Contribution of a Free and Enslaved People

By Joseph Becton and Noah Lewis

Joe and Noah have shared with the site their perspective on being a part of the Christmas reenactment each year. It is this frame of reference which opens the following article as they stand at the Park on Christmas Day, ready to cross.


Here we stand. It is another Christmas and another crossing to reenact. We look around the room to see many faces of friends we have come to respect. With a nod or a wave of acknowledgment, the thought crosses our minds, what brings them here? Why do they think this is important enough to relinquish a cherished holiday with family? As we black re-enactors receive our boat assignments, we cannot help but notice how few we are. Around the site, the famous 1851 image by Emmanuel Leutze of Washington Crossing the Delaware is featured. But curiously enough it is not Washington who is at the center of our thoughtful stares. It is the man who is rowing in front of his knee. At a quick glance, the man seems to have a shadow across his face. But upon a closer inspection one realizes this is a black man. To us black re-enactors, this man has become a symbol of the contribution African-American people made to this country's freedom. Who is this man? Is he meant to represent an actual person who historically crossed with Washington? We do not know. No one really knows who crossed with Washington, but what we do know is, in depicting this event, Leutze felt it was important to have this African present.

In our modern times, unlike times past, the willingness of our culture to embrace the whole story of our country and all of its people has become more acceptable. This is why we blacks participate here today. We are here to remind every one of the courage of men such as Peter Salem, Salem Poor, and Prince Esterbrook. These were men who fought at the dawn of the rebellion, when our soldiers were called Minutemen and George Washington was yet to become Commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces.

During the war, one of Washington's highly regarded fighting units would be the Rhode Island Regiment. Although this regiment did not cross with Washington on December 25, 1776, they would fight in the 2nd Battle of Trenton. This regiment's history is unique in that Rhode Island did not have enough free black or white men to fulfill their Continental Army quota, so the state turned to their enslaved people and offered them freedom for their service. In the Battle of Yorktown this regiment would be crucial in the taking of a British fortification. These men attacked redoubt number 10 with bayonets. They took their objective in about ten minutes. This allowed General Washington to press the siege into the town itself.

But were there Africans here at The Crossing? Glover's Regiment of Marbleheaders, from Marblehead Massachusetts, was a unit that had a large percentage of blacks in its ranks. They aided Washington's army during the retreat from Brooklyn Heights, NY, when they ferried the Continental troops to safety before the Redcoats could close in for the kill. They served again when Washington needed them to take his army across the Delaware to attack the Hessians in Trenton. These men are only a few that served that day.

There were countless others. By the end of the war about ten percent of General Washington's army would be "people of color." (About three to five thousand people of color would fight for America.) This would be remarkable in two aspects. First, many enslaved blacks had little faith they would be given their freedom at the end of the war. After all, the only thing these substitute soldiers and runaway slaves had to trust in would be the word and good intentions of their master or of other whites. Secondly, General Washington made a proclamation at Cambridge in 1775, that neither free blacks nor slaves would be allowed to join the Continental Army, despite their early involvement in the war as Minutemen.

Beyond the military, Washington would have personal interaction with Africans on other levels. Washington was faithfully attended by his loyal enslaved personal servant, William Lee. Lee, some would argue, was more friend than servant and he attended the General through the entirety of the war. We will never know the affect Lee had in influencing Washington's attitude toward blacks. But knowing the personality of Washington, we can surmise that it was his inclination to surround himself with competent, steadfast people.

Washington's attitude toward blacks seemed to evolve throughout the war. By the end of Washington's life, after he had seen the courage, loyalty, and intellect of African-Americans who had served in the army and of those he had met in civilian life, his ideas regarding slavery seemed to change as is indicated in the liberation after his death of the people he had enslaved.

On the other side of the conflict, the British offered freedom to slaves who would fight for them from the beginning of the war. In hopes of securing personal freedom, many people of color, about seven to ten thousand, would fight for the British with whom victory seemed sure. After the war, many of these people were relocated to Canada, London and Freetown, Sierra Leone.

These are only a few of the many forgotten black patriots who helped all of us to know freedom. And it is for them, as well as the numerous races, cultures, and people who helped in the struggle that we are drawn here to honor them with heartfelt thanks. So here we stand. Ready to cross.