A soldier in one of the Black companies of the 6th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line, by Don Troiani. Painting courtesy of the artist.
Piecing together someone’s life from the scant documentary records that may exist is a bit like closing your eyes through a silent film and only opening them for a second every few minutes. To see more of the picture, we must do some of our own filling in the blanks based on what we can infer from the records, what is known about other people in similar situations, and in absence of any other clues, what we can speculate might have happened.
Such is the case for the Black men of Windsor who fought in the Revolutionary War. There are anywhere from 7 to 14 (or more) such men. Windsor Historical Society has primary sources definitively placing the following men from Windsor in the war: John Brister, Samson Cuff, Edward, Barzilla Henry, Oliver Mitchell, Plymouth, and Providence. Though there are others who may also qualify, we haven’t been able to verify their identities, so this article will focus on these confirmed soldiers, as well as explain how we know about them.
John Brister enlisted into the Continental Army on May 1, 1777, probably the first Black man from Windsor to do so. This was likely in response to a recruitment effort by the town, whose selectmen offered £30 to each man who enlisted. While this £30 was a considerable sum for the time, it was apparently only mildly successful in enticing men to enlist, as the pledge was renewed during subsequent town meetings every week or two through June.
Two of Windsor’s officers in the military, Capt. Abner Prior and Lt. Seth Phelps, led this recruitment. Capt. Prior enlisted at least two other Black men around that time: Edward, enslaved to Rev. David Rowland, and Plymouth, whose lack of a surname implies that he was also enslaved, but we don’t know to whom. Rev. Rowland, then aged 57 and in only his second year as pastor of the First Congregational Church in Windsor, certified to the town selectmen that he was to receive Edward’s £30 payment. (see document 1, below).
Document 1: Front and back of an enlistment certificate for Edward, enslaved to Rev. David Rowland, July 10, 1777. WHS collections 2005.5.56.
Like many other men of African descent who fought in the war, Edward and Plymouth were given “Negro” as a surname throughout the contemporaneous records. John Brister, Plymouth Negro, and Edward Negro appear at the end of a list with 26 other white Windsor men who enlisted with Capt. Prior, and who also received blankets from the town (document 2).
Lt. Seth Phelps has a similar list of the names of 16 Windsor men who enlisted with him, including (at the end of the list again) “Providence Negroe” and “Barzil Henry Negr” (document 3).
Documents 2 & 3: Lists of recruits who received blankets from the town of Windsor. WHS collections OD 20-1488.
These two lists tell us a number of things:
- All these men lived in Windsor before they enlisted, or by May-June 1777.
- The Black soldiers were in some ways considered separate from the white soldiers, as the names of the Black men are at the ends of the lists.
- Both free and enslaved Black Windsorites served in the Continental Army starting very early on in the war.
Reasons for Enlisting
As with many white men who joined the war effort, the reasons for the enlistment of John Brister, Plymouth, Edward, Providence, and Barzilla Henry remain lost to history. It’s possible that the enslaved men who enlisted were promised their freedom in exchange for their service. There was no law that required this, so that would have been merely an agreement between the enslaved man and his owner. Some slave owners would not or could not serve themselves, so they offered the services of their enslaved men in their place. We know that was the case for Edward, as well as for one unnamed Black man.
Document 4: Enlistment certificate for an unnamed enslaved man to serve in the place of Shubael Barber. WHS collections OD 26-1779.
We have in our collections a document from Lt. Seth Phelps indicating that “Shubael Barber of Windsor inlisted with into [sic] the Continental service and same has Bought a Negro man and sent him in his place and said Negro inlisted with me ye 15th day of May[…].” Providence enlisted on May 15, so it’s possible that this unnamed Black man is actually Providence (document 4).
We don’t know whether John Brister and Barzilla Henry, the two Black men from this recruitment effort with both first and last names, were recently emancipated or whether they had been free for much longer. We do know that John Brister was able to read and write. There are many extant records in Windsor Town Hall relating to Revolutionary War town activities, and one happens to be in Brister’s own handwriting. He wrote to the Windsor town clerk from Camp Orangetown, NY in 1780: “Sir, Please to let my wife Lilly Brister have one pound ten shillings money…and this order shall be your [security] for [said] same. From your humble serv’t, John Brister” (document 5).
We see from this that Brister was married by the time he enlisted. His pension record corroborates this with statements showing that he married Lilly Scott in Bolton in 1774, when he was about 36 years old. He also had at least one son living with Lilly in Windsor during the war, which we learn from one of the town clerk’s lists of “sundries” (payments of food and other goods) given to the families of soldiers. One list included “2 Pare of Women’s Shoes” and “1 Pare for His Boy” (document 6).
Recognizing that at least one of this group left a family back at home to go fight for his country, we can imagine that it must have been a comfort to these Black Windsorites to have been among familiar faces when they ended up in the same regiment together, at least for the beginning of their service. John Brister, Plymouth, and Edward were all amongst those in Capt. Abner Prior’s company of the 5th Battalion, commanded by Col. Philip Bradley. They served alongside another Black man called Prince Negro, as well as many other of their white Windsor neighbors like Daniel Bissell (future spy for George Washington and Purple Heart recipient).
However, we do wonder what it was like for Edward in particular, because another Windsor soldier in their company was Sherman Rowland, the son of his enslaver. Would either have felt animosity towards the other? Would Edward have been uncomfortable in the presence of someone whose father legally owned him and controlled his every move? Did Sherman feel as though he was serving with someone who was beneath him? It is of course possible that the two were friendly. They may have been of similar ages, and perhaps Edward had been with the Rowland family for many years, maybe even playing with Sherman as children. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.
We don’t know what relationships were like generally amongst these recruits, nor what the community atmosphere was on a day-to-day basis. Across the New England regiments of the Revolutionary War, most (or even all) were integrated, although Black men usually only made up a small percentage of each company. What we do know is that Black soldiers, while never officers, did perform the same duties and tasks, fought in the same battles, received the same pay and benefits, and endured the same casualties as their white counterparts. While we must assume that discrimination did occur on a personal level (slavery was still the law of the land in many places in the north), there was little difference in how the military treated them once in service.
Service with Distinction
John Brister and Plymouth were among the more than 700 African Americans who spent the winter of 1777-78 with George Washington at Valley Forge, and who later fought at the Battle of Monmouth. In fact, Plymouth was an eyewitness to or a participant in many key events of the war. He came to serve as a waiter for General Jedediah Huntington off and on for over four years, and in that capacity, he would have accompanied him wherever he went, including when the general was assigned to the court-martial for General Charles Lee and to the trial of British Major John André. As Plymouth listened to bullets whiz past him at Monmouth or a board of investigators sentence André to death in New York, the significance of moments like those could not have been lost on him. He, who was enslaved only a few months earlier, was now playing a part in fulfilling a nation’s promises of liberty.
Samson Cuff took a different path from the first group of recruits during his three years of service. Samson, whose name implies that he was free by the time he enlisted but was likely born enslaved to an enslaved father named Cuff, enlisted from Windsor in 1781 and joined the 2nd Company of Connecticut’s 4th Regiment, an all-Black unit commanded by white officers. Born around 1758, he was a bit younger than the others we’ve been discussing. For about a year, long enough to form close bonds, he was surrounded not by his neighbors from home but by a few dozen fellow soldiers who looked like him. This must have been a source of pride for everyone in the 2nd Company. Though not much has been written about them on their own, they aligned with another Connecticut regiment and a Rhode Island regiment in 1781. A French officer who observed this combined unit, commanded by Rhode Island’s Col. Jeremiah Olney, noted that “Three-quarters of the Rhode Island regiment consists of negroes, and that regiment is the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuver.”
Towards the end of the war in 1783, after further regimental reshuffling, Samson Cuff and John Brister found themselves together in the 3rd Company of Connecticut’s 2nd Regiment, along with other white fellow Windsorites like Sherman Rowland. By that point, Brister and Rowland had served in the same company for a solid six years. We wonder if such prolonged brotherhood in arms led them to become friends, if not equals. Rowland remained the son of the enslaver of their former comrade Edward, whose story ended tragically some years earlier. At some point before 1778, Sherman Rowland’s father sold Edward to Capt. Prior, presumably the same Abner Prior who enlisted him the year before. The last we see of Edward is a simple notation on Capt. Prior’s July 1778 muster roll: “Edward Negro. Died 15th July 1778.” So even if Rev. Rowland or Capt. Prior pledged to manumit Edward after his service, he sadly never got a chance to experience that life of freedom.
On the other hand, Plymouth almost certainly did earn his emancipation and assumed the surname Freeman by 1783. He and John Brister both served for six years of the war, and thus each earned the Badge of Merit, also known as the Badge of Distinction. Their discharge papers were signed by George Washington himself (documents 7 & 8).
Documents 7 & 8: Discharge papers for John Brister and Plymouth Freeman. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
Providence appears to have also taken on a surname during the war, first Buckley, then Freeman. There are no further records of him in Windsor, but it’s probable that he’s the Providence Freeman who lived in Colchester for most of the rest of his life.
John Brister, Samson Cuff, Plymouth Freeman, Barzilla Henry, and Oliver Mitchell all lived in Windsor after the war, though most moved on in their own directions after a few years. Oliver Mitchell’s first recorded association with this town occurs after the war. He became one of the first known Black Windsor landowners when he bought property on the east side of Palisado Avenue in 1797, and his descendants continued to live here for multiple generations.
The Revolutionary War was about independence, but Black soldiers were fighting for freedom in a more fundamental way than the average white soldier in the Continental Army. For men like Plymouth, Providence, and Edward of Windsor—and thousands of others like them—what was at stake was no less than personal autonomy, the ability to determine their own paths. These glimpses into their lives and the lives of John Brister, Samson Cuff, Barzilla Henry, and Oliver Mitchell only begin to tell their stories. What we know of them during and after the war comes mostly from their military records, necessarily only one aspect of their lifetimes of experiences. What they did before the war and the substance of their post-war lives remains a blank screen, waiting to be filled in by any trace of something they might have left behind. Much more detective work is needed to fully illuminate who they were as people, as well as who all the other Black Revolutionary War patriots were who we still don’t know.
Many thanks to library volunteer Iniya Raja for her diligent research assistance.
By Michelle Tom, librarian/archivist, 2022