The American Revolution (1776-1783) was a key event in the making of the modern world. France helped the American rebels to gain their independence in many ways. One of them was by sending black Haitian soldiers to fight at the Siege of Savannah – which is particularly curious considering the position of people of color in the thirteen colonies and Haiti at the time. Jordan Baker explains.
You've probably heard how France fought on the colonists' side in the American Revolution. But in 1776, France was a world empire, with territories in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, and India. So, when war broke out in Britain's thirteen American colonies, and Louis XVI saw an opportunity to strike a blow against his kingdom's oldest foe, France sent more than just Parisian troops. In October 1779, around 500 black Haitian soldiers reached the port of Savannah, sent by the French Empire to 'free' Georgia - one of the biggest slaveholding colonies at the time - from the British.1 So, black soldiers from France's largest slave colony, came to help give independence to British colonists who themselves enslaved black people.
It just goes to show how fluid notions of race are over time. To contemporary Americans, free black men, no matter from where they hailed, could never fight alongside white slaveowners - but they did. In fact, many of these soldiers wanted to prove just how different they were from the enslaved Africans in both Georgia and Saint-Domingue. Indeed, this dichotomy between enslaved and free blacks proved a rather common occurrence in the colonial world, as ‘freedmen’ were anxious to distinguish themselves from the lowest social class on the eighteenth-century totem pole.
Free men of color in Saint-Domingue
Since the seventeenth-century, free men of color had played a prominent role in French Saint-Domingue. Strangely enough, they often served as overseers of the island’s numerous plantations.3 In fact, many free men of color owned slaves of their own. Owning land at higher elevations in Saint-Domingue’s hill country, these black slaveowners often owned several dozen African slaves who they used to plant, grow, and harvest vast amounts of coffee and indigo.4 This group of black planters felt themselves to be every bit as French as the guy next door. I mean, why not? They spoke French, dressed like Europeans, and even owned people! But as the decades wore on, this group of free blacks became subject to ever increasing, racially-based, prejudice.5
And so they came, hoping to prove themselves the “virtuous Frenchmen” they knew themselves to be. Known as the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, or Saint-Domingue Volunteer Infantry, this group of soldiers constituted the largest contingent of troops of African descent to fight in the American Revolution.6 According to legend, a twelve-year-old boy, named Henri Christophe, sailed with the Volontaires. Supposedly freed from slavery at an unknown, but early, age, Christophe came with the Saint-Domingue forces as a drummer boy. Twelve years later, that drummer boy enlisted in the Haitian militia, and quickly rose to the rank of officer before becoming the first President and King of Haiti.7
The Siege of Savannah
The Siege of Savannah lasted for over a month, stretching from September 16 to October 18, 1779. The Comte d’Estaing (whose full name was quite a mouthful, Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, Comte de’Estaing) was named the commander of the Siege, responsible for taking Savannah back for the Americans. In the weeks leading up to the decisive confrontation, d’Estaing attempted to use French naval power and the presence of the American ground forces outside the city to persuade the British to surrender. Ultimately, due to British naval savvy and some luck, these efforts bore no fruit - so the French navy began to bombard the city with cannon fire. From October 3 to October 8, the city of Savannah, rather than the British defenses, suffered the destruction brought on back the cannons. But the British refused to surrender, and so, due to the outbreak of scurvy and dysentery among his ranks, and a shortage of supplies, d’Estaing was forced to assault the city.8
When the actual battle got underway, it proved disastrous to the American troops and their allied forces (including the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue). Tipped off by American deserters, the British troops defending Savannah were more than ready for the attack, easily repelling the oncoming mélange of French, American, and Haitian troops. All told, the Franco-American attackers finished the battle with 244 killed, 584 wounded, and 120 taken prisoner - a total of 948 casualties. The British, however, lost 40 men, had 63 wounded, and reported 52 missing - totaling 155 casualties.9
Due to their bravery in battle and reported loyalty to d’Estaing, the Chasseurs-Volontaires took some of the heaviest losses of any regiment. By the end of the battle, 168 Haitian soldiers lay dead, and another 411 were wounded.10But many of the Haitians present for the siege and subsequent battle survived. These survivors of the Siege of Savannah and the American Revolution in general would go on to play an important role in the liberation of their Caribbean homeland.
While the Franco-American assault on Savannah ultimately failed, men such as Christophe brought back ideals of republicanism, and the knowledge that rising up against one’s colonial overlord was indeed possible. While not all gens de couleur fought in or supported the Haitian revolution, many came back from the Siege of Savannah battle hardened, and with the desire to form a new government in which they no longer occupied some strange middle ground between freedom and slavery.
Jordan Baker writes at the East India Blogging Company here.
1. Cindy Wong, "Savannah, Georgia: Saint-Domingueans or Haitians in the American Revolution," Miami Herald, June 2002.
3. Laurent Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804,(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 15
4. Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 16.
5. Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 16.
6. "Haitian Monument in Franklin Square, Savannah, GA"
7. "Haitian Monument in Franklin Square, Savannah, GA"
8. “Siege of Savannah,” Wikipedia
10. “Haitian Soldiers at the Battle of Savannah (1779),” blackpast.org