Though colonists did not officially condone the enlistment of African Americans in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, the service of African Americans was historically pervasive throughout the War, despite multiple orders on behalf of General George Washington alluding to the illegality of the enlistment of African Americans – slaves or freemen – to work concertedly alongside colonists in the Continental Army (Butler, 1992). Despite the supposed restrictions against African Americans participating in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, African Americans from all thirteen colonies – approximately 5000 individuals – fought on behalf of the patriot colonists. Many African American soldiers remained slaves throughout the Revolutionary War, a factor that the British monopolized upon, recruiting slaves to fight against the patriot colonies in promise of freedom (Butler, 1992). During the War, persistent need in 1776 and 1777 prompted the official call for African Americans to enlist in the Continental Army in an attempt to replenish resources and garner strength for continued battle. The conclusion of the Revolutionary War resulted in an increase in manumission of slaves and Continental soldiers who were slaves (National Park Service, 2008).
University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives acquired the Revolutionary War-era document, a “Partially Printed Pay Document to Black Connecticut Revolutionary War Soldier, Pomp Cyrus, 1782,” an official pay document signed by Connecticut State Treasurer, John Lawrence. The recipient of the pay document, Pomp Cyrus of Milford, was a constituent of a group of slaves and freemen from Connecticut, numbering around 300, who served as Continental soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Pomp Cyrus also served in the historic all-black Second Company of the Fourth Connecticut Regiment led by Captain David Humphreys (Lanning, 2000). The Second Company grew as an extension from the Fourth Connecticut Regiment, carrying with it fifty-two former slaves and freemen, and was active between the years of 1780 and 1782 (Lanning, 2000).
Despite sporadic orders condoning the enlistment of African Americans during the Revolutionary War, the government continued its overall enactment of exclusionary practices that prohibited legal, sustained service in the military by African Americans. African Americans became trapped in a revolving system referred to as “recruit-retain-and-reject,” where African American soldiers were used in dire times of wartime need and later disregarded once needs were fulfilled (Butler, 1992). One of the initial breaking points of this “recruit-retain-and-reject” pattern of operation was the Emancipation Proclamation, responsible for allowing the enlistment of African Americans in the military during the American Civil War. However, it is not until the Korean War that more transformative change occurs (Butler, 1992).
University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives acquired the following document from the Civil War-era, “Application for a Discharged Soldier, Colored, For Pay and Bounty, 1866.” The document is an application for compensational pay for time served in the military by an African American soldier prior to discharge, as well as for additional compensation under the “act of Congress of June 15, 1866,” which the document states provides payment of $13 in place of the previously awarded $7, “as allowed by law.” The deponent of the application was required to attest that “[he] swears that he has never bartered, sold, assigned, transferred, exchanged, loaned, or given away either his discharge papers, or any interest in any bounty whatever…”
These recent acquisitions and the history of African Americans in the military beg conversation and examination. Constant, critical thought and action are cornerstone.
Special Collections and University Archives serves as a historical repository of materials, some of which may be considered prejudiced, stereotyped or offensive. Historical data is an important resource in the study of contemporary and past cultures. As such, we take our responsibilities in preserving and cataloging such material seriously and provide access for the purpose of scholarly research and study.
Butler, J. (1992). Affirmative action in the military. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 523, 196-206. DOI: 10.2307/1047591
Lanning, M. L. (2000). African Americans in the Revolutionary War. Citadel Press Books.
National Park Service. (2008, December 4). Stories from the Revolution: African Americans in the Revolutionary period. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/revwar/abouttherevolution/africanamericans.html
Written by Alexandra Mueller (Special Projects Archivist)