In 1779, Austin Dabney, an enslaved 14-year-old in Georgia, was sent into battle against the British. Austin’s owner, Richard Aycock, didn’t want to fight in the war. So, like many enslaved people, Austin was forced to serve in his owner’s place.
General George Washington had initially sought to bar blacks from joining the Army, amid white Southerners’ fears that arming them might lead them to revolt. But in November 1775, the British promised freedom to enslaved people who fought as loyalists, prompting Washington to reverse his stance on allowing freed blacks into the Army. “Success will depend,” he stated, “on which side can arm Negroes faster.”
In reality, both freed and enslaved blacks served. Austin was one of more than 5,000 blacks who fought on the side of the Patriots. An estimated 20,000 took up arms for the British.
Austin suffered a thigh wound in battle that left him disabled. But after the war, he received better treatment than most black soldiers. The state of Georgia paid 70 pounds to Aycock for Austin’s freedom. He also became the only black veteran to be granted land by the state for his “bravery and fortitude” and one of the few to be given a military pension for his injury.
Slavery remained entrenched in the South long after the war. But the efforts of black soldiers like Austin helped fuel an abolitionist movement that led to slavery gradually being outlawed in the North, says Alan Gilbert, the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists.
“Many whites thought rightly that it was completely dishonorable to fight for the rights of human beings—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Gilbert says, “and deny them to lots of human beings.”