Thursday, July 7, 2011

African American Revolutionary War Soldiers

Freedom, Rights, and Independence Day
In 2011 Americans of all colors, race and religion are free to join in the festivities of the 4th of July.  Not to dampen the spirit, but we can't forget that in 1776 slavery was a welcomed institution even while the words freedom and rights were widespread. Colonies fought against the British forces in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783, for such freedoms and rights that were not extended to slaves for another 80 plus years. 

African American Revolutionary Soldiers
In some states, like North Carolina,  free-coloreds were allowed to serve as soldiers, others as laborers.  Slaves, too, served as substitutes for white men.  In exchange they were most often promised their freedom, as was my ancestor, Ned Griffin.

Ned Griffin
An Act for Enfranchising Ned Griffin, Late the Property of William Kitchen.

[An Act for Enfranchising Ned Griffin, Late the Property of William Kitchen Colonial Records. Acts of the North Carolina General Assembly, 1784 April 19, 1784 - June 03, 1784
; Volume 24, Pages 543 - 649.]
I. Whereas, Ned Griffin, late the property of William Kitchen, of Edgecomb county, was promised the full enjoyments of his liberty, on condition that he, the said Ned Griffin, should faithfully serve as a soldier in the continental line of this State for and during the term of twelve months; and whereas the said Ned Griffin did faithfully on his part perform the condition, and whereas it is just and reasonable that the said Ned Griffin should receive the reward promised for the services which he performed;
II. Be it therefore Enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby Enacted by the authority of the same, That the said Ned Griffin, late the property of William Kitchen, shall forever hereafter be in every respect declared to be a freeman; and he shall be, and he is hereby enfranchised and forever delivered and discharged from the yoke of slavery; any law, usage or custom to the contrary thereof in anywise notwithstanding.
As many as 10% of the Continental Army soldiers were African Americans. Ancestor Ned Griffin, served in The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15, 1781. The following history is available on the History from the National Park Service, Guilford Courthouse website.

Ned Griffin, a “Man of mixed Blood,” served as William Kitchen’s substitute in the North Carolina Militia.  William Kitchen deserted the army prior to the battle of Guilford Courthouse and purchased Griffin to serve in his place.
Hiring a substitute was a common practice for those who could afford it. In this case, Kitchen promised
Griffin his freedom upon return. Griffin fulfilled his service (it is believed to have been at the battle of
Guilford Courthouse), but Kitchen instead sold him back again into slavery [upon his return].
In April 1784
Griffin petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for his freedom based on Kitchen’s “promise.”  The assembly acted quickly and enacted legislation that freed and enfranchised Ned Griffin and declared him “forever delivered and discharged from the yoke of slavery.”

The Slave and the Fourth of July
In July 1852 Frederick Douglass, a former slave and a leader in the Abolitionist Movement was invited by the Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York to speak at the Independence Day celebration. Millions of Americans of African descent were yet trapped in the tyranny of slavery decades after the Revolutionary War. Douglass delivered his Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro speech as planned. First paying tribute to the United States, to Jefferson, to the Founders, to the Declaration of Independence, he then shared his "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" famous oration. This excerpt well explains not only what Ned Griffin endured for years after the serving in the Revolutionary War, but the pains of his fellow plantation mates, not yet free. Douglass speaks on the limited celebration of Independence Day:
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.
Kathleen Brandt

1 comment:

  1. I'm currently reading Ron Chernow's recent bio of George Washington, "Washington,"- just finished the part on the war. Chernow spent a lot of time on all the considerations, pro and con, on using African Americans in the Continental Army, free or slave. And, there were a lot used, as you document. Thank you for another excellent post! ;-)