Book Review | Peter's War
When historian and constitutional scholar Joyce Lee Malcolm first discovered a 1765 bill of sale for a 19-month-old slave boy, she put it aside. She was reconstructing the famous running battle between the Minutemen and the Redcoats that passed through Lincoln, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. The couple who bought Peter, Josiah and Elizabeth Nelson, lived on what’s since become known as the Battle Road.
But the bill of sale haunted her, and she eventually decided to find out what became of the “sartain neagro servant boy” who apparently witnessed the first battle of the American Revolution. “Apparently,” because not a word written by Peter in his lifetime has yet to be found. “In the end, I have discovered Peter’s footprints but not his voice,” Malcolm says in her account of his life, Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution (Yale University Press; $28).
His footprints cover the infant nation. Peter marched, often cold and starving, from Bunker Hill to Saratoga to Yorktown, where George Washington’s army was finally victorious. Peter was a slave in an army whose leaders, including Washington, bitterly resisted arming slaves. Only when the British offered freedom to slaves who would fight for them did the colonists relent.
Peter eventually won his freedom and may have freed his mother and sister. We don’t know. All that we know, or can guess, is in this fascinating book. As Malcolm points out, in an age when records are silent on the lives of most ordinary citizens, let alone slaves, it’s amazing that we know so much.
Read more: Peter’s War excerpt
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