Patriot Soldiers from Sh*thole Countries
Remembering African-American and Haitian soldiers in the American Revolution
Just over a week ago, it was reported that President Trump referred to Haiti and Africa as “sh**hole” countries, suggesting that immigrants from both places were undesirable. It seems timely to remember that thousands of Patriot soldiers of African descent from both America and Haiti helped the United States win its war of independence. Our nation’s founding owes a debt to Patriot soldiers from precisely these places dubbed by Trump as “sh**hole countries.”
And yet how much recognition — much less celebration — do these men get? The lack of common public knowledge about their contribution raises important points about people of African descent and collective American memory, particularly as manifested in museums and monuments. Civil War monuments were a political flashpoint last year, and seem poised to be equally controversial in 2018. But contested histories of race in America, of course, pre-date the Civil War by centuries. The Declaration of Independence itself embodies the paradoxical relationship between slavery and freedom that characterized the nation’s founding. The simple fact that the Declaration’s beautifully framed assertion that “all men are created equal” was an ideal elegantly penned by a slaveholder makes our national paradox all too clear. To fully engage with the complex and troubled histories of racism and slavery that frame our current political moment, we need to engage public debate not just around the legacies of the Civil War, but with the earlier history of the Revolution, too. The conversation about our collective national failure to come to terms with contested histories of race in the United States of America should not begin with the Civil War, but rather with the Revolution.
Consider the star attraction of Philadelphia’s must-see Museum of the American Revolution: the tent dubbed the “First Oval Office.” Here, inside this multi-chambered, oval linen structure, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army General George Washington held his mobile headquarters for much of the war. Washington held meetings, planned campaigns, and slept here. But he was not its only regular occupant. His enslaved African-American valet, William Lee, also used the space. Lee — as this iconic painting by John Trumbull illustrates — was at Washington’s side throughout the war, as his body servant, organizer of his papers, and attendant in battle. It is probable, in fact, that not just Washington, but Lee, slept here.
And yet, despite William Lee’s constant presence and importance in General Washington’s life during the Revolution, his is hardly a household name in America. The Museum of the American Revolution, in keeping with its admirable interpretive plan, makes a point to mention his presence in the tent. But it is telling that even a historical production as attuned to racial complexities as Hamilton! The Musical failed to give William Lee — notably conspicuous in his absence — his historical due. Nor are the stories of the between six and seven thousand men of African descent — some enslaved, some free — who fought on the side of the Patriots in the American Revolution as widely told as they could be. Why? The obvious answer, of course, lies in the complex history of race relations that characterize both the history of America and how we choose to remember it.
Downplaying contributions men of African descent made to the nation’s founding dates back to the Revolutionary era itself. Take William Lee. George Washington did free him and grant him an annuity, as Washington put it, in “testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” But Washington didn’t free Lee until 1799, a full sixteen years after the Treaty of Paris ended the war. Some of the thousands of men of African descent who fought for the Patriots in the American Revolution, like members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, did receive their freedom in exchange for their service. But many, many more did not. Despite the founding ideals of liberty and equality held up as linchpins to the Patriots’ cause, if you were a man of African descent who desired either of those things, you were much better off fighting for the British than for the Americans. Choosing the cause of liberty, ironically, offered less chance at freedom. As early as 1775, beginning with Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation granting freedom to any men enslaved by Patriot rebels willing to fight for the British, service with the British military offered enslaved Americans a greater chance at liberty than fighting for the Patriots.
And yet thousands of men of African descent fought with the Patriots against the British, fighting in what was an integrated rather than a segregated American Army. Some enlisted voluntarily; others were sent in place of their white slaveholders who wished to avoid military service. Soldiers of African descent fought for Patriots for the entirety of the Revolution, from the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord, to the victory that turned the world upside down at Yorktown. Some of these men were not even Americans. The largest black regiment to serve in the American Revolution was a group of over 500 men organized in 1779 under the leadership of white French officer Charles d’Estaing, a group of light infantry known as “Les Chasseurs-Volontaires.”
These men — some of whom were “free men of color” and others formerly enslaved men who enlisted to gain their freedom — sailed to the aid of the Continental Army from the Caribbean sugar island of Saint-Domingue, the then-French colony that we know today as the country of Haiti. Although elite infantrymen whom the Comte d’Estaing insisted be treated like white soldiers, the Chasseurs-Volontaires were not treated like equals once they reached America. Instead, they were initially put to the menial work of digging trenches. During the Siege of Savannah, however, they fought on the front lines and proved, like other men of African descent who fought with Washington’s Army, their ability in battle.
Like the white French soldiers with whom they fought, some of the Haitians who fought for the American Patriots later spread American revolutionary ideals by helping to foment their own revolution back home, establishing the first country founded by former slaves. That the United States failed to recognize this nation until 1862 speaks volumes of the fear and disdain a nation built by former slaves inspired in white politicians — even if soldiers from that place helped secure the independence of the United States.
As Americans engage in much-needed discussion about which monuments to tear down, we also need more dialogue about which monuments to erect in their stead. Today, les Chasseurs-Volontaires are memorialized in a Savannah monument. Guns drawn, faces brave and defiant, their bronze statues stand as an all too uncommon material reminder of contributions thousands of men of African descent — from enslaved William Lee to free men of color from Haiti — made to the American Revolution. The time is right to build more monuments like that in Savannah. If only to remind Americans like President Trump of the fact that Patriot soldiers from “sh**hole countries” helped Washington’s Army win the war of independence.
Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware and author of Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016). Her current research is on the material culture of the American Revolution.