On This Day...
May 1, 1777, Agrippa Hull enlists. In 1777, Agrippa Hull, a freeborn black man from the Berkshire County town of Stockbridge, signed on to serve in the Continental Army for the duration of the Revolutionary War. The 18-year-old was one of over 5,500 men of color - free and slave - to fight for American independence. Blacks were eager to serve, despite the fact that official policy discouraged their recruitment. Hull gave more than six years of his life to the cause, serving as an orderly to two distinguished generals. After the war ended, Hull returned to Stockbridge and raised a large family. He was respected in his hometown as something of a philosopher, a man of intelligence and wit, and, above all, as a devoted Patriot.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, white colonists prepared to fight for their own liberty, yet they refused to consider emancipation of their slaves. Nevertheless, when war finally broke out, blacks - both slaves and free men - were eager to join the fight for independence. One of the free blacks was Agrippa Hull of Stockbridge.
Hull was born to freed slaves in Northampton in 1759. According to tradition, he was brought to Stockbridge at the age of six by a black man named Joab, a former servant of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards. Hull was in his early teens when the long-simmering conflict turned to war in the spring of 1775.
Agrippa Hull remained at home until 1777, but nearly 200 black, Indian, or mixed-race Massachusetts men had already fought at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill . When other colonies began to send troops to help maintain the siege of Boston, the issue of black soldiers in the Continental Army became contentious. Despite the willingness of blacks - even slaves - to risk their lives for the Revolutionary cause, white commanders debated whether it was appropriate or even acceptable for black men to serve.
Indecision and confusion marked the debate. In May of 1775, only a month after the first hostilities, a committee weighed the use of black soldiers in the Continental Army and decided that only free blacks could enlist. In October, it was decreed that neither free blacks nor slaves could serve. On November 12th, George Washington ordered that "negroes, boys unable to bear arms, [or] old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign are [not] to be enlisted."
Things soon changed. Word reached Boston that the British had offered freedom to any slave who escaped to their lines. Indeed, as one historian has pointed out, "the Revolution triggered the largest emancipation of American slaves outside the ultimate freedom won in the Civil War - and most of that liberation came through flight to the enemy."
When George Washington learned of the new British policy, he promptly reversed his decision. "Informed that numbers of free negroes are desirous of enlisting," on December 30, 1775, he gave the recruiting officers permission to accept free blacks into the army. But Washington did not have the final word. When he sought approval for his decision from the Continental Congress, he was told that those "free negroes who have served faithfully in the army at Cambridge may be reenlisted therein, but no others."
New England units widely ignored the policy, and as the war dragged on and the colonies faced a severe manpower shortage, the numbers of free blacks and slaves in uniform increased. By early 1777, any free black was allowed to enlist; later that year, desperate to fill depleted ranks, the Congress finally authorized the enlistment of slaves. With the exception of Maryland, the southern states refused to send blacks to fight, but New England towns increasingly relied on African Americans to meet their quotas. While white New Englanders typically enlisted for a single campaign, a large percentage of black soldiers served three-year terms or "for the duration."
Agrippa Hull was one of these. In May of 1777, he enlisted for the duration as a private in the brigade of General John Paterson of the Massachusetts Line. Hull served as General Paterson's "orderly," or personal assistant, for two years; for the rest of the war, he filled the same role for Paterson's friend, the Polish general Taddeusz Kosciuszko.
During four years service with Kosciuszko, Hull saw action in a variety of battles, ranging from Saratoga in New York to Eutaw Springs in South Carolina. There he was assigned to assist the surgeons, and the horror of the amputations they performed stayed with him for the rest of his life. On the lighter side, on at least one occasion Hull dressed in Kosciuszko's uniform and threw a party for his black friends. The Polish officer and the black private remained close and had an affectionate reunion during Kosciuszko's visit to the United States in 1797.
When Agrippa Hull left the army in July of 1783, he received a discharge signed by George Washington. Hull was so proud of the document that years later, when he was required to send it to Washington as part of his application for a pension, he was unwilling to part with it. His employer, the Stockbridge lawyer Thedore Sedgwick, wrote on Hull's behalf, explaining that Hull "had rather forego the pension than lose the discharge."
After the war, Hull had returned to Stockbridge and gone to work for Theodore Sedgwick as his manservant. Now a member of Congress, Sedgwick had represented Elizabeth Freeman, who had successfully sued for her freedom under the state's new constitution, and he helped gain the freedom of another local slave woman, Jane Darby, who became Hull's wife.
In 1844 the historian Francis Parkman visited Hull and recorded in his journal that "the old patriarch . . . looked on himself as father to all Stockbridge." Agrippa Hull died in 1848 at the age of 89. A portrait of him, showing a dignified elderly gentleman, hangs in the Stockbridge Public Library.
* Mass Historical Society's online exhibit, "African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts"
* Website for PBS series, "Africans In America"
If You Go.
The portrait of Agrippa Hull hangs in the Stockbridge Library Historical Room at 46 Main Street in Stockbridge. (413) 298-5501 for hours and directions.
Sources The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, by Sidney Kaplan (New York Graphic Society and the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973).
The Negro in the American Revolution, by Benjamin Quarles (University of North Carolina Press, 1961).
Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, by Simon Schama (Ecco, 2006).