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designGEORGIA'S BLACK REVOLUTIONARY PATRIOTS

BY CAROLE E. SCOTT

Just as was true of 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.

Some estimate that as many as three-fourths of the blacks in Georgia  may have gone over to the British. One-third of the British soldiers garrisoned at Fort Cornwallis during the siege of Augusta were black, and a corps of fugitive slaves harassed people living on the Savannah River for several years. [1] (After the War was lost by the British, some whites and blacks who had supported them were settled in Canada.)

The number of black soldiers in both the British and American armies was limited by  opposition to the arming of slaves. The number serving in the Continental (American) forces has been estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000. [2] Most blacks fighting for the American cause soldiered in the North. Georgian Austin Dabney was one of the few exceptions.

Dabney's origins are hinted at by Georgia Governer George R. Gilmer an autobiography he wrote long after the War. Gilmer, the son of a family originating in England that left Virginia to settle near Augusta, Georgia before the War, says that well before the War a bachelor fond of card-playing, drinking, and horse racing had living with him on his plantation near Richmond, Virginia only one other white person, a girl whose parentage was unknown.

She grew up, Gilmer says, knowing scarcely anyone other than the bachelor and his slaves. Suddenly and secretly, he left his plantation, taking her with him. He went to North Carolina, where he stayed with a man named Aycock, who later showed up in Wilkes County, Georgia. With him was a mulatto boy named Austin, who he said was his slave. Later, when Aycock was called upon to fight the Tories plaguing Georgia, he offered Austin as a substitute. When he learned that a slave was not acceptable, he claimed that Austin was not a slave, and Austin was enrolled inthe American forces under the name Austin Dabney. [3]

After the War, Georgia's General Assembly rewarded Austin with a grant of 500 acres of land and, although he was technically a free man of color, in August 1786--possibly to help him get a pension--it gave him his freedom. [4] In an 1821 "act for the relief of AUSTIN, otherwise called Austin DABNEY, a free man of colour (sic)" the General Assembly recognized that Austin, "instead of advantaging himself of the terms to withdraw himself from the American lines, and enter with the majority of his colour and fellow-slaves in the service of his Britannic Majesty, and under the command of Col. Elijah CLARK, and in several actions and engagements behaved against the common enemy with a bravery and fortitude which would have honoured (sic) a freeman, and in one of which engagements he was severely wounded and rendered incapable of hard servitude." [5]

Dabney was wounded not far from Washington, Georgia at the Battle of Kettle Creek. This battle broke the hold of the British in Georgia and led them to temporarily abandon Augusta. At Kettle Creek Dabney took a rifle ball through his thigh, making him a cripple for the rest of his life. Giles Harris, a white man who lived nearby, took Dabney to his farm and cared for him. Dabney never forgot this kindness, and he worked for the Harris family for the rest of his life and, "Being a quick-whitted man with an instinct for business, he (Dabney) accumulated property." [6]

Harris had a son named William whom Dabney persuaded the Harris family to let him accompany when he went to college. After William Harris graduated from the University of Georgia (then named Franklin College), Dabney supported him while he studied law with Stephen Upson. "When William was undergoing his examination for admission to the bar, Austin Dabney stood leaning against the railing that enclosed the court listening to the proceedings with great anxiety. When the young man was sworn in, and was shaking hands with the members of the bar, Austin, unable to control himself, burst into a flood of tears, happy that he had been able to help the son of a man who nursed him so patiently when he lay wounded and helpless." [7]

Before 1820, Dabney and the Harrises had moved from Wilkes to Madison County, where Dabney became the bone of contention in an election campaign in which the County split into pro- and anti-Dabney parties. Dabney, who had been granted a federal pension, had not been allowed to have a chance in Georgia's 1819 land lottery with other veterans. So Stephen Upson engineered the passage of the 1821 relief law which awarded Dabney land. [8] Dabney and the Harrises may have moved to Walton County and farmed the 112 [?] acres of land he was granted. [9]

"It is strange," wrote Governor Gilmer, "that Austin Dabney, who never knew his grandfather, should have inherited the taste of the Virginia gentlemen for horse-racing. He owned fine horses, attended the race-course, entered the list for the stake, and betted with all the eagerness of a professional sportsman." [10]

After adjournment of court in Dainelsville, it was Dabney's habit to sit with the lawyers and judge. Sometimes he told them of the "stirring incidents of the struggle between the Whigs [Patriots] and Tories in Upper Georgia and South Carolina. His memory was retentive, his underestanding good, and he described what he knew well." [11]

Once a year Debney went to Savannah to draw his pension. "On one occasion he traveled thither with Col. Wiley Pope. They were very intimate and social on the road, and until they entered the streets of Savannah. As they were passing along through the city, Colonel Pope observed to Austin Dabney, that he was a sensible man and knew the prejudices which forbade his associating with him in city society. Austin Dabney checked his horse, and fell in the rear, after the fashion of mulatto servants following their masters. They passed the house of General James Jackson, then Governor of the State. He was standing in his door at the time. Col. Pope passed on without notice. Recognizing Austin Dabney, he ran into the street, seized him by the hand, drew him from his horse and carried him into his house, where he continued as his guest whilst business kept him in Savannah. [12]

When Col. William Harris moved to Pike County in 1826, Dabney went with him. He lived out the rest of his life on Harris' plantation. He was often seen in Zebulon, "where he was respected by everyone." [13]  He was buried in the Harris family cemetery.

In November 1996, John T. Middlebrooks, the great- great-grandson of Giles Harris through his daughter Jane, had markers errected over the graves of William Harris and Austin Dabney on Harris' land that he now owns. William Harris and his wife, Cynthia Strickland, who married in Henry County in 1827, had a son whom they named Austin Dabney Harris and a daugher named Lavinia. (Thanks for this information goes to Lucy Moye, Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College.)

another designDabney's female counterpart was called Mammy Kate. Like the white heroine, Nancy Hart, she lived in what was then Wilkes County. Today where she lived is in Elbert County. An imposing woman of more than six feet, she was a house servant belonging to Governor Stephen Heard, who fought with Austin Dabney in the Battle of Kettle Creek.

In an 1820 letter she was said to be the "biggest and tallest" black woman the writer had ever seen and had "proven herself to be a strong, a kindly, a never failing friend to Colonel Heard and his family." [14] Of pure African blood, she said she was the daughter of a great king.

Heard suffered a great deal at the hands of the Torries. They forced his wife out into a snow storm, and she and their young, adopted daughter died from exposure. Then he was captured by the British and sentenced to death.

Ostensibly to care for his needs, Kate followed him to his prison. One morning she presented herself with a large covered basked on her head. She told the sentry on duty that she was there to pick up Colonel Heard's soiled linen and was admitted to his cell. There she put Heard, who was of small statue, in the basket and calmly sauntered pass the guard with him in the basket balanced on her head.

The previous night she had secreted two of Heard's fine Arabian horses--Lightfoot and Silverheels--on the outskirts of Augusta, where he was imprisoned. She carried Heard to where she had hidden the horses, and she and Heard rode away. It is said that on the ride he offered to set her free, but she responded by telling him that he could set her free, butr she was never going to set him free.

He gave her her freedom and a deed to a small tract of land and a four-roomed house, but she continued to serve the Heard family, turning over on her death bed her children to his family. [15]

Sources

1. Woodson, Carter G. and Charles H. Welsey, The Negro in Our History, p. 123.

2. Foner, Philip S., History of Black Americans, p. 337.

3. Gilmer, George R., First Settlers of Upper Georgia, p. 165.

4. Sams, Anita B., Wayfarers in Walton, p. 541.

5. Dawson's Compilation of the Laws of the State of Georgia, 1820-29, p, 3011.

6. Mitchell, Lizzie R., History of Pike County, Georgia, 1822-1932, p. 221.

7. Mitchell, p. 231.

8. Harris, Joel Chandler, Georgia, p. 110.

9. Sams, p. 54.

10. Tabor, Paul, The History of Madison County, Georgia, p. 220.

12. Gilmer, p. 166-167.

13. Gilmer, p. 166-167.

14. McIntosh, John H., History of Elbert County, Georgia, 1790-1935, p. 221.

15. McIntosh, p. 23.

The quilts shown above were made by Mrs. Mable Walls of Carrollton, Georgia. Do not copy and use text or quilts without permission.

 

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