African Americans contributed to both the American and British causes during the Revolutionary War as laborers, soldiers, sailors, guides, teamsters, cooks, and spies. While it is impossible to know the exact number, it has been traditionally accepted that as many as five thousand African Americans served in the American forces. Perhaps as many as 80,000 to 100,000 slaves either escaped during the war, were taken by the British, or fled with Loyalists and British soldiers afterward. A few hundred of these served in the British ranks. African Americans joined the American or British armies under many different motives and circumstances. Slaves joined when promised freedom for their service, or were seized by one side or the other, or served as substitutes for their owners. Slaveowners were sometimes paid for the labor their slaves provided, but in other instances slaves were seized as military necessity required. Free blacks joined to enhance their status in the community or for monetary reward. When serving as soldiers, African Americans were usually integrated into the ranks. However, the colonies raised a few segregated regiments such as the First Rhode Island Regiment and the black regiment raised by Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia for the British.
At the beginning of the war, South Carolina patriots attempted to keep slaves on the plantations by passing a law instituting the death penalty for any slave who joined the British. Meanwhile, two South Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Lynch, worked to have the free African Americans who had joined the ranks of the Continental army discharged and excluded from any future enlistments. But other South Carolinians such as Henry and John Laurens were in favor of African Americans serving and of giving slaves their freedom in exchange for military service. Congress even sent John Laurens on a mission to South Carolina in 1779 in hopes of convincing the state to raise three thousand blacks for segregated battalions to be led by white officers. Under this proposal, Congress would pay plantation owners for the slaves recruited into the battalions. The slaveowners would get up to $1,000 for each able-bodied black male under thirty-five years of age, and at the war’s conclusion the slave would receive his freedom and $50. The South Carolina legislature quickly rejected the idea. Later, in 1781, they rejected another request by General Nathanael Greene to raise black troops. However, South Carolina slaves were used as bounty to raise white recruits. In 1781 General Thomas Sumter offered one slave to each white citizen who joined as a private soldier for ten months and as many as three grown and one small slave to those who joined as colonels. Sumter did not have these slaves at the time he made this promise. He was banking on slaves he hoped would be seized from Loyalists during future campaigns. General Andrew Pickens also adopted this recruiting incentive, which became known as “Sumter’s law,” but Francis Marion rejected it, stating that it was “inhuman.”
While most African Americans who served in South Carolina, slave or free, were laborers, cooks, or teamsters in the war, a few were combatants. Their presence in the ranks is only known from incidental comments found in contemporary diaries and correspondence. For instance, when Francis Marion crossed into North Carolina to join General Horatio Gates during the summer of 1780, Otho Williams recorded that Marion’s men “did not exceed twenty men and boys, some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped.” Once, the South Carolina legislature rewarded a slave named Antigua for his role as an American spy. While the number of African Americans in the South Carolina lines may have been small, blacks made up a significant portion of the crews on South Carolina’s ships during the war. African Americans were common in South Carolina’s navy, serving as seamen, pilots, and carpenters.
At the end of the war, as many as 25,000 South Carolina slaves left with the British and Loyalists or escaped into the swamps. One band of three hundred Georgia and South Carolina slaves, who called themselves King of England’s Soldiers, fled to the Savannah River swamps and survived until May of 1786, when they were burned out by Georgia and South Carolina militia.
Foner, Philip S. Blacks in the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1976.
Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. 1961. Reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.