In the spring of 1779 the southern colonies were under threat. Britain had deployed thousands of regulars to take back Georgia. They invaded Savannah in December 1778 with relative ease, and after the Battle of Brier Creek that I discussed last week, seemed to have the colony back under control.
The British force under General Augustine Prévost had already begun probing into South Carolina, with that being the obvious next step. The British then hoped to build on those successes to take back North Carolina and possibly even Virginia. British leaders believed that the southern colonies, largely settled by descendants of aristocratic families, would be most amenable to a return to British rule, and would be the most likely source of Tory militia armies to support the regulars.
South Carolina Vulnerable
Opposing the British was a small force of Continentals under the Command of General Benjamin Lincoln, who had taken up command at Purrysburg, South Carolina, just a few miles upriver from British-occupied Savannah. Supplementing the Continental soldiers were thousands of militia from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, although many of the North Carolina regiments had disappeared after their defeat at Brier Creek.
South Carolina also had a slave population of nearly 100,000. It was the only state in America where blacks outnumbered whites. Much of the role of the South Carolina militia was to deter a slave rebellion and capture escaping slaves. British leaders had already hatched plans to arm colonial slaves and offer them freedom in exchange for helping to defeat their former masters. South Carolina leaders had to maintain control of the slave population at this vulnerable time. Therefore, they simply could not let all the young white men of fighting age march off to fight with the Continentals.
Changing Views on Slavery
In early 1779, Congress gave tentative approval to raise and equip an army of several thousand southern slaves. This was a big step that helps to show the evolution in thinking that had taken place over several years of war. In 1775, when the Continental Army first developed out of the New England Army that sprouted up around Boston, many units, at that time, had small numbers of free black men integrated into their units.
|Slaves on Mt. Vernon|
Part of it may have been pushback from New England officers who had black soldiers in their units and believed them to be valuable assets. More likely, it was a matter of desperation. The Continental army could not recruit the numbers it needed. Black recruits, it seemed, were better than no recruits. The Continental Army did not have segregated units. Black soldiers served alongside their white comrades in integrated units. However, there were no black officers. All black soldiers served under white leadership.
Over the course of years, General Washington and other leaders who held prejudiced views that black men could never fight with the same discipline and bravery as white men, saw those prejudices challenged as black soldiers served with distinction, fighting and dying as well as any other men.
Beyond the issue of free blacks, was the additional controversy of allowing slaves to enlist. Even if leaders were beginning to overcome the prevailing racist notions that black people were inferior to white people in fighting ability, slaves as soldiers posed other concerns. One was that slave owners might object to the emancipation of their slaves. Another was that slaves might harbor an anger and resentment that would result in their deserting and fighting for the enemy if given the opportunity. Another was simply that slaves were simply raised to be ignorant and servile, which would impact their fighting ability, even if free blacks made capable soldiers. All of this is also assuming that slaves would be given their freedom for service. Otherwise, teaching a slave to use firearms and then sending him back to serving a family that he resented might end badly for the master.
Rhode Island Experiment
The first state to test these concerns on a large scale was Rhode Island. In February of 1778, it passed the Slave Enlistment Act, which permitted slaves to enlist in the Continental Army. Upon doing so, slaves would be immediately free. Their masters would be paid reasonable compensation for the value of their loss. Upon completing enlistment, the former slave would have the full rights of a free man.
|Solder, 1st RI|
This was during the bleak winter at Valley Forge. It’s also seen as the time that the pre-war idealism faded. The idea that free citizenry would nobly volunteer to defend their lands in the militia when called, then return their farms after successfully deflecting any invasion had proven to provide only an unstable and inexperienced army. Washington led many others in the view that citizen militias, and even short-term continental enlistments, simply would not get the job done against British regulars. Washington wanted a professional army that would serve at least multi-year enlistments so that the soldiers would benefit from training and experience.
The problem with multi-year enlistments, especially for an army that was gaining a reputation for not properly feeding, clothing, and housing its soldiers, was that many men with other options were not willing to make that commitment. Some hard-core patriots were, of course, willing - but not in the numbers the army needed. Opening the ranks to black soldiers, including slaves, increased the available pool, and opened it up to men who might not have as many options in civilian life. Slaves had a particular incentive to join if there was an offer of freedom after completing their enlistment.
So Rhode Island heavily recruited slaves and free blacks to fill the ranks of the First Rhode Island. Until the end of 1777, the regiment had been a mix of black and white soldiers. Following the recruitment drive in early 1778, the regiment was largely made up of black privates, with white officers and non-commissioned officers to lead them. It became known as the “black regiment.”
Later that year, at the Battle of Rhode Island, the regiment acquitted itself well on Aquidneck Island, drawing praise from the commanding General John Sullivan. It helped to convince even more Continental leaders that black soldiers could be effective fighters in battle.
One of the more conspicuous advocates of arming slaves was Colonel John Laurens. As an aide to Washington, Laurens had the ear of the Commander. Laurens also had the ear of the President of Congress, his father Henry Laurens. Colonel Laurens had also developed a close friendship with Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Lafayette. The three young men were all in their early twenties, highly educated, and enthusiastic supporters of the cause of freedom.
Laurens, Hamilton, and Lafayette all seemed to be enthusiastic proponents for ending slavery. Some see this as hypocritical since Laurens came from a slave owning family. His father Henry Laurens, not only owned slaves, but had made a fortune running the largest slave trading house in North America.
In 1771, when John was a teenager, his mother died. His father took the family to England and John spent several years in a Swiss boarding school. When the war began, he was studying law in London. His father, who had already returned to America, urged John to stay in London and continue his studies. John stayed in England through 1776, where he married an English woman. Despite his father’s wishes, he wanted to fight for the patriots. By the spring of 1777, he sailed back to America and received a commission in the Continental Army.
Henry Laurens wanted to keep his son away from the dangers of combat and arranged for him to serve as an aide-de-camp to General Washington. John, however, had no interest in spending the war behind a desk. He was conspicuously active on the battlefield at Brandywine. His friend Lafayette commented "It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded; he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t'other." Laurens remained active in the field during the Philadelphia campaign, before being wounded at Germantown.
Laurens recuperated from his shoulder wound at Valley Forge. He then fought at Monmouth, and later in 1778 fought a duel with General Charles Lee.
Laurens’ father Henry Laurens’ views on slavery were best described as “complicated.” Biographers of the Laurens family, and even other people in letters from the time, noted that Henry Laurens appreciated the humanity of the people who he owned. They note that he treated his slaves much better than many of his fellow South Carolina owners, not driving them as hard, or punishing them as brutally, and he had a reluctance to break up slave families whenever possible.
Some may argue that noting this lenient treatment is somehow an attempt to excuse or mitigate judgment against Laurens for having owned slaves. I’m not pointing this out for any such reason and in fact leave it to others to judge the man. I’m simply trying to point out that, despite being an owner of a large number of slaves, Laurens did feel conflicted about the institution and did have some feelings for those who labored for him. He did not view Africans as animals or as somehow sub-humans who needed enslavement to fit into a civilized society. At the same time though, he continued to hold people in bondage and forced their continued labor for his own benefit.
If the father Henry Laurens felt conflicted between his life as a slave owner and his ideals about freedom and equality, his son John seemed less conflicted. Having reached adulthood in Europe, where slavery was not a part of society, John seemed much more ready to find a way to end the institution.
Despite his views, Henry Laurens remained a large slave owner. As early as 1776 he wrote to his son about the idea of manumitting his slaves. The father and son discussed ways to transition from a slave-based economy to one based on the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They were not ready for some radical scheme to end slavery instantly, nor were they willing to grant immediate manumission even to their own slaves. But the men were thinking about how to transition society in that direction.
Plans to Raise Slave Army
By early 1779, John Laurens saw an opportunity both to aid the patriot cause, and also to further the goal of finding a way to end slavery. Laurens had long proposed the idea of raising a regiment, or even several regiments, of slaves who would be offered freedom in exchange for military service. He had even written to his father in early 1778, around the same time the First Rhode Island began recruiting slaves, asking if he could borrow against his future inheritance by being given 40 slaves. These men would establish a company of soldiers which would serve as the core of a larger military force.
At the time, Henry objected to the plan on several levels. He assumed that his slaves would be too afraid to leave the plantation and leave their families behind. They would also desert at the earliest opportunity, either out of fear of battle, or the desire to escape bondage. He disagreed with his son that the slaves would rise to the occasion and win their freedom honorably by serving out their enlistments. For the rest of the year, the idea simply remained an idea, with no attempts to implement it in the south.
In early 1779, after the British captured Savannah and threatened South Carolina, John Laurens obtained leave from Washington to return to South Carolina. On his way south, Laurens stopped in Philadelphia to advocate for his idea to raise an army of South Carolina slaves. This army would contest the British threat to South Carolina. Owners would receive compensation. Slaves would become free following the completion of their enlistment.
Given the threats against South Carolina at the time, Henry Laurens, and others in Congress, took the suggestion more seriously. South Carolina President John Rutledge had sent Isaac Huger to Philadelphia to get Congress to help with a military force in the south.
On January 9, 1779 Congress had commissioned Colonel Huger of the South Carolina militia to serve as a Continental brigadier. That same day, the Congress also commissioned two North Carolina officers, Sumner and Hogun, as well as Mordecai Gist of Maryland. The new brigadiers were part of an effort to raise the military force needed to protect the southern states.
|William Henry Drayton|
General Huger hoped to get Congress to send portions of the Continental Army and Navy to defend South Carolina in its hour of need. Congress formed a committee, including Henry Laurens, who by this time was no longer President of Congress, but still a delegate, as well as Henry Drayton of South Carolina to work out a solution to save South Carolina. Huger reported that raising an army of white militia members was difficult because so many had to remain at home to protect against a slave insurrection, or to protect against the fear that slaves would escape to the enemy and fight for the British. Congress, of course, had no more Continental soldiers to spare. General Washington still needed to guard against any actions from the British forces at New York, Newport, or Quebec. There were native warriors running rampant in upstate New York and along the western frontier, and not enough soldiers to deal with all of those issues. Redeploying existing Continental forces to the south simply was not an option.
The three South Carolinians Laurens, Draper, and Huger all agreed with John Laurens’ proposal to raise a slave army because it might be the only realistic option. Putting the slaves under arms would reduce the risk of a domestic uprising. It was the only plausible source of men. The committee recommended the scheme to Congress in late March 1779.
Based on the committee’s proposal, Congress passed a resolution which read in part “That it be recommended to the states of South Carolina and Georgia, if they shall think the same expedient, to take measures immediately for raising three thousand able bodied negroes.” This resolution was pretty tentative. First, it was just a recommendation to the state governments. The Continental Congress was not mandating anything. It would be left up to the States to approve and enact this major policy change.
Congress also left most of the details to those states, other than noting that the troops would be “commanded by white commissioned and non-commissioned officers.” It did agree to compensate owners up to $1000 for each slave fit for duty and to guarantee freedom and $50 to each former slave who completed the enlistment. The soldiers would not receive any pay during their enlistment, only food and clothing.
Laurens, and Colonel Hamilton began writing to other influential and sympathetic officials to get more support for the plan. General Washington remained silent on the matter.
With Congress’ resolution Laurens traveled to Charleston to get the legislature on board. An army of 3000 new recruits would more than double the patriot force with General Lincoln in South Carolina.
Southern Leaders Reject the Plan
That, however, is where the project ended. The British already controlled Georgia, so there was no state legislature to vote on the resolution there. South Carolina voted on the proposal in late May. Both the House and Senate voted against it. As one correspondent put it, the legislators “received it with horror by the planters, who figured to themselves horrible consequences.”
I cannot find any specifics on the debate or even the numbers opposed. But it seems that it was categorically rejected, at a time when South Carolina was approaching the greatest threat to its existence as an independent state. A few months later, a similar vote was described as receiving only a dozen votes and “blown up, with contemptuous huzzas.”
Christopher Gadsden wrote “We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves, it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step.”
For the elites who controlled South Carolina, the thought of giving guns and military training to 3000 of the 100,000 or so slaves, who outnumbered the white population, was only inviting disaster. Those trained soldiers could later form the basis of a slave uprising, something the slave owners feared more than British rule. The only way arming slaves would work would be as part of some larger emancipation program that would end slavery in South Carolina. The views of Henry and John Laurens aside, the bulk of the South Carolina leadership was nowhere near ready to end slavery in the state.
In short, South Carolina would rather fail in its bid for independence than to give up the practice of slavery. As Alexander Hamilton put it later, “Prejudice and private interests [were] antagonists too powerful for public spirit and public good.”
Proposals to arm slaves in South Carolina would come up several more times during the war. Each time, the proposals met a similar fate. For many Americans, the Revolution forced them to rethink their views on slavery. That evolution of thought, however, did not take root in South Carolina.
Next Week: Naval hero Gustavus Conyngham escapes the British only to find himself in hot water with the Continental Congress.
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Farley, M. Foster. “The South Carolina Negro in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 79, no. 2, 1978, pp. 75–86. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27567488
Kelly, Joseph P. “Henry Laurens: The Southern Man of Conscience in History.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 107, no. 2, 2006, pp. 82–123. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27570804
Maslowski, Pete. “National Policy toward the Use of Black Troops in the Revolution.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 73, no. 1, 1972, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27567096
Massey, Gregory D. “The Limits of Antislavery Thought in the Revolutionary Lower South: John Laurens and Henry Laurens.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 63, no. 3, 1997, pp. 495–530. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2211648
Slave Enlistment Act of 1778 (RI): https://www.sos.ri.gov/assets/downloads/documents/Black-Regiment.pdf
Journals of the Continental Congress: March 29, 1779: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/journals-of-the-continental-congress-march-29-1779
John Laurens and Hamilton: https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/john-laurens-and-hamilton-part-1
Laurens, Henry. “Correspondence between Hon. Henry Laurens and His Son, John, 1777-1780. (Continued).” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 6, no. 1, 1905, pp. 3–12. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575086
Laurens, Henry. “Correspondence between Hon. Henry Laurens and His Son, John, 1777-1780. (Continued).” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 6, no. 2, 1905, pp. 47–52. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27575094
(from archive.org unless noted)
Hartgrove, W. B. “The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 1, April 1, 1916.
Simms, William G. The Army correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the years 1777-8, New York: Bradford Club, 1867.
Wallace, David D. The Life of Henry Laurens, with a sketch of the life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.
Wilson, Joseph T. The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the War of 1775-1812, 1861-'65, Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co. 1888.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Egerton Douglas R. Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.
Geake, Robert From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution, Westholme, 2016.
Gilbert, Alan Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012.
Massey, Gregory D. John Laurens and the American Revolution, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2000.
Van Buskirk, Judith L. Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution, Univ. of Okla. Press, 2017.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.