INDIAN LAND Thousands of free men of color voluntarily took up arms to fight our country’s first war more than 200 years ago. Nearly 100 of them lived in South Carolina and, thanks to a new Revolutionary War-era project, their service will finally be widely honored.
The African American Soldiers of the Revolution – Honor Project aims to identify free men of color who fought in the war and, if possible, find their burial site, locate living descendants and award relevant posthumous military awards. Project founders John Marker and Dr. Patricia Hinton put together a team of subject matter specialists and are hoping the group can uncover the legacies of those mostly forgotten soldiers.
Their work started in what was then the colony of South Carolina and they have already identified 89 soldiers, including a few from the Lancaster County area. The Indian Land chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution plan to honor the men who fought in the Buford Massacre on May 27. The ceremony will be held at 10:30 a.m. at 262 Rocky River Road, Lancaster – identified as the battlefield site. The Friends of the Buford Massacre will also hold a wreath laying and bronze plaque presentation with the names of 216 men.
Recent research has verified two names on that list, privates James Cooper and James Cuffey, were free men of color who willingly fought for the colonies.
“Honestly, they were overlooked,” Marker said. “Most people wouldn’t have a clue that that many (free men of color) served in the Revolutionary War.”
The work began quite by accident while Marker and Hinton, who are siblings, were researching their Revolutionary War era ancestor, Nicholas Prince. Hinton discovered Prince fought alongside a free man of color in an artillery company in the colony of South Carolina. His name was Isham Carter.
“This is remarkable,” said Hinton, “Not that many free men of color were in the Continental service.”
Most of the men of color fought in militias, Hinton explained; The Continental service was made up of paid, professional soldiers. This rare discovery led them to dig deeper through centuries old records in order to uncover the names of more free men of color who willingly fought alongside white soldiers to gain freedom from the British. Their research does not include slaves who took the place of their white owners in the war and then were granted freedom after serving.
The motives of the free men of color are really anyone’s guess, the two researchers said. Hinton said all she can do is theorize that free men of color were fighting to keep their lives from changing. They were neighbors and friends in small rural communities scattered across the colonies. They depended on each other, regardless of ethnicity.
“The very environment was like a cultural stew,” Hinton explained, “They liked their independence. They were no different whether they were black, orange or yellow, they liked that sense of independence and perhaps that’s what drove them.”
Back then, records for free men of color were not kept as closely as they were for white men, or even slaves. However, Hinton and Marker took a new route to identify this specific group of men—through cross referencing pension records with existing Revolutionary War record repositories and census records.
Hinton and Marker both bring different goals and areas of expertise to the project. Marker lives in Waxhaw, N.C., and is an active member of the Sons of the American Revolution. He recently chartered a chapter of the organization in Indian Land. His strength is in genealogy research. He is also a Vietnam War veteran. For him, this project is quite personal.
“Any person, man or woman, that serves their country—the least the country can do is acknowledge their service,” he said, “I know it’s 240 years later, but it’s never too late.”
Hinton lives in Georgia and is a Revolutionary War researcher and instructor at Valdosta State University in Florida. She said the discovery of this forgotten group of soldiers is exciting and will allow her to make the Revolutionary War relevant to her African-American students who, she said, can often feel disconnected from the era.
“Many of my students who are young people of color, their eyes glaze over because they feel their ancestors were slaves or were forced to fight on behalf of others,” she said. “To discover that many thousands of people of color who volunteered and got involved in the fight for liberty, that for me is an affirmation for why I’m teaching.”
Another surprising discovery the team made during their research is that the military during the Revolutionary War was fully integrated. The black men were given the same provisions as the white men.
“They fought side by side, they slept together, they ate meals together, they were paid the same exact amount of money,” Marker said. “This was the first military we ever had and it wasn’t until 150 years later that they were integrated again, permanently.”
Research has helped identify 100 men who served in the colony of South Carolina. That number, however could be much higher, and is a far cry from the estimated 5,000 who served across the Colonies. If a free soldier of color didn’t apply for a pension, his name won’t be on the list that Hinton and Marker are compiling. But the team is determined to find as many men as they can
“It’s extremely time consuming and has a lack of documentation,” Marker said, “We knew it would be a challenge going in, but if we could find some in every colony or every state, the original 13, that would be extremely gratifying to us and to the families.”
There are still many questions that the researchers have, such as how soldiers came to be free men, that may never be answered. But for now, they’re taking their time and going line by line through records to identify these men whose service hasn’t been honored on par with their white comrades.
“I’m shocked that nobody has ever taken the time to do this,” Marker said.
“We did not exist on this Earth alone,” Hinton said of Caucasians. “Our neighbors, our friends, people we lived, worked and fought with are from different backgrounds and different ethnicities.”
The team plans to identify soldiers in the North Carolina colony next. Hinton said records there were kept better than in South Carolina, so she has high hopes of finding more names to add to the growing list of soldiers.
Marker plans to update the list with the most current names of free soldiers of color each quarter. To request a copy of the list or for other information about the project, email John Marker at email@example.com.
Katie Rutland: firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to go?
The Indian Land chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution will commemorate the 237th anniversary of Buford’s Massacre in the Battle of the Waxhaws on May 27 beginning at 10:30 a.m. The event will include the bronze plaque presentation at 12:30 p.m. and is open to the public. The battlefield address is 262 Rocky River Road, Lancaster.