The Service of Africans from Connecticut in the American Revolution

Author: Kenneth Neal

The American Revolutionary War era is consistently at the forefront of the consciousness of Americans, whether in touting the contributions of the founding fathers, or boldly asserting rights promised by the Constitution. The present day development of American Revolutionary War consciousness has been shaped by a selective use of the historical written record from the American Revolution that has devoted considerable attention to the subjects of the ‘Founding Fathers’ and ‘Rights’.  A recent collaboration of a number of scholars in African American Connecticut Explored provides a local Connecticut focus that expands upon the work of  Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, and David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers 1775 – 1783, and confronts the Consensus consciousness of the American Revolution that neglects the contributions of Africans in the Revolution. African American Connecticut Explored also stands in contrast to the first Connecticut-centered histories that devoted specific attention to the experiences and contributions of Africans in during the Revolutionary War era. In  an age of increased digital access, what is available on the internet often determines popular historical consciousness and not research-based efforts intended to correct the historic record. And, if access influences popular historic consciousness, it is necessary to provide context to historic records with the use of the same medium. The study here will focus on digitized records of Africans serving in the Revolutionary War from Connecticut that have obscured the historic record.

Two digitized works available through the Internet Archive that have misrepresented the service of Africans from Connecticut in the American Revolutionary War are The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut by William Chauncey Fowler, and History of Slavery in Connecticut by Bernard C. Steiner. In a paper read before the New Haven Colony Historical Society Fowler noted the “imitative” nature of the “Negro” race that prompted their service in the military during the Revolutionary war along the side of whites, and further along in an anecdote about the service of Africans asserted their willingness to be made a fool of. He praised their skills as musicians. Steiner provides evidence of the service of Africans in the American Revolution in a misleading chapter entitled, “Slaves in the Revolution” and relies solely on a quotation from J.H Trumbull that suggests all Africans that served were slaves and impugns the evidence of service by implying they were motivated by personal gain in applications for pensions. The representations provided by Fowler and Steiner that disregard the service of Africans in the American Revolution are disputed by William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution.

William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, established the historiographical framework in which Fowler and Steiner later considered the actions of Africans in the American Revolution. Yet, Nell’s work cites numerous accounts of courageous and patriotic Africans from Connecticut that served in the American Revolution. Specifically, Nell cites a primary account of two veterans of the Battle of Groton Heights. The veterans provide reference of the bravery of two Africans, Lambert (Sambo) Latham, and Jordan Freeman.

Latham is recognized with avenging the death of Col. Ledyard who was killed after surrendering to the British. The Continental Army soldiers that died at the Battle of Groton Heights including Latham, and Freeman were recognized and memorialized for their patriotic service in 1825 with the dedication of a monument at the battle site. The monument itself lists the names of all those who died
at the battle, along with an inscription that states in part, “In Memory of the Brave Patriots.” The evidenced cited by Nell, and the inscription on the Battle of Groton Heights Monument severely undermines the arguments later presented by Fowler, and Steiner and still each digitized account is cited as documentation of the service of Africans from Connecticut in the Revolutionary War.

Historians and public historians widely acknowledge the impact historical interpretation can have on the public consciousness of a historical event and also recognize their role in providing context to better understand those events. Furthermore historians have also considered and observed the wide influence of digitized history but have yet to consider their ethical role in the mediation of digitized archived material, specifically for Fowler’s The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut and Steiner’s History of Slavery in Connecticut. The works of Fowler and Steiner have provided a false foundation to the historiographical record of the service of Africans from Connecticut in the Revolutionary War and has had an impact on our present day consciousness. The initial exclusion of Lena Ferguson, an African American woman from Plainville, Connecticut, from admission as a member into the Daughters of the American Revolution, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the memory of those who fought in the Revolutionary War, is a worrisome reminder of the impact of a public consciousness that disregards African contributions in the American Revolution.

Hometowns of African Americans Who Served in in Revolutionary War

Recommended for further reading:

Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners during the Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Greene, Lorenzo J. The Negro in Colonial New England 1620 – 1776. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.  

Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: Robert F Wallcut, 1855. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/nell/nell.html

Normen, Elizabeth J. African American Connecticut Explored. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

White, David O. Connecticut’s Black Soldiers. Chester, CT: Pequot Press, 1973.

Other sources:

Caulkins, Frances Manwaring. The Stone Records of Groton,. Norwich, Conn., 1903. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t0dv1pt11.

Fowler, William Chauncey. The Historical Status of the Negro in Connecticut. Charleston, S.C., 1901. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t1ng4tc24. 

“Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/25095630.

Steiner, Bernard Christian. History of Slavery in Connecticut; Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins press, 1893. http://archive.org/details/histslaveryconn00steirich.

Photographs

(Dave Pelland, Fort Griswold Battle Monument, 2011, Groton) http://ctmonuments.net/2011/06/fort-griswold-and-battle-monument-groton/.

(Dave Pelland, Fort Griswold Battle Monument – Plaque, 2011, Groton) http://ctmonuments.net/2011/06/fort-griswold-and-battle-monument-groton/.

Tale of Two Trumbulls: The Arts in Connecticut During and After the American Revolution

Author: Chelsea Marti

Connecticut became known as the “Provision State” during the American Revolution because the colony was one of the main providers of supplies, such as guns and food, to the Continental Army. However, other than a surplus of guns and food, there was also a surplus of art coming out of this colony during this time, specifically in the form of paintings and poetry. Coincidentally, the two Connecticut men most commonly associated with the arts during this time share the same name, John Trumbull.

The painter, John Trumbull, is the more nationally recognized of the two. Born in Lebanon, Connecticut, he was the son of Governor Jonathan Trumbull. During the American Revolution, he served a short term of aide-de-camp to General Washington before traveling to London in 1780 where he was imprisoned for what the Americans had did to British Major John André.  Once released, he came back to America, but soon went back to London to study painting. It was after the war ended when his services as an artist began being needed. The new United States wanted a way of commemorating many of the major events that had taken place over the course of the seven years of the American Revolution. Beginning in 1784 and continuing the series throughout his life, John Trumbull created many of the most famous works we see in textbooks and art galleries today, including The Declaration of Independence (pictured below). Rather than simply a creative outlet, art became a new and unique way of documentation, and is a method that is still used today.

The other John Trumbull, a distant cousin of the painter, was a poet from Watertown, Connecticut. However, unlike the previously mentioned Trumbull, this Trumbull’s work became known right at the height of the American Revolution. Though he wrote many essays over the course of his time at Yale in the late 1760s, he slowly began to try his hand at satirical poetry, where he attacked everything from the education system to politics. Having a strong Whig bias, he used his art to depict the events of 1775 to positively portray the actions of the Patriot cause in his epic poem, M’Fingal.

In this work, Great Britain and its assistants (i.e. Hessians, Hanoverians, etc.) were seen as great buffoons who were no match for the heroic Patriots. He specifically mentions the lack of Tory pushback against the Boston Tea Party, stating in verse, “What furies rag’d, when you in sea, In shape of Indians, drown’d the tea’…With wampum’d blankets his their laces, And, like their sweethearts, prim’d their faces: While not a Red-coat dar’d oppose, and scarce a Tory show’d his nose;” (M’Fingal, Canto III, pg. 82). With the first two of four cantos being published just before the Declaration of Independence was signed, this piece of art was meant to give hope to the colonists that independence was possible and to call to action all who wanted to help the cause. Though his writing career slowly decreased after this work, he is still considered one of the great political satirist of the time and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1791.

These two John Trumbulls were part of a major shift in early American thought that still exists today. Politics and wars no longer were viewed in their own vacuums, rather they were viewed in a more interdisciplinary way with the inclusion of art. Today, this ideology seems to be common sense, however, in the era of the late 1700s, it was (pun intended) Revolutionary.

For further reading:

Painter:

Murray, Stuart. John Trumbull: Painter of the Revolutionary War. New York:Routledge, 2015.

Angelis, Angelo. “Painting History: John Trumbull and the Battle of Bunker’s Hill.” Prospects 30 (2005): 73-85

Poet:

Cowie, Alexander. “John Trumbull as Revolutionist.” American Literature 3, no. 3 (1931): 287-295

Grasso, Christopher. “Print, Poetry, and Politics: John Trumbull and the Transformation of Public Discourse in Revolutionary America.” Early American Literature 30, no. 1 (1995): 5-31

Trumbull, John. M’Fingal. Hartford: S. Andrus and Son, 1775.

Lebanon, CT and Watertown, CT