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Peter's War

Peter's War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution

Joyce Lee Malcolm
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Peter's War
    Book Description:

    A boy named Peter, born to a slave in Massachusetts in 1763, was sold nineteen months later to a childless white couple there. This book recounts the fascinating history of how the American Revolution came to Peter's small town, how he joined the revolutionary army at the age of twelve, and how he participated in the battles of Bunker Hill and Yorktown and witnessed the surrender at Saratoga.

    Joyce Lee Malcolm describes Peter's home life in rural New England, which became increasingly unhappy as he grew aware of racial differences and prejudices. She then relates how he and other blacks, slave and free, joined the war to achieve their own independence. Malcolm juxtaposes Peter's life in the patriot armies with that of the life of Titus, a New Jersey slave who fled to the British in 1775 and reemerged as a feared guerrilla leader.

    A remarkable feat of investigation, Peter's biography illuminates many themes in American history: race relations in New England, the prelude to and military history of the Revolutionary War, and the varied experience of black soldiers who fought on both sides.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14276-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER ONE The Hardship Sale
    (pp. 1-10)

    On the long walk home to Lincoln, Massachusetts, that bleak December of 1783, Peter had, for the first time in a long while, ample leisure to reflect. Not that there wasn’t constant danger for a black soldier trudging the nearly 230 miles to eastern Massachusetts. Once the regiment descended from its headquarters at West Point, with its commanding view of the majestic Hudson, the soldiers found themselves immersed in the chaotic aftermath of the war, the bitterness, destruction, and deep divisions it had left. They were never certain what welcome they would receive as they approached another cluster of houses,...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Growing Pains
    (pp. 11-24)

    Peter’s memories of Lincoln revolved around the house, a handsome, two-story structure that had been, but was no longer, his home. It was a roomy house, if anything rather large for the three of them. Its windows faced south to catch the sun’s warmth on frigid winter days, while the tall shade trees that surrounded it afforded relief from the stifling heat of summer. Inside, the traditional central chimney bisected and warmed the rooms, suffusing everything with the pleasant scent of wood smoke. The house stood just north of the Great, or Concord, Road, the main route to Boston, by...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Four Horsemen
    (pp. 25-40)

    War, pestilence, and death—three of the four terrible Horsemen of the Apocalypse Peter knew from the Bible—had been marching toward Lincoln from the time of his birth. The fourth, Famine, would catch up with him later, in the Continental Army. By 1770, when he was seven, the first three had spurred their horses into a canter and would soon arrive.

    The events that brought War and Death to the Nelsons’ door were hard to unravel afterward, there were so many, and harder still because New England’s white population had one set of concerns and its slaves another. Yet...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR In the Crosshairs
    (pp. 41-57)

    On the last day of Peter’s childhood a fine April rain fell, helping nudge the reluctant Massachusetts woodland into leaf. On the little family farms clustered around the neat eighteenth-century villages, the familiar, workaday world he knew so well went on as usual—praying, washing, cooking, tending the animals, turning them out, getting on with the annual effort to work the indifferent soil into a grudging fruitfulness. Toward sunset the sky cleared, and in the moonlight the apple blossoms in the family orchards up and down the Great Road were fragrant in the damp air and reflected a cool whiteness....

  8. CHAPTER FIVE The Killing
    (pp. 58-73)

    The three women, Elizabeth, Lydia, and Tabitha, huddled together in Tabitha Nelson’s woodlot with twelve-year-old Peter, Jonathan, now fourteen, and his sister, Lydia, now sixteen. The early morning sunlight picked its way through the trees, bringing them a view above of tangled branches, beginning to leaf, and pine forest litter below. Unless Peter or Jonathan cautiously climbed one of the larger pines or oaks, the group could see little beyond. The trees offered little cover unless you went deep into the woods, and then there was little to see. That was the beauty of the hiding place, of course, but...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Answering the Call
    (pp. 74-86)

    The cold spring rain that night, with its flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, deepened the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding. It drenched the lifeless bodies of the British soldiers lying along the roadside and spattered the fresh mounds of earth already covering the American dead. So great was the fear that the British would return to retaliate, even on the dead, definitely on their families, that townsfolk buried their men as quickly as possible. Lincoln was spared this sad chore, but as soon as the British left Lexington, the Reverend Clarke said a quick prayer over the town’s...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Another Call, Another Answer
    (pp. 87-94)

    While peter and other slaves and free blacks in Washington’s army were smarting at the indignity of being branded unworthy of joining the fight for liberty, British officers were mulling over a very different strategy, one that would ultimately affect everyone, white and black, free and slave, North and South. A young slave named Titus was one of those whose life it changed.

    On November 8, 1775, Titus, the second oldest of John Corlies’s slaves, ran away from Corlies’s property in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The advertisement promptly placed in thePennsylvania Packetappealing for his capture described the fugitive...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Home Fires and Campfires
    (pp. 95-108)

    Keeping home fires burning is not easy. For Elizabeth Nelson, living alone most of that year, it was undoubtedly an exhausting and anxious time. Josiah and Peter were only twenty miles away in Cambridge, but their army life seemed, and was, another world, one threatened by combat and disease. It was uncertain how long they would be gone. But for whatever comfort it gave Elizabeth, hers was a common experience that year and would be an experience shared with many families for years to come. All over Lincoln and surrounding towns, hundreds of families were suddenly shorn of their men...

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Ethiopian Regiment
    (pp. 109-117)

    From the time he arrived in Dunmore’s camp, Titus’s life changed utterly. The brutalized slave turned fugitive was pressed into military training at once and thrust into battle soon after that. Dunmore’s proclamation had stipulated that slaves fleeing to the British must belong to enemies of the government, but no one here knew or seemed concerned about the political views of John Corlies. Titus could tell them whatever he wished. The summer before he reached Virginia, even before he had run away, Dunmore had become a fugitive, cruising up and down the Potomac and around the Chesapeake Bay. He anchored...

  13. CHAPTER TEN A Motherless Child
    (pp. 118-133)

    The forlorn little group stood in the Lexington churchyard—Peter with Josiah, Thomas and Lydia with their children, Jonathan and young Lydia, and Tabitha—each lost in thought. The Reverend Clarke led them in prayer. Elizabeth Nelson was laid to rest in the plot Josiah had selected for them, just behind the graves of his parents, Thomas and Tabitha. He later chose the simplest inscription for her stone:

    Here lies the

    Body of Mrs

    Elizabeth Nelson

    (wife of Mr. Josiah

    Nelson,) who de

    parted this Life

    March 20th1776

    In the 48thyear

    Of her age.

    Maybe the many months...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN Getting Back, Getting Even
    (pp. 134-143)

    The stately vessels crowded into New York harbor, the Union Jack flying from the thicket of masts, were a heartening sight to those in Lord Dunmore’s bedraggled little fleet as the ships dropped anchor off Sandy Hook. New York City was still in rebel hands, but the best harbor in the rebellious colonies was crammed with the largest force Great Britain had ever sent to the New World. For Titus, one of the few survivors of the Ethiopian Regiment, the size and might of the royal force was in stark contrast to his recent experience as a soldier of the...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE The Year of Possibilities
    (pp. 144-162)

    Josiah and Millicent had seen each other at church in Lexington, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. They knew each other’s joys and sorrows memorialized there, the births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, the addition of the black toddler to Josiah’s little household. But apart from sharing Sunday services, the vagaries of Lexington life, and now the fright of war, Millicent’s home could scarcely have been more different from the Nelsons. Where the entire Nelson clan was child poor, the Bonds were child rich. Josiah, one of only three children, was childless at the age of forty-nine and the uncle of only...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Trials and Tribulations
    (pp. 163-174)

    Jupiter’s health gave out shortly after the great victory at Saratoga. It was in fact amazing that he had remained fit as long as he had. On October 16, the day before Burgoyne’s official surrender, more than a third of the men in Jupiter’s brigade were recorded as sick. Jupiter was strong but getting on in years, and the combination of meager and unwholesome food, close quarters that spread disease, exposure to the elements, and exhaustion played havoc with a man’s condition. When his regiment turned east to escort the Convention Army to Cambridge, Jupiter hadn’t the strength to accompany...

  17. CHAPTER FOURTEEN An Eye for an Eye
    (pp. 175-182)

    Before the war, little attention was paid to Sandy Hook, a crooked finger of land twelve miles long and barely half a mile wide, pointing from the Jersey shore toward New York City. It was not good farmland, but it was a beautiful place with that lonely windswept beauty of the seaside. In spring the dunes were covered with white plum blossoms and fragrant with sea lavender and bayberry. The sandy soil in its midsection was alive with holly and cedar trees, and by fall the plum blossoms had ripened into juicy purple fruit. The location, on one of the...

  18. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Free at Last
    (pp. 183-194)

    Peter spent the rest of that year at home, trying to blend back into life in Lincoln. It was difficult to switch from the hardships, excitement, and camaraderie of military service to the different sort of hardships in Lincoln. And of course life at home continued to change, and he was changing with it. Peter was sixteen. The teenage years are always difficult. Farmers’ sons could at least anticipate coming of age, however they might resent the years before having their own farms and families. But the anxiety and restlessness is worse when you can’t clearly see a happy future...

  19. CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Winter Soldier
    (pp. 195-210)

    This enlistment was different. All of Peter’s former service had been with local militia regiments, mostly neighbors, who marched off for a few weeks of military duty and then returned with relief to family and farming. It was arduous service, full of danger and discomfort, but short. Now, he was to be a professional among professionals, a member of Washington’s Continental Army for six months, maybe longer if he reenlisted. At sixteen, as far as the army was concerned, he was a man, and a free man to boot. He would be living and fighting alongside battle-tested veterans, with the...

  20. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Final Battles
    (pp. 211-225)

    It was bitterly cold. They had two hundred miles to travel, but the ragged men trudging back to Lincoln and Lexington that January were jubilant. Their enlistments were up. They were alive and heading home. Peter was unclear what awaited him in Lincoln, but the excitement in the haggard, familiar faces surrounding him was contagious. The winter journey from West Point to eastern Massachusetts had become familiar. Their progress was slow this time of year, but they were all delighted to be setting out. They were part of the regular shift at year’s end, men leaving the army, others joining....

  21. Afterword
    (pp. 226-234)

    Afterward there was freedom. Freedom for the thirteen colonies that miraculously won the war and were now independent republics linked in a confederation. Freedom for soldiers. With the army disbanded and enlistments ended, they were sent home to resume their former lives as best they could. Most amazing of all, there was freedom for Bay State slaves. The year the war ended, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that every slave in the state was free. Emancipation began in so low-key and legally complex a manner that it would be some time before everyone was aware of the result. It...

  22. Essay on Sources
    (pp. 235-242)
  23. Index
    (pp. 243-253)