Monday, August 19, 2019

FORGOTTEN SOLDIER: African Americans in the Revolutionary War: Review By Polly Guerin

Forgotten Soldier' exhibition is a cautionary tale of duplicity, a time of patriotism and a time when enslaved and free African Americans fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. They had the opportunity to join either the American or the British fighting forces and were lured by the promise of obtaining their freedom at the end of the war.  It was a promise that lured hundreds of men like Bristol Rhodes, an enslaved man to join the Rhode Island Regiment, fought at the Siege of Yorktown in October 1781 and many others who are now given their due recognition and respect for their bravery. Their story is now told with rare documents and artifacts on display, lectures and interpretive demonstrations with re-enactors from African American military regiments.          
Portrait by John Trumbull, circa 1797
FORGOTTEN SOLDIER' at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia through 
March 22, 2020 presents the compelling stories of  some of the thousands of African Americans who took part as soldiers in the Continental Army. They fought in George Washington's army for the American cause for a free and independent nation. Men like Crispus Attucks, a sailor, a fugitive from slavery who was the wars first casualty at the Boston Massacre, and later considered "the First Martyr of Liberty,"  While FREEDOM was to be their reward history recounts that after the war George Washington wanted enslaved people to be returned to their owners and sadly the enslavers came looking for their property.
       Then, too, no less significant are the stories of those African Americans who made the risky choice to join nearby British units with the promise of obtaining their own freedom. The exhibition features Dunmore's Proclamation of 1775 on loan from the Library of  Congress. Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, promised freedom to all enslaved African Americans owned by rebelling Patriots, if they would serve and bear arms with Loyalty to Britain. FREEDOM was at the core of their urge to serve.  What motivated hundreds of enslaved men to leave their life of servitude? You must remember that before the Revolution few enslaved African Americans could ever escape bondage. Yet,  with the promise of becoming Free Men the enslaved African Americans fought bravely with the Continental Army. What's even more disturbing is the fact that at the wars end their former owners tried to enslave these men again, but not everyone. Image: Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor and his Negro servant by John Trumbull, ca. 1797. In this oil-painting, Asaba and his owner, Lt. Thomas Grosvenor of Pomfret, Connecticut, look at the fallen hero, Dr. Joseph Warren, killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Asaba survived this battle and was freed by Grosvenor after the war. Painting on loan from Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection. 
Inspection Roll and Book of Negroes
The "Inspection Roll of Negroes Book No. 1," on loan from the U.S. National Archives in Washington, DC, and the "Book of Negroes," on loan from the National Archives of the United Kingdom. The Americans and the British created these documents to partially satisfy a requirement of Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris, also on loan from the United States National Archives for the exhibition. These ledgers record the names of approximately 3,000 African American men, women and children who  escaped to British lines during the war in hopes of obtaining their freedom. An interactive in the exhibit offers an in-depth exploration of

of the "Inspection Roll of Negroes Book, No. 1" from the United States National Archives.
          The exhibits interactive and hands on experiences also include Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness where an interactive wheel shows the choices that many African Americans made in the hope for freedom. By turning the wheel visitors can find out what actually happened to people who made the same choice and learn about their stories. Then, too, there is "Hidden in Plain Sight, the story of James Lafayette who served as a Patriot spy and relayed messages to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. 
        Of special note is the original work by Titus Kaphar, an American contemporary artist whose
riveting three-dimensional sculpture invites visitors to "shift their gaze" or look at history in a new light to contemplate the Forgotten Soldier often overlooked in historical accounts.
        The AMERICAN REVOLUTION MUSEUM at Yorktown is located at 200 Water Street, parking is free. Visit Visitors can connect with more stories of African Americans in the Revolution and their wartime experiences by also exploring the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown PERMANENT GALLERY EXHIBITS where senior curator Sarah Meschutt said, "Even the average African American today does not know the story about the participation of African Americans in the Revolutionary War.  In addition to bearing arms their manual labor dug the trenches, they served as musicians, cooks, and in various other capacities. Ms. Meschutt further stated that "Without the participation of African Americans it would have been difficult to win the war." The exhibits in the Permanent Gallery uncovers the lives of Peter Salem, Billy Flora and Billy Lee to name just a few of the men who labored as enslaved men on the docks and in searing hot smelting furnaces.    Martha Katz-Hyman, assistant curator, proudly pointed out two rare items, the Marquis de Lafayette's pistols and references to other notable patriots including Sylas Deane, a Connecticut merchant who figures importantly in convincing the French to support the American Revolution, but that, too, is another worthy story.    
       Ta Ta Darlings!!!  Forgotten Soldier burns into our collective memory to never forget even our brave soldiers who today are protecting our Freedom.  Please send fan mail and your story to Visit and click in the left-hand column to links to
Polly's other Blogs.                           


  1. Excellent and informative article on the role of African Americans in the founding of the nation. Thank you!

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