If you were to open a history book today you would find little to no mention of the first blacks who fought for America. Though it is well known that many blacks fled to the British lines under the promise of freedom during the revolutionary war, virtually no mention is given to the 5,000+ blacks who fought, often with great distinction, for the foundation of our republic. In some cases the men who fought where slaves, and in others they were men who had been born free or had been given their freedom. Despite how they came to serve they starved with the other rebels at Valley Forge, crossed the icy Delaware with Washington, stood victorious at Sartoga, and partook in the brutal guerrilla fighting in the South.
Normally when I write a "Great Men of America" post it highlights just one person, but there are too many forgotten men, and so few resources to draw upon for me to tell the story of just one man. There are many other black Patriots who served, and I encourage you to seek them out and remember them just as you would remember any other American soldier.
Lemuel Haynes was born free to a white mother and an African father in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1753, but was soon abandoned by his parents and taken as the indentured servant of the Rose family. Part of the agreement of his servitude was that he would be given an education. He developed a love for books with a specific emphasis on the Bible and theology, and he even gave sermons at the town parish.
In 1774 Haynes's servitude ended, and he promptly joined the Minutemen. Though he did not partake in the Battle of Lexington he wrote a ballad about it, and did take part in the siege of Boston and the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga. It was during the war that Haynes gained an admiration for General Washington, so much so that he would later regularly hold sermons on Washington's birthday and became a member of the Washington Benevolent Society.
After the war Haynes became the first black American to be ordained by a mainstream Christian denomination, married a young white school teacher, and was the first black to preach to all white congregations. He gained international attention for his abilities as a preacher and a writer, and became the first black American to be honored with an honorary masters degree. He also a confidant and counselor to the Presidents of both Yale and Harvard.
Haynes was also an ardent supporter of abolition and republicanism, and tied his Patriot beliefs to his arguments for abolition. He argued that slavery denied the black man his natural rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." and that "Liberty is equally as precious to a black man, as it is to a white one, and bondage as equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other".
Haynes accomplished much in his life, despite being abandoned by his parents. He focused on the two things which are perhaps the best tools against racism: Faith and Patriotism. A fantastic example for blacks today.
Ever the man of faith he had this written on his tombstone:
“Here lies the dust of a poor helldeserving sinner, who ventured into eternity trusting wholly on the merits of Christ for salvation. In the full belief of the great doctrines he preached while on earth, he invites his children, and all who read this, to trust their eternal interest on the same foundation.”
Jordan Freeman and Lambert Latham
In 1781 roughly 1,700 British soldiers, lead by the traitor Benedict Arnold, engaged in a campaign to divert George Washington's forces north by attacking the Connecticut port of New London. The 185 Patriot defenders were a mixture of both whites and blacks, and were lead by Col. William Ledyard. Though hopelessly outnumbered the rebel forces fought against the British, and after suffering heavy casualities in defense of the town they fled to nearby Fort Griswold, where they made their last stand.
Though badly outnumbered and low on ammunition the Americans refused to surrender, even after the British threatened to give no quarter. When it became clear the Patriots would fight on the British swarmed the fort. In the desperate fighting the rebels ran out of ammunition, and fought with bayonets, rifle butts, and pikes.
It was during this heroic stand Jordan Freeman speared and killed the British officer leading a bayonet charge. Meanwhile Lambert had retrieved the American flag, which had been shot off the flag pole during the battle, and held it high over his head until his capture.
Though they fought bravely, the Americans were eventually overwhelmed. A British captain demanded to know who commanded the fort, and Col. William Ledyard stepped forward, answering "I did once. You do now.", and relinquished his sword as he spoke. In response the British captain took the sword and drove it into Colonel Ledyard's body. Upon seeing his commander murdered “Lambert . . . retaliated upon the [British] officer by thrusting his bayonet through his body. Lambert, in return, received from the enemy thirty-three bayonet wounds, and thus fell, nobly avenging the death of his commander.”
Seeking revenge for the death of so many of their officers the British set about slaughtering the Americans, including Jordan Freeman.
Today there is a plaque at the old fort which shows Jordan Freeman killing the British officer, and both his and Lambert's name are listed on the monument for those killed at the battle. Interestingly enough Jordan Freeman had been the slave of Colonel Ledyard, but had been freed well before the battle and still saw fit to give his life for the American cause.
The Rhode Island Fighters
Created during the winter at Valley Forge, the First Rhode Island was a regiment of 125 blacks, both slave and free. The regiment first proved itself in the Battle of Newport in 1778, when the American forces were being forced to retreat in the face of heavy British attacks. The Rhode Island Fighters put themselves between the American and British forces, holding the line against three British attacks and punishing the British with heavy causalities. Their courage undoubtedly saved lives, and after the battle the Hessan commander requested a transfer because he they had sustained such heavy causalities that he feared his men would kill him.
The Rhode Island fighters proved themselves to be heroes again in 1781 at the Battle of Croton River. During the fighting the commander of the regiment - Colonel Greene- was mortally wounded. William Nell's words best describe the events that took place after he was injured in his 1855 book about black Patriots:
“Colonel Greene, the commander of the regiment, was cut down and mortally wounded: but the sabres of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of blacks, who hovered over him, and every one of whom was killed.”Unwilling to abandon their commander and their duty, the men choose death over dishonor, and died with their commander. The other members of the regiment continued on with the war, and the regiment was present at the Battle of Yorktown when General Washington accepted the surrender of General Cornwallis.
Today the heroism of the Rhode Island Fighters, the achievements of Lemuel Haynes, and the honor of Lambert Latham have been all but forgotten. Instead of being remembered they have been sacrificed at the altar of revisionist history, a history that wants us to remember the Founding Fathers as racists and the foundation of our nation as one based on racism. There are so many other names that could be mentioned here, including Crispus Attucks, James Lafayette, and Agrippa Hull, but there isn't the room or time to write about each one of them. Instead I suggest you continue to read on the links below:
All Americans, especially blacks, should remember that the dream of liberty was not just one dreamed of by whites. Many people fought hard and well for this nation's birth. Today some people choose to look back with bitterness for the failures of the past, but instead we should focus on the good. If more than 5,000 blacks saw fit to fight for a nation which enslaved them, then maybe the revisionists have it wrong, and there is something fundamentally good about America.