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An Act Freeing Enslaved People Who Served as Soldiers, 1783

CONTENT WARNING

Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 

Context

By 1775, approximately half a million enslaved Americans were living in the thirteen colonies. Thousands of Black Americans participated in the American Revolution. Some joined the British while others fought with the Americans depending on who they believed offered the best path to freedom. Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, promised to free any slaves who abandoned their Patriot owners to fight for the king. Hundreds joined him and thousands more enslaved men and women fled to British lines and were eventually sent to Canada or other locations.

When Virginia began drafting soldiers in 1777 to fill its quotas for the Continental Army, free Black men were included. Some owners of slaves also provided an enslaved man as their substitute in the army, although the Virginia legislature technically forbade enslaved men from serving. Hundreds of Black soldiers were part of the Continental Army during the brutal winter at Valley Forge in 1777–1778, including dozens in the Virginia Line. Over the course of the war, thousands of Black men, including Nansemond County farmer James Bowser, fought for American independence.

In 1783, Virginia's General Assembly acknowledged that owners of some enslaved soldiers had attempted to "force them to return to a state of servitude, contrary to the principles of justice" and despite promises of freedom. The assembly passed a law "Directing the Emancipation of Certain Slaves who have Served as Soldiers in this State." It authorized that any enslaved man who had enlisted at the request of his owner or who had served as a substitute for his owner and fulfilled the terms of his service was to be freed. It is not known how many men may have received their freedom as a result of this act.

Citation: Statutes at Large of Virginia (1619-1808), Compiled by William Waller Hening, 1809, call number KFV2425.2 1619, Manuscripts & Special Collections, The Library of Virginia, Richmond.

Learn more about James Bowser in his Dictionary of Virginia Biography entry online at Encyclopedia Virginia.

Standards

VS.5 GOVT.1, GOVT.2, VUS.1, VUS.4, USI.1, USI.6

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Scan It: Scan the document. What is the purpose of this law? Why is this significant?

Post Activities

Think About It: Why would the Patriots be reluctant to allow enslaved people to join their army? Why would the British offer freedom to enslaved people?

Another Perspective: What are some potential challenges for the former soldiers who might have received their freedom? Does the offer of freedom apply to their families too? What would you do if you were faced with the choice between freedom for yourself without freedom for your family?