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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Hubbard Pryor, before and after enlistment, 1864
- A black soldier in the American army (Revolution), 1777-1783 (PDF)
- A black soldier in the British army (Revolution), 1770s-1780s
- A black soldier's letter to President Lincoln (Civil War), 1863
- Diary of a black Congressional Medal of Honor recipient (Civil War), 1864 (PDF)
- Photographs of fugitive recruit in the Union army (Civil War), 1864 (PDF)

The photographs at right show Hubbard Pryor—a twenty-two-year-old fugitive slave in Tennessee—before and after his enlistment in the 44th U.S. Colored Troops in 1864. Pryor was one of about 179,000 African Americans who joined the Union army during the Civil War (about 19,000 served in the Union navy).1 Eight decades earlier in the American Revolution, about 5,000 African Americans fought with the rebelling colonists and 1,000 fought with the British.2

What did it mean to African Americans to fight in the wars of white men? What did they fight for? How did their military roles affect their self-image as men and (in some cases) as citizens? We don't have Hubbard Pryor's own words, but we do have the written testaments of other soldiers.

  • Boyrereau Brinch, an enslaved man in Connecticut, fought in the American army during the Revolution in order to earn his freedom. Brinch had been captured in west Africa at age sixteen and sold as a slave in Barbados and later Connecticut, where he joined an infantry regiment in 1777. At the end of the war he was honorably discharged and emancipated. In these selections from his 1810 narrative, as told to Benjamin Prentiss and published as The Blind African Slave, Brinch recounts his enlistment, his military experiences, his close and fierce combat with a British soldier, and his long-sought emancipation.

  • Boston King, an enslaved man in South Carolina, fled a cruel master and an impending beating to "throw myself in the hands of the English." After surviving smallpox and escaping capture by Southern Loyalists, he became a servant to a British commander in South Carolina. Near the end of the war he was shipped with fellow black Loyalists to New York City, where they felt "inexpressible anguish and terror" at seeing Southern slaveowners grabbing their former slaves off the streets and even "dragging them out of their beds." He was fortunate to be among the black Loyalists evacuated by the British to Nova Scotia, Canada, in compensation for their service. There he became a Methodist minister and, having moved to Sierra Leone in west Africa, published his memoir in 1798, from which this excerpt is taken.

  • James Henry Gooding, a free black infantryman in the Union army during the Civil War, wrote a formal yet firmly voiced letter to President Lincoln in 1863 protesting lower wages for black soldiers. "We have done a Soldier's duty," he argues. "Why can't we have a Soldier's pay?" Reviewing the valorous service of black soldiers and presenting a logical defense for his case, Gooding asks "to have us justly dealt with." In additional protest, Gooding's regiment—the famed 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry—fought for eighteen months without accepting any wages at all. In July 1864 Congress authorized the equal payment of black and white soldiers and, in addition, ordered the full payment of back wages for the 54th Massachusetts. Corporal Gooding did not receive any of this money, however; he was wounded and captured in early 1864 and later died in the Andersonville prison in Georgia.

  • Christian Fleetwood, a free African American from Baltimore and a sergeant major in the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia on September 29, 1864, where he "seized the colors, after two color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight." From Fleetwood's 1864 diary we read twenty days' entries which describe his regular camp life and duties, his birthday, two land battles, sea transport to attack a coastal fort, and his thoughts on New Year's Eve, 1864, as he contemplates the beginning of a new year at war.

  • Hubbard Pryor escaped from slavery in Tennessee in spring 1864 and reached Union lines, enlisting in the 44th U.S. Colored Troops, an infantry regiment. A Union photographer took two photographs of Pryor on his enlistment day. In the first Pryor is seated, wearing his ragged fugitive clothing. In the second he is standing in his new uniform, holding a musket. Private Pryor was taken prisoner six months later with many of his fellow soldiers and spent the rest of the war repairing damaged Confederate railroads and other facilities. With emancipation in 1865 he moved to his home state of Georgia, registered to vote, and got married, although never filing for benefits due him as a war veteran.3
What do these soldiers' accounts and photographs reveal about the influence of military service on African American men—whether free or enslaved, northern or southern, or fighting with or against the white Americans? (Also see Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #5: Civil War II: Soldiers). (19 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What range of experiences do these five men have in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars?
  2. How do the men deal with the irony of fighting in white men's wars for rights and liberty?
  3. Which men refer directly to this irony, and for what purposes?
  4. How does military service influence their self-image, i.e., their "sense of self"?
  5. Which men exercise the most autonomy or self-determination in their military service? Which man exercises the least? How does self-determination influence self-perception?
  6. How do some of the men blend the images of hero and victim in their writings? Why would this occur?
  7. What feelings do they express and/or reveal? Are they embittered, ennobled, vengeful, grateful, resigned, determined, conficted?
  8. In what ways do their conflicted feelings resemble the "double consciousness" described by postbellum African Americans such as W. E. B. Du Bois and the twentieth-century poets?
  9. How are the soldiers' expressions of emotion and conviction influenced by the presumed audiences for their writings?
  10. Fleetwood's diary is the only private text in this section, i.e., not written to be read or published. How is this reflected in his entries?
  11. What do we learn from Fleetwood about black soldiers' experience that we do not learn from the other men?
  12. Why might we gain less insight from Fleetwood's diary than from Gooding's letter, the narratives of Brinch and King, and the photographs of Pryor? What obstacles limit a reader's understanding of a diarist and his intentions?
  13. Why do Brinch and King, both enslaved, decide to fight for opposing sides in the American Revolution?
  14. Why does Brinch choose not to fight with the British in the Revolution, as he had in the French and Indian War?
  15. How does Gooding construct his letter to convince Lincoln of the injustice of lower wages for black soldiers? How does he blend precise reasoning with unveiled emotion?
  16. What can we learn from the enlistment photographs of Hubbard Pryor? How do we differentiate what they actually depict from what they inspire in our imaginations about Pryor's feelings on April 7, 1864?
  17. Compare the men's military experiences—and how they respond to and report their experiences—by two or more of the factors in the chart below. Which factors are most significant in their understanding of their experience?
STATUS Enslaved: Brinch, King Free: Gooding, Fleetwood 
WAR Revolution: Brinch, King Civil War: Gooding, Fleetwood 
SIDE American (Revolution): Brinch Union: Gooding, Fleetwood British (Revolution): King
RANK Private/Corporal: Brinch, Gooding Sergeant-Major: Fleetwood No Rank (Servant): King
GOAL Freedom: Brinch Union victory: Gooding, Fleetwood Escape Slavery: King

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Boyrereau Brinch narrative:  5 (American Revolution)
Boston King narrative:  4 (American Revolution)
James Gooding letter:  2 (Civil War)
Hubbard Pryor photographs:  1 (Civil War)
Christian Fleetwood diary:  7 (Civil War)
TOTAL 19 pages
Supplemental Sites
Boyrereau Brinch and Benjamin F. Prentiss, The Blind African Slave, or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace. Containing an Account of the Kingdom of Bow-Woo, in the Interior of Africa . . . , 1810, full text, in Documenting the American South, UNC-Library.

Boyrereau Brinch, overview in Seven Days (newspaper), Burlington, Vermont, 2005

Boston King, overview in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

Christian Fleetwood's Medal of Honor, in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, from the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution)

Christian Fleetwood, biography, in the African American Registry

Christian Fleetwood, The Negro as a Soldier, 1895, full text, Library of Congress

Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia, 29 September 1864, detailed review by Gordon Berg, America's Civil War (March 2006), from The History Net

African American Recipients of the Medal of Honor, Civil War, in Soldiers and Sailors System, from the National Park Service

The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War, in Teaching with Documents, from the National Archives

1 U.S. National Archives, The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War, online teaching resource at

2David Omahen, Black Americans in the U.S. Military from the American Revolution to the Korean War, 2004 research project for the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, New York State Division of Military Affairs, at

3 Robert Scott Davis, Jr., "A Soldier's Story: The Records of Hubbard Pryor, Forty-fourth United States Colored Troops," Prologue (Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration) 31:4 (Winter 1999), pp. 266-272.

Images: Hubbard Pryor, before and after enlistment in the 44th U.S. Colored Troops, 7 April 1864. [The date of 10 October 1864 in the National Archives photograph record indicates the submission date of the military report on black recruitment with which the photographs were included.] Photograph by A. S. Morse, photographer, Department of the Cumberland. Courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, ca. 1775-ca. 1928, ARC Identifier #849127 & #849136.

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1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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