COLUMBIA, S.C. – During the Revolutionary War, the British offered some South Carolina slaves a deal: If they fought against the rebel colonists, they could gain their freedom.
Several hundred took Britain up on the offer, and some found themselves fighting against the legendary Swamp Fox, Francis Marion. They were rewarded at the war’s end by being transported to the Caribbean – where, in one of history’s great ironies, some ended up putting down slave rebellions in the islands.
Historian Gary Sellick will tell the ex-slaves’ little-known story in a lecture, “Black Skin, Red Coats: The Revolutionary History of the Carolina Corps,” on Friday, May 25, at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. Part of the museum’s monthly Lunch and Learn series, the noon program is free and open to the public.
At first, the British were reluctant to use black troops. A lot of Loyalists were slaveholders themselves, and did not relish arming slaves. Their reasoning was: How, after giving them such a measure of freedom, would they become subservient again after the war? The Patriot side fighting in the southern colonies avoided the idea of using black troops as well.
But by the end of 1781, the situation of the British was desperate. Gen. Alexander Leslie, taking command in the south from Gen. Charles Cornwallis, had orders to hold Charleston at all costs, and knew he needed all the troops he could get.
So he began using slaves who had run away from Patriot masters. “Most were armed with shovels, not muskets,” says Sellick. They did the manual labor of building fortifications and performing other non-combat functions.
But some were armed, given horses and fought as cavalry. They were known as the Black Dragoons. Mainly, they raided Patriot plantations to seize crops and livestock to feed the British forces.
The Dragoons – a unit of more than 60 men by the end of the war – saw a good deal of action, and suffered significant casualties. On more than one occasion, they found themselves fighting small-unit actions against the Swamp Fox himself.
After the Patriots’ cause triumphed, the former slaves would have been in dire straits had they remained in South Carolina. But the British authorities kept their promise, transporting about 400 – including laborers, skilled artificers and the veteran fighters of the Dragoons – to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. It was there that they would be called the Carolina Corps.
They became the model of what would be known as the West India Regiments, which would serve the crown on islands across the Caribbean until the twentieth century.
The role of the Carolina Corps has been a neglected part of South Carolina history, something Sellick is endeavoring to remedy. They are the subject of his doctoral dissertation, which he hopes to be defending at the University of South Carolina in the fall. Currently, he is an editorial assistant for the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series project based at Monticello in Virginia. In his PhD research at USC, he has focused on the racial identity of black imperial troops and their engagement with, and influence on, British society in the Greater Caribbean region. He has won several awards and presented numerous conference papers internationally. He has also published two articles, the latest being for The Journal of American Studies.
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.