Muslims in the American Revolutionary War


Picture: Two out of three British killed in the above pictures were credited to have been shot by freed slaves who changed their names to Muslim names while fighting in the Continental Army.


The first evidence of Muslims contributing to the success of the Continental Army in America’s revolutionary war was the friendship made between George Washington and Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah who was the Sultan of Morocco.  Sidi Muhammad bin Abdullah offered George Washington the ports of Morocco as a place to dock American ships. This friendly relationship allowed for the Treaty of Marrakech of 1790 and gave America greater security in their independence from England.  The friendship also signifies George Washington’s attitude toward Muslims and his potential willingness to welcome them to help fight in his Continental Army that helped free the US from Britain.

Fighting on American soil, some of the Muslim names that appear in George Washington’s rosters include Benjamin Ishmael, Bampett Muhammad, who fought for the “Virgina Line,” and a man named Peter Buckminster who changed his name to Peter Salem and became a hero when he was able to kill British Major John Pitcairn at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and then later served as a commander at the Battles of Saratoga and Battle of Stoney Point.  In addition, a man named Salem Poor was originally slave to a man named John Poor. He purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds, and shortly after left to join the Continental Army. He is best known for his service at Bunker Hill, and was recognized for his bravery at the General court of Massachusettes in 1775. He was credited with killing British Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie.  US Postal Stamps feature Salem Poor commemorating his accomplishments.  All three of these men were believed to have been slaves who were freed when they agreed to join the Continental Army of George Washington. They were reported to have changed their names to names that represented their Muslim heritage. However, there is no historical evidence besides their name change and the fact that they were freed slaves to prove that these soldiers were actually Muslims.

The greatest evidence of Muslims fighting in the Continental Army lies in the historical records regarding Yusuf Ben Ali or Joseph Benehaley.  Benehaley was reported fought with General Sumter, and his name appears on George Washington’s roster of soldiers as well.  Benehaley was considered a “free person of color” under the recently passed South Carolina Sundry Act of 1790. His name appears in the census of 1810, and his family’s home is reported in every census after that with possibly about 100 families After the revolution, he settled on Sumter’s South Carolina plantation, where it was believed he was given permission by Sumter to have settled his land. Joseph and his brother Scott Benehaley are reported in the book, Melungeons: Examining an Appalachian Legend as a Caucasion man of Arab descent who was originally a pirate, but who later became a scout for General Sumter. The US Journal of Sumter County, SC also reports the Benehaleys to have be Moors, who at that time were often referred to as, “Turks” because of their associations with Muslims and the Ottoman Empire. More evidence of the Benehaley’s family presence in Sumter South Carolina can be found in the geneology research of the Benehaley family reported on a website called South Carolina’s Information Highway (or sciway3). It is possible that this family remained Muslims until the early 1900’s when the Turk church, Long Branch Baptist church, was reported to have been established.

  1. What kinds of interactions did George Washington have with Muslims?
  2. What evidence is there that George Washington was tolerant of Muslims?
  3. Who are three people who are believed to have been Muslim soldiers in the American Revolutionary War?
  4. What was the significance of being a “free person of color” in 1790?
  5. Of the people with Muslim names in the Continental Army, which soldier was most likely to have been a practicing Muslim living in the US in the early 1800’s?