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A European Encounters American Slavery

A European Encounters American Slavery

 

Captain Ewald's Jaeger troops may have carried, in addition to a rifle, a weapon that could be used as either a sword or bayonet. This circa 1780 example, currently on display at Jamestown Settlement in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,” ultimately will be exhibited at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Hundreds of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution – American, British, French and German – kept some sort of diary or journal of their experiences.  Most only entered brief descriptions of the weather, how far they had marched, or occasionally some unusual or noteworthy event.  Such diaries seldom include the detailed descriptions or analytical commentary that historians look for.  One exception is the journal of Captain Johann Ewald, an officer with an elite Jaeger, or German rifle corps, which fought with the British Army in North America.  Beginning in 1776 when he arrived in New York, Ewald was involved in many of the major campaigns of the Revolution.  His perceptive comments (often critical of his British allies) and detailed descriptions of military operations provide rare insights into the conduct of the war, but his observations of encounters with enslaved African Americans may be the most valuable aspect of his writings. As early as 1780 Ewald observed that some enslaved people, who had escaped from their owners, were being employed by the British to construct fortifications in South Carolina.  After he arrived in Virginia early in 1781, Ewald began mentioning these unusual “camp followers” more frequently.  Left in charge of a post at Norfolk in May, he noted, “Because I lacked some cavalry and the little at Portsmouth could not be spared, twelve Negroes were mounted and armed.  I trained them as well as possible and they gave me thoroughly good service, for I sought to win them by good treatment, to which they were not accustomed.” After he rejoined the main British army under Cornwallis near Richmond in June, Ewald described his astonishment at the chaotic scenes he encountered.  During his absence hundreds of enslaved African Americans had left their owners to follow the British.  “Behind the baggage followed well over four thousand Negroes of both sexes and all ages.  Any place this horde approached was eaten clean.”  According to Ewald every officer had four or more of these refugees, including women serving as cooks and servants.  “I can testify that every soldier had his Negro, who carried his provisions and bundles . . . These people were given their freedom by the [British] army because it was actually thought this would punish the rich, rebellious-minded inhabitants of Carolina and Virginia.  They had plundered the wardrobes of their masters and mistresses, divided the loot, and clothed themselves piecemeal with it.  ...  When I first beheld this train I could not grasp it, and I wondered as much about the indulgent character of Lord Cornwallis as I admired him for his military abilities.”  Ewald’s description anticipates by 60 years the numerous “contrabands” that escaped to the Union Army in the 1860s. When Cornwallis decided to establish a base at Yorktown in August, he left most of the women and children at Portsmouth, taking the able-bodied men with him.  When provisions ran low during the siege in mid October, the British turned most of these refugees out of their lines.  In one of his journal entries Ewald wrote, “I would just as soon forget to record a cruel happening  . . . we drove back to the enemy all of our black friends, whom we had taken along to despoil the countryside.  We had used them to good advantage and set them free, and now, with fear and trembling, they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.”  Coming across some of these starving “unfortunates” during a night patrol, he noted, “we should have thought more about their deliverance at this time.”  Other observers mentioned that many of these people were also dying of smallpox, but only Ewald displayed any real expression of guilt and dismay at the injustice of their plight.

Captain Ewald’s Jaeger troops may have carried, in addition to a rifle, a weapon that could be used as either a sword or bayonet. This circa 1780 example, currently on display at Jamestown Settlement in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution,” ultimately will be exhibited at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
Hundreds of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution – American, British, French and German – kept some sort of diary or journal of their experiences.  Most only entered brief descriptions of the weather, how far they had marched, or occasionally some unusual or noteworthy event.  Such diaries seldom include the detailed descriptions or analytical commentary that historians look for.  One exception is the journal of Captain Johann Ewald, an officer with an elite Jaeger, or German rifle corps, which fought with the British Army in North America.  Beginning in 1776 when he arrived in New York, Ewald was involved in many of the major campaigns of the Revolution.  His perceptive comments (often critical of his British allies) and detailed descriptions of military operations provide rare insights into the conduct of the war, but his observations of encounters with enslaved African Americans may be the most valuable aspect of his writings.
As early as 1780 Ewald observed that some enslaved people, who had escaped from their owners, were being employed by the British to construct fortifications in South Carolina.  After he arrived in Virginia early in 1781, Ewald began mentioning these unusual “camp followers” more frequently.  Left in charge of a post at Norfolk in May, he noted, “Because I lacked some cavalry and the little at Portsmouth could not be spared, twelve Negroes were mounted and armed.  I trained them as well as possible and they gave me thoroughly good service, for I sought to win them by good treatment, to which they were not accustomed.”
After he rejoined the main British army under Cornwallis near Richmond in June, Ewald described his astonishment at the chaotic scenes he encountered.  During his absence hundreds of enslaved African Americans had left their owners to follow the British.  “Behind the baggage followed well over four thousand Negroes of both sexes and all ages.  Any place this horde approached was eaten clean.”  According to Ewald every officer had four or more of these refugees, including women serving as cooks and servants.  “I can testify that every soldier had his Negro, who carried his provisions and bundles . . . These people were given their freedom by the [British] army because it was actually thought this would punish the rich, rebellious-minded inhabitants of Carolina and Virginia.  They had plundered the wardrobes of their masters and mistresses, divided the loot, and clothed themselves piecemeal with it.  …  When I first beheld this train I could not grasp it, and I wondered as much about the indulgent character of Lord Cornwallis as I admired him for his military abilities.”  Ewald’s description anticipates by 60 years the numerous “contrabands” that escaped to the Union Army in the 1860s.
When Cornwallis decided to establish a base at Yorktown in August, he left most of the women and children at Portsmouth, taking the able-bodied men with him.  When provisions ran low during the siege in mid October, the British turned most of these refugees out of their lines.  In one of his journal entries Ewald wrote, “I would just as soon forget to record a cruel happening  . . . we drove back to the enemy all of our black friends, whom we had taken along to despoil the countryside.  We had used them to good advantage and set them free, and now, with fear and trembling, they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.”  Coming across some of these starving “unfortunates” during a night patrol, he noted, “we should have thought more about their deliverance at this time.”  Other observers mentioned that many of these people were also dying of smallpox, but only Ewald displayed any real expression of guilt and dismay at the injustice of their plight.

Hundreds of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution – American, British, French and German – kept some sort of diary or journal of their experiences.  Most only entered brief descriptions of the weather, how far they had marched, or occasionally some unusual or noteworthy event.  Such diaries seldom include the detailed descriptions or analytical commentary that historians look for.  One exception is the journal of Captain Johann Ewald, an officer with an elite Jaeger, or German rifle corps, which fought with the British Army in North America.  Beginning in 1776 when he arrived in New York, Ewald was involved in many of the major campaigns of the Revolution.  His perceptive comments (often critical of his British allies) and detailed descriptions of military operations provide rare insights into the conduct of the war, but his observations of encounters with enslaved African Americans may be the most valuable aspect of his writings.

As early as 1780 Ewald observed that some enslaved people, who had escaped from their owners, were being employed by the British to construct fortifications in South Carolina.  After he arrived in Virginia early in 1781, Ewald began mentioning these unusual “camp followers” more frequently.  Left in charge of a post at Norfolk in May, he noted, “Because I lacked some cavalry and the little at Portsmouth could not be spared, twelve Negroes were mounted and armed.  I trained them as well as possible and they gave me thoroughly good service, for I sought to win them by good treatment, to which they were not accustomed.”

After he rejoined the main British army under Cornwallis near Richmond in June, Ewald described his astonishment at the chaotic scenes he encountered.  During his absence hundreds of enslaved African Americans had left their owners to follow the British.  “Behind the baggage followed well over four thousand Negroes of both sexes and all ages.  Any place this horde approached was eaten clean.”  According to Ewald every officer had four or more of these refugees, including women serving as cooks and servants.  “I can testify that every soldier had his Negro, who carried his provisions and bundles . . . These people were given their freedom by the [British] army because it was actually thought this would punish the rich, rebellious-minded inhabitants of Carolina and Virginia.  They had plundered the wardrobes of their masters and mistresses, divided the loot, and clothed themselves piecemeal with it.  …  When I first beheld this train I could not grasp it, and I wondered as much about the indulgent character of Lord Cornwallis as I admired him for his military abilities.”  Ewald’s description anticipates by 60 years the numerous “contrabands” that escaped to the Union Army in the 1860s.

When Cornwallis decided to establish a base at Yorktown in August, he left most of the women and children at Portsmouth, taking the able-bodied men with him.  When provisions ran low during the siege in mid October, the British turned most of these refugees out of their lines.  In one of his journal entries Ewald wrote, “I would just as soon forget to record a cruel happening  . . . we drove back to the enemy all of our black friends, whom we had taken along to despoil the countryside.  We had used them to good advantage and set them free, and now, with fear and trembling, they had to face the reward of their cruel masters.”  Coming across some of these starving “unfortunates” during a night patrol, he noted, “we should have thought more about their deliverance at this time.”  Other observers mentioned that many of these people were also dying of smallpox, but only Ewald displayed any real expression of guilt and dismay at the injustice of their plight.


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