McGaughy on Crowder, 'African Americans and American Indians in the Revolutionary War'

Author: 
Jack Darrell Crowder
Reviewer: 
Joseph McGaughy

Jack Darrell Crowder. African Americans and American Indians in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson: McFarland, 2019. 217 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7672-2.

Reviewed by Joseph McGaughy (Auburn University) Published on H-War (December, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55102

This title consists of a compilation of mostly terse biographical sketches recounting the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans who served in various capacities within the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Preceding each ethnic group’s alphabetized catalog of enlistees are introductory sections providing general information on black and indigenous soldiers who sided with the nascent American republic. Crowder presents each biographical sketch in narrative form, with occasional block quotes pulled from his source base. The thrust of his research presents the contents of pension applications submitted by combat veterans or their spouses.

The author’s stated objective for publishing this collection of miniature biographies is laudable; he seeks to reconstruct the perspectives of forgotten patriots from historically marginalized groups, providing the reader with “personal accounts of the men, mainly forgotten in history, that fought for liberty with the hope that they would achieve their freedom someday” (p. 1). Perhaps a thoroughgoing perusal of African American historiography and ethnohistories published over the past few decades would have better facilitated this goal. His introduction on African American soldiering hints at the legions of bondspeople who sensed a surer prospect of liberation by allying with the British but fails to impart that this group exponentially exceeded the number of black Continental soldiers. A glance at Sylvia Frey’s seminal 1991 Water from the Rock would have revealed that multitudes of slaves throughout the Chesapeake and Lowcountry seized the opportunity to assert their own claims to independence presented by the British wartime policy of manumitting the slaves of rebels by abandoning plantations en masse and absconding behind British lines in coastal cities. Acute focus on a minority faction of almost exclusively northern blacks who fought for the American cause obscures the agency of the far greater number of southern blacks who voted with their feet, participating in what a leading African American historian of the era has characterized as a revolution for black liberation and the “greatest slave rebellion in North American history.”[1]

Notwithstanding the incomplete historiographic scaffolding, there is much substance to Crowder’s vignettes. Implicit themes emerge throughout the course of the narratives. Crowder’s biographies demonstrate that meritorious service to the American cause occasionally resulted in freedom or remuneration, but far too often preceded denied claims, penury, and marginalization. Another prevailing motif is the frequency of substitutions, or the practice of paying or compelling another (always of a lower socioeconomic strata) to serve in one’s place in a military unit. Inducements for substitute service occasionally included assurances of deliverance from bondage at war’s end, and Crowder’s examples of Jack Arabus (p. 13) and Ned Griffen (p. 68) provide insight into legal recourse sought by African American veterans when denied their promised liberty. The drudgery of fatigue duty pervades many of the narratives, as does the commonplace injustice of financial deprivation due to service as a footman, cook, or manual laborer—duties which earned Europeans a spot on the pension rolls. Intriguing individual stories abound. Readers will find the espionage of Pompey Lamb (p. 92) particularly fascinating; the slave’s slick ruse of selling fresh produce to the British stationed at Stony Point eventually yielded the night watchman’s password, American seizure of the fortification, and absolution from hard labor for the rest of his life.

Crowder’s section on Native American soldiers suffers from the same historiographic vacuum as the African American one. Although he concedes that most natives opted for a British alliance, his narrative glosses over the ambivalence with which most aboriginal peoples viewed the Revolution and the grinding paucity of goods that drove many to choose King George as the conflict progressed. Moreover, Colin Calloway has demonstrated that even the United States’ most unflappable supporters among Native Americans, such as the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, were denied the fruits of the Revolution’s success, enduring compulsory acculturation, displacement, and dispossession in the war’s aftermath—fates notably absent from Crowder’s narrative.[2] Scholars familiar with George Washington’s native retinue will recognize Mohawk sachem Louis Cook, and those acquainted with the praying towns will likewise know the Occum family. Despite this work’s problems, its fundamental merit lies in exposing readers to the wartime contributions of African Americans and Native Americans, which spanned the geographic breadth of the conflict. It showcases black and indigenous perspectives of Revolutionary battlefields from Lexington to Yorktown, and should be consulted by historians interested in those sources.

Notes

[1]. Gary B. Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 23.

[2]. Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 292-301.

Citation: Joseph McGaughy. Review of Crowder, Jack Darrell, African Americans and American Indians in the Revolutionary War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55102

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