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.

Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson listed Dunmore's Proclamation as one of his grievances against the British in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Throughout 1775, tensions had been rising between Virginian patriots and their royalist governor, Lord Dunmore. The War of Independence had broken out earlier that year, in Lexington, Mass., but not a single shot had been fired in the South. Virginia’s patriots managed to uphold a boycott against British goods, but it was far from clear that most Virginians would join the patriots’ side. Many remained neutral, wary of casting their lot with a ragtag militia that dared to fight one of the mightiest militaries in the world.

Then, on Oct. 26, 1775, the war crossed the Mason-Dixon line. The two sides exchanged fire at Hampton, Va., after patriots burned a beached British ship, the Liberty, to a charred-out shell. The Battle of Hampton lasted less than a day, with both sides retreating. But it set in motion a sequence of events that led many neutral southerners to support a war they had at first embraced only tepidly. Critical to those events was Dunmore’s formal proclamation, in early November, granting freedom to slaves who fought for his army. Though not as well-known as early battles in the North, like Bunker Hill, the Battle of Hampton was a pivotal moment in the nascent conflict, bringing the war to the South by preying upon southerners’ worst fear: a full-blown slave revolt.  

Thomas Jefferson directly alluded to that fear in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776. In his list of grievances against the British, Jefferson, a Virginian slave-owner, included the crime of “exciting those very people”—slaves—“to rise in arms among us.” The outrage that Jefferson and many like him expressed at the arming of slaves has led historians like Woody Holton to argue that what slaves did at Hampton “indirectly helped motivate white Virginians to declare independence from Britain.”

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Despite Dunmore’s Proclamation, and Jefferson’s rhetoric, a full-scale slave revolt never materialized. Yet at least 1,000 slaves escaped their masters and joined Dunmore’s all-black Ethiopian Regiment, including George Washington’s own slave, Harry. By the end of the war, from 20,000 to 100,000 enslaved blacks—as many as one in five enslaved Africans from all 13 states—ran to British lines.

Many of them ended up worse off than they were before. Hundreds died from disease or were caught escaping. And Dunmore’s proclamation turned out to be “practical rather than moral,” as the historian Sylvia Frey has put it. Dunmore accepted only the slaves of patriots, refusing to take loyalists’ slaves who did not have their owners’ permission. (The British often returned slaves to masters who remained loyal to the crown.) When the British Parliament debated a bill to arm slaves as a military-wide policy, members roundly rejected it by a vote of 278 to 107. Edmund Burke expressed the view of many when he announced in the House of Commons “the horrible consequences that might ensue from constituting 100,000 fierce barbarian slaves to be the judges and executioners of their masters.”

The slaves themselves perhaps deserve final credit for forcing Dunmore to offer them freedom. Several months before he issued his formal proclamation in November 1775, blacks had been escaping to his lines, volunteering their service, and acting as useful guides. They escaped to Dunmore’s side in even greater numbers when, in April 1775, Dunmore only threatened—but did not actually carry out—his policy of freeing slaves outright. On April 21, 1775, Dunmore announced he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes” if the patriots harmed any royal official. 

Though he wouldn’t free slaves until November, what he did do on April 21—the same day he issued his threat of emancipation—was remove gunpowder from the local magazine. Dunmore’s removal of gunpowder is traditionally viewed as an early galvanizing move in the war, but his threat of freeing slaves was perhaps more important, provoking the fear that if hostilities broke out Virginians wouldn’t be able to defend themselves from the British forces—or their own slaves. The Virginian Benjamin Waller wrote that Dunmore lost “the Confidence of the People not so much for having taken the Powder as for the declaration he made of raising and freeing the slaves.”

Some of the slaves who volunteered for Dunmore’s army before his November proclamation played important roles in the lead-up to the Battle at Hampton. Runaway slaves like Joshua Harris acted as navigators for Dunmore’s ships. Harris was on board the Liberty when, on Sept. 2, a hurricane swept it ashore, though he escaped before the patriots stole its military supplies and burned it to the ground. The gesture incensed Dunmore, intoxicated patriots, and underscored how central slaves had become in turning colonists against their British rulers. The Liberty “was burnt by the people,” the Virginia Gazette reported, “in return for … harbouring gentlemen’s negroes.”

After the incident, Dunmore demanded his property returned, to which the patriots responded in kind: Return their property—their slaves—and no shots would be fired. Refusing the offer, Dunmore began planning his attack on Hampton. British soldiers decamped their ships anchored on Hampton’s shore on Oct. 24; patriot forces responded by marching toward Hampton, leaving their post at a college grounds in Williamsburg 30 miles away. Two days later, the groups opened fire, both quickly retreating to opposing sides of the nearby James River. The patriots had proved more capable than Dunmore thought. Realizing that slaves might be necessary for his wartime strategy, both as useful military soldiers and for the havoc an open declaration of freedom to slaves might cause, Dunmore finally issued his offer of freedom-for-service two weeks later.

 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. 

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.