Chapter OneDefending America
Blacks have participated in all of America's battles. When the first Africans arrived in North America in 1619 as captive labor, they found a conflict between the white British and the Native Americans, who were here first. The colonists were hesitant to arm the very people they had enslaved, but blacks soon found themselves not only working the land but defending it as well. Later, during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), blacks were again called upon to help defend the British.
When the American colonies declared their independence on July 4, 1776, thousands of blacks lived in the thirteen colonies. Most of them were slaves. Some were promised their freedom if they fought against the British; others were simply sent into the war as laborers, personal aides, or soldiers. The small American navy consisted largely of privately owned vessels called privateers, and many of these had black sailors among them. James Forten, a free black youth of fourteen living in Philadelphia, sailed with Captain Stephen Decatur Sr. aboard the Royal Louis in the summer of 1781. The first voyage of the Royal Louis resulted in a stunning victory against a British ship and the taking of the ship as a prize of war. Forten's luck did not last very long, and the Royal Louis was captured by a British warship. Forten, who had befriended the son of the captain who held him, refused the chance to go over to the British side and escape imprisonment. He saw himself, even during this period in which slavery was legal, as an American and remained loyal to the American cause.
Eventually, more than five thousand black men would fight for the independence of the colonies. A Hessian soldier commented in his diary that there were blacks in every American regiment that he had seen.
During the course of the war the British offered freedom to any slave who would fight with the British against the colonists. Many blacks did escape to the British lines and either worked as laborers for the British or participated in battles against the rebellious Americans.
During the Revolutionary War the colonists were divided in the treatment of black men. On one hand they were being asked to fight for the liberation of the colonies, but on the other hand they were not being guaranteed their own freedom. Lord Dunmore, the governor of the Virginia Colony and a British loyalist, had worried about the presence of blacks in Virginia. He felt that the blacks would side with whoever offered them freedom. When the war began, he offered blacks their freedom in return for fighting with the British. Hundreds of black men joined the British army and fought against America, sometimes having to fight against the many thousands of blacks who fought for the colonists.
The war ended successfully for the colonists, and many slaves who had taken up arms or labored for the Americans were recognized and given their freedom in thanks for their participation in the war. Blacks who fought for the British were, by agreement between the American and British governments, given their freedom and taken to the West Indies or to Canada after the war.
Most of the battles in the War of 1812 against Great Britain took place at sea with mixed crews of blacks and whites. General Andrew Jackson, fighting off the British at the end of the war, put out a call to black citizens to fight in the American army: "Through a mistaken policy you have heretofore been deprived of a participation in the glorious struggle for national rights in which our country is engaged. This no longer shall exist."
Black soldiers served in this brief war both as soldiers and as laborers, building fortifications, carrying supplies, and even acting as spies.
The United States of America is a constitutional democracy guaranteeing its citizens certain rights. During the period of American slavery these rights were not being given to black people. Throughout early American history there have been incidents in which black people revolted against those who would keep them in slavery.
In 1822 a free black, Denmark Vesey, planned a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1831 Nat Turner led an armed rebellion that ended with the deaths of more than fifty whites. In 1839 Africans aboard the ship Amistad killed the Spanish crew and captured the vessel. These revolts demonstrated that black people wanted freedom as much as anyone and were willing to fight for it. Recognizing that black people wanted to be free and would do what was necessary to achieve that freedom, slaveholders made it illegal for any black person to be in possession of a firearm, or for blacks to gather in large groups away from the plantations on which they worked. Free blacks were not allowed to travel in Southern states, where most of the slavery existed.
By 1859 the Northern states had developed quite differently than those in the South. The Southern states were primarily agricultural and largely dependent on slave labor for economic success. The Northern states had a mixed economy, with a growing reliance on industry. Niles' Register, a nineteenth-century publication that often reflected Southern views, complained that if a Southerner died, he would be buried in a grave dug by a shovel manufactured in the North, buried in a casket made in the North, and preached over by a minister holding a Bible printed in the North.
For young Southerners who did not want to be planters, the military became the pathway to becoming "an officer and a gentleman." A large number of the officers in the American army were from the slave states of the South. On October 16, 1859, they would be tested both as soldiers and as Southerners.
Harper's Ferry, Virginia, was a small, somewhat sleepy town with little to distinguish it from the neighboring areas except for its military arsenal. It was this arsenal that was the target of ...