Reverend James Robinson was born into slavery in Maryland in 1753. He fought for the Continental Army in the American Revolution under George Washington in his early twenties. He fought the British again in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson, still enslaved after being sold off again instead of being freed after his service in the Revolution. He wrote about his experiences of being enslaved and serving in two wars in a memoir under the name James Roberts. His goal in writing his story, written and published in 1858 after he was 100 years old, was to “have my narrative written by a colored person, even if it should not be as well written as many white persons could write it… that I might have the great satisfaction of knowing and seeing one of my despised race capable of writing a book, however small.”
According to his writings, he was again promised freedom after fighting the battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 but again failed to receive it. He was freed sometime in the 1830s and became a Methodist minister in Detroit, living to age 115. For his service in the revolution he received a French military honor from Marquis de Lafayette, a gold medal of valor, for his contributions at the Battle of Yorktown.
The excerpt below contains sections from the first chapter of his narrative about the war, and from the final chapter and conclusion where he talks about his meeting with the President and gives advice to future generations.
I was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in the year of our Lord 1753, in a state of slavery, and belonged to Francis De Shields. He was a colonel in Washington’s army. I was with him in the war, and helped to scalp and kill many Indians, which I now exceedingly regret, as they were innocent and defenceless, and were fast tending to a condition not much better than my own. I was with him through the whole course of the Revolutionary War. At the battle of White Haven, I fought in Washington’s army; after that, at the battle of Roanoke river. There human blood ran down in torrents, till the waters of the river were red as crimson. The next battle in which I was engaged was at Ragged Point, on Dorset county river; next, Vienna Ferry; thence to Cambridge. From there we retreated to Prince Anne, at that time called Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis was surrounded by Washington, to whom Cornwallis surrendered his sword. When he did so he said, “I am no more Lord Cornwallis, I am Cobwallis, with the corn shelled off.”
And I will now confess, that, could I have foreseen what heart-sickening ills awaited me in the future, I should have been strongly tempted to make my way to Canada, which I might have done, for I knew where and how to have gone into that country. But honor, justice, and the hope of being set free, with my wife and four little ones, prompted me to return home.
But, instead of freedom, I was, soon after my return, sold to William Ward, separated from my wife and children, taken to New Orleans, and sold at auction sale to Calvin Smith, a planter in Louisiana, for fifteen hundred dollars. And now will commence the statement of the payment of my wages, for all of my fighting and suffering in the Revolutionary War for the liberty of this ungrateful, illiberal country, to me and to my race.
Calvin Smith took me home to his plantation, or, more appropriately, his slaughter-house of human beings, as will appear in this narrative. To initiate me, as he said, into the profound mysteries of that part of the country, he ordered the overseer to give me nine-and-thirty lashes before I had done a stroke of work. He then took from me all of my clothes which I had worn in Philadelphia, and some of my regimentals which I wished to keep as memorials of revolutionary times, and gave me instead but a bare breech-clout, and sent me into the field to work.
[Robinson goes on to describe his experiences in the War of 1812 in the next several chapters of the narrative. In the final chapter, he recalls his meeting with President Franklin Pierce.]
I called on Mr. Pierce, in Washington City, in 1856, and had an interview with him in reference to a pension for myself, and he told me that I was nothing but goods and chattels, like a horse or a sheep; that it would not do to take the pension from the master and give it to the negro; that my master had got the pension, and was still receiving it, or his heirs.
Then coming to the city, for Buchanan lives about two miles from it, the gentlemen who desired me to go out there called me in, and asked me what Mr. Buchanan said. If he had been a man in favor of freedom, he would have given me something. But no, after I had fought, as he was satisfied by my papers, in the revolutionary war, and in the war at New Orleans, to save the country from destruction and to secure a home for him, he turned me away from his door, at the age of one hundred and four years, without a cent or a cheering word.
Now then take counsel from me, one who has fought in the revolutionary war, and thereby caused the chains of slavery to be bound tighter around the necks of my people than they were before; and not being satisfied at that, by fighting in Jackson’s war at New Orleans, riveted the chains closer, ten times, than they would have been had we colored men never fought in that battle; for it was by the indomitable bravery of the colored men that the battle was fought and victory gained. Had there been less bravery with us, the British would have gained the victory, and in that event they would have set the slaves free; so that I now can see how we, in that war, contributed to fasten our chains tighter. Therefore, my earnest and departing request is, that should this country ever again engage in war with any nation, have nothing whatever to do with the war, although the fairest promises should be made to you. Avoid being duped by the white man–he wants nothing to do with our race further than to subserve his own interest, in any thing under the sun.
- In retrospect, how does Robinson feel about his service in the army? What is his advice to future generations and why do you think he feels this way?
- How does Robinson’s narrative compare to the stories you may be familiar with of white men during the American Revolution?
- What does Robinson’s memoir indicate about the lives of enslaved people during and after the American Revolution? Do you agree with his assessment that a British victory would have ended slavery sooner?
James Roberts, “The Narrative of James Roberts.”
“Oldest Man in America.” Lewisburg Chronicle, 14 Feb 1868.
Elio Gasperetti, “An Italo-American Newspaper’s Obituary of a Negro Revolutionary War Veteran,” Negro History Bulletin 18, no. 3 (1954): 58.
 Cornwallis was an important general in the British army.
 Robinson is referring to the War of 1812, under the command of Andrew Jackson who later became president. He says elsewhere in his memoir that he wanted to shoot Jackson, but didn’t.