Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Treasures from the SFC: African American Volunteers from Massachusetts

"Pompy Perkham. Negro. 28 years old. 5 feet 7 inches high"

A small document created at Dartmouth, Massachusetts and now housed in the David Library's Sol Feinstone Collection provides a brief but vital insight into the experiences of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War. Probably generated in 1780, this document is a return of three men from the 2nd Regiment of Bristol County, Massachusetts, Militia who volunteered to serve six months in the Continental Army. During this portion of the war, recruiting for the United States Army as at a particular low, as supply and pay issues reached their most problematic levels of the war. In order to bolster the army's numbers, the Revolutionary authorities called for men to be drafted (either voluntarily or by force) from the state militias to serve in the Continental Army. The county superintendents of militia, such as James Williams (who created this document) were responsible for sending these men on to Continental Army depots, where they would be accepted by army commissioners, such as Justin Ely at Springfield. What is special about this return is that it features Pompey Perkham, an African-American member of the 2nd Regiment. According to Williams report, Perkham was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 28 years old. While bare of other details, a quick look at Daniel Ricketson's The History of New Bedford not only reveals Pompey's name (listed on pg 382) but also shows that Perkham was an old family name in the area. Might Pompey have been a descendent of slaves, or a slave himself, serving in his master's stead? Unfortunately, futher information on this interesting soldier of the Revolution is lacking. Hopefully future research will reveal more of his story. For the full document, please read below. Our thanks go out to Library Intern David Niescior for transcribing this document.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fellow's Perspective: Tracing African-Americans in the Rhode Island Regiment

"African-American history in this early period is often a “needle in a haystack” operation, and the David Library has the most haystacks anywhere."

Today's post comes from Professor Judith Van Buskirk of SUNY-Cortland, a past fellow of the Library who is currently researching her new book on African-American soldiers in the Revolution. Judy has spent months going through the Library's records to reveal the story of Rhode Island's African-American troops, uncovering many new aspects of their experience and discounting some apocryphal tales. In her entry below, Judy discusses the strengths of the Library's collections and how they aided her research into the Rhode Island Regiment. We look forward to offering other details on her work once the new book is published. Please read below for the full story.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Patron's Perspective: Slavery and the New Jersey Militia

"...there are precious few records concerning the militia and I am not really surprised that references to African Americans have been essentially nonexistent...One thing my research has made very clear, though, is that the militiamen lived in a slave society and they were all immersed in a system that contained some of the most inhumane elements of that institution."

As most individuals who have sought to research the African-American contribution to the Revolution know, finding detailed documentation of their actions can be quite challenging. In this installment of our Black History Month series, long-time Library patron Larry Kidder explains the difficulties associated with charting the African-American role in the New Jersey militia system. As our previous entry noted, contemporaries suggested various schemes for arming and training African-Americans throughout the war. Few of these, however, took root. Larry's research as shown a marked dearth of African-American involvement as militiamen in New Jersey, but has pointed to some of the contingent impacts of slavery upon the militia system. In so doing, Larry's entry demonstrates an excellent strategy for working around a dearth of documentation by looking for the echoes of forgotten communities and social groups in the sources that survive. Please read below for the complete entry.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Treasures from the SFC: Recruiting Black Soldiers for Continental Service

"I am sorry that the raising of the black Corps, hung in suspense when you last wrote; but hope, if your assembly then about to sit adopted the measure, it is now in a degree of forwardness and may be useful to the public cause..."

While the Civil War is known for its regiments of African-American volunteers in Federal service, similar attempts were made during the Revolution. One of the lesser known, but perhaps most important as a precursor for what would come later, was Col John Laurens' attempt to raise a regiment of slaves for service in the defense of South Carolina. The son of Henry Laurens, the famous South Carolina politician and president of the Second Continental Congress, John Laurens first argued that African slaves should be armed and outfitted for the defense of South Carolina after the British seized Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778. From this base, Royal troops could easily mount expeditions against Charleston, one of the most vital American ports. In 1779, a small force of British regulars penetrated the South Carolinian defenses and almost made it to Charleston before being forced to turn back. In the face of this threat, the South Carolina legislature seriously considered the measure of arming slaves, but never adopted it. Laurens continued to revise and update his plans while campaigning for an African-American regiment until his death in battle later in 1782. For the full text of this letter, the original of which is part of the Sol Feinstone Collection, please read below. For more information on African-American troops in the Southern theatre, please see Three Peoples, One King by Jim Piecuch. Our thanks go to Library intern David Niescior for transcribing this letter.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Patron's Perspective: In Search of Black Among the White

"I found a lot of useful information about my subject, Edward Hector, a black Revolutionary war soldier who fought in the Battle of Brandywine and Germantown for Col. Proctor’s Third Pennsylvania Artillery" 

This post marks the start of our Black History Month 2012 series, which will explore the challenges of researching the African-American contribution to the American Revolution. Patron Noah Lewis, a regular David Library patron and a seasoned historical interpreter, provides us with our first view on this tricky field of research. Noah's work has focused on the life and times of Ned Hector, an African-American who served with the Continental Artillery during the War. Noah has uncovered a significant amount of information on Ned, who operated in the capacity of a wagon driver during the war. For more on the story of researching African-Americans in the Library's collections, please read below. Our thanks go to Noah for his excellent contribution to this series.