Reconstructing a life

Historian Joyce Lee Malcolm tells the story of a New England slave in ''Peter's War.'' Historian Joyce Lee Malcolm tells the story of a New England slave in ''Peter's War.''
By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / March 14, 2009
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We associate slavery so strongly with the Southern plantation that we forget its presence in Massachusetts. In "Peter's War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution," former Bentley University historian Joyce Lee Malcolm tells the story of a 1 1/2-year-old "neagro servant boy" sold to a Lincoln couple in 1765. Apparently raised as a member of the family, Peter joined the Patriot army at age 12, and fought at the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. He received his freedom in return for his service, took the last name of Sharon, and lived out his days in his hometown. Slavery was outlawed here by a court ruling in 1783. With little to go on besides the bill of sale, which she found in the Lincoln Public Library, Malcolm reconstructed Sharon's life against the drama of his times. She spoke by phone from Arlington, Va., where she teaches constitutional history at George Mason University School of Law.

Q. Why did this story capture your interest?

A. I was haunted by the idea of a child that young being sold without his mother. I couldn't get it out of my mind, and became interested in finding out more about him, his parents, and why he was sold. It opened a world that I knew nothing about. There has been little study of slavery in villages in the North.

Q. What did you discover?

A. It seemed like a more intimate relationship than you would find in the South. People tended to have one or two slaves to help in the house. They lived in the house, ate and worked with the family. Only in church was there a rigid separation. Because there were so few and they were so integrated in the community, there was less opportunity for them to have their own culture and society.

Q. Why would Peter have joined the American side?

A. Why they fought on the American side is a real question. New England had only 5 percent of the slaves in the country, but half of all those who served in the Continental Army. The army offered freedom [later in the war] to slaves who would fight for three years, yet there were a number who were already fighting on the patriot side.

Q. How were they treated?

A. They were integrated into the army and fought side by side [with whites], and were treated the same. It was much more the traditional band of brothers, which didn't happen again until the Korean War.

Q. Was the research difficult, with so little to go on?

A. It was exciting to find things, but frustrating at times because there were gaps, no first-hand accounts by Peter. I would love to have had a diary. One wishes one could time-travel back and ask questions. I felt as though I had his footsteps, but not his voice.

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