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Race, Slavery and Military Service in Revolutionary Virginia

May 1781 Court Judgement Sentencing Mulatto Billy to Death for Treason. Original Document in the Collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

In 1781 a Prince William County, Virginia, court indicted Mulatto Billy, a fugitive slave, for treason.  The court took this action not because Mulatto Billy had escaped from slavery, but because he was accused of “joining the Enemy of the Common Wealth,” specifically the British military forces then attacking Virginia. The initial verdict in this case was “guilty” and Billy was sentenced to death.  Upon review, however, this conviction and sentence were overturned.   When the Virginia House of Delegates examined the Mulatto Billy case they pronounced that “a Slave in our opinion cannot commit Treason agst the state…” because a slave “…not being admitted to the Priviledges of a Citizen owes the state no allegiance.”

This legal judgement underlines the fact that, in the minds of Virginia’s Revolutionary era leaders, only a free person could be bound by the obligations of citizenship.  Free people, even free African Americans who lacked many of the rights of other citizens, had to support and defend the Commonwealth of Virginia. African American slaves did not.  The House of Delegates decided, logically enough, that treason was a crime that could not be committed by an enslaved person.  Slaves could not be traitors because slaves were not citizens.

This mindset also shaped how Anglo Virginians viewed the prospect of African-American military service.  In time of war one of the chief obligations of a Virginia citizen was military service in defense of the Commonwealth.  Even during peacetime almost all Virginia men who were deemed free were liable for service in the militia. Free African Americans, like other free persons, were expected to serve in the Virginia militia, but slaves were never enrolled in this body. The presumption that military service was the domain of free men received its clearest expression in a Virginia law enacted in 1777.  In that year the Virginia Assembly forbade the recruiting of any African American for military service who could not produce a legal certificate proving that he was a free man.  At the same time the law seemingly welcomed free African Americans as recruits, and we know that hundreds of free African Americans served in Virginia regiments during the war.

However, as the war progressed it became more and more difficult for Virginia’s leaders to maintain the fiction that military service was linked in some unique fashion to citizenship.  The constant need for more able-bodied men to fight the war meant that laws and regulations restricting the recruiting of enslaved African Americans were circumvented on a regular basis.  Ultimately many Virginia slaves fulfilled military roles during the Revolution, fighting for the Commonwealth on both land and sea.  Virginia may have cherished the concept of a citizen army composed only of free men, but under the pressure of real world events that ideal proved to be unsustainable.  African-American military participation in the Revolution effectively challenged traditional assumptions about race and citizenship in Virginia, and in the long term helped to undermine the institution of slavery itself.


3 thoughts on “Race, Slavery and Military Service in Revolutionary Virginia

  1. Loretta Coleman says:

    I can’t help but wonder if returning Billy to Slavery played a role in the work to overturn his original sentence?

  2. Laura Hill says:

    Insightful! However, there is a typo in the last paragraph, end of the 3rd sentence. It should read “land and sea.”

    1. bobjeffrey says:

      Thanks!

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