This is a blog about people in revolution. Specifically, it’s a blog about documents and what they can and cannot tells us about the people who participate in revolutions. It is inspired by something Kathleen DuVal said at our November symposium: “War creates documents.” This struck me as a profound truth about the way many historians study revolutions. The most bountiful manuscript collections related to the American Revolution, for example, owe much of their abundance to wartime documentation. George Washington’s eight years of wartime correspondence are more voluminous than the rest of his life combined. Similarly, the Papers of the Continental Congress devote volume after volume to collecting and organizing materials tracing the course of the war. Historians do not always study revolutionary war. But they owe much to its largesse.
Wartime documents offer unique opportunities to examine individual lives during revolution. In a period where ordinary people left few documents providing detail about their lives, military service created a vast paper trail that once reassembled allows us to reconstruct the experiences of those who are often silent in the documentary record. In this scenario, even the seemingly mundane can turn out to have incredible significance.
During the course of dissertation research, I came across the document pictured to the left (courtesy of the National Archives and Fold3.) Found in federal pension records from the nineteenth-century, this soldier’s discharge from December 1783 is a relatively unremarkable document except for the fact that the soldier in question turned out to be former slave with the felicitous name of Fortune Freeman. Living in New York City in 1818, Freeman appeared before a city judge to attest that he was “extremely poor” and needed “the assistance of my Country to prevent my being dependent on charity.” His net worth was less than ten dollars; his only belongings clothes “all old & nearly worn out.” As proof of his military service during the American Revolution, he produced his discharge. The court clerk (who described Freeman as “a black” in the record) sent the materials to Washington DC for review. Fortune Freeman soon received a standard soldier’s pension of eight dollars per month. .
Freeman’s life turned out to be a bit of a mystery. Hoping to learn more about his background, I dug into the comprehensive seventeen-volume index Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War. To my surprise, I found no less than four men named Fortune Freeman serving in the Continental Army between 1777 and 1783. To my even greater surprise, not one seemed to be the individual who applied for a pension in 1818: all were serving in different regiments and at different places than those claimed in Freeman’s pension application. Further research into extant army muster and pay rolls has led me to believe that Fortune Freeman was originally a slave from Essex County, Massachusetts named Fortune Conant. He served in the Continental Army for two different terms totaling six years. Significantly, enlistment documents for his second term of service list him as Fortune Freeman, indicating that he probably earned freedom through military service.
Fortune Freeman’s discharge is a simple document. It lists his name, his regiment, the date of his discharge, and not much else. There are thousands just like it scattered across the millions of papers in the pension files, but this one turned out to be a treasure trove. Whereas I began my quest searching for one man, this document revealed the Revolutionary stories of five different African-American soldiers each with their own unique wartime experiences.
But if Fortune Freeman opened new doors, others remain firmly and frustratingly shut. Each of the five men discovered through this single document remain otherwise invisible in the historical record. Massachusetts town and census records contain few references to men named Fortune Freemen, let alone for several different ones. Fortune Freeman’s life in New York City is equally obscure. He doesn’t appear in city directories or on the decennial census schedules. Even the federal government eventually lost track of him: an undated, handwritten note on his pension record reads “Time of death not on file.” Ultimately, their lives before and after the American Revolution are unknown. Each survives in the historical record solely through materials created to document their military service. This speaks not only to the importance of wartime documentation in tracing people in revolution, but also to the significance of the Revolutionary War in each of these eighteenth-century lives.
 All quotations from documents in the pension file for Fortune Freeman, File S43572, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files.