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African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts

Revolutionary Participation

"As the Said Phelix Cuff is desirous of returning to the Army..."
~Abraham Peirce et al. 17 August 1780


Many African Americans participated in military activities during the American Revolution. It is estimated that 5,000 Black people served in the Revolutionary army. A much larger number (possibly 100,000) fled to British-controlled territory and many served with the British forces. During the first years of the war, George Washington was reluctant to use Black soldiers in battle, but as the war progressed, both sides formed Black units. In Massachusetts, where the small African American population included some free citizens, some served within regular militia, state, and Continental regiments, rather than in separate, segregated units.

During the earliest battles of the American Revolution, Black and white people fought together against the British troops within some of the militia units raised by the New England colonies. After the Continental Army was formed in mid-1775, the Continental Congress and General George Washington implemented a series of different enlistment policies regarding Black soldiers. In July 1775 no new free Black people were permitted to enlist in the Continental Army and some efforts were made by the Continental Congress to remove all Black people then serving from the existing regiments. However, as the Revolution continued and troops were needed to sustain the war effort, the Continental Congress and Army changed their policies. In January 1776, the Congress removed the restriction on reenlisting free Black people and in 1777 General Washington issued orders that regiments could enlist any free man (regardless of the color of his skin).

The British realized that they could help their military cause in direct and indirect ways by encouraging enslaved people to run away. In November 1775, the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore (John Murray), proclaimed that any indentured servant or enslaved person who supported the British forces would eventually receive his or her freedom. Even though not all of these former enslaved people directly served British military causes, the British knew that the loss of labor and disruption of colonial society would undermine aspects of life in the colonies.

<p>A flag painted on yellowing white silk, somewhat worn. In the upper lefthand corner is a square of blue silk with 13 stars arranged in a circle. In the center is a bounding stag beneath a pine tree. A large cartouche underneath, slightly peeling, reads “The Bucks of America,” smaller cartouche at the top of the image has the initials “J-G-W-H.” painted in gold.</p> Bucks of America flag
Paint on silk , circa 1785-1786

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds few records for the military service of Black people in the Revolution, although the names of individual soldiers who are identified as "negroes" or who have names often given to enslaved people appear in manuscript muster roles and other military records. Two documents from 1780 relate to Phelix Cuff, a Black man who served in the militia from Waltham, Massachusetts, but these documents convey little about his service record. They do reinforce the fact that free Blacks could enlist, but enslaved people did not have the power of choice. One document indicates that an officer discharged Phelix Cuff because he felt there was evidence to support the position of a man named Edward Garfield who claimed that Cuff was his property. A second document written by some selectmen from Waltham refers to a "pretended bill of sale" that Edward Garfield held and the selectmen state that they thought Cuff was a free man when he enlisted three months previously.

An all-Black military company called the Bucks of America was celebrated in Boston at the end of the American Revolution. Governor John Hancock presented a silk flag bearing its emblem, a leaping buck against a pine tree to the company "as a tribute to their courage and devotion in the cause of American Liberty" (Nell, 1852, p. 13) but no documentation definitively links them to a particular Revolutionary battle. (See also the Bucks of America medallion.)

One member of the Bucks of America, George Middleton, had the same name as an eyewitness to the Battle of Groton Heights and some sources mistakenly concluded that the Bucks fought in Connecticut. However the George Middleton who saw the battle at Groton was a twelve-year-old resident of that town (born in 1769) and later became the mayor of Newark, New York (Allyn, 1882, p. 89).   The George Middleton who was a member, and at times, the leader, of the Bucks of America was a member of the African Lodge (#459) in Boston.  He was also a member of the African Society (see the list of members on the last page of the Laws of the African Society) and he was living on Belknap Street in Boston when he died in 1815 at the age of 80. Many sources (but not his obituary) refer to him as Colonel Middleton.

Featured Items

Letter from Abraham Peirce and others from Waltham, Massachusetts, regarding Phelix Cuff's service in the militia, 17 August 1780
Letter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26 August 1780
Bucks of America medallion
Silver planchet, 18th century


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