Commemorates The Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue
Location Franklin Square
Artist James Mastin
Savannah’s Haitian Monument commemorates the contribution of the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue to the fight for an independent America. One of the few black regiments to fight for the American side in the Revolutionary War, the soldiers were recruited from present-day Haiti, then the French colony of Saint-Domingue.
The Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue were all volunteer soldiers, ten companies of light infantry recruited from amongst the free men of color, as they were then termed, in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
The men were enlisted as a special expeditionary force, part of a contingent of French troops brought into the southern theater of the Revolutionary War under the command of the French general Charles Hector, the comte d’Estaing, to reinforce the flagging American side.
Though seldom commemorated, black and African-American soldiers participated in their thousands in the Revolutionary War, both as patriots and loyalists. Many were former slaves offered their freedom in exchange for military service; others, such as the Chasseurs-Volontaires, enlisted as free men.
In the early years of the war, African-American soldiers served in the New England militia, fighting at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. With the creation of the Continental Army, tensions rose over the inclusion of black men in the American forces. Southern slaveholders were unwilling to arm their slaves, fearing an uprising.
The resulting ban on enlisting black soldiers led many African-American men to fight for the British instead, who offered freedom and wages in return for service. By the end of the war about 20,000 black soldiers were fighting for the British side.
A shortage of white recruits brought an end to the American ban on black soldiers, a policy which had always had its opponents (including Continental Army General Nathanael Greene, whose monument stands a few blocks over in Johnson Square). Southern slaveholders continued to resist the enlistment of their slaves.
Recruitment for the Chasseurs-Volontaires was straightforward, with more men signing up than were required. Soldiers came from all walks of life. Some of the men were members of Saint-Domingue’s black elite, for whom signing up may have been a way to express their masculinity and patriotism.
Men from less well-to-do backgrounds may have primarily enlisted for the pay, which was the same as that offered to regular (white) French troops. After a several-year term of service, many could hope to have accrued enough money to pay for some land or a start in a trade.
Though the men who fought in the Chasseurs were legally free, some had not been at the time they enlisted. Saint-Domingue imposed a “liberty tax,” a substantial payment due upon the freeing of a slave; men who performed military service could exempt themselves or members of their families from this tax.
Slaveowners too were liable for the tax, and some chose to free their slaves, volunteering them for service as a way to avoid the hefty fee.
(See Stewart R King, Blue Coat Or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue, University of Georgia Press, 2001, for more about recruitment of soldiers in Saint-Domingue.)
The Chasseurs-Volontaires were the largest black regiment to serve in the War of Independence and the largest military unit to serve in the Siege of Savannah. 545 soldiers landed in the city for the 1779 battle, around a third of the French force that sailed from the Caribbean to Savannah’s rescue.
They were recruited as auxiliary troops, their main duties to be the support work of digging the fortifications needed for siege warfare and the movement of supplies. In the end, however, the Chasseurs did fight on the front line.
Unexpected British resistance meant that the French troops were not in position when required; the soldiers from Saint-Domingue took their place, providing vital cover for the French soldiers’ retreat.
After the war was over, some of the Chasseurs-Volontaires became important figures in Haiti’s own struggle for independence over the next 25 years.
Upon their return to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the soldiers – now battle-hardened and possessing a renewed sense of the injustices and oppressions of colonization – were instrumental in the slave insurrections, beginning in 1791, that eventually led to the overthrow of French rule and the tyranny of slavery, and the formation, in 1804, of the first majority-black republic in the western world.
The contribution made by the Chasseurs-Volontaire to the struggle to throw off British rule was, unfortunately, not recognized by the country they had helped achieve independence. In the fight for Haitian independence, the Americans sided with the French, concerned about the effects of a free black nation so close to its own slaveholding states.
The Haitian Monument
The role of the ancestors of present-day Haitians in the fight for American Independence is a point of pride and cultural significance for the people of Haiti and Americans of Haitian descent, but before the dedication of Savannah’s Haitian Monument, it was almost unknown in the United States.
The Revolutionary War and the 1779 Siege are memorialized throughout Savannah, several of the city’s squares and monuments named for those who fought for the cause of American independence: the Greene Monument in Johnson Square, the Pulaski Monument in Monterey Square, and the Jasper Monument in Madison Square, all honor men who led in that conflict.
The foot soldiers who fought and died in the Siege of Savannah and the Revolutionary War are less grandly commemorated. Nor have the many non-white combatants in the conflict gained any real kind of recognition.
The Haitian Monument in Franklin Square is one attempt to right these oversights, drawing attention to black combatants in the Revolutionary War.
The Haitian monument depicts six members of the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, mounted atop a 6ft by 16ft granite pillar on the sides of which are inscribed the history of the regiment and the men’s contribution to American independence.
The life-sized bronze figures, sculpted by James Mastin, are intended, with one exception, to represent the nameless black soldiers who fought in the regiment: few records survive of the names and histories of the men themselves.
The drummer boy, more famously, is Henri Christophe, first leader of independent Haiti. In his early teens when he joined the Chasseurs-Volontaires, Christophe is believed (though firm proof does not exist) to have participated in the Siege of Savannah.
Most of the impetus for the creation of the memorial came from the Miami-based Haitian-American Historical Society. Founded in 2001, one of the Society’s first projects was to obtain recognition of the role played by soldiers of pre-Revolutionary Haiti in America’s own independence.
Society members spent a total of seven years drumming up support for the monument from Savannah officials and securing (in two stages) the over $500,000 needed to construct the memorial.
The Haitian Monument was dedicated in two phases. As the initial fundraising allowed for the completion of only four of the planned six figures, a partially-completed monument with those four figures in place was unveiled in 2007. The final monument, with its two additional figures, was unveiled in October 2009.