They have been described as the unsung contributors to American independence. In the Siege of Savannah during the American Revolution, they were known as the “Chasseurs Volontaires”– infantry volunteers from Haiti — who carried out what was called “the most brilliant feat of the day, and one of the bravest ever performed by foreign troops in the American cause.”
Indeed, these Black Haitian soldiers were in Savannah in 1779 to help America win independence, but their story remains little known. What is worse, America would soon turn its back on them and their people following the war, otherwise known as the Battle of Savannah.
The Battle of Savannah, Georgia, occurred between September 16 and October 18, 1779. It became one of the bloodiest battles during the American Revolutionary War. Over 3,000 British forces had at the time occupied Savannah, which was then the capital of Georgia, for a year. According to BlackPast, they were challenged by 600 Continental troops who were supported by 3,500 French soldiers led by First Lieutenant Count d’Estaing, including 800 troops from Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) and other French Caribbean colonies.
France was a world empire at the time, with territories in the Caribbean, South America, India, and Africa. Thus, when war broke out in Britain’s thirteen American colonies, France decided to help the American rebels gain their independence. And France did that in so many ways, including by sending Black Haitian soldiers to fight at the Siege of Savannah.
It is documented that in October 1779, more than 500 Black Haitian soldiers reached the port of Savannah, sent by the French Empire, “to ‘free’ Georgia – one of the biggest slaveholding colonies at the time – from the British.” This force of over 500 Haitian free Blacks joined American colonists and French troops in a move to drive the British from Savannah in coastal Georgia.
They were organized into the regiment called Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue or Saint-Domingue Volunteer Infantry. The Chasseurs-Volontaires group constituted the largest contingent of troops of African descent to fight in the American Revolution. In fact, the soldiers in the group were des gens de couleur libres (free men of color) who were mixed-race men of African and European origin from Saint-Domingue. Born free, they were not the same as free slaves or affranchis, who were born enslaved or became enslaved during their lives and then gained their freedom. The gens de couleur had the same rights and privileges as the White colonial population even though in practice, they faced discrimination.
At the Battle of Savannah, the gens de couleur outnumbered the 500 American troops. Legend says that a 12-year-old boy, named Henri Christophe, sailed with the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue as a drummer boy. Twelve years later, he would enlist in the Haitian militia and rise to the rank of an officer before becoming president and king of Haiti.
The Siege of Savannah
The Chasseurs-Volontaires group was, according to BlackPast, one of the most homogeneous and efficient allied groups which fought the English troops with boldness. But the group and its allied forces lost the battle as the British became aware of their plan of attack. According to a report by the History Is Now Magazine, the British troops defending Savannah were more than ready for the attack because they were tipped off by American deserters.
“All told, the Franco-American attackers finished the battle with 244 killed, 584 wounded, and 120 taken prisoner – a total of 948 casualties. The British, however, lost 40 men, had 63 wounded, and reported 52 missing – totaling 155 casualties,” the report said.
Although soldiers of the Chasseurs-Volontaires group represented a large part of those killed, many of them survived. These survivors would return home to Haiti with battle experience and would go on to play a huge role in the liberation of their country.
“The Haitians who participated in those battles came back with an ideal; an ideal of freedom and liberty was developed,” Gerard Laurent, a Port-au-Prince historian, was quoted by The Los Angeles Times.
And despite helping the U.S. in its fight for independence, the U.S. would throw its weight behind the French against the Haitians and dump the Haitians in times of need.
It was in October 2007 that a memorial statue was unveiled in Savannah depicting the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue during the Battle of Savannah. The memorial honors the soldiers for the support they gave to the founding of the United States.
“This is a testimony to tell people we Haitians didn’t come from the boat,” Daniel Fils-Aime, chairman of the Miami-based Haitian American Historical Society that erected the memorial, said. “We were here in 1779 to help America win independence. That recognition is overdue.”