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.


African American Militiamen?

by Larry Kidder

As part of my continuing research, I have been looking for information on African American participation into the First Hunterdon County Militia Regiment in New Jersey. As mentioned in previous blog entries there are precious few records concerning the militia and I am not really surprised that references to African Americans have been essentially nonexistent. It is clear in the militia laws passed during the Revolution that slaves were not expected to be part of the militia, but free blacks seem to have been expected to do militia duty – but I have yet to identify any in the First Hunterdon. White indentured servants and apprentices could serve as substitutes for masters and, with their masters' permission, serve for themselves also. At any rate, I have not found any identifiable African Americans in the few muster returns and none of the men who applied for pensions were African American or mention any African Americans in their affidavits.

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. Tax records show slave ownership to some degree, but only males old enough and healthy enough to work were taxed. Many slaves were household workers although some were skilled workers who assisted in operating gristmills and other enterprises. Newspaper advertisements for runaways and slave sales, combined with evidence from probate records, show that Hunterdon County residents used language that was prejudicial towards Blacks and had few, if any, qualms about splitting up families and disregarding community relationships.

Another important points that my research into the militia has revealed is just how much physical labor was an essential part of life for all people in the 18th century. As an economic input to all aspects of life, labor was a big factor. One sign of success for a man was the amount of labor he could add to his personal labor. Whether it was through creating large families of workers, using horses and oxen for labor, hiring workers, or purchasing indentured servants or slaves, added labor was needed to bring a man beyond a very basic economic existence. This understanding leads me to ponder the role of Black Americans in the lives of the militiamen.

I would like to learn more about how slaves filled in to deal with the diminished labor force when their master, or other male members of his family, were absent with the militia. With New Jersey's alternate month service routine men were frequently absent from home. I would also like to know to what extent slaves were used as substitutes, as white indentured servants and apprentices were. From the advertisements for runaways it is apparent that masters sometimes attributed flight to seeking freedom by crossing the lines to British controlled areas. Were these runaways more likely to occur when a master was away with the militia? This is another line for additional research.

It is easy for us today to look back at men who chose to pay a fine or hire a substitute and judge them as being less than patriotic. However, considering that they came from a society where men were used to paying for labor in order to accomplish needed work, it would seem a natural extension to expect someone else to do the militia work. The militia was called out so frequently that men were faced with the difficulty of maintaining their farm or business while being called away frequently and regularly. It doesn't take a great leap to see they would find a way to have someone else perform that duty either some or all of the time. Just as a man might purchase a slave to increase production at a grist mill or on his farm, so might a man hire a substitute, or pay a fine so the militia could hire someone, so that he could continue to support the economy of the state while also contributing to the military success.

It seems difficult for us to understand today, but in a society involved with slavery it must have been quite easy to look at labor in general as a commodity to be bought and sold. This would include labor in the militia, especially if someone was at all ambivalent about the cause. Certainly there were men who felt they needed to personally perform military duty, but among those who called themselves patriots there were apparently a large number who didn't feel this need. When we look at the difficulties encountered in filling Continental Regiments, as well as getting the militia to turn out in expected numbers, it seems clear that many who supported the ideas being fought for could rationalize their expectation that someone else would do the military part of the work.

We know that in general, Washington did not want to have Black Americans in the military but that his need for soldiers overcame this to the extent that he accepted relatively large numbers of Black Americans into the Continentals. I am wondering to what extent this need was also seen in the New Jersey militia and whether it played out in a similar way. My search for evidence continues, but the lack of records may keep the reality hidden.

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