Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

History shouldn't ignore roles of blacks in Revolutionary War

   

Grave site of Civil War soldier Poughkeepsie Journal
Saturday, August 14, 2004

History shouldn't ignore roles of blacks in Revolutionary War
By A.J. Williams-Myers

In July, America celebrated 228 years of independence. Less than a decade ago the Hudson Valley was declared an American Heritage Trail. The two events are intertwined, given the growing tourist industry in the valley. As the Revolutionary War is recalled to visitors, they should know the two opposing forces confronted each other with integrated fighting forces.

Black and white, on both sides of the battle line, confronted one another. Blood flowed from black and white veins, and Native-American. Yet this is not told in history books; the picture is of two opposing, white antagonists -- American and British.

To tell the story correctly, the evidence must be made available. If data collection and interpretation is done correctly, the millions of visitors will know this valley was a crucible from which arose an American people.

I have done preliminary research pointing to the success of data collection and interpretation. Historical sites should follow this direction to reconstruct a more inclusive picture of the Hudson Valley's Revolutionary history.

An estimated 5,000 African Americans served in the war effort, with a significant number of those in the Hudson Valley in the American effort to hold it.

More fought for Colonists

Since the Continental forces were more integrated then than American forces during the first and second world wars, the numbers were likely even larger; thus the need for the research.

If African American combatants were not identified as ''black,'' ''Negro'' or ''mulatto,'' they simply appeared in name only on troop lists.

Present among members of a New York regiment with Benedict Arnold in his disastrous invasion of Canada during the Revolution were Ulster County combatants Jack Roosa and Jack Gaul, who, if not identified by a descriptive adjective, would have been assumed to be white.

Similar examination of British military records could reveal the extensive presence of not only African-American enlistees who accepted Virginia Gov. Dunmore's and Westchester County Gen. Clinton's overtures to join up with the British, but also Afro-Britons. Their residence in London, Liverpool and others dated back several generations.

British get help

Preliminary research has pinpointed African Americans attached to British forces like Rodger's Rangers, posted at King's Bridge on the Harlem River, and the two African-American ''colonels,'' Cuff and Tye. These two operated on the British side within the ''Neutral Zone,'' from the Long Island Sound across the Hudson into New Jersey.

Women, too, joined the British. A 1777 letter to Pierre van Cortlandt in Poughkeepsie reported ''a mulatto wench has lately passed through this place from New York; she brought intelligence to the inhabitants from their friends in New York, and in all probability she (has) gone to Burgoyne's army.''

Among the Hessian troops bolstering British forces were German-born Afro-Hessians in the Drummer Corps. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, after the surrender of Burgoyne, an Afro-Hessian Drummer Corps was evacuated with Baron Von Riedesel and his Brunswick contingent back to Germany.

Afro-Hessian participation is verified by the following runaway ad in a New York colonial newspaper, The Royal Gazette, March 29, 1780. It points to a trove of documentation awaiting researchers, or a historical site willing to expand its interpretation of Revolutionary Hudson Valley. The valley could set a precedent for other Revolutionary sites nationwide.

The ad reads: ''DESERTED on 25th inst. From the General Hospital where he has been sick with the small pox, a Negroe, named Robert Kupperth, about 19 years of age, five feet three inches high. He was a Drummer of the Hessian Regiment Landgrave. ... Every one is warned ... (not) to harbour the said Negro Drummer, and whoever will secure, give intelligence, or deliver him to the said regiment Landgrave, now garrisoned in this city, will be handsomely rewarded.''

A.J. Williams-Myers is a black studies professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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