Black soldier in the "Cavalry" Regiment of Light Dragoons

ON June 11, 1823, a man named John Redman walked into the courtroom of Judge Charles Lobb in Hardy County, Virginia, to apply for a pension, claiming to be a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Redman, more than 60 years old, testified that he had been in the First Virginia Regiment of Light Dragoons from Christmas 1778 through 1782, serving initially as a waiter to Lt. Vincent Howell.

The Light Dragoons fought mainly on horseback, using sabers, pistols, and light carbines. They marched from Winchester, Va., to Georgia, where, in the fall of 1779, they laid siege to Savannah. The following year, they fought in Charleston, S.C., narrowly escaping capture in a rout by the British. Redman´s regiment fought the Creek Indians and the British early in 1782, ultimately triumphing over them in June at Sharon, Ga., near Savannah. After the war, Redman settled in Hardy County, where he and his wife kept a farm.

Four decades later, a neighbor and fellow veteran named John Jenkins affirmed Redman´s court testimony. A few weeks later, Redman was granted his Certificate of Pension, receiving the tidy sum of $8 a month until his death in 1836.

Yet standing before Judge Lobb in his courtroom that morning in 1823, John Redman had every reason to be nervous, for his appeal was anything but ordinary. Redman was the rarest of breeds: not just a patriot, but a black patriot — both a free Negro in a nation of slaves and a black man who had fought in a white man´s war.

In 1790, only 1.7 percent of Virginia´s population consisted of free people of color; in the 13 former colonies and the territories of Kentucky, Maine and Vermont, the combined figure was even smaller. Historians estimate that only 5,000 black men served in the Continental Army, whereas tens of thousands fled slavery to join the British.

The story of John Redman is illuminating because it opens a window on an aspect of the Revolutionary War that remains too little known: the contributions and sacrifices of a band of black patriots. But it is particularly fascinating to me because, as I learned just recently, John Redman was my ancestor.

I have been obsessed with my family tree since I was a boy. My grandfather, Edward Gates, died in 1960, when I was 10. After his burial at Rose Hill Cemetery in Cumberland, Md. — Gateses have been buried there since 1888 — my father showed me my grandfather´s scrapbooks. There, buried in those yellowing pages of newsprint, was an obituary, the obituary, to my astonishment, of our matriarch, a midwife and former slave named Jane Gates. “An estimable colored woman,’ the obituary said.

I wanted to know how I got here from there, from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past, to my life as a 10-year-old Negro boy living blissfully in a stable, loving family in Piedmont, W.Va., circa 1960, in the middle of the civil rights movement.

I peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, both black and white, and dutifully recorded the details in a notebook. I wanted to see my white ancestors´ coat of arms. Eventually, I even allowed myself to dream of discovering which tribe we had come from in Africa.

More recently, in part to find my own roots, I started work on a documentary series on genetics and black genealogy. I especially wanted to find my white patriarch, the father of Jane Gates´s children. The genealogical research into my family tree uncovered, to my great wonder, three of my fourth great-grandfathers on my mother´s side: Isaac Clifford, Joe Bruce and John Redman.

All were black and born in the middle of the 18th century; two gained freedom by the beginning of the Revolutionary War. All three lived in the vicinity of Williamsport, a tiny town in the Potomac Valley in the Allegheny Mountains, in what is now West Virginia.

I am descended from these men through my maternal grandmother, Marguerite Howard, whom we affectionately called “Big Mom.’ When Jane Ailes, a genealogist, revealed these discoveries to me, I could scarcely keep my composure. In searching for a white ancestor, I had found — improbably — a black patriot instead.

1775-1783 Revolutionary War in the News