Book Review: Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution


by Judith L. Van Buskirk

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 298. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $24.95. ISBN: 0806161876

Unsung Patriots of the Revolutionary War

Prof. Van Buskirk (SUNY Cortland), the author of the well received Generous Enemies, on New York in the Revolutionary War, has written an excellent account of the service of some 5,000 African-American men in the Continental Army.

Van Buskirk opens by noting that there are two major problems in studying the role of these solders:

  • Black men mostly served integrated in white ranks and unit rolls usually made no mention of the race of the troops, and
  • Black troops left fewer letters, diaries, memoirs, and such, probably an indication illiteracy.

Nevertheless, building upon on the pioneering work of William C. Nell (Services of Colored Americans, in the Wars of 1776 and 1812, 1851) and Benjamin Quarles (The Negro in the American Revolution, 1961), and perusing available first hand accounts, as well as newspapers, pension records, and other documents, Van Buskirk able to secure detailed evidence on 500 of these men. She gives us a look at the social environment in which they lived, the reasons they joined, ranging from of belief in the cause to the desire to secure freedom through service, and their experiences in military life.

Van Buskirk devotes a chapter to Rhode Island’s two all black regiments – the only segregated units in the Continental Army – and one to South Carolinian soldier and statesman John Laurens’s unsuccessful proposal to raise a brigade of African-American troops. Two chapters trace the experiences of black veterans in the post-war era, during which they often had to struggle to secure pensions and veterans’ bounties.

Running through Van Buskirk’s account are interesting biographical profiles of some of these Patriots, as well as instances of both high praise for them from men such as George Washington, initially reluctant to have African-Americans in the Army, as well as denigration of their valor, skill, and service by biased commentators.

Standing in their Own Light, a volume in the University of Oklahoma Press’s “Campaigns and Commanders” series, is an excellent work on the role of black men in the Revolutionary War.


Note: Standing in their Own Light is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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