When the war came in the summer of 1776, Benjamin Whitecuff and his older brother, both free blacks, worked on their father's 60-acre farm near Hempstead. But they were on opposite sides of the war. Whitecuff became a spy for the British; his father and brother joined the Continental army.
Whitecuff was credited with saving 2,000 British troops in one engagement in New Jersey. One time at Cranbury, N.J., he was caught by Patriot troops and hanged, but after three minutes he was saved by a British cavalry unit. His father and brother, whose names are not known, were both killed in battle near Germantown, Pa.
This illustrates one of the era's best-kept nonsecrets: Blacks played an important role in the Revolutionary War. What is more, they fought on both sides, sometimes actually shooting at each other. Which is a great irony, since they presumably were fighting for the same thing -- their own personal freedom.
In 1776, there were 500,000 blacks within a total American population of 2.5 million. About 5,000 blacks, the majority of them slaves, fought on the American side, about one-sixth of the total military. At least twice that number joined up on the British side, although the exact number is not known. Even though the first American death in the war was a black man, Crispus Attucks, killed at the 1770 Boston Massacre, blacks saw limited service on the Patriot side in the early years of the Revolution. After an extended debate in 1775, the Continental Congress -- because of heavy opposition from southern colonies -- forbade further recruitment of slaves and free blacks in the military, but allowed free blacks to re-enlist. As manpower needs became more acute, blacks were actively recruited.
The change was the result of a very early British policy of openly seeking blacks. "The number of blacks who fled to the British ran into the tens of thousands," Benjamin Quarles wrote in his book, "The Negro in the American Revolution." This included blacks on Long Island and in New York. "Most often Negroes worked as teamsters; at one time most of the drivers in the city's quartermaster department were runaway slaves, working for wages and housed in separate barracks ... On Long Island -- at Flushing and Jamaica -- the British employed Negroes in the forage service."
Black men fought and died with the British at the Battle of Long Island in late August, 1776. Later that year, in a skirmish at Setauket, troops from Rhode Island took two dozen British prisoners, six of whom were black. The British actively recruited among Long Island blacks. "The Tories at Coram are beating up for volunteers to join our enemies," the Patriot Col. Henry B. Livingston wrote in the fall of 1776. "Negroes as well as whites are taken into pay."
Black Americans were used heavily by both sides as seamen. "The use of Negro sailors [by the Americans] was easily acceptable because there was nothing novel about it," Quarles said. "The waterways of the Atlantic coast bred black seafaring men as well as white."
The recruitment of free blacks by the Americans, especially in the North, became common by 1777. By 1779, slaves also were being recruited. Many enlisted, but they went into the military by other means as well. It was a common practice at that time to allow someone with a militia obligation to use a substitute, and many whites used black men -- sometimes their own slaves -- as substitutes. They served as soldiers and sailors, but also as cooks, servants, laborers, guides and teamsters.
On Long Island, as elsewhere, there were black slaves who saw the military as a way to gain their freedom. Early in the war, Maj. Gen. Edward Hand of Pennsylvania received a letter from a Long Island slave named Charles, who, with his wife and daughter, had fled from his master, but was captured by one of Hand's regiments and sold back into slavery. In his letter, Charles said that he was "ever ready under your honors command to fight against all enemys of the Honble. United States in defense of liberty and the rights of mankind." It is unlikely that Charles was taken up on his offer.
"Many slaves who came into British hands were merely victims of military force," Quarles wrote. "... Many more slaves, however, voluntarily deserted to the British. They had no particular love for England, but they believed that the English officers would give them their freedom."
But in neither the British nor the Patriot cause was military service a guarantee of freedom. Many who fought on both sides were forced back into slavery after it was over. The British, who had promised freedom to blacks who fought for them, did, however, ship thousands to Nova Scotia, London and the Caribbean.
Like thousands of other black Loyalists who fought on the losing side in the Revolution, Benjamin Whitecuff went to Nova Scotia after the war. Later, he ended up in London, where he and a number of ex-slaves unsuccessfully sought government pensions. The Loyalist Claims Commission said they had gained their freedom, and could expect no more than that.