Oct

24

On this date in 1775 the Second Continental Congress adopted, with modification, the motion that Edward Rutledge had first proposed in July. Rutledge had been appalled that the Continental Army and its predecessor the New England Army had black-skinned soldiers. (Under the Crown "blacks" had been excluded from all formally-established state militias, but the rebellious colonists in Massachusetts had accepted all comers.) Rutledge moved that all negroes be immediately discharged from the Army; the Congress, with its usual talent for Paul Ryan spreadsheet logic, decided that it would not discharge serving soldiers who were black-skinned but would not recruit any new "blacks".

The British responded immediately by publishing what became known as Dunmore's Proclamation, offering freedom to slaves who agreed to fight for the British. On November 12, 1775 General Washington had entered in the Army's Orderly Book Congress' formal instruction that negroes no longer be enlisted in the army. He then wrote to Congress to tell them what they had done: "the free negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded . . . it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial [British] Army."

Simon Schama, who hates Americans almost as much as he despises Israelis, claims that as many as 100,000 slaves ran away from plantations as the result of Dunmore's Proclamation. (General query: What is it about this particular number that makes it a source of rhetorical magic? One is reminded of the first President Clinton's 100,000 cops, for example.)

The number was, according to the one scholar who has tried to do the actual counting, somewhere between 800 and 2,000. Roughly 250 of these became members of the Ethiopian Regiment. Another 300 embarked with Dunmore in 1776 when he fled Williamsburg. There is, with all of this, the usual irony. Like every man of property in the colonies, except for Quakers and the odd free-thinker, Dunmore himself was a slave owner.

People with extra melanin did continue to fight in the War for Independence. As the war dragged on, the "manpower shortage" (lovely phrase that only perfumed princes can use without gagging) forced even Virginia to accept negroes and mulattoes, when necessary.

The best summary of the full story is here.

Its author, Noel Poirier, now runs the National Watch and Clock Museum, which a wonderful antidote to all the worship of the dead at Gettysburg, if you find yourself in that part of the world.


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