Saratoga Exhibition Chronicles Black Participation in American Revolutionary War

1844 daguerreotype of African-American Revolutionary War soldier Agrippa Hull
Black Revolutionary War soldier Agrippa Hull

Agrippa Hull, a freeborn African-American, joined the patriot cause of his own choosing and served the duration of the American Revolutionary War.

The Stockbridge, Mass., native fought in the battles of Saratoga, Monmouth and Guilford Courthouse and endured the hardships of the brutally cold winter of 1778 at Valley Forge.

An estimated 5,000 Black soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their White counterparts during the American Revolution — the last time they’d be allowed to for 165 years.

“Most people don’t know that during the Revolutionary War the army of the united colonies, or United States, was generally racially integrated,” said Eric Schnitzer, a Saratoga National Historical Park ranger. “There was definitely racism going on. An African-American could not be a commissioned officer. In every other way they were equal — uniforms, weapons, pay. Even with the pension acts approved after the war, there is no evidence of discrimination.”

Schnitzer will lead an in-depth presentation, “Men of African Descent at the Battles of Saratoga,” at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, at the historical park.

“Both sides had Black men serving,” Schnitzer said.

About 20 of the 450 Blacks at Saratoga served with the British as drummers and musicians. They were not Americans, but had been enslaved in the Caribbean and became the property of a British general after the French and Indian War, about two decades beforehand.

Another 430 Black soldiers fought for America.

“It’s one of the untold stories of the war,” Schnitzer said.

Hull returned home afterward and worked as a servant for an abolitionist lawyer, U.S. Rep. Theodore Sedgwick. Eventually, Argippa Hull acquired enough money to purchase a farm, started a successful catering business with his wife and became one of the wealthiest people in Western Massachusetts — Black or White.

A rare 1844 daguerreotype of him is one of the few known photographs in existence of a Revolutionary War veteran. A copy of this image, an oil painting portrait and a reproduced pension application with Hull’s autograph are some of the items on display at the historical park’s visitors center.

Africans in the North During the Revolutionary War

In the North, African-Americans typically joined the army in one of four ways. A free man could enlist with a continental or militia regiment, or be drafted into one.

Enslaved Africans who escaped could enlist, but would be returned to his owner if the owner demanded it.

A rare 1844 daguerreotype of African-American Revolutionary War soldier Agrippa Hul
Revolutionary War soldier Agrippa Hul

Also, a White owner could send an enslaved African in his place. That’s what happened to Edom London, who fought with Col. Thomas Marshall’s Massachusetts Continental Regiment. London not only went in his owner’s place, but the owner stole half his monthly pay, which amounted to about $6.60.

In the Deep South colonies — South Carolina and Georgia — Black soldiers also fought for America during the Revolution. Some were free men who volunteered, others were enslaved who went in their owners’ places.

They all served in segregated regiments and weren’t paid for their services.

One of the most famous African-Americans from the Revolution was Peter Salmon, who is credited with mortally wounding British Maj. John Pitcairn during the Battle of Bunker Hill. In the 1920s, an effort was undertaken to make June 17 — the date the battle occurred — a national holiday in recognition of African-American contributions to the U.S. military throughout history.

It never happened.

It’s not exactly clear how or when the military became segregated. During the Revolution, individual states had more power than the new federal government. One theory suggests that as the federal government became more structured, southern lawmakers insisted on segregation. By the War of 1812, Blacks and Whites were not allowed to serve together.

The armed forces weren’t desegregated until July 26, 1948, when President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which states, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The order also established the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.

It took two more years, until after the outbreak of the Korean War, before the army unofficially desegregated basic training. Finally, segregation broke down altogether as White combat casualties mounted.

“The whole point of the program is to show the invaluable service African-Americans have given throughout our history,” Schnitzer said.


By; Paul Post