Jack Congo

The course of the life of Jack Congo (alternatively, Congo Jack) showed how the relationship between slavery and war service could, and sometimes did, play out tragically in the Revolutionary struggle, even in a New England state such as Connecticut. Congo, a Black man, was born enslaved in Connecticut around 1750.1 On April 15, 1777, at the town of Ridgefield, Connecticut, he enlisted as a private2 in the Fifth Connecticut Regiment3 of the Continental Army.

Much is unknown about Congo’s life before his service. What we do know is that he either volunteered for the war effort with the permission of Nathaniel Baldwin, his owner, as a substitute so that Baldwin could sidestep entering the war, or he was forced by Baldwin to enlist as Baldwin’s proxy.4 Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Congo’s recruitment, he likely joined the Fifth Connecticut Regiment with the expectation that he would be set free if he served.5

The Fifth Connecticut Regiment (5CR) was first established in May of 1775 at Danbury, Connecticut and formed again on January 1, 1777 as one of 88 regiments created by the Continental Congress for a service of three years.6 After surviving a battle between American and British forces at Ridgefield, Connecticut, Congo was among the 35 members of this regiment who would later perish as a result of disease at the Continental Army’s Valley Forge, Pennsylvania encampment.7 By September 14, 1778, Congo was in Fishkill, New York, likely as a patient at the large military hospital there, and passed away on October 30, 1778.8

Sources

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut” (.pdf, Ridgefield, CT, 2020), 41.

Joseph Lee Boyle, Fire Cake and Water: The Connecticut Infantry at the Valley Forge Encampment (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2001), 48. Congo would serve as a private for the duration of his service.

Maurice A. Barboza, “The Hometowns of Connecticut’s African American Revolutionary War Soldiers, Sailors, and Patriots” (.pdf, Washington, D.C.: National Mall Liberty Fund D.C., 2013), 5.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 41.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 41.

“Battle Apron: 5th Connecticut Regiment,” The Ridgefield Press, April 4, 2017, https://www.theridgefieldpress.com/opinion/columns/history/article/Battle-Apron-5th-Connecticut-Regiment-14011666.php.

Jack Congo’s life and service highlighted the way enslaved status—from birth to death—could, unfortunately, characterize and define Black patriot lives.

An October 10, 1793 letter from Nathaniel Baldwin to Col. Philip Burr Bradley, housed at the Ridgefield Library and Historical Association, revealed the economic interest Baldwin maintained in Congo as his master, even after Congo’s death. In that letter, Baldwin affirmed Congo as “a Negro . . . who at the time of enlisting & during the time he continued in the service was my Servant. . . . I [thus] consider myself entitled to his wages, as he left no other Legal Representative.”9 We may assume that Baldwin was unsuccessful in obtaining Congo’s wages then, for, in 1795, he showed renewed interest in collecting Congo’s earnings by applying to the Connecticut General Assembly for them.10 However, the state refused to pay Baldwin Congo’s earnings due to “want of positive evidence that Congo had died.”11 In response, Baldwin provided eyewitnesses who had attended Congo’s funeral, but governing Selectmen replied that they had no record specifying that Congo was freed to serve in the war.12 Therefore, Baldwin was again denied his petition for Congo’s wages,13 and it appeared that at the time of his passing he had altogether failed in his attempts to secure Congo’s earnings.

Jack Congo’s life and service highlighted the way enslaved status—from birth to death—could, unfortunately, characterize and define Black Patriot lives. Because, it seemed, he was not free to create his own path to service, and, through service, was not able to realize a hope for freedom, his life in the records of history has been reduced to something of an anonymous statistic. His burial in an unmarked grave in Fishkill, New York alongside hundreds of other soldiers, both “white and Black,”14 illustrated how disposable such lives seemed. However, the efforts of Nathanial Baldwin to continually cash in on his slave—in Connecticut, no less—seemed to challenge the idea that such Patriots of Color were forgettable, if only in a financial sense. In hindsight, Connecticut’s refusal to give Baldwin Congo’s earnings gave Congo a kind of after-death freedom and humanity that could not be achieved while he was alive.

Sources

“Battle Apron: 5th Connecticut Regiment,” The Ridgefield Press, April 4, 2017, https://www.theridgefieldpress.com/opinion/columns/history/article/Battle-Apron-5th-Connecticut-Regiment-14011666.php.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775–1783 (Lanham, MD: The Pequot Press, Inc., 1973), 39.

David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775–1783 (Lanham, MD: The Pequot Press, Inc., 1973), 39–40.

David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775–1783 (Lanham, MD: The Pequot Press, Inc., 1973), 40.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

Sources

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut” (.pdf, Ridgefield, CT, 2020), 41.

Joseph Lee Boyle, Fire Cake and Water: The Connecticut Infantry at the Valley Forge Encampment (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2001), 48. Congo would serve as a private for the duration of his service.

Maurice A. Barboza, “The Hometowns of Connecticut’s African American Revolutionary War Soldiers, Sailors, and Patriots” (.pdf, Washington, D.C.: National Mall Liberty Fund D.C., 2013), 5.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 41.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 41.

“Battle Apron: 5th Connecticut Regiment,” The Ridgefield Press, April 4, 2017, https://www.theridgefieldpress.com/opinion/columns/history/article/Battle-Apron-5th-Connecticut-Regiment-14011666.php.

“Battle Apron: 5th Connecticut Regiment,” The Ridgefield Press, April 4, 2017, https://www.theridgefieldpress.com/opinion/columns/history/article/Battle-Apron-5th-Connecticut-Regiment-14011666.php.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775–1783 (Lanham, MD: The Pequot Press, Inc., 1973), 39.

David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775–1783 (Lanham, MD: The Pequot Press, Inc., 1973), 39–40.

David O. White, Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775–1783 (Lanham, MD: The Pequot Press, Inc., 1973), 40.

Jack Sanders, “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves: African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut,” 42.

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