By Ted Rajchel
Somewhere between three and four hundred Black men served in the continental army during the Battle of Saratoga. It is difficult to tell exactly how many because soldiers were not identified by race on the roster, and like their numbers, many of the stories of the Black soldiers of the American Revolution are missing from history. One of the Black men at the Battle of Saratoga we do know about is Agrippa Hull, a free Black man who served for nearly six years, most of them as a personal aide to Colonel Thaddeus Kosciusko, the mastermind behind the battle. Hull was the inspiration behind Kosciusko’s effort to free hundreds of American slaves, an effort that was prevented from happening by his friend, Thomas Jefferson.
The Attitude of the Colonial government Toward African-American Soldiers
In December of 1775, George Washington defied a congressional ruling stating “that Black boys unable to bear arms, old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the battle campaigns” were not to be enlisted in the Continental Amy. Washington had learned that there were Black men who wanted to serve. The British were offering freedom to any Black slave who fought for the Loyalists. Washington allowed free Black men to enlist. Congress soon approved the move.
He was born free in 1759 and at the age of six was brought to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was one of the first to integrate the militia. Agrippa Hull, a free Black man from Stockbridge, enlisted in 1777. Hull was about 18 years old at the time. He first served as an assistant to General John Patterson and soon transferred and played the same role for Thaddeus Kosciusko, a military engineer from Poland, who was the architect of the Continental Army’s successful stand at the Battle of Saratoga. Hull is listed as a private soldier, number 27, signing up to serve for the duration of the war. At the time a man could sign up for three years or the duration. Hull would have been at Saratoga for the surrender of British General John Burgoyne. He served at Kosciusko’s side, sending messages, getting his uniforms ready, preparing his tent, whatever Kosciusko needed. Kosciusko and Hull had a much deeper relationship, because of his position as an aide, “Hull was always at the side of the senior officer, and he developed an emotional closeness that never would normally exist between enlisted men and officers.” Hull was known for his sense of humor. One night Hull dressed up as Kosciusko at West Point and threw a party for some of his Black friends in the middle of the night. When Kosciusko returned home unexpectedly in the middle of the party, he laughed and played along with the role. Kosciusko’s Service with African-American soldiers, particularly Hull, had a great impact on him. “He really came to admire these young African-Americans”—particularly Agrippa Hull, and it got him wondering whether this young nation should include the abolition of slavery.”
A Promise From a Founding father, Thomas Jefferson
Thaddeus Kosciusko and Thomas Jefferson were good friends. Inspired by Hull, Kosciusko made Jefferson an executor of his will with a specific goal in mind. The will called for Jefferson to use Kosciusko’s war earnings—some $15,000—to free Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello and possibly to purchase freedom for other slaves. Why didn’t Jefferson simply free his own slaves without Kosciusko’s money? It was partly because Jefferson was deeply in debt. He sold his precious library (to become the core of the Library of Congress). That gives one an idea of how he deeply dug a huge fiscal hole with his endless renovations at Monticello. When Jefferson died in 1826, everything had to be sold at auction to pay his debts—the furniture, the paintings, the remaining books, farm equipment, and the slaves—several hundred of them. Kosciusko and Jefferson corresponded for the rest of Kosciusko’s life, even after he returned to Europe to fight for Poland’s independence, but when he died, Jefferson refused, for a few years to do anything to execute the will. The price for a slave depended a lot on age, health, and other factors, but with that average, Jefferson could have purchased freedom for about $100-$150 per slave. Throughout his lifetime, he purchased about 600 slaves, so, in theory, there would have been money to free all of the slaves at Monticello—if not others. Freeing the slaves would have made a huge difference for the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Third President of the United States of America. The slaves were not freed and eventually, most of the money was returned to Kosciusko’s family in Poland.
Agrippa Hull, A Great American Patriot
Agrippa was born free. His parents had gained their freedom earlier. Agrippa Hull wasn’t the only Black man to enlist, although the motivations of these men varied. Some were serving as substitutes for their masters. Some had asked if they could serve to earn their freedom. As for Hull, his feelings seem to have been mixed. He was very patriotic, yes, but did he wonder if Americans fighting for their own liberty would also start to have sympathy for slaves, who sought their own liberty? Hull was present for the surrender at Saratoga, the long winter at Valley Forge, and the Battle at Monmouth Courthouse. He ultimately served for six years alongside Kosciusko. Together, the two served in virtually every major battle of the Southern campaign, including the battles of Cowpens, Eutaw Springs, Ninety-six, Guilford Courthouse, and the Siege of Charleston, and served at West Point. After the war, Hull wanted to return to Stockbridge. He had received one thing that he would treasure of the rest of his life—discharge papers from the army signed personally by George Washington, of which he was very proud. Hull also assisted the medical corps in caring for the sick and wounded in the last two years before his discharge from the army. He worked with doctors and was trained to perform operations, including amputations of body parts and fixing broken bones. Agrippa Hull was one of the most remarkable and unnoticed African–Americans of the American revolutionary era. We can talk about heroes large and small, Jefferson and Kosciusko were known as big heroes, but for Agrippa to have such influence in Kosciusko’s life and the lives of others, he was clearly a hero. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Agrippa is one of them. Agrippa Hull, the Black hero, helped fight for America. He was known as a man of great dignity, pride, and great character. He was a very kind and honest person, a little-known Revolutionary War soldier, Agrippa Hull, a revolutionary patriot, who was attached by General George Washington to serve with Polish military engineer, Thaddeus Kosciusko. This account is part of a larger history of three individuals –Thomas Jefferson, Thaddeus Kosciusko, and Agrippa Hull, who shaped the revolutionary struggle, even as their own lives were transformed by freedom and war.
Return to Stockbridge, Massachusetts
When the war was over, Hull returned to Stockbridge with his discharge papers signed by General George Washington. He used his savings to buy land in Stockbridge, where, over the years, he became one of the largest Black landowners in town. After the war, he worked for a period as a servant in the household of Theodore Sedgwick. As a young attorney, he had defended Elizabeth Freeman in her freedom suit and helped gain an end to slavery in Massachusetts. He also helped Hull gain his pension without having to surrender his discharge papers. Agrippina Hull was one of over 5,500 men of color—free and enslaved—to fight for American independence. Black men were eager to serve and fight for American independence. Agrippa Hull died in 1848 at the age of 89. His portrait hangs in the Stockbridge Public Library. Since the Revolutionary War, thousands of Black men and women have served America faithfully and honorably in all branches of the military. Four-star General Colin Powell and Four-star General Lloyd Austin, both retired from the Army. General Lloyd Austin is now Defense Secretary of the United States of America. Democracy and freedom go together for all its people and America. Thank you for your service to America’s Black men and women. Thank you for your great honor to America. God bless you and God bless America.
1. Agrippa Hull Enlists
2. All Over Albany
3. Agrippa Hull—Wikipedia
4. Agrippa Hull—Revolutionary Patriot
5. Agrippa Hull—1759-1848
6. Agrippa Hull—Valley Forge
7. This Day in History: Agrippa Hull, Little-known American Patriot