possible future use. It was not until 1990 that my first article was published; since that year until now I’ve published almost 200 articles, mostly on the Revolutionary War, but a substantial number on military food and other miscellaneous subjects. At some point in the 1990s I realized that the Revolutionary period was a relatively wide-open field for anyone who wished to study and write about it.
What keeps you involved in the study of this history?
There remain so many stories to tell, too many “small things forgotten,” I still want to write about, I feel the era is still wide open for anyone who wishes to focus on it.
What is the biggest myth about African American soldiers in the Continental Army, and how did it come about?
Likely that the segregated 1st Rhode Island Regiment is the best example of African American soldiers’ participation in the war, when, in fact, the largest proportion of African Americans served in integrated units, in the Continental Army and state militias. Add to that, there were two other segregated regiments during the war, one in the French Army that served for four to five years, and one Loyalist regiment, that existed for only a year.
Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?
My short list contains two things, one pertaining to Revolutionary ideals, the other to the military side. First is the contention by many people that it was a conservative Revolution, when in actuality the core concepts were quite radical, and significant portion of Revolutionaries retained that radical view, during and after the Revolutionary period.
Regarding the military aspects, I think the idea is still common that American militia forces won the War of the Revolution, which was not the case, and (okay a third item) that the American troops fought using innovative tactics (you know, fighting from behind walls and trees), and the Crown forces were militarily conservative. The facts are too long to go into, but on the last point I highly recommend Matthew Springs book With Zeal and With Bayonets Only.
Why do you think it is important for us to study the Revolutionary Era?
At this point in our country’s history, it seems we, as a society, need go back and look at our beginning, to see how both leaders and other participants comported themselves and sacrificed attempting to gain not only independence from Britain, but in support of the high ideals of the 1776 Declaration.
On a lesser, but to me still important, note, we need to study the lives of ordinary people of every side – civilian and military; men, women, and children of all creeds and colors – in order to gain a truer understanding of our founding era, and, perhaps, ourselves.
Join us for our SECOND annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium, co-hosted by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, speakers and topics include:
Michael Harris on Misconceptions of Battle of Brandywine
Vanessa Smiley on Myths of the Southern Campaigns
Travis Shaw on American Loyalists
John U Rees on African American Continental Soldiers
Mark Maloy on myths of the Battle of Trenton
Our registration fee is now only $40 per person and $20 for students. This will allow us to broaden our audience with the virtual program. We hope that 2022 will allow us to come together again in Alexandria for our third annual symposium. To register, visit: https://shop.alexandriava.gov/Events.aspx
Stay tuned as we highlight our speakers and their topics in future blog posts.