According to Alan Gilbert, there were two revolutions in America in the mid-1770s — one for American independence from the British and the other for the emancipation of slaves. In his new book, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (University of Chicago Press, 2012), Gilbert tells the story of this second revolution, which is not nearly as well-known.
“I read a book [on the American Revolution] by historian Gary Nash, and in the third chapter he says a gigantic number of blacks escaped to the British side [during the Revolutionary War] and fought in exchange for freedom,” says Gilbert, the John Evans Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “I had been taught that the American Revolution was just a change of the person in power and didn’t affect much socially, and that the Civil War was the real revolution in the United States.
“This blew that up entirely,” he continues. “There was a huge antislavery movement on the American side, and the British relied for many of their troops — for all the people lugging artillery and getting horses and all that — on slaves who escaped from the South and were freed. And they took many more slaves to Canada who had been freed.”
Inspired by what he read, Gilbert — who has been on the University faculty since 1975 — began work on what would become Black Patriots and Loyalists. The book took more than 16 years to write and is based on material the author discovered in 13 research libraries in the U.S., London, Spain and Paris. Among the stories he uncovered was one about a German soldier who fought on the American side during the historic siege of Yorktown.
“He walked around the field after the battle, and he said most of the corpses lying around the field were black,” Gilbert says. “Most of the dead in the crucial battle of the American Revolution — on both sides — were black. Nobody told me that.”
Gilbert, who in 1999 presented a University Lecture on the role of slaves in the Revolutionary War, says the project “breaks open the mainstream account of the American Revolution.
“You can’t think about the American Revolution in the same way if you know the facts,” he says.