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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

African Americans: ‘Race’ and/in War

‘Making Abolitionists of the Whole Community’: Jeffrey Brace And Charles Bowles

Anthony Parent


The lives of African American Revolutionary War veterans offer a window into ‘intersectionality’ (Hill Collins) of sexuality, age, gender and ethnicity, but also race, religion, class, and nationality. This chapter demonstrates the diasporic identities of two veterans: Jeffrey Brace (ca. 1742-1827) and Charles W. Bowles (1761-1842). Both men left memoirs, a rich source of identity formation: The Blind African Slave, Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace (1810); The Life, Labors, and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles (1852). Both men also applied for pensions. Pension applications not only established their war service, but also documented their family lives, finances, and community standing. They ‘recollected’ their service in county court, including rank, duties, battles, and war wounds. They supplemented their depositions with declarations about their dependents, property, and character. Interpreting their memoirs and their pension records will enrich our understanding of identities of intersectionality. African-born Brace was enslaved as a child; he became blind and indigent as an old man. American-born Bowles claimed unacknowledged descent from a Revolutionary War general on his mother’s side. New Englanders both, these men self-identified as fathers and widowers, mariners, farmers, and laborers, and preachers and patriots. Yet both men contributed mightily to the model of black masculinity (manhood) in the struggle against racism in a slaveholding republic. ‘To hear Elder [Charles] Bowles preach and Brother Jeffrey Brace talk’, said a contemporary, ‘was enough to make abolitionists of a whole community’.

Texte intégral

1The American Revolution presented enslaved New Englanders with a dilemma. They were offered freedom in exchange for military service. If they readily understood the revolutionary rhetoric of universal rights, they were ambivalent about fighting in a war for American independence. They were hesitant in their decision because they had suffered mightily in the region. After all they or their parents had likely arrived as captives on ships owned by Yankee merchants. They had labored for northern slaveholders in households and on farms, wharves, and ships. They had suffered physical and psychological torments at the hands of strangers. They had endured the humiliation of not being able to control either their bodies or their families. Nor had they forgotten Africa and the loss of their loved ones. Casting their lots with their enslavers meant casting their future in a slaveholding republic, unlike others among them who remained loyal to Britain, eventually finding not only their freedom but for many a return to Africa (Jasanoff 2011: 278–309).

2Historians Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D. G. Kelley contend diasporic identities, as demonstrated above, are historically conditioned processes emanating in the struggles for citizenship in democracies and against cultural denigration, economic exploitation, imperial domination, and social proscription. Discerning variation of diasporic experiences requires attentiveness to migrations and movements of ethnic cultures and how they are ‘remade’ in host societies (Patterson and Kelley 2000: 14–20). What they write about the eighteenth century and the age of sail has particular relevance here. The slave trade and seafaring raised consciousness of working people, especially mariners of African descent, ushering in a wave of republicanism and revolutionary consciousness (Patterson and Kelley 2000: 30).

  • 1 Boyrereau Brinch and Benjamin F. Prentiss, The Blind African Slave, or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, (...)

3The lives of two African American Revolutionary War veterans, Jeffrey Brace (ca. 1742-1827) and Charles W. Bowles (1760-1842), offer a window into this diasporic identity in the New Republic. Both men were also among a small coterie of influential Africans in Vermont (Winter 2006: 477–480). Their stature as veterans and ministers enabled them to foster abolitionism in New England, a society problematically ‘disowning slavery’ (Melish 1998: 163). Brace and Bowles both left declarations of their military service and memoirs. They applied for pensions in accordance with ‘An Act to provide for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the revolutionary War’ (1818). The Pension Act was the first of its kind in the United States. The rhetoric of the legislation offering lifelong pensions to elderly and impoverished veterans revealed national sentiment on governmental responsibility and family welfare during the early national period (Resch 1988: 139). Pension applications not only established the veterans’ war service, they also documented their family lives, finances, and community standing. Requesters recollected their service in county court, including their rank, duties, battles, and war wounds. The applicants also supplemented their depositions with declarations about their dependents, property, and character (Van Buskirk 2007: 143). An annuity for life not only raised Brace and Bowles out of penury, but it affirmed their citizenship. It announced to the community at large that these men had honorably served their country at its birth. Both Brace and Bowles also left memoirs, a rich source of identity and memories: The Blind African Slave, Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace (1810); The Life, Labors, and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles, of the Free Will Baptist Denomination (1852). Brace’s memoir required the aid of an amanuensis, Benjamin Franklin Prentiss (1774-1817?) and Bowles’s of a biographer, John W. Lewis (1810-1861).1

4 Teasing out Brace and Bowles’s thoughts and sentiments from the aims and polemics of their facilitators will enrich our understanding of diasporic identities in the New Republic. The heuristic method of analyzing the intersections of race with other categories of identity and inequality, writes legal theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, assists us in accounting for ‘how the social world is constructed’ (1245). Womanist scholar Patricia Hill Collins argues the methodology of intersectionality offers an opening for studying black women dealing with social welfare during the era of the 1960s to the 1990s (Collins 2006: 65–70). Adding analyses of race, gender, and class to nationality as ‘distinctive’ categories of social hierarchies, while an improvement on earlier methods of enquiry, is insufficient to fully comprehend either identity formation or systemic oppression of African American women. Rhetorical constructions of ‘family values’, targeting entitlements, undermined representations of black families generally and African American women in particular. Blazing the path of intersectionality, Collins explored the multiplicity of terrains, mapping the black family: gender, sexuality, and age, ethnicity and nationality, race and class, all mutually reinforcing and reacting upon one another. In the final analysis race was overdetermined in constructing the ideological pathology of the black family (Collins 1998: 62–64). Catharine A. MacKinnon elaborates on Crenshaw’s and Collins’s theory:

Intersectionality as a method adopts a distinctive stance, emanates from a specific angle of vision, and, most crucially, embodies a particular dynamic approach to the underlying laws of motion of the reality it traces and traps while remaining grounded in the experiences of classes of people within the hierarchical relations where categories of domination intersect with race.
(MacKinnon 2013: 1020)

5The pension legislation of 1818, assisting indigent veterans, was the first effort of social welfare in the United States. If this methodology of intersectionality can help us comprehend the oppression of late-twentieth century black women, it should also shed light on the social world facing African American Revolutionary War veterans in New England.

6Confronting the hierarchies of oppression, both Brace and Bowles’s narratives were representative of what editor and African Americanist William L. Andrews calls the two stages of ‘psychospiritual’ development: personal salvation and mission. In the image of what Brace and Bowles relate in their spiritual autobiographies, during the first stage, the anxiety and dread of the crisis conversion experience provide grist for the pivotal moment in Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Julia Foote’s narratives. These women experienced extraordinary visions and suffered a loss of consciousness, as if being struck by God. The ‘immediate outcome’ (11–12) of their conversion experience, the second stage, was their choosing a church where they ministered to their community. Their self-assuredness allowing them to resist the reality of their world, their racial and patriarchal subordination, not only within their churches but also in their homes, they exalted the Christian exhortation of being in the world, but not ‘of it’, liberating their new selves from their former sinful selves, their new selves expanding personal capaciousness (12).

7 The Blind African Slave can be categorized as a captivity narrative, an abolitionist text, a military memoir, and a spiritual autobiography. More so than any other autobiography during the era of the slave trade, excepting The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), Brace described his homeland, his kidnapping, and his experience of the Middle Passage. He also detailed the abuses that he suffered as an enslaved laborer, sailor, and soldier. Brace memorialized his military service both to the British as a sailor during the Seven Years War and against them as a Revolutionary War soldier. He then examined his struggles as a free man in recently emancipated New England society. Brace’s conversion to Christianity provides the text with its explanatory power.

8Benjamin Franklin Prentiss, Brace’s amanuensis, was a young St. Albans, Vermont lawyer of moderate means who became fascinated with Brace’s story. He spent countless hours interviewing and recording his subject, partly to realize a financial return, but mainly to advance the antislavery message. Living up to his namesake Benjamin Franklin’s legacy, Prentiss tolerated his subject’s lack of education in the interest of Progress. If using Brace’s stories afforded the narrative its authenticity, new scientific knowledge about geography and politics could be advanced from this informant. Mungo Park’s Travels into the Interior Districts of Africa (1799) had exulted his experiences on the Niger River, but had left no scientific account of it. Prentiss’s use of Brace’s recollections of the Niger not only could flesh out this riparian region, but could also describe political and trade relations and identify agriculture products. ‘The rhetoric [Prentiss] uses when speaking in his own voice’, writes his biographer Kari J. Winter, ‘is the Enlightenment rhetoric of natural rights, civil liberty, and religious tolerance’ (Winter 2011: 127).

9Prentiss called the memoir simply a narrative of Brace’s kidnapping and enslavement. Listening carefully for hours to his subject, he tried to render Brace’s life accurately, often in his own idiom, careful to balance the text with pathos and humor (BAS 204). Brace had experienced the humiliation and shame of enslavement, yet the narrative is peppered with comic relief, demonstrating Brace’s self-deprecation. The duplication disturbing the narrative flow was expected because Brace often remembered incidents out of sequence. Nevertheless, Prentiss apologized for its repetitiousness. What novelist Dana Spiotta says about how a modern writer should deal with traumatic memories has relevance here: ‘Memory is not particularly linear—it is associative, repetitive, subjective and porous. But the writer needs to convey disorder and dysfunction without making the novel itself disorderly or dysfunctional’ (Editors 2011). Prentiss also carped that the scriptural references were Brace’s chosen contribution. These textual readings are generally appended at the end of a chapter where Brace uses them to amplify events that he had just presented. Prentiss gave the memoir’s raison d’être. He hopes that even if a slaveholder might ‘not be moved to acknowledge the iniquity [of slavery] [...] he [would] at least [be moved to] alleviate [his slaves’] sufferings’ (BAS 7).

10Brace himself, precise in his motivations, furnished the moral of the memoir. He offered several reasons for telling his story: psychological, financial, and testimonial. First he was trying to come to terms with the loneliness that he felt at the loss of his cherished wife Susan. They had both experienced slavery and found each other late in life. They became constant companions and comrades, struggling to maintain family and land in New England. Second, impoverished and blind, Brace was seeking relief in his old age from the sufferings of poverty. Finally, and probably most importantly, he believed it was his responsibility to testify about the abuses of racism and slavery:

It is my anxious wish that this simple narrative [...] may be the means of opening the hearts of those who hold slaves and move them to consent to give them that freedom which they themselves enjoy, and which all mankind have an equal right to possess.
(BAS 200–201)

11 All of these were efforts to combat the post-traumatic ‘intersecting oppressions’ distinguishing black from white veterans. Categories of differences operate not in isolation but are relational, creating systemic inequalities (Collins 2006: 248).

12When the Revolutionary War began, Brace wrestled with a dilemma. Serving in the Continental line offered freedom for service, but it also meant fighting for his enslavers. Yet the Crown was also offering freedom to enslaved men who deserted their rebellious masters for the loyalist side. For both patriots and loyalists of African descent, liberation trumped all other considerations (Van Buskirk 2007: 134–136; Hall 2009: 88–89). Brace had already served in His Majesty’s navy and strongly considered leaving New England for Barbados, a loyal colony, ‘to avenge myself and my country’ (BAS 156). Remembering this impasse, he likened his action to the blinded and chained Samson who prayed for strength to destroy the Philistines. ‘Avenging my country’ in this diasporic context clearly meant Africa. Yet rather than taking vengeance against the American Philistines, he ambivalently enlisted in the continental army. Choosing to fight to liberate his masters, he believed, afforded him the best possibility of freedom. ‘Alas! Poor African Slave’, he lamented, ‘to liberate freemen, my tyrants’ (BAS 156).

13Brace was drafted in Captain Baker’s company of light infantry distinguished by their height of at least six feet and their leather caps. He stood almost six-three. He detailed the hand-to-hand combat with a British light horseman who lacerated his finger in the struggle. He killed the mounted attacker, seized his horse, and barely escaped from pursuing riders, galloping back to camps amidst the hoorays of his company, called the Leather Caps (BAS 161–163). He survived their fire, but not the swindle of his prize by a colonel. If Brace believed race played a role in his loss of his horse, he also believed it once played a role in saving his life. The enemy had him within their gun sight while serving as sentry, yet they did not kill him because his enemy preferred to take him alive as property (BAS 168–169).

14Brace was about seventy-eight years old when he applied for a pension. At the Franklin County Court House on 4 April 1818 he made a declaration of his war service. He served ‘cheerfully’ for ‘five years and nine months’ and was honorably discharged with a badge of merit at West Point in the summer of 1783 (Brace 1818). Unfortunately he lost both his badge and discharge papers. He had served at battles of White Plains, Stamford, West-Chester, and Mud Fat in New Jersey where he was shot in the leg. He declared that he was presently ‘in reduced circumstances’ and needed the country’s assistance. Although literate, Brace did not sign his name (perhaps he could not since he may have lost his ability to write); rather he marked ‘X’ for his signature (Brace 1818). Nonetheless, the Pension Office of the War Department returned Brace’s application for more documentation. Oddly, there was no mention of Brace’s memoir, published just eight years earlier, as evidence of his service, perhaps because of his death wish of an avenging African killing American Philistines.

15Since Brace had enlisted and served under the surname Stiles and had lost his discharge papers, he needed further proof of his claim. One witness, sixty-seven-year old Silas Strong, underscored this issue of aliases, testifying he had seen ‘Jeffery a number of times after his enlistment in soldiers Uniform with a Leather Cap. [...] I am now acquainted with a Colored man calling himself Jeffery Brace and know him to be the same person then known by Jeffery Stiles’, ‘Jeffery sometimes was necked named [i.e., nicknamed] Pomp London’ (Strong 1820). Brace was not alone among former slaves changing their names. As enslaved men their surnames were unofficial. Names such as Cuffe or Cato betrayed their servile origins (Van Buskirk 2007: 140–141). Often they chose names denoting their new status; ‘Freeman, Freedman, or Newman were personal names that often marked the transition from slavery’ (Horton 1993: 155). Brace now declared he had gone by the name Jeffrey Stiles during the war. Stiles was his owner’s surname. He had received the name Jeffrey after his first naval encounter when he had fired before the order was given. He could have been hung from the yardarm for disobeying the order. Instead, the officer, understanding that he did not comprehend the order, gave him the ‘honorable nickname’ Jeffrey after Sir Jeffrey Amherst (BAS 149). Not unlike Gustavus Vassa, who was also named after a contemporary hero, Brace embraced his new name. He had changed his surname from Stiles to Brace during his enlistment, upon ‘mature reflection’ he now believed that he did not change his name until after his discharge. ‘The reason of his altering his name’, he said, was because ‘he was imported from Africa when a lad’ and ‘his father’s name was Brace’ (a transliteration of Brinch). ‘After he considered himself discharged from his master he concluded to take the name of his Father Brace’ (Brace 1820).

16The elderly veteran finally received his pension in 1820. If his military service afforded him a pension for life, Brace understood his life in light of his conversion. He credited the Widow Stiles with baptizing him in and teaching him to read the Bible. If he did not take her homilies to heart, he would eventually take the scriptures to heart and soul. She personally taught him to read after sending him to school. He refused to go back to school after the teacher beat him for his pronunciation of the letter ‘W’. The teacher thought that he was cursing him because he pronounced the letter ‘devil you’ (BAS 154). During the Revolutionary War, he recalled that he ‘paid but little attention to her instructions’ (BAS 190). Only after his discharge and his freedom for his service did he begin to ponder ‘seriously’ here his situation. He was then working for Joseph Craw in Poultney, Vermont. Eschewing social activities because of his poor English skills, he spent ‘all his leisure hours’ reading the Bible (BAS 191). In this introspection it can be said that he began to examine the intersectionality of his oppression: class status, nationality, ethnicity, family, religion, gender, and color prejudice. He became attentive to his class status after reading in the Old Testament Moses’ dictum that ‘God was no respecter of persons’ (Exodus 30: 11–16). He found St. Peter uttering the same statement (Acts 10: 34). This insight stopped him cold in his tracks, cognizant that he ‘was equally acceptable with all mankind’. Finding that Peter also disclaimed nationality, for all nations were worthy of salvation, primed him, like Paul, for his road to Damascus experience (BAS 191).

17Like the pattern of guilt and desperation Andrews found in African American women’s conversion experiences, his reading gave him pause. He became anxious, his soul convulsing over a long weekend. He remembered feeling the need to pray alone on a Friday evening in a ‘distant meadow, ’ where he found a ‘silent spot by the side of a large birch log’ (BAS 195). The scene was ‘serene’ as the sun set, ‘all nature were retiring to rest’. The calm he sensed outside of himself contrasted sharply with the convulsion within. He felt both ‘great darkness and heavily pressed with the weight of [his] sins’ (BAS 195). He prayed for humanity, but especially for his fellow Africans, both ‘at home, and in foreign lands, groaning out a miserable existence in slavery’ (BAS 195). He worked all day Saturday loading and carrying lime stones. That evening he dissembled with his friends, rather than go as usual to ‘amuse [themselves] on the Sabbath’ (BAS 196). On Sunday while Mr. Craw worshipped, Brace envied his employer’s faith and ‘sunk [...] secretly’ praying that his ‘load of guilt might be removed’ (BAS 196). On Monday when he went to cut wood he cowered as windswept trees ‘cursed him’ and ‘all nature held him in abhorrence’ (BAS 195–196). He did not know what to do, paced, hesitated, yet knew that he had to get back to work. Finally, he heard a voice say ‘God can be just and justify the chief of sinners’. With this admonition he began to relax, his weekend turmoil over. After some weeks of prayer he began to appreciate his baptism by the Widow Stiles as a ‘covenant necessary’, for his calling, as he read in Matthew, to ‘go out and teach all nations’ (Matthew 28: 19) (BAS 196–198). Believing that only total immersion counted for a genuine baptism, Brace sought out the Reverend Elder David Hulebert of the Baptist Church in Swenton, Vermont, who baptized him in June 1805 (BAS 200).

18Watching nature readying herself for rest and trembling before cursing trees are not passive encounters, but expressions of Brace’s religious ‘epistemology’, for as anthropologist and Africanist Nurit Bird-David writes, it ‘stands in for attentiveness’ (Bird-David 77). Offering a new way of understanding, archeologist and Africanist Daryl Stump contends colonial, or in this case diasporic, identity is by necessity a syncretic blending of western and indigenous cultures, an ‘hybridity’, despite its inherent contradictions, constructing a usable past both out of memories and present realities (269, 282–283). Offering a methodology in dealing with historical trauma, which can be applied here to diasporic dislocations, he argues its ‘success’ depends as much on our ability to reconcile ‘what is known about the material world and what is known about how an individual or community in the past perceived and reacted to their world’ (284).

19Now ‘strengthened’ in his faith, Brace reflected on the oppression of color prejudice. After reading that God made people in his own image, he reveled in the realization that God’s color was never ‘intimated’ anywhere in the Bible (BAS 193). He reflected on his loneliness and found consolation in Jesus, the Redeemer, ‘healing all that were oppressed of the devil’ (BAS 191). Finally, he invoked what scholars have called the trope of the Fortunate Fall. His captivity was providential since it led to his conversion and ministry:

Groaning under the lash of unnatural masters, I fancied my life had been preserved by his Almighty shield for some good ends. I hoped that I was to be made an instrument for the redemption of my African brethren from the galling chains of bondage; or for the conveying the light of Christianity to my native land.
(BAS 194)

20He credited his African religious upbringing with his scriptural readings as providentially inspired: ‘And having received, through the blessings of divine providence, a partial English education, altho’ a poor African Slave [...] I have presumed to read, understand, believe and expound, the scriptures, as the oracles of divine inspiration’ (BAS 56).

21References harken to oracles, like his discussion of a sacred nature, harken back to Brace’s spiritual upbringing. At first reading the personae of nature in his conversion experience—a silent, inviting nature; a cursing accusatory nature—one might recognize a rhetorical flourish. Reading this passage again reveals what may be at work: Brace’s religious upbringing. Even in the description of his conversion he is not far away from the sacred nature, including the Sun God, of his youth. A generation of African memoirists before Brace had also privileged Providence in their spiritual autobiographies, their perspective formed by the predestinarian Protestantism of Methodist ministers George Whitefield and Charles Wesley. Indeed, Andrews privileges Providence as the key in the conversion experiences uplifting Lee, Elaw, and Foote, empowering them in resisting both sexual and racial opporession (3). On the other hand, Brace, a Baptist, allowed greater weight to free will. Nevertheless, his God was providential. Not unlike other African memoirists, Brace believed that his people had common origins with the Israelites (Saillant 2003: 4).

22Craving a scriptural validation, Brace recalled learning from his maternal grandmother that ‘certain’ secret societies had knowledge which was passed only to initiates. Whryn Dooden Wrogan told him of the oral tradition that one of their chief feasts had been introduced by a ‘foreigner’, likely a Muslim, who traced the lineage of his people to Noah. He would have become privy to this oral tradition once he was old enough to be initiated into the society. He felt wholeheartedly that this tradition offered the key to the most important themes of national and race equality. All civilizations would be held accountable, demonstrating Africans should be on a level with all humanity. He later expressed his profound regrets: ’I was too young to become a member of the [...] society, for there, I verily believed I should learn the origin of all nations; the veil of superstition would be rent in twain’ (BAS 62–63). After raising a series of rhetorical questions to his distractors, he revealed his fundamental message of attacking the intersectionality of oppression: ‘If I have the same propensities and feelings, and endowed with the same intellectual reason, then where is the distinction...? Is it the color or is it the power you have gained over me?’ (BAS 148). The differences had less to do with racial origins than the oppressive conditions Africans had to endure:

Even in this country, where the African is degraded and disgraced; his heart broken, his hope destroyed, and almost generally deprived of education. Do you not see some geniuses burst forth and rise above the tyranny and oppression they are under, and stand as monuments of admiration?
(BAS 148)

23Among these geniuses were Brace himself, Charles Bowles, and John W. Lewis, Bowles’s Boswell. Lewis is our best source for the effectiveness of Brace’s ministry. ‘I am acquainted with several brethren, in whose hearts were planted the seeds of Abolitionism’, writes Lewis, ‘by the simple tale of that man’s wrongs, inflicted by the cruel slave power’ (LLT 196). Described in the 1843 edition of Sign of the Times as ‘a highly esteemed colored preacher’, Lewis evangelized ‘among that much neglected class of our brethren, with whom he is most closely connected’ (Morgan 2008). Lewis was ordained as an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister in 1832 and then became an Adventist minister, yet a decade later, when he penned Bowles’s Life, Labor, and Travels, he had become a Free Will Baptist minister. Bowles’s and Brace’s ministries were the likely cause of Lewis’s denominational change. For this reason, Lewis’s choice of Bowles as a subject was no accident. The Life, Labor, and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles can be classified as a spiritual biography, an abolitionist text, and an itinerant’s itinerary. A biographer rather than an amanuensis like Prentiss, Lewis enjoyed a much greater license for creativity in interpreting Bowles’s memoir than Prentiss with Brace’s. Although Lewis has been characterized by historians Newman, Rael, and Lapsansky as a ‘racial theorist’ (Newman et al. 2001: 75), this descriptor is less evident in Life, Labor and Travels than in the companion essay published with it: An Essay on the Character and Condition of the African Race. A genuine effort is made here at relating Bowles’s life and not Lewis’s polemics.

24Lewis drew on Bowles’s journal of his ministerial appointments, which unfortunately is no longer extant. He prefaces his biography of Charles Bowles as a ‘fair and impartial History’. He cannot, however, guarantee that ‘all dates are correct, or that there might be other inaccuracies’: partly because Bowles’s ‘journal was quite limited’ and partly because he did not know Bowles personally (LLT 3). Nevertheless, one can corroborate the dates in April when Bowles applied for his pension in Orange County, Vermont. Lewis used Bowles’s journal as his principal source for the first eleven chapters; the final three chapters are drawn from other contemporary sources. Lewis also drew upon church records, interviews with his circle of friends, fellow ministers, acquaintances, and used church records’ several brethren who were much attached to him, and often in conversation with him, remember with lively interest his warm and animated conversation in the family circles (LLT 185).

25Charles Bowles was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 20, 1760. His African father was a servant and his mother was allegedly the daughter of the ‘distinguished’ Colonel Daniel Morgan, who was promoted to Brigadier General, commander of Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Company (LLT 3). Charles’s infancy was spent with his father, suggesting non-slave status; no further mention is made of his mother. Bowles’s abandonment by his mother was not unlike his contemporary Lemuel Haynes’s (1753-1833), who also served in the Revolution and ministered in Vermont. Haynes was also the son of an African man and of a white woman from a respectable New England family; he was also abandoned by her and later indentured. During his childhood years, Bowles was taken from his father and apprenticed to the Jones household in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. When Mr. Jones died in 1773, the thirteen-year-old Charles was placed with a loyalist family (LLT 5). Two years later with the outbreak of the revolution Bowles deserted his master for the military (LLT 1).

26Bowles made his declaration of his military service in the Corinth (Vermont) County Courthouse on April 21, 1818. He had served intermittently for the duration of the war. He testified he had first enlisted in May of 1775 and served his eight-month term, becoming a valet to an artillery officer. He reenlisted in January 1776 for a one-year term in Captain Micajah Gleason’s company in Colonel John Nixon’s Regiment in the Massachusetts line, again serving out his time. He enlisted for a third term, serving two months before being discharged in Turkey, Pennsylvania. Sometime in June 1777 he reenlisted for four months, expecting discharge in late March or early April 1778. Finally, Bowles signed up for what he understood would be a two-year stint in the 1st New Hampshire Regiment (Bowles 1818). He served in Captain Emerson’s Company in Colonel Joseph Cilley’s Regiment in General Enoch Poor’s Brigade in the New Hampshire line. When Bowles asked for his discharge, Colonel Cilley reneged telling him he had signed up for three years (Bowles 1818). Apparently, he went absent without leave and was considered a deserter because of this dispute. He returned with General Washington’s blanket pardon. After serving another year he was honorably discharged at Newbury, NY, in 1782. Possessing his final discharge cleared away any obstacle to his pension application (Bowles 1819).

27After his discharge Charles returned to New Hampshire where he became a farmer. He had lived in Warren when he was not in service during the Revolution. He had purchased land in Warren in 1777, perhaps using his signing bonus, but could not count on a land bounty for his service. Unlike other states, New Hampshire did not have land for veteran bounties (Bockstruck 1996: v). In 1784 he married Mary Corliss (b. 1768), ‘his cousin, a granddaughter of the above named Col. [Daniel Morgan]’, further complicating Bowles’s ancestry (LLT 6). What about the ancestry of Mary Corliss? Is this a family romance, an imagined ancestry growing out of Bowles’s frustration with his abandonment by his mother (Fleischner 1996: 40–41)? Military historian Glenn A. Knoblock dismisses this ‘wild claim’ out-of-hand (2003: 198). Not only is there no documentation corroborating it, but Morgan was only twenty-four years old by the time of Bowles’s birth. Whatever the case, Charles and Mary had eleven children. Despite his fame or reputation as a minister, sixty-year-old Bowles declared in his pension claim ownership of only a ‘lame’ horse, a ‘part single a sleigh harness’, and an ‘old saddle’, ‘amounting to $23.00’. Bowles stated that his occupation was laborer, but that he was ’unable to labour much because of the ‘Phthisey”’, a consumptive disorder according to the Oxford English Dictionary (Bowles 1820). He made no mention of his ministerial work. Nor did he mention his wife Mary Corliss who had likely died. Bowles identified his dependents still living with him: two minor children, Jonathan aged 13 and Deborah aged 15, ‘both in good health’ and twenty-four year old Eleanor ‘unable to support herself’ (Bowles 1820).

28During the period of economic crisis following the war, Bowles was not only in financial straits, but also suffered the trials and tribulations of everyday life. He had a new wife and three toddlers underfoot: James, Molly, and Charles. He also joined the Calvinist Baptist Church, in Wentworth, New Hampshire. He craved the ministry. Even though he felt himself unworthy of this calling, he began preaching in the neighboring towns. His uneasiness was compounded by the predominance of the Congregational church in the state; the Baptists were ‘being persecuted and called heretics’ (LLT 8). Perhaps because of this antagonism and lacking formal education, Bowles was self-conscious of his limitations for a vocation in the ministry, even if the Congregational ministry was formally trained and the Baptist less so. ‘His book education was nothing’, Lewis noted (LLT 11). His resolve was further ‘shaken’ by Mary Corliss’s opposition to his call to preach. His indecisiveness led him to despair. He heard a voice: ‘” woe is me, if I preach not the gospel”’. Yet he was so ‘agitated’ that he felt unfit even for mundane affairs (LLT 11). He looked for an escape. Partly to diminish his despair and partly to remedy his financial straits, Bowles went to sea for three years, disembarking from Boston as a cook. Life at sea perhaps warded off his creditors but it was not the best refuge for a tormented soul. ‘Dreading [...] the awful responsibility of his situation, and the fearful doom that awaited him’, he fell in with ‘wicked society’, finding solace ‘in the ribald songs and jest of his rude shipmates’ (LLT 12).

29After three years of a ‘backslidden [...] life’, while his vessel wintered for repairs, Bowles met a ‘stranger’ who importuned him to preach (LLT 12). The Second Great Awakening, a millennial movement, was convulsing the region. The woman said that she had traveled thirty miles from her home to the coast to find him. She told him that she had had a ‘singular dream’ about him leading a revival in this place (LLT 12). Acting upon this dream, the reluctant sailor met with congregants. He was so disappointed and ‘discouraged’ with his effort that he saw no future in it. The woman and her husband, nevertheless, prevailed on him to try again. En route to the next appointment he passed through a copse of wood. He began to pray for guidance, feeling ‘the awful condition of the unregenerate’ (LLT 13). He went to the appointed place and found an assembly waiting for him. He and the crowd both caught the spirit. He not only ‘converted’ a half-dozen or more, but his self-doubts now dissipated (LLT 13). He not only left the sea, but also the Calvinist Baptist Church. He embarked on a new ministry in Vermont with the newly developing Free Will Baptists. He left the Calvinist denomination because of his theological conflict over predestination innate in Calvinism. In 1816 he chose Vermont because of the relative absence of Free Will churches in the Green Mountain state. For the next forty years he preached ‘Free Grace and Salvation’ (LLT 14).

30Lewis points out that racism ‘often’ greeted Bowles when he preached at a ‘new place’. ’There was then, and now is’, he wrote, ‘a deep-rooted prejudice against the mere complexion of a person, which will manifest itself in a variety of forms’ (LLT 116). These reactions could be typed by genre: patronized by anti-slavery, spurned by poor, and condescended by elite (LLT 116). His race garnered him a reputation of novelty, attracting crowds desiring to hear him preach. Nevertheless, he was on more than one occasion the target of planned mob activity, ‘backed up by all the mountain of prejudice, hanging over him like a mill stone’. Bravely standing his ground, he was able to overcome his would be attackers (LLT 204). Yet Bowles was comfortable in his skin. His generosity of spirit and his humanity were self-evident, an antidote to the intersectionality of oppression:

It has often been said of him that he enjoyed a perfect contentment with his lot. His color and identity with the African race, never gave him dissatisfaction with the order of an allwise Providence. He could easily forget himself in national condition, or humble ancestry. His sympathy was for the souls of men, for their spiritual welfare irrespective of color.
(LLT 217)

31For example, a fellow minister, ‘alluding to the American prejudice against color’, rhetorically asked if Bowles ‘regretted that he was a colored man’. Elder Bowles’ countenance lit up with pleasure, as he answered with a strong an emphatic, ‘No! Never. Hundreds have been led to Christ and converted just by my color’ (LLT 147–148). Like Brace he used his ministry to rally the community against slavery. Once he railed against the institution at what appeared an inopportune time. A cry had gone out because a woman was lost in the woods. His congregation, clearly anxious for her plight, left the meeting to search for her. After her rescue Bowles issued a stern rebuke, admonishing them for valuing the life of one more so than the lives of three million enslaved Africans. If the horrific possibility of a death by starvation or wild beasts in the woods can engender empathy, ‘why then might not the servant of God, utter one word of sympathy for three millions, who are in a much worse condition’ (LLT 1852: 75)?

32Lewis credits Bowles with ameliorating the color prejudice in the state of Vermont because of his demeanor and Christian ministry:

God only knows, how far the influence of that man has been felt in revolutionizing the public sentiment of the State, against the abomination of American slavery. But I cannot doubt that it has been, and still has an influence in destroying prejudice against color.
(LLT 190)

33Lewis was doubtlessly impressed with Bowles and Brace’s salutary effect on the abolitionist spirit of New England. Indeed, Lewis credits Brace and Bowles with revolutionizing the racial sentiments of their co-citizens of the Green Mountain State. ‘To hear Elder [Charles] Bowles preach and Brother Jeffrey Brace talk’, he quotes a contemporary, ‘was enough to make abolitionists of a whole community’ (LLT 190).

34Interpreting Bowles and Brace’s memoirs and pension records enrich our understanding of intersectionality and diasporic identities of African Americans in New England in the New Republic. African-born Brace claimed descent from an elite lineage of military and political officers. Enslaved as a youth, he became blind and indigent as an old man. Indentured as a youth, American-born Bowles claimed descent from an African father and the daughter of a Revolutionary War general. He was also impoverished and blind in his old age. Yet both men contributed mightily to the model of black manhood (i.e., masculinity) in the struggle against racism in a slaveholding republic. New Englanders, both men self-identified as soldiers, fathers, widowers, mariners, farmers, laborers, preachers, and patriots. Their war service earned them stature in their communities, even if they still had to contend with racism. After experiencing crisis conversions their ministerial labors carried them throughout New England and western New York. Their messages were not simply concerned with personal salvation. Rather, they wanted their African cohorts to experience not only faith, but also freedom.


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1 Boyrereau Brinch and Benjamin F. Prentiss, The Blind African Slave, or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace. Containing an Account of the Kingdom of Bow-Woo, in the Interior of Africa; with the Climate and Natural Productions, Laws, and Customs Peculiar to That Place. With an Account of His Captivity, Sufferings, Sales, Travels, Emancipation, Conversion to the Christian Religion, Knowledge of the Scriptures, & c. Interspersed with Strictures on Slavery, Speculative Observations on the Qualities of Human Nature, with Quotation from Scripture. St. Albans, VT: Harry Whitney, 1810; Eld. John W. Lewis, The Life, Labors, and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles, of the Free Will Baptist Denomination, Together with an Essay on the Character and Condition of the African Race by the Same. Watertown, MA: Ingalls and Stowell’s Steam Press, 1852. Henceforth, The Blind African Slave is abbreviated in the text as BAS and The Life, Labor, and Travels as LLT.


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