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/.

Building Peace after the Revolution: William Spratts and Old Gate Mansion

Author: Teresa Lewis

 

Figure 1 Cowles House, built 1780-1782. Picture taken 1942, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Today, many historians are attempting to revise Connecticut’s revolutionary history by presenting a more complete historical picture, including the plight of loyalists and prisoners of war in New England both during and after the conflict. During the war, many loyal Tories were imprisoned in jails located in central Connecticut, including one at Farmington (Gilbert, 287). One such prisoner was William Spratts. Unlike many other loyalists and British soldiers, however, Spratts stayed in the United States following the end of the Revolution. As an architect, he created many of the historic homes in Connecticut still in existence today. His story and architectural contributions reveal what happened to those left in the United States who were not a part of the patriot victory.

William Spratts was a Scottish soldier in the British Royal Artillery.[1]  Serving in General Burgoyne’s army during the Battle of Saratoga, Spratts was imprisoned in Hartford and Farmington after the artillery’s defeat. Following his release in September of 1780, William was contracted to complete the Barnabas Deane House in Hartford. Spratts was commissioned afterward to build an addition on a home on Main Street in Farmington in 1782. The first home on this site was originally built in 1690 by William Hooker, but the origins of the renovations that were finalized in 1782 were disputably commissioned by either Isaac Bidwell or by Solomon Cowles for his son Zenas (“Old Gate,” 8). Either way, Spratt’s architecture was known for its Georgian style, including a “seven bay façade” that is “decorated with an elaborate entry made up of four Ionic columns.” (“Old Gate,” 2). The house features a pedimented pavilion and ornate details, features that had not been widely used prior to this period (Elliot, 39).

Figure 2 The Gate at Old Gate Mansion, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

One significant aspect of Spratts’ work in Farmington is the gate that provided the namesake. On the gate, there is a Buddhist symbol for peace called a Manji, often mistaken as the Nazi swastika symbol. The choice of using the symbol reflects a growing popularity of Asian designs in architecture in the early 19th century. There are no records regarding the choice to add the symbol to the gate. Whether it was the decision of the homeowner or of Spratts himself, the symbol can be interpreted to represent the desire for stability and peace following the Revolutionary War, both between the loyalists and patriots, but also between British soldiers living in the colonies.Connecticut’s traditional revolutionary history highlights the heroic deeds that supported the patriot cause.

In addition to creating one of the best known houses in Farmington, Spratts is credited with having built the house of Julius Deming, a prominent merchant in Litchfield (“Julius Deming,” 1). Similar to Farmington’s Old Gate, “The Linden” features a post-revolutionary Georgian style that attempted to separate itself from the pre-Revolutionary simplistic and functional fashions.  Julius Deming was so impressed by Spratts’ work that his cousin Gen. Epaphroditus Champion hired him to copy Deming’s house in 1794.

In his personal life, William was married in 1782 to Elizabeth Seelye, daughter of Justuce Seelye, and had seven children (Elliot, 40). The architect went on to build several additional houses and public buildings in the years before his death including the Champion house in Colchester, the Litchfield courthouse which burned in 1886, and finally the Town Meeting house of Georgia, Vermont. Spratts subsequently married three times, had thirteen children and moved to Vermont, spending his final days there until he passed in 1810 (Georgia Town History, 260).

Spratts represents an overlooked perspective by contemporary historians. While most loyalists and British soldiers returned to England and other territories, Spratts stayed to create a new life for himself, becoming a successful architect and raising a family following the war. His imprint on American architecture is still present today throughout Connecticut. His story provides a glimpse into the details of what happened to those who did not win the Revolution.

For further reading, see:

“Prisoners in Farmington,” The Farmington Historical Society. Accessed November 12, 2017.
http://fhs-ct.org/1777/03/10/prisoners-in-farmington/.

Brandgee, Arthur L. and Eddy N. Smith. Farmington, Connecticut, The Village of Beautiful Homes. Charlottesville: Library of the University of Virginia, 1906.

Georgia Town History, Volumes 8-11. Town History Committee. Madison: University of
Wisconsin, 1974.

Gilbert, G. A. “The Connecticut Loyalists.” The American Historical Review 4, no. 2 (1899):
273-91.

Warren, William. William Sprates and his Civil and Ecclesiastical Architecture in New England. New York: Columbia University, 1954.

Elliott, Tom. “Master Builders/Planemakers of the Federalist Period Part 1: William Spratts.” The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc. 63, no. 1 (03, 2010): 39-41. https://ccsu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest.com.ccsu.idm.oclc.org/docview/203681319?accountid=9970.

[1] Spratts’ name has been disputed by several scholars. The spelling used in this blog is based on the spelling from Joseph Loring’s letter to Governor Trumbull, where he is mentioned as “William Spratts of the Royal Artillery.”