Rehearsal for War: Black Militias in the Atlantic World

Document Type


Publication Date

October 2011


This article challenges the notion that black militias were of little consequence in the antebellum United States. The establishment, personnel and equipment of these militia units, and their importance for local black organization, has largely escaped scholarly attention. The significance of armed companies of young black men at a time when they were not officially sanctioned by federal and state authorities has also not been explored.The article makes three arguments. First, there was a trajectory towards militarization from vigilance committees to independent companies to enrolment in union armies. Second, links between self-defence and rights of citizenship were already being struggled over at local and state levels before the more famous national expression in black union soldiers fighting for the union. Third, national narratives concerning the origins of the American civil war, African American slavery, and British Canadian history, obscure the multiple roles played by people of African descent during this period. It is only through transnational approaches towards fugitives, military formation and antislavery mobilization that we realise the role of blacks in challenging American slavery in the Atlantic world.The organization of the article is as follows. It begins with fugitives and the organization of vigilance committees of self-defense in North America. It continues with states rights of self-defence, the exclusion of black men from these rights, and the resulting organization of independent companies. The public parade of these black militias on West India Day, the most important commemoration by Americans of African descent between the early 1830’s and 1860’s, is the next section. It concludes with the continental destruction of American slavery and its consequences for the post-emancipation era.This article has several objectives. It examines important black institutions hitherto unexamined. It aims to broaden the conventional temporal and spatial dimensions of the civil war era. The third task is to reveal the limitations of nationalist narratives by seeking out connections among people of African descent as well as in the ways in which individuals and organizations provide alternative means for comparison. Finally, this article is part of a broader project examining political mobilization against slavery in the Atlantic world.