Women's and Gender History Program
“She has Children that are Only a Charge”: Enslaved Mothers at Public Works in the American Revolution
Sean Gallagher, PhD Candidate in History
Patriot state governments confiscated, bought, and hired thousands of enslaved people for military production during the American Revolution. Southern war boards used black labor to staff public ironworks, shipyards, tanning shops, and Continental army hospitals. At all these sites of public labor, officials detained enslaved women to cook, launder, and make clothes for enslaved men. Many of these women entered state service with their children. My paper discusses the challenges laboring women faced trying to hold on to their families while under the oversight of civil servants that often saw prepubescent bondpeople as a drain on the public treasury. I also examine competing notions of family labor among patriot leaders and enslaved people in the late-eighteenth century. While Works superintendents believed that enslaved women had a necessary public role in serving their husbands and brothers, they categorized the parent-child relationship between bondpeople as either unimportant or one apt to obstruct production rather than assist it. By contrast, bondwomen did not necessarily separate their children’s labor from their own, and asserted their motherhood as fundamental to the work they performed. I argue that military mobilization was a new, powerful intervention of state power in enslaved people’s lives that accelerated family separation and reified gendered valuations of labor detrimental to enslaved children.