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July 4, 2012

A Time to Kill: 5 Important Black Soliders in the American Revolution

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Written by: Kelly Virella

Portrait of an unknown revolutionary war soldier painted around 1780. Image credit: Newport Historical Society


frican-Americans heard the rhetoric of the American revolution and greeted it as an opportunity for them to gain their freedom, either from slavery or from the second class citizenship they experienced as free people. Most of the enslaved believed the British would bring them freedom and 100,000 blacks — about 20 percent of the slave population — took advantage of the chaos the war wrought to escape from slavery. Some went to Canada, Florida or Indian land. But some joined the military as loyalists or patriots, seduced like other enslaved blacks by promises of manumission.

Whites on both sides of the conflict were deeply ambivalent about arming or militarily empowering blacks and they vacillated about enlisting them. But 5,000 black soldiers ultimately served in the Continental Army and Navy, comprising an estimated 5 percent of all enlistees, and an undetermined number of thousands more served in the British Army and Navy. The British Army formed a black regiment called Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, which wore the words “liberty to slaves” emblazoned on their chests. Black women also served in both militaries, as nurses, laundresses and cooks. While many black men were also relegated to non-combat roles, African-American soldiers fought in every major battle of the American Revolution. 

Many blacks who received promises of freedom for their services saw those promises reneged on after the war. In lieu of emancipation, some who served in the British Army were relocated to plantations in the Caribbean. But, with the permission of the Continental Army, the British honored their promise of freedom to some. About 3,000 black men, women and children were relocated to Nova Scotia, where many of them regrouped and eventually migrated to Sierra Leone. Some of the free blacks who served in the Continental Army later became successful entrepreneurs. Here are a few of the countless soldiers you should know about. (Unfortunately, I was unable to find more than a name for any black women participating in the revolution.)

5 Important Black Soldiers

Cornel Tye (1753-1780) An escaped slave from Monmouth, New Jersey who fought for the British, Cornel Tye became the most feared and respected guerrilla commander of any race in the American revolution. His exploits  inspired other slaves to abandon their plantations and join the war. “In a single day, he and his band captured eight militiamen (including the second in command), plundered their homes, and took them to imprisonment in New York, virtually undetected and without suffering a single casualty,” according to Africans in America. Cornel Tye died from a battle wound in 1780, after a minor wound — a gunshot to his wrist — gave him lockjaw. For a fuller account of his exploits visit, Africans in America.

James Forten

Boston King (1760-1802) & his wife Violet An escaped slave from Charleston, South Carolina, Boston King fought the British, but is most notable for being one of the Nova Scotia settlers who later migrated to Sierra Leone. There he founded a school. In 1798, he published his memoirs, which were released again in 2003 The Life of Boston King.

James Forten (1766-1842) Born free in Philadelphia, James Forten was a Patriot who served in the Continental Navy as a powder boy aboard a privateer during the revolution. “Apprenticed to a sailmaker after the war, he invented a device for handling sails which earned him a fortune … Writing, speaking and petitioning against slavery and disfranchisement, Forten influenced such white abolitionists as William Llloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott.” — Speak out in Thunder Tones: Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners, 1787 — 1865

Jeremiah Thomas Jeremiah Thomas was a free black man with a lot of property in South Carolina who conspired against the Continental Army. He urged blacks to revolt against local whites by joining the British effort to secure Charleston Harbor. He “was hanged and burned in Charleston for allegedly plotting an insurrection, timed to coincide with the arrival of the new British governor. Henry Laurens, a slave trader and the president of South Carolina’s patriotic First Provincial Congress, reported that Thomas was ‘puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury and debauchery and grown to an amazing pitch of vanity and ambition,’ according to Africans in America.

Prince Easterbrook (also Estabrook) Prince Easterbrook fought in nearly every major campaign of the American Revolution. In the first battle, at Lexington, he was wounded, but continued to fight until the war ended in 1783. He was freed from slavery for his service.


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.