It has become fashionable in some circles to reimagine the status of enslaved African Americans who accompanied confederate forces as both willing participants and de facto southern soldiers. The master/servant relationship is clouded by a sort of benign paternalism that has deep roots in antebellum slaveholding America: roots that are far deeper, and far more complex , than a perspective limited to the 19th century affords, let alone a 21st century perspective based more on nostalgia than academic rigor.
One of the most notable examples of this sort of comradeship between owner and slave in the Revolution, and the "veteran status" accorded to the slave by white patriots after the war, is the case of George Washington and his manservant William Lee. At the time of the Revolution, there were few if any African Americans as widely recognized as Lee,who accompanied the great man himself in the field and was so closely associated with Washington that he was included in one of the wartime portraits of the Commander in Chief, shown in a 1780 Trumbull painting at right. Washington provided for Lee after the war, who was disabled during his peacetime service. Lee remained very popular with postwar visitors to Mt. Vernon, and is said to have relished conversations with veteran callers. Whether they admired him in his own right, or because he was a tangible link to the venerated Washington long after the President had died, is a question that deserved further scrutiny.
George Washington did not initially favor the inclusion of African Americans in the Contintental Army, prohibiting their enlistment after assuming command of the forces besieging Boston. Nonetheless during the couse of the war, African Americans served in integrated units as well as segregated companies raised in the northern colonies and in the south. Some served as substitutes for their masters, while others enlisted with the promise of manumission after the war. Freemen could enlist without arms in southern militias as early as 1775. It was still illegal inthe south to enlist slaves, though some middle states and northern ones made provision for slave soldiers as substitutes. One contemporary estimate stated at 25% of Washington's force at Yorktown was comprised of black soldiers.
A very large number of slaves, perhaps as many as 20,000, enlisted as loyalists with that same motivation. There were 115 African Americans, largely recruited in the south, who served in Hessian regiments. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 African Americans may have died during the Revolution, many of whom followed the British Army much as "contrabands" did the Union forces during the Civil War, and were decimated by smallpox and other diseases.
In the decade following Independance, with the need for manpower in the armed forces no longer an accute matter of survival, states both north and south enacted prohibitions against African Americans serving in the militia. The promise of freedom and other veteran's benefits still required both effort and luck to secure. In 1783 the Virginia Assembly:
"passed a bill condemning owners who "contrary to principles of justice and to their own solemn promise" kept their soldier substitutes as slaves. They were freed by legislative decree with instructions to the attorney general of Virginia to act on behalf of any former slave held in servitude despite his enlistment. how many slaves received their freedom as a result of this bill is not known, since a slave could not himself initiate legal proceedings for his own manumission. But if the number of slaves freed by the legislature as a reward for nonmilitary service is any indication, they were few. Eight slaves are known to have been granted freedom by the legislature for service in the Revolutionary War."
African American loyalist soldiers and their families fortunate enough to be evacuated by the British and Hessians had their own challenges, and over 1,100 were ultimately resettled from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone.
It would be worth considering how the decades following the Revolution affected the status of African American veterans of the patriot forces, free and unfree alike. Were they respected by their former comrades in arms, or expected to return to their former subservient status? How many were able to secure veterans pensions in the first decades of the 19th century when these benefits became available? With slavery in decline in the northern states and on the increase following the transformative invention of the cotton gin in the southern ones, were African American veterans with military experience seen as a threat rather than as fellow patriots to whom society owed a debt? I, for one, would like to see more serious scholarship in this area, and see it inform today's debate about the status of African Americans who accompanied confederate armies.
It is generally agreed that the motivations for African American service as loyalists or patriots - that is, when the service member had any control over his enlistment - were driven by which path offered the means of manumission. There were no such enticements for African American slaves in the confederate army until the final months of the war. The greatest difference between freemen who served in the Revolution and their decendants who labored on southern earthworks or accompanied their masters in the field was the fact of involuntary servitude. Unless there is strong evidence that a measureable number of southern freedmen voluntarily participated as noncombatant "soldiers" in confederate armies, all this talk of "colored confederates" is both myopic and delusional.