How Fears of a Slave Revolt Drew the South into the War—the Revolutionary War

Unsung battles.
Nov. 1 2013 10:37 AM

Dunmore’s Proclamation

How fears of a slave revolt drew the South into the war—the Revolutionary War.

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 Virginians reacted furiously to Dunmore’s Proclamation; in their written records, Virginians unite behind the patriots’ cause because of the proclamation. “The Inhabitants of this Colony are deeply alarmed at this infernal Scheme,” Philip Fithian, who was traveling through Virginia when Dunmore made his proclamation.* “It seems to quicken all in Revolution to overpower him at any Risk.” Richard Henry Lee added that “Lord Dunmore’s unparalleled conduct in Virginia has … united every man in that large colony.” Archibold Cary perhaps put it most piquantly, writing that “The Proclamation from Lord D[unmore], has had a most extensive good consequence. … Men of all ranks resent the pointing of a dagger to their Throats, through the hands of their slaves.”

 Even though Dunmore’s Proclamation was intended only for Virginia’s slaves, it set off a flurry of rumors throughout America’s slave colonies. Many slaves believed the British were coming to free them, while others simply used the chaos of war to escape, hoping that the British would have mercy. From Georgia to South Carolina, hundreds of slaves began fleeing their plantations looking for refuge among the British. When 200 slaves deserted a South Carolina plantation in March 1776, patriot officer Col. Stephen Bull gave strict orders to his men: “It is far better for the public and the owners, if the deserted negroes … be shot, if they cannot be taken.”

Meanwhile, patriot leaders like George Washington, a Virginian slaveholder himself, struggled with how to respond. When Washington took over the Continental Army in June 1775, he advised recruiters to turn down all blacks—enslaved and free—except for those free blacks already enlisted. Immediately after Dunmore’s Proclamation, Washington issued an even sterner order, barring all new blacks entirely. 

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The futility of this decision soon became clear, as it only encouraged slaves—20 percent of the population—to support the British. By December, Washington realized that Dunmore’s army, including the Ethiopian Regiment, which his slave Harry had joined, had to be defeated. “Otherwise, like a snowball, in rolling, his army will get size,” Washington wrote. Struggling to fill out his own ranks, Washington finally changed course and, in 1777, decided to enlist blacks, though only free ones. He now felt that the war “depended on which side could arm Negroes faster.” Since states had to raise troops themselves for the Continental Army, some, like Rhode Island, decided to enlist slaves in exchange for freedom. By the war’s end, 5,000 black troops had fought for the patriot army, though slaves overwhelmingly cast their lot with the British.   

Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment proved helpful to him after the fight at Hampton. After retreating to the James River, he scored a victory at nearby Kemp’s Landing in November, with the aid of his ex-slaves. But the patriots ended 1775 victorious, forcing Dunmore and his army to flee Virginia at the Battle of Great Bridge in mid-December. Dunmore did not go quietly, however, burning the town of Norfolk as he fled, further enraging Virginians. 

The South did not become a major theater of war again until 1778, when the British turned to their “Southern strategy,” hoping to save the slave colonies—and slavery—for themselves. Britain’s slave-based Caribbean islands were the crown’s true prize possession, and holding onto the North American colonies closest to those islands was now deemed most important. But the tables had turned. The French decided to throw their lot with the Americans and raised their own black regiment to help.  Some of their troops were slaves from St. Domingue, the French colony that would become Haiti. Fighting for the patriots, these former French slaves would return to their island and lead their own war against slavery. Like the Americans for whom they fought, they would soon declare their independence. 

The American Revolution is often remembered as a fight for freedom. But where slavery was most entrenched, white Americans risked their lives only for their own, all the while committing themselves to slave-based labor. For the enslaved, the Revolution offered the slimmest chance of freedom, if they had the gall to escape and fight for the enemy—an enemy that was itself still committed to an economy based on bondage.

Still, some slaves who took up the British offer of freedom managed a life that was better than before, yet far from what they expected. Harry, Washington’s former slave who fought for Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, was eventually resettled in British Canada, along with 3,000 other black loyalists. The frigid climate and unwelcoming inhabitants led half of the resettled blacks to migrate again, to Sierra Leone. The British set up the African colony for former slaves, and Harry took the offer. But British overseers forced black colonists to work on farms that left them perpetually in debt, a life only slightly better than slavery. In 1800, now aged 60, Harry rebelled again. A military tribunal expelled him and 23 other accused rebels from the colony. Where he went, no one knows.  But freedom was undoubtedly what he was still seeking.   

Correction, Nov. 4, 2013: The article originally stated that Fithian was a Virginian. He resided in New Jersey. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Eric Herschthal, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University, has written for Slate, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere.