Washington's Decision: The Story of George Washington's Decision to Reaccept Black Enlistments in the Continental Army, December 31, 1775
On December 31, 1775, George Washington sent an important letter to the Continental Congress regarding the enlistment of black soldiers in the Continental Army. Washington had made the decision, once again, to allow free blacks to enlist pending Congressional approval. In the spring of 1775, blacks serving in the Continental Army and state militias were common, but orders issued by Washington, Continental recruiting officers, and legislation passed by Congress decided not to accept blacks as a means of meeting their troop quotas. Washington's decision to reject, then reaccept, black enlistments has been viewed by historians differently. Different reasons have been given for Washington's change of heart on December 31, but the same limited evidence has been used to support the differing theories. None of these historians have truly examined the evidence thoroughly enough to interpret Washington's decision. Some historians believe Lord Dunmore's proclamation influenced George Washington to reaccept black enlistments. Only by examining the full story, can it be seen that Washington was influenced by this and personal factors. There are three themes regarding Washington's decision to reaccept black enlistments. The first is that Washington made this decision due to the deteriorating state of army. It is argued that the army's personnel shortage caused Washington and later Congress to enlist black soldiers to solve their problem of meeting troop quotas. This theory is acceptable to the average American who learned about the American Revolution, but is not completely accurate. It is well known that the Continental Army was not a formidable fighting force in 1775, especially when compared to the British, the strongest standing army in the world at that time. Thus, proponents of this theory believe Washington needed every man who would serve the Revolutionary cause. Although this theory seems to help explain Washington's decision, it neither gives us the whole story nor was it the most influential factor.Another theory contends that Washington made his decision to reaccept black enlistments because he sympathized with the black soldiers who were already serving in his army. This argument has been made by Henry Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God, and implied by Benjamin Quarles, author of The Negro in the American Revolution. Although Congress, Washington, and the recruiting officers had decided not to allow any more blacks to enlist or reenlist before December, there were black soldiers who were finishing their terms of enlistment in Washington's camp. According to this theory, Washington's contact with these remaining black troops changed his mind. The daily exposure to the black soldiers caused him to sympathize with their desire to fight in the cause of liberty. Thus, Washington felt morally obligated to act on their behalf. This theory looks upon Washington the most positively, but ignores many pertinent facts about Washington. There is little doubt that this helps to partially explain Washington's decision, but does not tell the whole story. The phrase, "it has been represented to me that the free Negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded," in his letter on December 31, is the main evidence supporting the theory. Supporters also point to Washington's internal struggle over the issue of slavery as proof. Washington's letter requesting the reacceptance of black enlistments was written after months of frustration over many issues. What he wrote to Congress, was not necessarily what he thought. Especially since Washington's letters to Congress had always been written in a manner to persuade them to give in to his requests. Also, Washington's doubts regarding slavery did not develop until near the end of the Revolutionary War. Before the war, and for much of its course, he was a staunch supporter of slavery. He did not rethink the issue until he realized the dilemma the colonists were facing against the mother country, resembled slaves' struggle for freedom. During his presidency, this became an issue which he would contemplate often. The last theory is that Washington changed his mind in allowing free blacks to serve in reaction to Lord Dunmore's Proclamation. Some theorize that this prompted Washington and Congress to act in order to counter the effects of Dunmore's Proclamation. Proponents of this theory are correct that Lord Dunmore's Proclamation influenced Washington's decision, but have stated it incorrectly. These supporters have not fully examined the events that took place leading up to Washington writing the letter. Historians have used the same limited, and in many cases inaccurate, evidence in supporting this claim, thus, leaving the reader to make assumptions to complete the story. In order to understand what influenced Washington, the story must be told in its entirety. That requires consideration of the background and politics of black soldiers serving, Lord Dunmore and the effects of his proclamation on society, Congressional reaction to Dunmore's proclamation, George Washington's involvement with black enlistments, Washington's relationship with Lord Dunmore, and Washington's knowledge of the state of the army.
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An Army Without Blacks
The People and Congress React
George Washington Reacts
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