Historians estimate that 500,000 enslaved blacks were in the Colonies at the time of the war. Black people faced a difficult decision: Should they choose a side and take up arms, hoping to gain personal liberty?
In 1775, the British promised freedom to any enslaved people who escaped their Patriot owners and joined Loyalist forces. Thousands of them risked their lives to try.
The colonists were more reluctant to recruit and arm blacks. However, more than 5,000 black people (both free and enslaved) eventually served in the Continental Army. Black soldiers “played a role in almost every significant battle,” says Kenneth Davis, author of the Don’t Know Much About History series.
After the war, the British agreed to a peace treaty that required them to return any property that belonged to the Americans, including slaves. But the British, refusing to send black soldiers who had fought with them back into bondage, managed to evacuate about 3,000 formerly enslaved people to freedom in Canada. However, many other black soldiers were returned to their owners. As for blacks who had helped liberate the Colonies from Britain: When the war ended, most of them found that they would not gain liberation themselves. “Most of the slaves who served in the Continental Army didn’t get their freedom,” says Don Hagist of the Journal of the American Revolution.