Review of Van Buskirk’s Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution

Judith L. Van Buskirk, Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017) 312 pp.

Review by Rachel Engl

In Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution, Judith L. Van Buskirk skillfully recovers the story of thousands of black men who took up arms against the British and fought for the cause of American independence within the Continental Army.  This much-needed study helps fill a significant gap in the scholarship on the American Revolution by considering what the war meant for those African Americans (over 5,000 men) who fought for liberty and freedom, yet were left with troubling prospects and promises unfulfilled.  Exposing the paradox of slavery in a moment driven by the ideological pursuits of freedom, Van Buskirk shatters the myth of the Revolution as a watershed event for liberty and equality for all, and instead explores the complicated existence of African American patriots during the revolutionary tumult.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 2.20.16 PMDrawing upon pension files and military records such as muster rolls, Van Buskirk reconstructs the lives of over five hundred individual African Americans who served in the Continental Army through six chapters.  In the first chapter, Van Buskirk considers the black experience leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War by surveying their lives in various regions throughout mainland North America.  In chapter two, Van Buskirk turns to the debate at the beginning of the war over the use of black soldiers, and even enslaved men, to fill the ranks of the American army.  The following two chapters present two specific case studies of Rhode Island and South Carolina to demonstrate how states grappled with the decision to allow black men to enlist in the army.  Though Rhode Island successfully established an all-black regiment with white officers, Van Buskirk shows how, in South Carolina, the interests of slaveholders proved too hard to counter. The men intended to fill an all-black regiment were instead offered as slaves as an incentive to white men who would enlist for three years or until the end of the war. In the last two chapters of the book, Van Buskirk shifts to the postwar experience of black veterans as they tried to establish themselves within emerging American society.  Chronicling the experience of African Americans through two rounds of pension legislation, we learn a great deal about the plight of these men as they sought to claim what they were owed for their service to a country that did not yet accept them as citizens.  The postwar experience of African Americans is crucial to Van Buskirk’s argument about the legacy of the American Revolution, and these final two chapters showcase her cunning ability to uncover the rich potential of pension records, especially the intricate networks black veterans depended upon to buttress their applications (in the form of support depositions from their white comrades) in the white-dominated judicial system of the early United States.

Van Buskirk’s study also shows how scholars might use the largely untapped resource of pension records. By drawing on this source, Van Buskirk recovers not only the voices of thousands of African Americans but also the relationships they crafted with their white compatriots to illustrate how commitment to the cause at times trumped race during the Revolutionary War. Though the pension records present many opportunities for researching the men who fought in the Continental Army, Van Buskirk carefully avoids reading too much into her sources.  She is upfront about the sources available for the study of African American patriots, as well as their limitations.  One drawback is implicit in the construction of these sources. Van Buskirk avoids fully exploring the process behind the racial identification of men in these pension files.  She explains that the five hundred men who compose the foundation of her study were generated by using only individuals who had been identified within a primary source (eg. census records, muster rolls, or pension files) as a man of color (12). However, such a distinction is somewhat problematic given the oftentimes subjective definition of race.  While it is clear some individuals identified themselves as African American through their depositions, it is less clear that this was universally applicable to all black pensioners. For some men, like Salisbury Freeman (a man identified in census records as white), race was much more ambiguous and hints at the possibility of many more African Americans going unnoticed. It would be worth considering further the background of the judges who heard many of these cases in order to assess the degree to which their personal prejudices may have played a role not only in the entire process of applying for a pension but also the records used to make such a decision by members of the Pension Office.  Nevertheless, Van Buskirk’s deft use of this important resource will likely inspire other scholars of the American Revolution to look beyond the traditional sources that have shaped narratives to uncover fresh new insights into the complicated legacies of the Age of Revolutions.

One of the most important contributions Van Buskirk makes through her book is her refreshing take on the significance of the Revolution for African Americans.  While acknowledging its failure to abolish slavery outright, Van Buskirk nevertheless contends that revolution provided important examples, images, and discursive tactics that helped to advance the cause of abolition in the nineteenth century.  The Revolution did not eliminate slavery; however, Van Buskirk reminds us that the legacy is much more complicated.  Though the African American men who fought to create the United States did not reap the benefits of citizenship, the experience of serving in the Continental Army afforded blacks opportunities typically excluded to them based on their race.  For example, the mere act of bearing arms not only reinforced a sense of equality to their white brethren by showing their willingness to sacrifice their lives, but it also allowed black soldiers to more fully experience one of the fundamental tenets of masculinity that was previously denied to them.  These sorts of experiences, as Van Buskirk compellingly argues, provided an important foundation from which African Americans drew upon in their postwar lives to lobby for their own rights.

Overall, Van Buskirk’s deeply researched book will serve as a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on the American Revolution by illuminating the lives of individuals identified by historian Gary Nash as the “forgotten fifth”. (4)  Her study not only recovers the lives of the many African American patriots who served in the Continental Army throughout the war, but also reveals the ambiguity of freedom implicit in the legacies of the American Revolution.

Rachel Engl is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University, and she is the 2017-8 Amanda and Greg Family Fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  Her dissertation, “America’s First Band of Brothers: Friendship & Camaraderie within the Continental Army during the Revolutionary Era,” explores the lived experience of men who fought by uncovering the significance of the personal connections they developed throughout the conflict and sustained after the war.  You can reach Rachel Engl at rae210@lehigh.edu or on Twitter by following @RachelEngl.

Title image: John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781, 1783

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