Jehu Grant, inspired by talk of freedom, escaped slavery in Rhode Island to enlist as a Continental Army soldier in 1777.
Time and again he would be disappointed by promises the patriots didn’t keep. For Jehu Grant, the struggle for independence, let alone fairness, never ended.
He was born around 1752, and enslaved in Narragansett, R.I., by a man named Elihu Champlen.
Narragansett had a large slave population because Rhode Island engaged in the transatlantic slave trade.
When war broke out, Jehu Grant was a young man in his early 20s. He later wrote that he ‘heard much about the cruel and arbitrary things done by the British.’ Their ships lay a few miles off his master’s house, and he suspected his Champlen of Loyalist leanings. His master, he wrote, traded with the enemy, and sold the British sheep, cattle and cheese.
Jehu Grant feared his master would sell him to the British Navy, where he could expect harsh treatment. He also knew entire companies of black soldiers enlisted in Rhode Island, which added to his fears that his master would sell him to the British.
And so he ran away to join the cause of freedom.
The Continental Army
Jehu Grant arrived in Danbury, Conn., in August 1777, after the British had burned the town. Rhode Island had yet to form its black regiment, comprised of free African-Americans, Indians and slaves. The latter would obtain their freedom on their discharge.
African-Americans comprised about a fifth of the Continental Army. By the Siege of Yorktown, an officer in a French regiment estimated that one-quarter of the northern army was African American.
When the British offered slaves their freedom in exchange for enlisting, African-Americans joined the British cause as well.
Jehu Grant joined Capt. Giles Galer’s regiment for 18 months as a soldier. He was put to work as a teamster, loading, unloading and driving a wagon of army provisions. After about four months he worked as a waiter to John Skidmore, wagon master general. In June 1778, Elihu Chaplen found Jehu Grant serving in the army just north of New York City. Though he had eight more months of his enlistment, the Continental Army returned him to his master.
In 1832, Charles Carroll of Maryland died, the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. By then, the young nation felt nostalgic about the passing of the Revolutionary generation. And so the U.S. Congress enacted the first comprehensive Pension Act, which granted an annual stipend to any veteran of war who could prove his service. By then, the youngest Revolutionary War veterans would have reached their late sixties, the oldest their 90s.
Several thousand veterans applied for the pension, including several dozen African-American soldiers — and Jehu Grant.
Few soldiers had any documented evidence of their service. All they had was their own memory. So ex-soldiers had to tell their stories to a local court reporter, who sent the records on to Washington for a decision.
Freedom – Just Another Word?
A few years after the Revolutionary War ended, Joshua Swann of Stonington, Conn., bought Jehu Grant. He promised him his freedom if he served him faithfully. Swann was as good as his word, and Jehu Grant married, had six children and moved to Milton, N.Y.
In 1832, Jehu Grant asked for his pension, helped by a neighbor to write the letter. The Commissioner of Pensions denied him in 1834 because he was a fugitive slave during his service.
Two years later Jehu Grant appealed the decision in an eloquent, if bitter, plea.
All around him he had heard patriotic rhetoric about the inalienable right to freedom. When he spied liberty poles, ‘and the people all engaged for the support of freedom, I could not but like and be pleased with such thing (God forgive me if I sinned in so feeling.)’
He wouldn’t have run away, he wrote, ‘Had I been taught to read or understand the precepts of the Gospel, “Servants obey your masters,” I might have done otherwise, notwithstanding the songs of liberty that saluted my ear, thrilled through my heart.’
He had compensated his master, he wrote, and other who had served as long as he had received a pension.
“I must be upward of eighty years of my age and have been blind for many years,” he concluded. “And, notwithstanding the aid I received from the honest industry of my children, we are still very needy and in part are supported from the benevolence of our friends.”
This time, he was denied his pension because he was only a teamster and a waiter.
Jehu Grant died on Dec. 28, 1840.
This story was updated in 2021.