The participation of Blacks in the military is not unique to the contemporary period. Rather, Blacks have a history of participation in the armed forces that is unmatched in the annals of racial and ethnic participation in the armed forces of America. In 1760, 16 years before the Revolutionary War, people of African descent participated in the defeat of the Yamassee Indians, as the New England colonies were struggling to mature. In the French colony of Louisiana, free and enslaved Black people participated in the defeat of the Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. In all four wars pitting the British colonists against the French, Blacks were used as scouts and soldiers (Foner, 1974).
This early participation of Blacks, which predated the development of the United States and mass ethnic immigration from Europe by more than 100 years, was developed as a strategy of necessity. Colonists granted Blacks the privilege of participation, but feared they might turn their weapons on colonists and try to put an end to slavery. After a slave revolt in 1739, Carolina colonists noted that “there must be great caution used, least our slaves when armed might become our masters” (Foner, 1974:4– 5). The reality of manpower needs, however, ensured Blacks a role in all colonial conflicts.
By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the free Black population had settled into the process of developing small enterprises, to create a degree of economic stability (Walker, 1998). One of the more famous Philadelphia entrepreneurs was James Forten, whose experience in the Revolutionary War was the prototypical experience of Blacks who served. In 1780, Forten embarked on the Royal Louis, a man-of-war ship, as a powder boy. After a victory over an English ship, he received part of the honors bestowed on the crew for their valiant and successful fighting. Later, his vessel was captured by three English ships, and he was held as a prisoner of war. The captain of the English ship offered to free him if he would go to England and become a part of the English military. Forten replied, “No, no. I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country. I never shall prove a traitor to her interests” (Minton, 1913). James Forten was one of more than 5,000 Blacks who participated in the Revolutionary War for freedom from British rule.
In spite of the fact that Blacks made up an estimated 20 percent of the 2.5 million colonial population at the start of the “rebellion,” the Continental Congress issued four orders forbidding free Blacks and slaves from joining the Army. Recognizing that slavery was a divisive issue for the colonists, the British solicited Black recruits, offering freedom to slaves who would fight for the British crown. In 1777, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia, proclaimed: