This forum has discussed the roles played by Blacks in the AWI. In BoA, Black participation is represented by Dunsmore's Ethiopeans for the British and the 1st Rhode Island for the Americans. There is even a thread on Black soldiers serving with Hessian units. The story of the Afro-Americans who served with the French army is no less remarkable.
The island of Saint Domingue, modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was a French colony during the period. In 1779, a light infantry regiment, Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Dominque, was formed under the command of Henry Joseph Chevalier de Forestier. Regiment was made up of 545 free 'men of colour'. The Chaussers Volontaires de Saint-Domingue Regiment was the largest all Black regiment on either side to take part in the war. The Regiment was also the first French Black regiment in the history of the French Army. Remarkably, neither these facts seem to be well known.
After capturing Grenada, Admiral Valerie d'Estaing landed in Saint Domingue and the Regiment joined his force. D'Estaing's force of 3,000 men landed in Georgia in September 1779 and was joined by the American force under the command of Benjamin Lincoln for the siege of Savannah. The Chasseurs comprised 10% of the Franco-American Army.
The siege lasted six weeks. On the 9th of October, after a long artillery barrage from both on and off shore, the Franco-American force attacked Savannah which was commanded by Gen Augustine Prevost. Leading the troops along with d'Estaing and Lincoln were the Polish Count Casimir Pulaski and Lt Col Francis 'Swamp Fox' Marion. Both d'Estaing and Pulaski were wounded. Although initially successful, the allies were driven back by the counterattack of the British Regular reserves commanded by Col John Maitland. The battle of Savannah resulted in the largest number of casualties in a single engagement suffered by the allies during the war. Among the 800 dead was Casimir Pulaski. D'Estaing survived.
The demoralised allied army began its retreat pursued by Maitland's force. The Chasseurs were assigned the rearguard position. In one action, the Chasseurs repulsed Maitland's attacks and were credited with saving the allied force from destruction.
After Savannah, the majority of the Regiment were transported back to Saint-Domingue where they served as garrison troops until being disbanded in 1783. However, 148 men were sent to garrison Grenada and 60 men (one company) were sent to Charleston. Other Saint-Domingue troops were involved in the later Franco-Spanish attack on Pensacola.
On the 12th of May, 1780, Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston to General Clinton. The loss of the city and its 5,000 troops was a serious blow to the American cause. However, fate was to deal an especially cruel blow to the 60 Chausseur prisoners. Despite being free men, they were judged to be prizes of war and were sold into slavery.
The Regiment was the training ground for the leaders of the successful Haitian war of independence against Napoleonic France. It is claimed that the first three Haitian Heads of State (Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Petion) served in Regiment during the AWI. However, what is clear is that the free Blacks of Haiti, the class that made up the the core of the regiment, supplied the leaders of the revolt and the new country. Details of two of these men are known.
In 1791, Haiti’s enslaved Africans joined the French revolution and overthrew the colonial regime. As the revolution thought through the consequences of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) and the abolition of the monarchy (1792), it became clear that slavery would have to go. On February 3, 1794, a group of Haitian delegates to the Convention, the revolutionary parliament, successfully proposed the abolition of slavery. One of these men was the Chausser veteran Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave who had been born in West Africa, who made a stirring speech at the convention. In 1797, the artist Anne-Louis Girodet painted Belley’s portrait. It is one of the truly remarkable portraits to come out of this period.
In 1797, Belley returned to Haiti after having lost his seat in the National Convention. He disappeared from history in the chaos of the war of independence.
Henri Christophe served in the Regiment as a 12 year old drummer. He was wounded at Savannah and afterwards was part of the Grenada garrison. In the war of independence he rose to become the commander of the Haitian army. After the war, he became King of Haiti for 14 years before dying in 1820.
The citizens of the city of Savannah announced their plans in 2004 to erect a statue to commerate the efforts of the Chaussers Volontaires Saint-Dominque.