A Black Man's Role in American Revolution

Image of the Week: A painting conveys the true extent of the African-American contribution to the cause of freedom.

Posted:
 
image20week20sept203_large
Lt. Thomas Grosvenor and his black servant Key, by John Trumbull, 1797 or after. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

This striking pair of figures presents one aspect of the role of the black man in the American Revolution. Though painted as an independent work, the oil sketch reproduces only a fraction of a much larger painting of the famous Battle of Bunker Hill, fought on June 17, 1775. It was made by John Trumbull, son of the governor of Connecticut and an aide to George Washington.

After resigning from the Continental Army, he studied painting in Great Britain with the American expatriate painter Benjamin West. He soon decided to devote his career to documenting the history of the Revolution in pictures, eight of which were to depict the major battles of the war. The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill was painted in London between late 1785 and early 1786.

In the finished work, Lt. Thomas Grosvenor, the dashing young American officer seen here, stands to the far right. Beside him, a black man holds a musket. Both figures look toward the culmination of the action in the center of the scene. Gen. Joseph Warren, leader of the Revolutionary forces, has just been shot. In the middle ground nearby, British Maj. John Pitcairn, mortally wounded, falls into the arms of his son.

Trumbull thought immediately of capitalizing on the popularity of the work by having it engraved for broader distribution, although the print was not actually published until 1798. The present oil sketch dates from about this time, but its relationship to both the engraving and the full version of the painting is unclear. Also in doubt is the identity of the black man standing close behind Grosvenor.

For most of the painting's history, this figure was believed to be Peter Salem, whose presence at the battle is documented, along with at least six other black men. Salem, a freed slave from Framingham, Mass., is often credited with the shooting of Pitcairn. His home was later declared a national monument by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The true nature of the black man's association with Grosvenor, though perhaps not so conventionally heroic, still resonates with a genuine measure of bravery and personal devotion. Grosvenor wrote an account of his role in the battle, which Trumbull follows with considerable fidelity. The young lieutenant related that he had shot several of the enemy before being wounded in the hand. He bound the injury with his cravat and used his sword to direct the men under his command. His servant, a black man named Key, attempted to conduct the officer from the field. This, then, seems to be the proper reading of the image. Led away by his servant, Grosvenor turns like an actor on a stage making his exit with a last flourish.

Much less is known about Key than about the celebrated Salem, who yet may appear on the other side of the definitive version of the painting. Key's case was probably quite different from the situation of the black Revolutionary soldiers of the rank and file -- that is, of those who served in the capacity of officially enlisted troops. Often considered to be a manservant, Key could well have been a slave.

Unlike the situation in the northern colonies of New England, slavery was widely established in Grosvenor's home state of Connecticut and was not abolished until 1848. Grosvenor was from a wealthy family, but the possession of slaves by middle-class citizens of the state was also very common. The relationship between the two men may have been similar to the one that existed between George Washington and William "Billy" Lee, a loyal and trusted "servant" who was granted his freedom only upon the death of his master. (Incidentally, Lee appears with Gen. Washington in another celebrated work by Trumbull.) The role in the war of these two black servants, therefore, was not so much as combatants but, rather, as aides-de-camp.

In later reproductions of the painting, made without the artist's involvement, Key's image was deliberately omitted, literally editing him out of the story. The black abolitionist William Cooper Nell, a native of Boston, considered the disappearance of the black man, still identified by him as Salem, in these prints to be a deliberate slight on the part of those who refused to give due credit to the thousands of African Americans who  valiantly served the Revolutionary cause.

Comments
The Root encourages respectful debate and dialogue in our commenting community. To improve the commenting experience for all our readers we will be experimenting with some new formats over the next few weeks. During this transition period the comments section will be unavailable to users.

We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your continued support of The Root.

While we are experimenting, please feel free to leave feedback below about your past experiences commenting at The Root.