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Agrippa Hull: The Life and Legacy of the Revolutionary War’s Most Famous Black Soldier

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Aide To Kosciuszko at West Point

  • Agrippa Hull: The Life and Legacy of the Revolutionary War’s Most Famous Black Soldier.

    Agrippa Hull was one of the most remarkable and unnoticed African Americans of the revolutionary era.  He served for six years and two months in Washington’s Continental Army, which earned him a badge of honor for this extended service. But Hull’s influence on shaping the abolitionist thought of Tadeuz Kosciuszko, the Polish military engineer for whom he served as an orderly for the last 50 months of the war, is the hidden importance of the young black patriot.

    Said to be the son of an African prince, Agrippa Hull was born free in Northampton, Massachusetts on March 7, 1759.  Little is known of his father, who died when Hull was an infant; but his parents were members of the Congregational Church where Jonathan Edwards occupied the pulpit.  When economic stress overcame Bathsheba Hull, Agrippa’s mother, she sent the boy to Stockbridge in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, to live with a free black farming family.  It was here that Agrippa grew up in the mission town largely composed of Stockbridge Indians.

    Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Agrippa enlisted in the Continental Army, where he was assigned as an orderly to General John Paterson of the Massachusetts Line, At Paterson’s side, Hull witnessed the surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, endured the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and was part of the battle at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey in June 1778. In May 1779, Hull was reassigned to Kosciuszko, who had come in 1776 to offer his services as a military engineer to the Continental Congress and was designing the fortifications at West Point.  This launched a long comradeship. In a day without Christmas leaves and periodic furloughs, Hull was at Kosciuszko’s side for 50 months, serving as attendant and messenger. After Kosciuszko was sent south to serve as the chief military engineer of Washington’s Continental Army, Hull was thrust into the bloodiest and most intense phase of the war. Reaching North Carolina in October 1780, Kosciuszko and Hull confronted the pitiful condition of Washington’s army. General Nathanael Greene, the southern commander, peppered General Washington with pleas to clothe and boot his small army: “The miserable situation of the troops for want of clothing,” wrote Greene on one occasion, “has rendered the march the most painful imaginable, several hundreds of the soldiers tracking the ground with their bloody feet.”

    In this cockpit of war, Kosciuszko and Hull had many opportunities to witness the operation of plantation slavery in the South, even as its fabric was shredding. Above all, they learned on a daily basis that southern slaves were willing to pledge their lives for the British cause in exchange for freedom. Wherever they went, in whatever the battle, they found that plantation slaves fled in shoals to the British army whenever it was within reach, responding to the November 1775 proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, that offered freedom to any escaping slave. To witness this massive slave rebellion must have deeply impressed Hull and Kosciuszko.  Indeed, it shaped Kosciuszko’s attitude toward slavery and inspired him to think about how America might be transformed in the crucible of war.

    By the time the southern phase of the war ended in May 1783, Hull had participated in almost every major battle of the bushwhacking campaign—at  Cowpens, Eutaw Springs, Ninety-Six, Guilford Courthouse, and the Siege of Charleston, which finally brought the British to their knees. Sailing first from Charleston to Philadelphia with Kosciuszko, Hull refused the Polish general’s invitation to return with him to Poland.  Then the war-hardened veteran made his way back to Stockbridge after mustering out at West Point in July 1783 with his discharge signed by Washington himself.  In the seven-year scrum of war, Hull had discovered himself, and for the remainder of his long life he replayed his revolutionary experiences with relish.  Stockbridge’s first historian, Electa Jones, described how the war veteran, back in the Berkshires, had “no cringing servility, and certainly never thought meanly of himself” and yet “was perfectly free from all airs and show of consequence.”  The patriot soldier who served a longer term in the war than a vast majority of the “sunshine patriots,” could well afford to see himself in this light.

    Returning to Stockbridge, Hull found a place in the household of Theodore Sedgwick, a well-born and successful young lawyer who had just won a landmark slavery case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that gained the freedom of Elizabeth Freeman.

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