Shake the Earth: Haitian Soldiers in the American Revolution
You’ve probably heard how France fought on the colonists’ side in the American Revolution. But did you know there were Haitian soldiers in the American Revolution who fought alongside the rebelling colonists? In 1776, France was a world empire, with territories in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and India. So, when war broke out in Britain’s thirteen American colonies, and Louis XVI saw an opportunity to strike a blow against his kingdom’s oldest foe, France sent more than just Parisian troops. In October, 1779, around 500 black Haitian soldiers reached the port of Savannah, sent by the French Empire to ‘free’ Georgia – one of the biggest slaveholding colonies at the time – from the British.1 So, black soldiers from France’s largest slave colony, came to help give independence to British colonists who themselves enslaved black people. You can’t make this sh*t up.
It just goes to show how fluid notions of race are over time. To contemporary Americans, free black men, no matter from where they hailed, could never fight alongside white slaveowners – but they did. In fact, many of these soldiers wanted to prove just how different they were from the enslaved Africans in both Georgia and Saint-Domingue. This attitude can be summed with the seeming flippant phrase, we’re black, but we’re not that kind of black.2 Indeed, this dichotomy between enslaved and free blacks proved a rather common occurrence in the colonial world, as ‘freedmen’ were anxious to distinguish themselves from the lowest social class on the eighteenth-century totem pole.
Since the seventeenth-century, free men of color had played a prominent role in French Saint-Domingue. Strangely enough, they often served as overseers of the island’s numerous plantations.3 In fact, many free men of color owned slaves of their own. Owning land at higher elevations in Saint-Domingue’s hill country, these black slaveowners often owned several dozen African slaves who they used to plant, grow, and harvest vast amounts of coffee and indigo.4 This group of black planters felt themselves to be every bit as French as the white guy next door. I mean, why not? They spoke French, dressed like Europeans, and even owned people! What’s more white than oppressing others? But as the decades wore on, this group of free blacks became subject to ever increasing, racially-based, prejudice.5
And so they came, hyped up on coffee, hoping to prove themselves the “virtuous Frenchmen” they knew themselves to be. Known as the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, or Saint-Domingue Volunteer Infantry, this group of soldiers constituted the largest contingent of troops of African descent to fight in the American Revolution.6 According to legend, a twelve-year-old boy, named Henri Christophe, sailed with the Volontaires. Supposedly freed from slavery at an unknown, but early, age, Christophe came with the Saint-Domingue forces as a drummer boy. Twelve years later, that drummer boy enlisted in the Haitian militia, and quickly rose to the rank of officer before becoming the first President and King of Haiti.7
While the Franco-American assault on Savannah ultimately failed, men such as Christophe brought back ideals of republicanism, and the knowledge that rising up against one’s colonial overlord was indeed possible. While not all gens de couleur fought in or supported the Haitian revolution, many came back from the Siege of Savannah battle hardened, and with the desire to form a new government in which they no longer occupied some strange middle ground between freedom and unfreedom. And the role of these Haitian soldiers in the American Revolution shouldn’t be forgotten.
1. Cindy Wong, “Savannah, Georgia: Saint-Domingueans or Haitians in the American Revolution,” Miami Herald, June 2002 (http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/history/savannah/savannah-list1.htm)
2. Wong, “Savannah, Georgia”
3. Laurent Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 15
4. Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 16.
5. Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 16.
6. “Haitian Monument in Franklin Square, Savannah, GA”
7. “Haitian Monument in Franklin Square, Savannah, GA”