On October 19, 1781, Gen. George Washington attained his apex as a soldier. Straddling a spirited charger at the head of a formidable Franco-American army, Washington watched impassively as 6,000 humiliated British, German, and Loyalist soldiers under the command of Lt. Gen. Charles, Second Earl Cornwallis, emerged from their fortifications to lay down their arms in surrender outside Yorktown, Virginia. The following day, Washington voiced the elation filling his heart in a general order congratulating his subordinates “upon the Glorious events of yesterday.” Ordinarily a stickler for discipline, Washington authorized the release of every American soldier under arrest “In order to Diffuse the general Joy through every breast.”
Five days later, October 25, the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief issued quite a different order. Thousands of Virginia slaves—“Negroes or Molattoes” as Washington called them—had fled to the British in hopes of escaping a lifetime of bondage. Washington directed that these runaways be rounded up and entrusted to guards at two fortified positions on either side of the York River. There they would be held until arrangements could be made to return them to their enslavers. Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Washington converted his faithful Continentals—the men credited with winning American independence—into an army of slave catchers.
This is not the way that Americans choose to remember Yorktown. When President Ronald Reagan attended the festivities marking the battle’s bicentennial in October 1981, a crowd of 60,000 nodded in approval as he described Washington’s crowning triumph as “a victory for the right of self-determination. It was and is the affirmation that freedom will eventually triumph over tyranny.” For the African Americans who constituted one fifth of the young United States’ population in 1781, however, Yorktown did not mark the culmination of a long and grueling struggle for freedom. Rather, it guaranteed the perpetuation of slavery for eight additional decades.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Washington’s fugitive-slave roundup is that the document authorizing it has lain hidden in plain sight for more than two centuries. A copy exists among Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress, and more can be found at other archives in the surviving compilations of daily orders maintained by every Continental brigade and regiment under the dauntless Virginian’s immediate command. Most historians who cover Yorktown are content to celebrate Washington’s military genius. The blinders imposed by the lingering effects of American exceptionalism deter them from grappling with issues that would complicate the traditional triumphalist narrative. A clear-eyed look at the sources—including those recorded by British and German participants—reveals that for the 200,000 African Americans who composed 40 percent of the Old Dominion’s population, freedom wore a red coat, not blue, in 1781.
In the leadup to the War of Independence, prominent white colonists feared that British authorities would liberate their enslaved persons in retaliation for rebellion. The African American population certainly hoped that would be the case. After conversing with two Blacks in service to a Pennsylvania family fleeing the Redcoats’ advance on Philadelphia, Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister, confided to his diary on September 20, 1777: “They secretly wished that the British army might win, for then all Negro slaves will gain their freedom. It is said that this sentiment is almost universal among the Negroes in America.”
These aspirations struck George III’s soldiers with shocking force once the war’s focus shifted from New England and the Middle Colonies to the South in 1778. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, the hell-for-leather British cavalryman, bore witness to this phenomenon following the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780. “All the negroes,” he testified, “men, women, and children, upon the approach of any detachment of the King’s troops, thought themselves absolved from all respect to their American masters, and entirely released from servitude: Influenced by this idea, they quitted the plantations, and followed the army.” Lord Cornwallis, who would soon take command of British forces in the South, expressed his irritation at this road-choking Black exodus as he penetrated the prostate Palmetto State. “The number of Negroes that attend this Corps,” he complained, “is a most serious distress to us.”
This pattern of behavior continued after Virginia became the conflict’s decisive theater in 1781. The Old Dominion—the largest, most populous, and richest of the young republic’s thirteen states—absorbed three British invasions that year. On December 20, 1780, nearly 1,800 troops under Benedict Arnold, who had betrayed the Continental cause to become a British brigadier general, set sail from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, for Chesapeake Bay. Without pausing to give the Virginia militia a chance to mobilize, the Connecticut-born Arnold swept up the James River and became the first Yankee general to capture Richmond, the state’s new capital, on January 5, 1781. Arnold then retired downstream to Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River, which he converted into a fortified naval base. More than 2,000 British reinforcements landed at Portsmouth on April 1, which facilitated another amphibious lunge up the James that culminated at Petersburg twenty-four days later. Lord Cornwallis showed up at Petersburg on May 20 with the survivors of the arduous winter campaign he had conducted in North Carolina.
Along with additional British reinforcements from New York that reached Cornwallis almost immediately, he now mustered more than 6,500 fit officers and men—a big enough force to march almost anywhere in Virginia that he desired while still retaining his hold on Portsmouth. With the king’s soldiers able to penetrate parts of the Old Dominion that had hitherto escaped the touch of war, more and more enslaved persons rose to meet them. As Robert Honyman, a local physician, scribbled in his diary: “Many Gentlemen lost 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 Negroes besides their stocks of Cattle, Sheep & Horses. Some plantations were entirely cleared, & not a single Negro remained.” Richard Henry Lee, a prominent leader in the independence movement, confided fearfully to his brother, “Tis said that 2 or 3000 negroes march in their train, that every kind of Stock which they cannot remove they destroy.”
Just one year earlier, Cornwallis had regarded fugitive slaves as impediments to his operations. Once he reached Virginia, however, he gave clear indications that he now viewed these Black freedom seekers as military assets. After the earl’s army reached Dr. Honyman’s neighborhood, the latter observed, “Where ever they had an opportunity, the soldiers & inferior officers likewise, enticed & flattered the Negroes, & prevailed on vast numbers to go along with them.”
These runaways contributed immeasurably to Cornwallis’ mobility by bringing him the choicest thoroughbreds from their enslavers’ stables. This steady infusion of prime horseflesh gave the earl the most fearsome cavalry force fielded during the Revolutionary War, and he had enough horses left over to mount hundreds of his infantry. Some Blacks found jobs as officers’ servants, and others worked as foragers or menial laborers. Black labor raised the fortifications that protected Portsmouth and later encircled Cornwallis’s second base at Yorktown. A few fugitive slaves served the British as guides, and one daring man assumed the role of a double agent, helping to lead a force of Continentals and militia into a costly ambush at Green Spring on July 6, 1781.
A few weeks after that engagement, Gov. Thomas Nelson wrote Cornwallis to enquire if there were any way Virginia planters could recover what they considered to be their property. The British commander responded with a politely worded note that gave Nelson scant comfort: “Any proprietor not in Arms against us, or holding an Office of trust under the Authority of Congress and willing to give his parole that he will not in future act against His Majesty’s interest, will be indulged with permission to search the Camp for his Negroes & to take them if they are willing to go with him.” In other words, Cornwallis declared he would force no enslaved person to return to an enslaver—even those claimed by Loyalists. Had the earl prevailed in Virginia, this de facto emancipation proclamation might have drastically altered the course of U.S. history. Washington and the French squelched that prospect three months later, however, when they trapped the British at Yorktown.
Historians still debate over the exact number of Virginia Blacks who sought British protection in 1781. Thomas Jefferson, the Old Dominion’s governor during the first half of that year, claimed that the state lost 30,000 enslaved to Cornwallis—a gross exaggeration. A database compiled from affidavits filed by Rebel planters in nineteen counties and residents of Portsmouth yielded a list of 1,119 runaways, but that figure is only a partial sample of the whole.
Even if Cornwallis had achieved military success, things would have still ended tragically for many Black fugitives who joined their fortunes to his. Smallpox, possibly the eighteenth century’s greatest killer, marched in the earl’s ranks, and African Americans sickened and died in droves after he entered Virginia. Brig. Gen. Edward Hand, one of Washington’s senior staff officers, recorded this trenchant comment during the Yorktown siege: “almost every Thicket Affords you the Disagreable prospect of a Wretched Negroes Carcase brought to the earth by disease & famine. the Poor deluded Creatures are either so much Afraid of the displeasure of their owners that they voluntarily starved to death or were by disease unable to Seek Sustenance.” Among the inhabitants of Revolutionary America who gave their all for liberty, these “Wretched Negroes” should join those in the forefront.
The institution of slavery’s victory at Yorktown reveals the corruption that infected the American Revolution. Throughout United States history, liberty and opportunity have been purchased for some through the oppression of others. Our revered Founders—intent on rallying mass support for a revolt intended to replace one set of colonial elites with another—indulged in egalitarian rhetoric that most of them did not believe. What redeemed the Revolution is the fact that so many common Americans took that rhetoric literally. Over the centuries, various outgroups have agitated to expand the frontiers of freedom, and their efforts have made this country a fitter place to live. If we think of the Revolution as an ongoing process rather than a sanitized relic to be cloaked by myth, that movement can still serve as a positive force in American society and its professed principles remain worthy of celebration.