SAVANNAH - After 228 years as largely unsung contributors to American independence, Haitian soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War's bloody siege of Savannah had a monument dedicated in their honor Monday.
About 150 people, many of them Haitian-Americans who came to Savannah for the event, gathered in Franklin Square where life-size bronze statues of four soldiers now stand atop a granite pillar 6 feet tall and 16 feet in diameter.
'This is a testimony to tell people we Haitians didn't come from the boat,' said Daniel Fils-Aime, chairman of the Miami-based Haitian American Historical Society. 'We were here in 1779 to help America win independence. That recognition is overdue.'
In October 1779, a force of more than 500 Haitian free blacks joined American colonists and French troops in an unsuccessful push to drive the British from Savannah in coastal Georgia.
More than 300 allied soldiers were gunned down charging British fortifications Oct. 9, making the siege the second-most lopsided British victory of the war after Bunker Hill.
Though not well known in the U.S., Haiti's role in the American Revolution is a point of national pride for Haitians. After returning home from the war, Haitian veterans soon led their own rebellion that won Haiti's independence from France in 1804.
'It's a huge deal,' said Philippe Armand, vice president of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America, who flew to Savannah from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. 'All the Haitians who have gone to school know about it from the history books.'
Fils-Aime's group has spent the past seven years lobbying Savannah leaders to support the monument, which the city approved in 2005, and raising more than $400,000 in private donations to pay for it.
Fils-Aime said the historical society still needs $250,000 more to finish two additional soldier statues.
As it stands now, the monument features statues of two Haitian troops with rifles raised on either side of a fellow soldier who has fallen with a bullet wound to his chest.
The fourth statue, a drummer boy, depicts a young Henri Christophe, who served in Savannah as an adolescent and went on to become Haiti's first president - and ultimately king - after it won independence.
It's unclear exactly what role Haitian troops played in the battle at Savannah because Haitian records from that era were destroyed by fire in the 1830s, said Scott Smith, director of Savannah's Coastal Heritage Society, which is dedicating a park on the battlefield site Tuesday.
But surviving records show 545 Haitian soldiers sailed to Savannah in 1779 - making them the largest military unit of the Savannah battle. The Haitians are also believed to have been the largest black unit to serve in the American Revolution.
In the 1800s, Savannah erected monuments in its oak-shaded squares to Revolutionary War heroes Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene, one of George Washington's most trusted generals, as well as Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski and Sgt. William Jasper, both killed in the Savannah siege.
More than a century later, Haitian troops who fought for the same cause have rejoined them in history's ranks.
'When you look at the other monuments in the city of Savannah and then you look at this one, this is first class all the way,' said Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson.