|A letter that Waltham authorities sent to Continental Army Major General William Heath on Aug. 17, 1780, states Felix Cuff was a free man when he enlisted, and sanctions his return to service. (Massachusetts Historical Society)|
Slave and soldier, he fought for freedom on two fronts
Felix Cuff was a Revolutionary War soldier who fought for freedom twice: once in a local militia unit, and a second time from a snake-infested cave along Stony Brook in Waltham.
The black man from Waltham is barely a footnote in most accounts of the city's role in the War for Independence. But his struggle to be recognized as a free man, in charge of his destiny in a country still fighting for its own, would echo through the two centuries of American history leading up to this weekend's Patriots Day observances.
Cuff's attempt to defend himself from an effort to return him to slavery didn't begin or end in that cave.
No records documenting Cuff's preenlistment life seem to exist. Back then, slaves would not have been referred to by name in most public documents. Census records merely identified them as male or female - as taxable property on an owner's balance sheet. In 1764, records show that 13 slaves were living within Waltham's boundaries, several at the household of a man named Gearfield.
Historians say that Cuff enlisted as a private in Captain Zaccheus Wright's company on Aug. 7, 1780, two years after the increasing lack of able-bodied white men made the acceptance of armed slaves and free blacks a necessity.
Peter Drummey, a research librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society, said those responsible for mustering soldiers to fight with the revolutionaries perceived the result as a double-edged sword.
"You have people willing to be soldiers, but in making them soldiers, you're making them equipped to fight for their own freedom," said Drummey. A common argument against having black soldiers was that they would use their military knowledge and weapons to overthrow their white masters.
The Bucks of America, one of several all-black regiments from Massachusetts, was created in 1778. In all-black and integrated units, slaves often were promised freedom in exchange for their service.
The regiment in which Cuff served was integrated, and it's likely that as a slave, he expected he would be freed. But according to a letter that Waltham selectmen and other local authorities sent to Continental Army Major General William Heath on Aug. 17, 1780, only days after Cuff joined Wright's company, a Waltham resident named Edward Gearfield whisked him away, saying he owned Cuff and knew nothing about his enlistment.
The selectmen said in the letter that Gearfield was lying - that he was at home when Cuff enlisted, and that Cuff was a free man upon going to war. "We are persuaded that he has no Demand in Justice on the said Phelix [sic] as a Slave whatever he may pretend by any pretended Bill of Sale," the letter states. "As the said Phelix Cuff is desirous of returning to the Army with Lieut. Hastings and is a healthy Fellow induces us to countenance his Return."
The "Lieut. Hastings" mentioned in the letter is Lieutenant Eliphalet Hastings, who later would try to return Cuff and his compatriots - former comrades in arms - to slavery.
Then, a commanding officer named John Jacobs wrote to Heath on Aug. 26, saying that his investigation showed "Cuff is the property of Edward Garfield [sic] and find that he was taken by the point of the Bayonet and Brought by Lt. Hastings by order of the Commite [sic] and Select men of the town of Waltham into Camp." Jacobs apparently ordered that Cuff be discharged from the Army and sent back to Gearfield, ending his 24 days of service.
Instead, Cuff and at least two other black men - either former soldiers like himself or local slaves who ran away to join him - hid in a cave known to locals as "Devil's Den," refusing to return to slavery.
That June, Massachusetts had ratified its own state constitution. Cuff apparently took its words to heart, especially the part that read, "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties."
Eventually, Hastings learned where Cuff and the others were hiding, and gathered a small force to effect a capture.
But without firing a shot, the three men apparently sent him packing.
According to an account included in the 1882 edition of "Waltham, Past and Present," by Charles A. Nelson, Hastings "met with a warm reception and came back empty handed."
Cuff emerged from the cave long enough to file charges against Hastings and his posse, accusing them of incitement to riot.
In September 1781, Hastings' request for town money to defend himself against the charges was rebuffed by the selectmen. Presumably, Cuff remained free, because he went on to collect wages for his service in the war. In 1783, Massachusetts declared slavery unconstitutional.
It's unclear what happened to Cuff after he was awarded his 1,500 pounds and 60 bushels of corn. According to "Waltham, Past and Present," there was a building "on the east corner of Moody Street" later occupied by "Felix, a colored man, in the employ of John Boies, the paper maker" in the years after the Revolutionary War. But the house is not in the tax records of 1798, and it's unclear whether its occupant was Felix Cuff. The 1790 Census for Waltham doesn't include anyone with the surname of Cuff in its list of heads of household, and no Felix Cuff is listed in the state census records for that year.
Drummey finds Cuff's tale emblematic of the internal moral struggles of a nation fighting for its freedom while also profiting from slavery.
"This is a person walking around, but he could also be this other man's property," he said. Gearfield would be getting the sheriff or representative of the town to recover Cuff, as if he were "a domestic animal or a piece of real estate," said Drummey, who added that the irony of enslaving someone who was fighting for a nation's independence would not necessarily have been obvious.
"Here, that dilemma happened to be on people's minds."
Stephanie V. Siek can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.