Opinion Column | Washington’s Bayonette
A slave who fired one of the first shots for freedom on Lexington Common. A slave turned Patriot double agent who outwitted the British to help Americans win the Revolutionary War. A poetess whose words inspired several of the greatest Founding Fathers.
Leftists now love to blather about “black lives” and “BIPOC” heroes, yet to hear them talk you’d think black Americans were never honored or significant in American history until the last few decades. This could not be further from the truth. I am the first to admit that racism (including slavery) is the great cancer that has been trying to eat away at America’s true greatness since the Declaration of Independence was first signed, but America has had many, many heroes as well as villains—including many black heroes who do not now, or perhaps never did, get the praise they merited. I would like to help rectify that by doing an article series on black American heroes and heroines.
Nowadays, woke, race-obsessed Marxists like Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, Stacey Abrams, and Kamala Harris are called “heroes.” These supposed models of “antiracism” bash not only all whites but even the black American heroes who came before them.
Before wokeism completely took over US institutions, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were two of the most famous black heroes.
Now, I happen to think King and Parks are not the best faces of black heroism — Parks’s famous bus trip has a sketchy context and she became more leftist and radical as she got older (including praising and supporting radical socialist and pro-violence Malcolm X). King did a great deal for Civil Rights and inspired millions, undeniably, but there is evidence he also did a number of awful things in his personal life (not to mention his most famous speech was plagiarized from another black Republican).
While Parks and King changed history—in some ways very much for the better—there are countless other black Americans who deserve great acclaim and gratitude for the heroic deeds they did. Today, in the first article of my series on Black American Heroes, I want to highlight four heroes of the American Revolution—three men and a woman who all had to fight for personal freedom from slavery as well as freedom from British oppression.
The Revolutionary Army was racially integrated, with Native American Indians, black Americans, and white Americans all serving together in some regiments. The famous and highly important “Indispensables” or Massachusetts Marbleheaders were one such unit, which played essential roles in various important battles—including the Battle of Trenton—throughout the Revolution. Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, for instance, captures the diversity of the Marbleheaders rowing Washington’s boat, with white Americans of different backgrounds and what appear to be a black sailor and a Native American Indian all rowing together. Black Americans also contributed to the war effort in other ways, though, and in this article, I want to look at two soldiers, a spy, and a poetess who made their mark on American history and whose inspiring actions deserve more gratitude and acclaim than they have received.
Salem Poor and Peter Salem
Two black Patriots with the name Salem played essential and heroic roles at the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was a costly and Pyrrhic victory for the British—and a key support to the Patriot belief that they could hold their own against British troops. Salem Poor was born a Massachusetts slave in the 1740s, and purchased his freedom in early adulthood for 27 pounds (equivalent to several thousand modern dollars). Not long after he became a free man, Poor joined the Revolutionary fight for freedom. He enlisted multiple times, reportedly fighting in famous battles like Monmouth and Saratoga. Poor’s actions at the Battle of Bunker Hill were so impressive to the soldiers fighting alongside him that 14 of them recognized his prowess after the Revolution in a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts. The petition called Salem Poor a “brave and gallant soldier” who had “behaved like an experienced officer;” Poor was credited with killing the British Lt. Col. James Abercrombie.
Peter Salem was also born a slave, but he was still a slave when he fought as a “minute man” in the opening shots of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord. Freed by his owners so that he could continue fighting for the Patriots, Salem made his mark in history at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in an action whose result is believed to be depicted in John Trumbull’s The Battle of Bunker Hill painting. Salem is said to have killed one of the important British officers at the battle, Major John Pitcairn, just as Pitcairn was coming over the top of the American redoubt with a demand that the defenders surrender.
James Armistead Lafayette
James Armistead Lafayette is not only an American hero, his heroism truly changed history. Without the efforts of this slave turned double agent, the 1781 Battle of Yorktown (which ended the Revolutionary War and sealed American independence from England) very likely would not have been an American victory.
I previously wrote in more detail about the life of this remarkable Patriot, who willingly became a double agent for the Americans during the Revolution despite the fact that he was a slave all throughout the war (sadly, even at the start of America’s history its citizens did not always live up to their own ideals). Armistead Lafayette enlisted under the Marquis de Lafayette’s French Allied units, gained the confidence of British Gen. Cornwallis by pretending to be a runaway slave, and provided crucial information to the Americans throughout the rest of the Revolution, including before the Battle of Yorktown. The aristocratic Cornwallis never knew he’d been masterfully outwitted by an American slave until he came face-to-face with Armistead Lafayette in the Marquis de Lafayette’s tent after the British general’s surrender!
Unfortunately, Armistead Lafayette did not qualify for freedom from slavery under the provisions that freed many Patriot slave-soldiers, as he was a spy. Ultimately, the Marquis de Lafayette petitioned Congress to free Armistead Lafayette, who became a free man in 1787 and ended up raising a family on his own farm (James Armistead added Lafayette to his name in gratitude). In 1824, when the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the US, he saw James Armistead Lafayette in a crowd meeting him and went to embrace him, a warm testimonial of the Marquis’s esteem and a witness to how essential James Armistead Lafayette was to the Revolutionary War effort.
Phillis Wheatley was a woman of firsts. Captured in Africa and brought to America as a slave, her masters educated her and she published a book of poetry in 1773 at the age of 20, while still a slave, making her the first US slave, the first black, and the third woman to publish a work in America. She was freed soon afterwards. Wheatley was skilled in English, Latin, Theology, History, Astronomy, and Greek, among other subjects, and she was examined by a board including the famous John Hancock because her poetry was so good that many doubted a black female slave could have written it! Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington all paid tribute to her talent and skill.
After Wheatley wrote a poem in praise of then-Gen. Washington in 1776, Washington wrote her a letter praising her “great poetical Talents,” and inviting a woman “so favour[e]d by the Muses” to come meet him, signing himself “Your obed[ien]t humble servant.” Wheatley did meet Washington, and the general kept several “important men” waiting as he conversed with Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley helped break down prejudices people in the 1700s had against the role of black people and women in academia and art, and she left behind some truly lovely verses as her legacy.
“One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!”
–Phillis Wheatley, referring to America, in “To His Excellency General Washington”