2009-02-05 / News

No soldier was braver than this distinguished, loyal patriot

UNSUNG HERO OF WILKES COUNTY - A BLACK REVOLUTIONARY WAR HERO - AUSTIN DABNEY (1765-1830)
By Rev. Ed Anderson LTC(Ret) US Army

During the period February 13-15, 2009, Wilkes County celebrates the victory by the Georgia Militia over the British military forces during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) at the Battle of Kettle Creek. In the January 23 celebrative and informative kickoff to this celebration in front of the Wilkes County Court House in Washington, local historian Skeet Willingham and others described the 1780 founding of the city of Washington which was made possible, in part, by victory over the British at Kettle Creek on February 14, 1779. Willingham pointed out that at the time of the Battle of Kettle Creek, only three counties - Richmond, Burke and Wilkes - remained under Continental Army control. Victory at Kettle Creek prevented Wilkes County and lands westward from going over to British control at that time.

In her article entitled, Georgia's Black Revolutionary Patriot, Carole E. Scott writes, "Just as was true with white Americans, black Americans fought on both sides during the Revolutionary War. Also true of both races was the fact that Tory (pro-British) sentiment was strong in Georgia. Helping convince many blacks to fight for the British was the fact that they were promised their freedom from slavery if they did so." Scott goes on to say that after the war was lost by the British, some whites and blacks who had supported them were settled in Canada." The New Georgia Encyclopedia states that some were settled in Florida, the Bahamas, and Jamaica, as well. Scott adds that the number of black soldiers in both the British and American armies was limited by opposition to arming enslaved black men.

Phillip S. Foner, in his book entitled, History of Black Americans, states that the number serving in the Continental (American) forces has been estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 men. He goes on to say that "most blacks fighting for the American cause soldiered in the North. Georgian Austin Dabney was one of the few exceptions."

The Dictionary of Georgia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by Kenneth Coleman and Charles Stephen Gurr affirms that "Austin Dabney was a real person whose life can be documented through public records. According to his own statement, Dabney was born in Wake County, N.C., and came to Georgia by the late 1770s." The Dictionary goes on to say that "He was a slave of Richard Aycock, who had moved to Georgia from N.C. and settled in Wilkes County. Aycock applied on behalf of Dabney for the latters bounty land in 1784. This was authorized for Dabney by Elijah Clarke because of Dabney's support of the patriot cause during the war. Aycock died shortly before August 6, 1786, in Wilkes County. The following day, a committee of the Georgia House of Assembly was appointed to write a bill 'to emancipate and set free Austin, a mulatto fellow.' The law authorized Lieutenant Colonel Elijah Clarke and others to purchase Austin from Aycock's heirs for no more than seventy pounds sterling. Once freed, he would be entitled by the recently passed state law to a state pension for a wounded or disabled soldier. Dabney was certified to receive a five-dollar-a-month state pension on 29 September. Later that state pension was converted into federal ones which he received until his death. Dabney lived in Wilkes County, Ga., from the time of his freedom until around 1804. It seems that he enjoyed the legal rights as a free person of color because he was involved in lawsuits there."

Carol E. Scott points out in her earlier referenced article that Dabney became a soldier in the Georgia Militia when his master, Richard Aycock, avoided military service by presenting the enslaved Dabney as his substitute, a practice that Georgia and other colonies permitted. Michael Thurmond in his book entitled Freedom, points out that "Aycock circumvented the prohibition against slaves bearing arms by swearing that Dabney was a free person of color." Thurmond goes on to say that "Out of necessity or indifference, military leaders apparently ignored Georgia's prohibition against enlisting black men, slave or free, in the militia." Thurmond adds that Dabney "distinguished himself as a brave and loyal patriot". Thurmond goes on to quote George Gilmer, an early Georgia governor and historian "No soldier under Clarke was braver, or did a better service during the revolutionary struggle." Thurmond adds that "In February 1779, Dabney fought in Georgia's bloodiest Revolutionary War battle at Kettle Creek, near the town of Washington in Wilkes County. The Georgia patriots won decisively, but Dabney was shot in the thigh and left seriously wounded on the battlefield."

Thurmond continues, "Giles Harris, a white Wilkes County resident, found Dabney, carried him to his house, and nursed him back to good health. For the rest of his life, Dabney worked to repay Harris for his kindness. To show his gratitude, the war hero became a laborer, friend, and benefactor to the Harris family. Dabney paid Harris' oldest son's (William)tuition at the University of Georgia, and arranged for the young

graduate to receive his legal training in the office of a prominent Madison County attorney." Attorney William Harris would later name his son Austin Dabney Harris.

Michael Thurmond points out that "To assure Dabney would never be forced to bear the yoke of slavery again, the Georgia legislature passed a statute in 1776 officially granting the veteran patriot his freedom. … The General Assembly accorded the war hero 'all the liberties and immunities of a free citizen…so far as free Negroes and mulattos are allowed.' However, Dabney's military service and free status could not shield him from the pervasive anti-Negro bias that impacted every aspect of Georgia culture. Although his military service qualified him for a land pension, Dabney was denied the opportunity to participate in the 1819 state land lottery because of his race. Two years later, the Georgia Legislature passed a special resolution granting Dabney 112 acres of land for his "bravery and fortitude." Angry white Madison County residents complained that it was an insult to white men for a former slave to be put on equality with them in the land distribution lottery. But Dabney enjoyed the support of several prominent white politicians, including Governor George Gilmer and Stephen Upson of Oglethorpe County, who introduced the legislation. The governor reminded the Madison Countians that Dabney had rendered "courageous service" during the Revolutionary War, and Gilmer chastised them for displaying what he described as 'unpatriotic' attitudes."

Thurmond hastens to add that "Dabney's contributions to the war effort were singular, but by no means unique. Several other black men served with distinction as combat troops in the patriot army. Nathan Fry joined Colonel Samuel Elbert's regiment at Savannah in 1775. Monday Floyd secured his freedom in 1782 by an act of the Georgia Assembly, which cited his heroic service during the war and directed public treasury to pay Floyd's owner one hundred guineas for his manumission. "

In addition, states Thurmond, "Georgia slaves made other important non-combat contributions to the patriot cause. Slave labor became an increasingly important element in Georgia strategy as the war went on." Many thousands of unnamed enslaved black people significantly contributed to the Revolutionary War effort.

Return to top