Black Virginians and the American Revolution

[African American] member of the telephone and telegraph battalion at Camp Upton, Long Island, 1917 – ca. 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)
In the summer of 1782, nearly nine months after Patriot victory at the Battle of Yorktown during the US War for Independence, Virginia’s social order had not been restored. Over a thousand Black Virginians escaped with the British during the American Revolution, and the remaining population of Black Virginians did not stop using the military conflict to their advantage in their own parallel anti-slavery war. For the planter class of Virginia’s Eastern Shore who feared a Black-British alliance, their nemesis had not yet died.

Enslaved people in and around the Eastern Shore town of Onancock resided geographically separate from the center of slaving power in the Chesapeake in the Lower Tidewater, and they took advantage of this slight cleavage by attempting to conspire with marauding Tories. These fears forced local militia leader Colonel George Corbin to plead to his superior officer for help authorizing Virginia’s Governor to sanction militia members to remain in their station. The threat of internal and external forces waging war against them had not yet dissipated despite the new nation’s independence from Britain. Instead, Col. Corbin begged for the continued use of militia by vividly describing the opponent Eastern Shore whites faced.

Corbin stated that whites in Onancock faced “bloody plots” instigated by enslaved people and white British loyalists. Plots “against the Chief inhabitants of the Country” resulted in “the plunderings of families, surprised in the night, women and children turned out of their houses, which were then burned.”1 Instead of indiscriminately waging their campaign, enslaved conspirators and their white loyalist counterparts chose their potential victims with cunning and precision. Like escaping from bondage, waging revolution often did not happen through unthinking decisions. Instead, “a conspiracy of the tories, British and negroes, who prepared themselves with ropes as instruments of death and had marked their devoted victims.” They likely tried keeping their larger plot a secret, but the motley crew’s plan did not remain a secret forever.

A few nights before their action, “a party of them [white tories] went out to induce the negroes to join” them in a plot to massacre local whites. The white conspirators met with “the master of one of his Slaves engaged in the plot” and the master confronted the enslaved man.2 Despite foiling the plot, the enslaver would not live to tell about it. In a confrontation with a loyalist, the loyalist shot the enslaver and attempted to get away.

The commotion created by this confrontation alerted local authorities and neighbors. The enslaver’s neighbors then tried to avenge his death by pursuing the suspected assailants, and in the process, local whites seized and forced a confession out of the enslaved man about the nature of the meeting with his co-conspirators. Only through the enslaved man’s confession did information about the plot become known, and thereafter, the militia hanged, “several of the ringleaders” of the plot. Col. Corbin reported these events to Col. Davies to ensure the Eastern Shore received more “assistance in protecting the inhabitants from a repetition of all these horrors.”3

Although local whites and their militia in Onancock snuffed out a relatively insignificant slave conspiracy in a slave society with hundreds of thousands of other enslaved people from the Eastern Shore to the Appalachian Mountains, Accomack County residents remained on edge. Recent experiences dealing with the potential of enslaved people’s alliance with the loyalist forces in late 1781 and early 1782 likely informed slaveholder responses to proposed legislation regarding the future of slavery in Virginia.

One month after Virginia’s General Assembly amended the commonwealth’s law and allowed private white citizens to manumit their enslaved laborers without the commonwealth’s approval, nearly seventy Accomack County whites angrily protested. Despite many of the enslaved people manumitted by this law providing “meritorious service” to the patriot cause, such as patriot spy and double agent James Armistead Lafayette, many Accomack County whites did not believe the law should stand. Continued fears of Black rebellion impacted white Virginian’s ability to stomach overtures to the relatively few Black people that aided their cause.

On June 3, 1782, sixty-two white Accomack County men voiced their displeasure and alarm “at several applications” coming before the assembly “for the passing of acts for the manumission of all slaves . . . within this county.” Their most vigorous complaint about the new law came from their belief that increasing free Black populations on the Eastern Shore would insure a potential revolutionary alliance between free and enslaved Black Virginians. This concern, coupled with fear over their geographic position as “inhabitants of this already exposed part of the commonwealth,” resulted in white property concerns trumping any humanitarian concerns. Ultimately, the petitioners argued that “however desireable an object that of universal Liberty in this country may be; however religious or upright the intentions of their owners may be” that they “conceive the objections they have to offer weighed in the scale of sound policy and publick good will prove motives sufficient to prevent such Bills passing.”

Despite narratives about the effect revolutionary rhetoric had on white ambitions to emancipate Black Virginians, enslaved conspirators in far-flung Accomack County forced some whites to rethink any legislative efforts aiding Black Virginians.

The petitioners believed easing manumission restrictions on the heels of war would endanger their freedom to enslave Black people. In effect, they feared manumitted people would serve as an internal enemy, whose relatives they knew had previously sought refuge behind British lines and plundered their coastal community once before and would repeat if offered the opportunity to do so. In the end, despite the post-war expansion of Virginia’s free population caused by the new law, the institution of slavery strengthened, and the enslaved population expanded rapidly by the early nineteenth century. But many Black Virginians would also remain internal enemies to white settler capitalist regimes of power.

As scholars, teachers, legislators, and interested parties debate history pedagogy and narration of the past leading up to the United States’ Semiquicentennial, we must not forget those whose aspirations for freedom did not coincide with the creation of this country. We must recover the histories of Black people whose efforts for freedom, such as the rebels in Accomack County, may be their only marks in the historical stratosphere. They are deserving of beautiful and honest narration of their lives, dreams, and aspirations.

  1. Colonel George Corbin to Colonel Davies, May 2, 1782, Palmer et. al, eds. Calendar of State Papers, III, 149.
  2. Colonel Davies to the Governor, May 16, 1782, Palmer et. al, eds. Calendar of State Papers, III, 166.
  3. Colonel George Corbin to Colonel George Davies, May 2, 1782, 149.
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Adam McNeil

Adam McNeil is History PhD student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick focusing on 17th and 18th Century Black Women’s History and slavery. Secondarily, he focuses on Black Appalachian histories of slavery and freedom.

Comments on “Black Virginians and the American Revolution

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    What an excellent piece, Adam, and relevant in the context of Woody Holton’s recent book, Liberty is Sweet. Wish I had known of this event nearly 50 years ago, when I started writing several articles that followed Benjamin Quarles in scratching the surface of unexamined story of Blacks in the American Revolution.

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