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Promise and Prejudice: Ticonderoga and the Unfinished Revolution

The experiences of men and women at Ticonderoga often reflects our broader history. From the cataclysm of contact, through the imperial struggle to dominate the continent, to the varied and personal responses to the evolving movement for independence. It should come as no surprise that Ticonderoga’s history also intersects with America’s deep and unresolved history with people of color. Ticonderoga doesn’t typically conjure the worst aspects of the contemporary Atlantic slave trade. Despite its distance from the brutal plantation economy of the West Indies, Ticonderoga’s position as the crux of imperial wars inexorably tied it to the experiences and peoples of the broader Atlantic community, with all the related trauma and diversity.

John Bush’s engraved powder horns stand out as amongst the finest of this uniquely American artistic medium. Bush engraved this horn which belonged to Robert Rogers, whose famous corps of rangers also included men of color. (Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collections, INV4190)

Men and women of color populate North America’s military history and the events of Ticonderoga’s 18th-century story. Wartime often provided opportunities for individuals at the margins of society, the poor, landless, and circumscribed. Armies needed manpower and men who may not have otherwise been eligible, even for militia service, found recruiters welcoming to fill quotas of men needed to wage distant wars. Consequently, men of color in the Anglo-American colonies joined American provincial regiments, as volunteers and substitutes during the colonial wars. Whether born in Africa or in the British colonies, alongside Euro-Americans, these men experienced the hardships and horrors of warfare against the French and their Native allies. Men of color were especially prevalent in units from New England and New York, men like John Bush from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Bush’s literacy allowed him to serve as a company clerk. He is best known today, however, as one of the most identifiable and skilled powder horn engravers of his era, one of the most recognizable and important forms of American folk art from the 18th century. Among other motivating factors, military service provided the opportunity for travel, the development of skills, and even the accumulation of wealth otherwise impossible for poor and marginalized individuals. Even the relatively circumscribed freedoms of life as a soldier provided a substantial change from life as even a free person of color, much less an enslaved one.

Although military environments and situations could flatten the distinctions of race, Bush and other soldiers of color faced dangers beyond even those shared by Euro-American soldiers. The French, British, and Natives participated in an economy underpinned by slavery. When the British camp at Fort William Henry was sacked following the Marquis de Montcalm’s successful siege in 1757, soldiers of color within the American camp were specifically targeted because of their value in the marketplace of human lives in Canada. Bush was captured, and died in captivity, while other men of color from New England were sold into slavery in the French colonies. Despite this, the French army in Canada also contained its own contingent of “soldats nègres.” Even in Europe, men of color born in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America were found in the ranks of the French army. Never more than a small portion of the military, their presence was nevertheless a reminder of the French Empire’s connection and complicity in the transatlantic traffic in human lives.

This document authorized Philip Skene (misidentified here as William) to “dispose” of a child named John Vinzang. The language obscures that Skene was selling a human life for the financial benefit of another while in Cuba at the end of the Seven Years’ War. (Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collections, Philip Skene Papers, Box 2, 20)

As the armies that served against Ticonderoga in the campaigns of 1758 and 1759 turned their attention toward the French, and later Spanish, colonies of the West Indies, Americans, and Britons came face to face with the heart of the Atlantic slave trade. Philip Skene, who following the British capture of Havana, Cuba in 1762 served as Town Major of the occupied city, used his military position to engage in the traffic in African lives, including a child named John Vinzang. By 1773 Skene’s “family” at Skenesborough contained 44 individuals, a number no doubt inflated by counting enslaved men and women transported to his estate. Buying and selling human lives, and transporting them across North America, Skene collapsed the physical and psychological distance between the Lake Champlain Valley and the sugar fields of the Caribbean. But he was not alone, the barrack master of Crown Point and Ticonderoga, Alexander McKenzie, owned or employed a “negro man” around the time of the fire that gutted Crown Point in 1773. Soldiers from Scotland, England, and Ireland of the 26th Regiment of Foot at Ticonderoga lived and worked face-to-face with men and women of African descent in the years before the American Revolution.

During the last war with France, the ranks of some regiments of the Continental Army were swelled with men of color. Despite official opposition from Continental officials, the need for manpower ultimately overrode restrictions and restraints imposed on people of color during the Revolutionary War. New England regiments in particular enlisted many men of color, which other colonials could not accept. A Pennsylvania officer at Ticonderoga wrote to his family regarding the Yankees: “there is the strangest mixture of Negroes, Indians, and Whites, with Old Men and mere children which together with a Nasty lousy appearance, makes a most shocking Spectacle.” Among those ranks was Lemuel Haynes, born in West Hartford, Connecticut. Haynes was abandoned by his parents and bound out as an indentured servant in Massachusetts. After his release, he joined a minute company in 1775 and marched with the Hampshire County militia to the relief of Ticonderoga in 1776.

In an essay entitled “Liberty Further Extended” Haynes crafted in 1776, but never published, he expressed the potential of the revolutionary concepts of freedom and liberty for people like him. He urged revolutionaries to look inward and extend the struggle for freedom to rid the world of the evil of slavery to reclaim the favor of God. “All men are created equal” proclaimed the Declaration of Independence that was read to the army at Ticonderoga in late July of 1776, and Haynes explicitly used the text of Jefferson’s declaration to expand on the “unalienable rights” it proclaimed. He used his knowledge of the Christian faith to link the struggle for revolution and independence to ending the trade in human lives by asserting the scriptural equality of all god’s creations. He asserted that “what is precious to one man, is precious to another, and what is irksom, or intolarable to one man, is so to another… Liberty is Equally as pre[c]ious to a Black man, as it is to a white one.” Haynes’ military service ended when he contracted typhus later that year, but he eventually entered the clergy, becoming the first man of color ordained as minister in the US. He ministered to almost exclusively white congregations and later received an honorary Master of Arts from Middlebury College in Vermont, the first honorary degree ever given by an US institution of higher learning to a person of color. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the persistence of racism and oppression even after the Revolution.

Lemuel Haynes was acknowledged in his day as a remarkable individual and linked the revolutionary struggle to that of a broader struggle for freedom and equality. The promise of the Revolution was never fulfilled in his lifetime and he faced discrimination from a society that continued to oppress people of color. (Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collections, 2002.0101)
Lemuel Haynes was acknowledged in his day as a remarkable individual and linked the revolutionary struggle to that of a broader struggle for freedom and equality. The promise of the Revolution was never fulfilled in his lifetime and he faced discrimination from a society that continued to oppress people of color. (Fort Ticonderoga Museum Collections, 2002.0101)

Even within the powerfully charged rhetoric of the Revolutionary War, soldiers of color, seeking opportunity, and the ability to show their equality, were often denied full participation. The Continental Army has rightly been held up as the most diverse and inclusive fighting force in American history until the mid-20th century, but it was still a product of its era. Shortly before the fall of Ticonderoga, black men across the army were pulled out, segregated, to act as laborers, rather than the front-line combatants they had signed up to be. This demeaning reduction to laborers, rather than trusted soldiers has been repeatedly experienced by African American soldiers, into the 20th century.

While Independence was achieved in 1783, the end of hostilities did not bring the full benefits the Revolution promised. Soldiers, of all colors, were left unpaid or underpaid, without support from society at large, and on top of this, soldiers of color rejoined a society that still countenanced their oppression. Even as some states began the slow march to abolition, American military officials, including Henry Knox, placed restrictions on recruiting men of color and Native Americans into the US Army. Following patterns established during earlier conflicts the young nation’s wars occasionally provided opportunities for men of color to serve their country and advance the freedoms outlined in the documents that proclaimed America’s independence. During the second war with Great Britain in 1812, many recruiters again accepted African American men to meet quotas set by the national government. These men understood the opportunities open to them and answered the call. What they found was often still discrimination. In 1814, at the American camp at Plattsburgh, New York, north of Ticonderoga, General George Izard once again pulled African American soldiers off of front lines duties into labor units.

Men of color, born in Africa and the Americas, often served the armies of the 18th century for opportunities not found in the restrictive societies they found themselves in. The War of Independence increased the stakes of warfare, proclaiming a new order founded on equality, liberty, and freedom. As they had before, men of color answered the call, consistently to find themselves disappointed. Still African Americans have continued to serve this nation in the hope that it will treat them better than it has in the past. The struggles of these soldiers, the hope, the unfulfilled expectations, are not just the struggles of one group, but are the struggles of our nation. They remind us that the work of the Revolution is unfinished. As Lemuel Haynes urged in 1776, the enemies of freedom and liberty are not just external, in fighting for them we must also “turn one Eye into our own Breast, for a little moment, and See, whether thro’ some inadvertency, or a self-contracted Spirit, we Do not find the monster Lurking in our own Bosom.”