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.
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.
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.
(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/.