Perhaps the most famous military unit to fight for the lawful government was the Ethiopian Regiment (not technically a "Royal" unit although often referred to by that designation) which was raised in November 1775 by Lord Dunmore of Virginia. They served at the Battle of Great Bridge 9 December 1775. They sailed with the rest of Dunmore's forces when Virginia was evacuated, and were disbanded on Staten Island on or before 24 September 1776, and the men divided among different corps. Some entered the Black Pioneers, others became labourers or joined irregular groups like the Black Brigade. Two men from the Ethiopian Regiment went on to fame: Thomas Peters of the Black Pioneers and Colonel Tye of the Black Brigade.
When General Clinton arrived off of North Carolina in April of 1776, he was met by approximately 40 to 50 escaped slaves. He organized these into a company which was placed under the command of Lieutenant George Martin of the Royal Marines. Clinton also gave Martin the Provincial rank of Captain. He was replaced in July of 1777 by Captain Allan Stewart of North Carolina, who would later command the North Carolina Highlanders. This company was the one and only official Black Provincial unit, the Black Pioneers*.
A number of the Black Pioneers were recruited in the South. The regiment, at least initially, had a rather high mortality rate.This unit served for the entire war at New York, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, and Charlestown. It was unarmed and did various pioneer and public works type duties. In Philadelphia in 1778 they were ordered to "Attend the Scavangers, Assist in Cleaning the Streets & Removing all Newsiances being threwn into the Streets." The unit, initially composed of 71 men, would be among the very last Loyalists to be evacuated from New York City in 1783.
During the Siege of Savannah in 1779, a second unit also called Black Pioneers were raised, this one commanded by Captain Angus Campbell of the South Carolina Royalists. Nearly 200 of them later served at the Siege of Charlestown, after which they seem to drop off the pages of history. They were not associated with the unit commanded by Captain Stewart, but some later briefly appear on rolls of the latter concerning settlement in Nova Scotia after the war.
Two Black armed companies were also raised in Savannah during the siege, one commanded by Captain Hartwel Pantecost, who would later become a Cornet in the James Island Light Dragoons, and the other by Captain John McKenzie of the British Legion. They were actively involved in the fighting and took part in a skirmish at McGillivray's Plantation. These companies were most likely disbanded by the end of the year.
A number of Blacks apparently enlisted in the Provincial Corps raised at New York in 1776. A party of DeLancey's 1st Battalion under Captain Jacob Smith was captured near Setaulket, Long Island in early November, 1776. Of twenty three captured, it was reported one half were black.
The King's American Regiment was reported to have a Black Company early in it's existence. However, on 16 March 1777, Sir William Howe ordered that all "Blacks, Mulatoes, Indians, Sailors and other improper persons" be immediately discharged from the Provincial Corps. There are no rolls of the Provincial Regiments for this early date, so we have no way of knowing how many of any particular group and were discharged pursuant to Howe's order.
Blacks continued to be, however, allowed to enlist as drummers and trumpeters. Pompey Grant, a Black, served throughout the war in DeLancey's Loyalist Regiment as a drummer. All the trumpeters of the King's American Dragoons and the Benedict Arnold's American Legion were Black. Benjamin Thompson, commander of the King's American Dragoons, organized all the Black servants of his officers into a troop of "flying artillery", to be distinguished by different colored feathers in their turbans. Some Provincial regiments such as the King's American Regiment and Volunteers of Ireland had one unarmed Black pioneer attached to each company during their service in the South.
The "Independent Troop of Black Dragoons" or "Black Pioneer Troop" were not a Provincial unit but rather militia, and were commanded by a Captain March. For a time they were brigaded with the other cavalry outside of Charlestown, commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin Thompson. He referred to them as his "Seapoy Troop." They were disbanded sometime in 1782, after being raised the year before.
Apparently the restrictions against Blacks serving in the ranks only concerned Provincial Regiments in America. For the Northern Army, there were a few in Butler's Rangers and at least one in the King's Royal Regiment of New York.
By far, the greatest number of Blacks served in the Civil Branch of the Army and the Ordnance. The restrictions prevelant in the Provincial Corps were not present in the Civil Branches, where hundreds, if not thousands, of Blacks were employed throughout the war. One company of such was raised as early as 1775 in Boston. There was the "Virginia Company" attached to the Royal Artillery in 1779. Blacks likewise served in such maritime units as the Batteauxmen commanded by Captain Herkimer and Van Alstine and the Armed Boat Company.
Numbers of Blacks also served in irregular units such as the King's Militia Volunteers, Loyal Refugee Volunteers and Associated Loyalists, where they carried arms. On at least two occasions a slave owner is known to have armed slaves, once to repel a Rebel attack on a stockaded plantation in Georgia and the other time as part of the plans for an intended attack on New Orleans, which was the territory of the Rebel ally, Spain.
A number of Blacks likewise were enlisted by the Hessian and Brunswick troops in America, not only as drummers, but as artillerymen and infantry privates as well. This didn't work out very well, probably because of differences in culture and language.
In total, there were actually four units called the Black Pioneers that were active at one time or another during the war, but it was Martin's company alone that was on the Provincial Establishment (officially recognized) and lasted for the duration of the war. At the close of the conflict the men were discharged and emancipated, many settling at Birchtown, Nova Scotia.
Most Black Loyalists in New York at the end of the war were evacuated to Nova Scotia with the bulk of other Loyalists. There were roughly 4000 black refugees brought to Nova Scotia in 1785. The community of Birchtown had about 1,500 people and at the time was the largest community of free blacks outside Africa. Some of those in the British Navy were released from service in England.
But those who were in Charleston or who were moved to St. Augustine at the end of the war often suffered a harsher fate. The final evacuation of both cities was chaotic and various loyalists took what profit they could by seizing and selling blacks. At least two slaves seized in this manner ended up in Shelburne; undoubtably there were thousands more who worked the rest of their lives on the sugar plantations. Especially in Charleston, the bulk were sold back into slavery - of about 10,000 blacks there at the end of the war perhaps a few hundred are recorded as having been brought to Nova Scotia.
*"PIONEERS, in war-time, are such as are commanded in from the country, to march with an army, for mending the ways, for working on intrenchments, and fortifications, and for making mines and approaches: the soldiers are likewise employed in all these things. Most of the foreign regiments of artillery have half a company of pioneers, well instructed in that important branch of duty. Our regiments of infantry and cavalry have 3 or 4 pioneers each, provided with aprons, hatchets, saws, spades, and pick-axes."Captain George Smith, Universal Military Dictionary, (London:1779)
(see chapters eight and nine)
Black Patriots Foundation
Recommended Further Reading
Bradley, Patricia. Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution (Jackson, 1998).
Brown, Wallace. "Negroes and the American Revolution." History Today, 14(1964).
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. (Chapel Hill, 1961).
Wilson, Ellen Gibson. The Loyal Blacks (Toronto, 1976).
Harvey, EB. "The Negro Loyalists." Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly, 1(1971).
Craton, Michael. A History of the Bahamas (London, 1962).
Siebert, WH. The Legacy of the American Revolution to the British West Indies and Bahamas: A Chapter Out of the History of the American Revolution (Columbus, 1913).
Fleming, DF. "Negro Slaves with the United Empire Loyalists in Upper Canada." Ontario History, 45(1950).
Groh, Ivan. The Negroes of the Niagara Peninsula. (St Catharines, 1969).
Hodges, Graham Russell, ed. The Black Loyalist Directory: African Americans in Exile after the American Revolution. (New York, 1996).
Archibald, Ex-Governor. "The Story of Deportation of Negroes from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone." Nova Scotia Historical Society, Collections, 7(1889-91).
Henry, Francis. Forgotten Canadians: The Blacks of Nova Scotia. (Toronto, 1973).
Oliver, WP. A Brief Summary of Nova Scotia Negro Communities (Toronto, 1910).
----- "The Nego in Nova Scotia." Nova Scotia Journal of Education, 13(1964).
Bell, DG. "Slavery and the Judges of Loyalist New Brunswick." University of New Brunswick Law Journal, 31(1982).
Jack, IA. "The Loyalists and Slavery in New Brunswick." Royal Society of Canada, Transactions, 2nd Series, 4(1898).
Blakeley, Phyllis R. "Boston King: A Negro Loyalist Who Sought Refuge in Nova Scotia." Dalhousie Review, 48(1968)