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ch a p ter 2 Slave Soldiers Mourn lions who in fields of honor fell, Mourn who, in fray, acquits himself so well. —antar ah The black soldiers fighting in the French revolutionary war were of a similar type to the black soldiers fighting in the Civil War. —c. l. r. james But there is one thought which every white man thinks when he sees a black army marching past. “How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction.” —george orwell Older historical narratives of wars of national independence and abolition struggles in the nineteenth-century Americas that ignored the roles of people of African descent are increasingly being replaced by a vital historical literature acknowledging slaves and free blacks as military participants. Much of this important scholarship, however, is produced within national frameworks as historians seek to show the contributions of black soldiers toward the creation and consolidation of nation-states.1 Rarely is this historical work comparative , and when it is, the primary concern is with political elites and why they armed bondsmen during social upheavals.2 In contrast, this chapter provides a comparative approach centered on slave soldiers. Specifically, it examines the decisions, actions, experiences, and consequences of slaves taking up arms in the wars of American and Spanish American Independence, the Haitian Revolution, the American Civil War, and the First War for Cuban Independence. There is no attempt to be encyclopedic. Rather, it makes three comparative points. First, slaves fought during wars, revolutions, and social crises across the Americas to a remarkable extent. Second, slaves armed with guns usually transformed existing conditions . Third, slave soldiers’ military contributions were significant, including 42 freedom’s seekers the destruction of slave systems. These three points, especially the latter, can best be appreciated through a comparative framework. Although we explore differences and connections, the major comparative focus is on similarities. The central aim is to challenge a scholarly approach toward slave soldiers that is too often reduced to a simplistic and unsatisfying patriotism. i. extent Slave soldiers participated in wars of national liberation throughout the nineteenth-century Americas. During the American War of Independence, around 5,000 black soldiers fought on the patriot side in state militias and the Continental Army. Many were free blacks; others were former slaves. In response to British occupation, the new state of Rhode Island offered slaves liberty in exchange for military service while their owners were compensated 120 pounds sterling. Cuff Greene, Dick Champlin, and Jack Champlin were among the first recruits. Eventually, one in four able-bodied male slaves in Rhode Island served in what became known as the Black Regiment.3 Opposing these black patriots were around 15,000 black loyalists who supported the British Crown. Most of them were former slaves who labored and fought in exchange for their personal liberty. The vast majority of the Ethiopian Regiment organized by Governor John Earl of Dunmore of Virginia, for example, consisted of self-emancipated slaves from Virginia and Maryland who saw the British as their best hope for freedom.4 A generation later, history was to repeat itself. During the War of 1812, several thousand free blacks labored and fought for the United States while several hundred former slaves served as laborers, spies, messengers, and soldiers for the British.5 During the mass upheaval against French colonial slavery and the struggle for independence in St. Domingue, the insurgent army grew from 10,000 strong in late August 1791 to between 23,000 to 30,000 regular troops with local militias of 10,000 by early 1802. Although these included white soldiers, gens de coleur (free people of color) and ancien libres (long-term free blacks like Toussaint Louverture), the majority of insurgent military forces were former slaves.6 Soldiers of African descent had been active in Spanish America since the sixteenth century, but the extent of their activities increased markedly with national independence struggles during the early nineteenth century.7 In 1812, slaves fought in the guerilla army under the leadership of Francisco Gomez, Juan Bautista, Mariano Mota, and José Maria Alegria in the sugar plantation region of coastal Veracruz during the war for Mexican independence.8 In Ar- slave soldiers 43 gentina, between 4,000 to 5,000 slaves enlisted with patriot armies between 1813 and 1818. Libertos (freed slaves) made up half of General José de San Martin ’s invading army into Chile in 1817 and...


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