A Fight for Freedom and Dignity: The Recruitment, Service, and Legacy of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment

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Robert A. Geake

Reenactment Actors as the Rhode Island 1st set sail in Rafts
Reenactment Actors as the Rhode Island 1st set sail in Rafts

Of the many contributions made by Rhode Island to the American Revolution, perhaps the most historic, was the attempted formation of a regiment of soldiers composed entirely of enslaved men who had enlisted under terms that if met, would earn them their freedom. This “Black Regiment” as it came to be known, never materialized entirely as envisioned by Colonel Christopher Greene, General James Mitchel Varnum, or ultimately General George Washington, who approved the plan. The regiment would ultimately become an amalgamation of enslaved blacks and Indians, as well as free indigenous soldiers, mixedrace volunteers, and white indentured servants. For those enslaved men of color who did enlist, their very service in the Continental Line challenged misconceptions of the enslaved man’s capabilities, their courage, and their loyalty to the American cause. This paper will address these misconceptions, and how they were changed during the lifetimes of the men who served and for generations of their descendants.

In the winter of 1777 when the discussion of forming a “black regiment” was taken up by the fire in the “great room” of a stone farmhouse by General James Mitchel Varnum and the Officers of the Rhode Island encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, men of color serving in both militias and the Continental Army was a common sight throughout the northern colonies.

General Washington and other generals of the Continental Army among his Council of War expressed uneasiness about black men serving in the army, and this had caused Washington to issue a pause on further enlistment of black men at the close of 1775. This order gave rise to a storm of protest from field officers who had trained, led, and witnessed the service of men of color in their own battalions. All who had first-hand experience equated the capabilities of these black soldiers as equal to the expectation of the Army from all enlisted men.

Furthermore, at the time of the Continental Army’s decision, a growing concern to the officers and the Continental Congress were the attempts by the British to raise battalions of black soldiers. Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, issued in November 1775, that offered freedom to any able-bodied enslaved person who could make their way to Virginia had made the formation of such a regiment possible. This may have occurred If not for the sickness that broke out among the enlistees.

The Dunmore proclamation brought about a groundbreaking debate among military officers, state governors and legislators, and ordinary civilians who with the promulgation of newspapers and pamphlets in the colonies, could follow the debate.

The widely read Reverend Dr. Samuel Hopkins of Newport, Rhode Island, published a Dialogue concerning the Slavery of the Africans in the wake of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation. He addressed the fear of many New Englanders who owned slaves and worried that arming those slaves would lead to violence unleashed upon them. New England newspapers widely printed reports of uprisings in the southern states and the occasional incidents of violence inflicted by an enslaved person against their master or mistress. The minister warned that: 

“The only way pointed out to prevent this threatening evil is to set the blacks at liberty ourselves by some public acts and laws, and then give them proper encouragement to labor, or take arms in the defence of the American cause, as they shall choose.”[1]

The real threat of an “Ethiopian Regiment” being raised for Great Britain’s army, caused the Commander-in-Chief and his junior officers to become more conciliatory. General Washington wrote to Colonel Henry Lee on December 20, 1775: “We must use the Negroes or run the risk of losing the war…success will depend on which side can arm the Negroes faster.”[2]

Still, only free men of color were allowed to enlist. Cognizant that “the free negroes who have Served in this Army are very much dissatisfied in being discarded…I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them”, Washington wrote, “& have given Licence for their being enlisted, if this is disapproved by Congress, I will put a Stop to it.”[3]

The Continental Congress on the 16th of January 1776, approved the measure “that the free negroes who have served faithfully in the army at Cambridge, may be re-instated, but no others”.[4]

The resulting displays of bravery and courage by these soldiers in the field brought a seachange in the attitude of both the military and the civilian populace as to the capabilities of men of color beyond the hard labor that enslaved them in the field. From the beginnings of the war, the newspapers that flooded New England’s communities were full of stories of the bravery and courage of Patriots of color at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and in other actions and “secret engagements”.[5]

For the Rhode Island Field officers, the men of color under their command had shown similar competence and courage under fire at Fort Montgomery, New York, and especially at Red Bank, New Jersey, where the Regiment was greatly outnumbered by Hessians. Beyond those who enlisted as soldiers, was an entourage of free men and women who worked as waggoneers, teamsters, cooks, and servants within the Army.

By the winter of 1777, these patriots of color were hardened veterans, both seasoned to the rigors of a sparse encampment, and what is more, they had proven themselves to be capable soldiers in the field. If they were scarcely noticeable to the field officers at Valley Forge, it was because these soldiers of color had by this time become interwoven into the fabric of the American Army, and become soldiers as much as the white men they dug trenches besides, that they stood guard with in the freezing cold, and that they slept beside on the cots in the crude cabins of that first winter in Valley Forge.

These men included an estimated 15% of the Rhode Island forces that had gathered, as well as a sizeable number from Massachusetts and Connecticut regiments.

General Varnum and his staff had taken up residence in the home of David Stevens, about ”… one and a half miles from Washington’s headquarters. The Brigade was encamped some three hundred yards beyond the house in the ruins of a star redoubt, that remained one of the strongest works at Valley Forge, at a height that “commanded the road and river for miles”.[6]

And it was there, in the low ceilinged “great room” of the stone house with its massive fireplace, that the officers of the Rhode Island regiments and likely a few guests from neighboring states gathered and debated the legitimacy of creating a black regiment to serve in the Continental Line.

Richard K. Showman, the editor of General Nathanael Greene’s papers believes that Colonel Christopher Greene “was the prime mover” in organizing a Black Regiment for the Continental Line.[7] The field officer had proved his mettle at Fort Mercer. New Jersey, and gained the respect and loyalty of the troops under his command, including those of color.

Generals Greene and Varnum had good reason to believe that such a regiment could be raised. The Rhode Island Census of 1774 shows the state to hold the largest number of blacks, per capita, of any New England state. Broken down by percentages of population, while the average of towns across the entire colony was just under 9%, the towns of Newport, North Kingstown, and South Kingstown, the percentages of people of color were 14%, 12%, and 23%, respectively[8]; South Kingston being home to most of the plantations of the Narragansett Planters.[9]

As Rhode Island and other states faced difficulties in fulfilling the new quotas that Congress had asked for the Army in the coming year, it is not difficult to imagine how the idea of a regiment of color was resurrected. As a decision was taken among them, Varnum crafted a proposal to General Washington which he officially dispatched on January 2nd, 1778.

“Sir-The two battalions from the State of Rhode Island being small, and there being a necessity of the State’s furnishing an additional number to make up their proportion in the Continental Army, the field-officers have represented to me the propriety of making one temporary battalion from the two; so that one entire corps of officers may repair to Rhode Island, in order to receive and prepare the recruits for the field. It is imagined that a battalion of negroes can be easily raised there. Should that measure be adopted, or recruits obtained upon any other principal, the service will be advanced…”[10]

Varnum laid out the other service needs of the proposed regiment and asked to send Colonel Christopher Greene, Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah Olney, and Major Samuel Ward to the state at once to begin recruitment of the enslaved men who sought enlistment.

Washington approved the measure, and on the same day advanced the letter to Rhode Island’s governor Nicholas Cooke, adding a short note to accompany the letter “upon the means which might be adapted for completing the Rhode Island troops to their full proportion in the Continental Army. I…desire that you will give the officers employed in this business all the assistance in your power”.[11]

The Governor placed the measure before the General Assembly in the February session, weathering the opposition from the landowners in what was then Kings County, the southern region of the state which held the largest population of enslaved workers. With Washington’s letter expressing his wishes propelling the Assembly to act in his favor, compromise with the plantation owners was reached, allowing their enslaved men to enlist.

The Assembly’s Act reads in part: It is Voted and Resolved, That every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave, in this State, may inlist in either of the said two battalions to serve during the continuance of the present war with Great Britain: that every slave so inlisting shall be entitled to and receive all the bounties, wages, and encouragements allowed by the Continental Congress to any soldier inlisting into their service… That every slave enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Col. Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE, as though he had never been incumbered with any kind of servitude or slavery.[12] 

"That every slave enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Col. Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE, as though he had never been incumbered with any kind of servitude or slavery."

However, such language in the bill would not have been passable without the additional clauses that mollified the plantation owners: … And in case such slave shall, by sickness or otherwise, be rendered unable to maintain himself, he shall not be chargeable to his master or mistress, but shall be supported at the expense of the State. And whereas slaves have been by the laws deemed the property of their owners; and therefore compensation ought to be made for the loss of their service…[13]

This was the crucial difference between the Connecticut and Rhode Island proposals. Connecticut could not come to a decision on compensation and the absolving of responsibility for owners of enslaved men who had enlisted. In Rhode Island, a commission was established – some of the men chosen to serve had been part of the protesting parties – that would determine the monetary value of each formerly enslaved man. The State would then pay the former owners the value the commission had determined.

Despite these obstacles, recruiting had begun before the actual vote of the Assembly, with Colonel Greene and Major Ward dispatched to Rhode Island on the 6th of January. Others soon followed to help with recruitment. Captain Thomas Arnold left Valley Forge on January 8, and just a day later Sergeants Jeremiah Greenman of the 2nd Rhode Island regiment and John Smith of Arnold’s company were also dispatched.[14]

Brigadier General Nathanael Greene wrote to his brother Christopher of their distant cousin’s mission:

“The Soldiers of the two Regiments are put into one[15] and Col. Greene and all his officers are coming home to recruit a negro Regiment. Will they succeed or not?”[16]

The formation of the first black regiment in the Continental line also influenced those legislators and military leaders facing the rising quotas from Congress for recruitment.

Just weeks after General Varnum had dispatched recruiters to Rhode Island, the Legislature of Massachusetts received a letter from Thomas Kench, then serving with Colonel Craft’s Massachusetts Regiment of Artillery, then stationed on Castle Island in Boston harbor. Looking ahead to the summer campaigns and the need for more troops, Kench wrote on April 3, 1778, that:“A Re-enforcement can quick be raised of two or three hundred men. Will your honors grant me, and give me the command of the party? And what I refer to is negroes. We have divers of them in our service, mixed with white men. But I think it would be more proper to raise a body by themselves, than to have them intermixed with white men; and their ambition would entirely be to outdo the white men in every measure that the fortune of war calls a soldier to endure.”[17]

The legislature declined to form a singular regiment as Rhode Island had done but rewrote more or less the Rhode Island statute that allowed enslaved men to enlist into regiments populated by both white and black soldiers.

The Act likely also empowered men of color already serving to demand equal respect from their fellow soldiers and officers. One incident that occurred took place in Warwick, Rhode Island, between two of the militia units from Massachusetts that had been assigned the guard of the coastline at Warwick Neck.

On March 1, 1778, Private Noah Robinson of Colonel John Daggett’s regiment from Attleboro would record a story in his journal in which a man of color serving in some capacity under Corporal Isaiah Cole, entered the encampment of Captain Peleg Peck of the 4th company of Swansea militia to complain that the Corporal had struck him. Peck’s commander, Colonel Thomas Carpenter ordered the individual under guard. Captain Peck’s men, “refused, or a part thereof, and rescued him out which caused a fluster in the regiment.”[18]

Those who rescued the black man were also arrested, including 1st Lieutenant Timothy Merry. They were confined for two days before the intervention of Major General Jeremy Spencer. On the afternoon of March 4th, all the prisoners were paraded before the regiment and general orders from Colonel Ezekial Cornell and released the prisoners from their bonds. No further punishment was meted out to the black man or the white soldiers who had come to his defense.[19]

Undoubtedly, Colonel Greene and Major Ward had much to discuss and plan as they departed Valley Forge that January. Though the war was less than three years long, both men had served what must have seemed a lifetime in service and sacrifice.

Both men were from well-to-do families, Greene was descended from the distinguished line of the founder of Warwick, Rhode Island, and a distant cousin of General Nathanael Greene. Samuel Ward Jr. was the grandson of Colonial governor Richard Ward, and fifth son of Governor Samuel Ward who would later be appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. The young Ward had, prior to the war, led the life of a privileged young gentleman; that is, to serve the family and community with honor, values that often led to public or military service.

On their release, both men were promoted. Greene to Lieutenant Colonel, while the former Captain Ward, was made a Major in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.[20] Both had fought at Fort Montgomery on the Hudson and again just months before in the Battle of Red Bank, where they had witnessed first-hand the performance of those men of color among their troops; thus, the impetus of their plan for a Black Regiment.

Recruitment began auspiciously with their arrival at home in Rhode Island. The officers enlisted two of Stephen Champlin’s enslaved men in South Kingstown, and in Providence enlisted Cuff Greene, the enslaved servant of James Greene.[21]

Sergeant Greenmen would record from Providence on from the house “Widdow Olney” that that he and Arnold were “implying (employing) our Selves in Recruting as fast as posable.”[22]

Other officers sent back to Rhode Island would find the road to recruiting enslaved men fraught with fear and opposition, some of which took the part of violent confrontations.

When Captain Elijah Lewis attempted to recruit from the large gathering of men of color who had gathered in South Kingstown, they were harangued by Hazard Potter, who told the would-be enlistees that they would be given the worst duties that the Army could find, and would in effect, be worked to death.[23]

Other owners of especially valued enslaved workers sought to persuade them to remain on the plantation or farm, with promises of eventual emancipation, or turned out less valued workers to the recruiters for enlistment.

Enslaved men were expectedly skeptical that the government representatives of those white men who owned them would keep such a promise of freedom. To join with Great Britain was surely a temptation for many, who believed after Lord Dunmore’s proclamation that they would be better off under British rule.

By March 1778, Colonel Greene and the recruitment officers, with the additional enlistments of free and enslaved indigenous men and white volunteers had enough men to begin training, and Sergeant Greenman would record the occasion of the regiment’s arrival in the coastal town of East Greenwich: “F. 27 this morn we peraded our Slaves for to march to Grinage.”[24]

Training began immediately with daily marching and patrolling along the shoreline in East Greenwich and North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Only two weeks later, Sergeant Greenman would record that the officers were:

“…Continuing in Grinage exersis(ing) our Recruits…In ye after part of the day turn’d out our black (troops)/rec’d sum orders picked out a guard of 20 men & a sub. Then marched to Quidneset ware we made a guard house (out) of a dwelling house half a mile from ye shore.”[25]

Daily marching no doubt increased stamina but much more training would be needed for those formerly enslaved men among the regiment. As enslaved men, they would never have handled a fowling piece, no less a musket. The fear of the consequences of placing weapons in the hands of former slaves was a long-time obstacle in the acceptance of having them muster with others on training days or serve in the militias.

Now, those soldiers needed to learn to load and fire their muskets, not only for skirmishes in the woods where trees gave them cover, but also in the field. Making a stand in the open field meant that troops carried on the battle in a carefully choreographed sequence of ranks of men firing, kneeling, reloading, and standing to fire again.

The common musket used during the Revolutionary War was called the Brown Besse. Of British origin, the Besse was a muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket. While it was commonly used in the Continental Army, more likely the recruits of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment were trained with a musket that was manufactured locally.

Though notoriously inaccurate and limited to a range of about eighty yards, the musket was the weapon of choice in the open field of battle. The tactic of massing troops in ranks and firing a low volley was intended to produce “a wall of shot that would hopefully do enough damage to the opposing force to halt their attack or force enemy officers to reconsider and withdraw.”[26]

Training to load, fire, and reload as quickly as possible would have been a considerable part of the training each soldier received. Each man had a leather box of prepared cartridges, each a ball of paper or cloth filled with shot and powder. This along with a powder horn or container holding additional gunpowder would be needed and learned to use with dexterity and quickness in the field.

Furthermore, soldiers needed to learn the code of drum rolls in the field, the tactics and discipline needed in battle, and other disciplines were sorely needed for these raw recruits.

All of this would seem to be impossible to instill in men in just the six months from their introductory march to the orchard below Butts Hill, Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where they made their stand before the Hessians in the Battle of Rhode Island.

Colonel Greene and Major Ward had left Valley Forge before the arrival of Baron von Steuben and his rigorous training of the American soldiers there. However, other members of Varnum’s Brigade had stayed the winter, including those soldiers of color who had served under Greene at Red Bank. A detachment of black troops was established at Valley Forge from the two Rhode Island regiments.

These soldiers of color, under command of Captain Arnold, had participated with other soldiers in von Steuben’s rigorous training and would play a significant role in several battles to come. The muster roll of Arnold’s Detachment of May 16, 1778, lists 52 privates.[27]

Arnold’s Detachment along with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment would distinguish themselves with bravery at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, suffering the loss of Lieutenant Nathan Weeks who was killed in battle, while Captain Arnold was wounded in the leg, and Major Simeon Thayer suffered a shrapnel wound to the eye from a passing cannonball. As Captain Arnold’s injuries would take several weeks of rest and recovery, the detachment of soldiers of color was placed under command of Captain Jonathan Wallen.[28]

This detachment would march with Colonel Israel Angell’s regiment on July 22, 1778, and head for a rendezvous with the recruits in Rhode Island. On their arrival in early August, the soldiers of color were detached from Varnum’s Brigade and integrated into the four companies made up of the recruits of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, completing the battalion with 181 privates fit for duty.

As summer progressed back in Rhode Island, fatigue and illness struck the recruits. Return books from Warwick in late July, where the men were engaged in making fascines, show only four of the regiment ill. By August 9th, the regiment had marched to Tiverton, Rhode Island. Twelve men were listed as “sick” at an encampment there. Just six days later, when the regiment had encamped upon what Lieutenant Major Ward described as “unhealthy, moist ground”, the Returns show 19 men “sick present” and 15 “sick absent”, meaning that a total of 34 privates were bedbound.[29]

By late in the season as the troops prepared to take the field, the Rhode Island Regiment was reduced to 127 privates fit for duty. Despite this setback, training seemed to be going well. Major Ward wrote to his wife with confidence on August 23rd, 1778, that the troops preparing for battle “…have a great place of respect as Soldiers”.

The Rhode Island Campaign of the summer of 1778 was the second attempt by the Continental Army to wrest Aquidneck Island, known as “Rhode Island”, from the British. Success would free the shipping lanes between New England’s coastal communities as well as recover some of the revenue lost from the commerce of the trade in goods and slaves that had made Rhode Island a wealthy colony before the war.

As with the first attempt, American goods, ammunition, and men were slow to gather. Continental troops were engaged in other campaigns through June, and it was not until well into July that many, including Varnum’s Brigade, reached Rhode Island.

Still, the Americans had been bolstered by the recent alliance with the French, and the hopes of troops must have soared with the sight of the French fleet on the horizon on the morning of July 25th.

In the ensuing days, the French fleet bombarded British fortifications, causing the British to withdraw and abandon works at Butts Hill, the northernmost rise that overlooked the long and lush valley of Aquidneck Island, the view framed by the larger Turkey Hill roughly a mile southwest and the elongated profile of Quaker Hill to the southeast.

General John Sullivan took advantage of the drawback and sent a contingent of American troops under Varnum in boats from Howland Ferry across the Sakonnet to take the abandoned fort. They had scarcely arrived and taken the hill on August 9th when the sails of the British fleet appeared on the distant waterline.

For the next two days the two most powerful naval fleets in the world would exchange fire in Narragansett Bay. On August 11th a fierce gale, close to hurricane strength, lashed at the ships and dispersed the two fleets. It soaked the troops waiting for the land campaign to be undertaken and ruined much of the goods and ammunition that had been stored.

On August 13th, the heavily damaged French flagship Langudeoc was attacked by the British warship Renown, inflicting heavy casualties and killing 60 French sailors. Another attack on the crippled Cesar by the British ship Isis left another 60 sailors dead.

On Aquidneck Island, General Sullivan had moved forces further south where they encountered a formidable line of defense that stretched from Green End to Tonomy Hill to Coddington Cove along the Middletown-Newport boundary. The two entrenched forces exchanged cannon fire for a week before the French fleet left the Bay for repairs in Boston.

The move to Boston stunned and angered the Americans and the fragile alliance begun with the French was nearly broken. To complicate matters for Sullivan, General Greene reported the following day that nearly half of the troops mustered weeks ago for the campaign had left the scene, leaving 8,174 men to engage the British and Hessian forces controlling the island.[30]

Still, Sullivan sent out an optimistic General Order on August 24th, expressing the hope that the American forces would be able to take by their own means that which “our allies refuse to assist in obtaining”. When the British troops were reinforced, Sullivan changed course and decided to abandon the siege of Newport and evacuate the island.

With the change in General Sullivan’s tactics, the Rhode Island regiments were called upon to play crucial roles in the retreat from Aquidneck Island. On the evening of the 24th, the troops and artillery were withdrawn from the siege lines established just two weeks before and formed a new line of defense two miles long extending from a small rise that held an abandoned British redoubt on the western side of the island to the eastern side, just beyond a crossroad.

General Greene was placed in charge of protecting the west road and the redoubt. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, placed for the battle under command of Major Ward, was assigned to help protect the American line near the abandoned redoubt, being placed in a nearby orchard. They would be supported by the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment under Colonel Angell and Colonel Henry Jackson’s additional Continental regiment.

By 8:30 on the morning of the 29th, the bulk of Turkey Hill just a mile distant, was taken by a large force of Hessians and artillery, who then moved on towards the redoubt.

On both sides of the island the British drove American troops back toward their entrenched position in Portsmouth. Hessians attacked Greene’s command, the American’s right flank where the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was posted. This was a key posting, for if the British could overrun the flank they could press in on the sides and rear of the American line, cutting off their retreat.

On first encounter, the troops of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment fell back. Seeing the flood of Hessians coming toward the redoubt, Generals Varnum and Greene ordered the two veteran regiments to support the outnumbered troops.

The Hessian troops charged twice and were fought back in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Frustrated, the British sent a frigate into position where it could barrage the flank with cannon fire. General Greene quickly ordered two cannons from the Artillery to be placed into position and fire back. This effort, along with cannon fire from an American redoubt on Bristol Point, drove the frigate from the scene.

Colonel Angell recalled that “I was ordered with my regiment to a redoubt on a small hill, which the enemy was trying for, and it was with difficulty that we got there before them.”[31]

Once reinforced, the Americans put up an “obstinate resistance” as the Hessians advanced toward the hill, finding “bodies of troops behind the works (redoubt) and at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirtsleeves, and among them, many negroes.”[32] After taking heavy casualties, the Hessians fell back to take reinforcements. Watching the Hessians regroup before Turkey Hill, General Greene ordered the remainder of Varnum’s Brigade into the fray and other reinforcements from Cornell and Lovell’s brigades to flank the redoubt.

Twice more, the Hessians tried to overrun General Greene’s troops but failed. “The third time” Sullivan would recall, “the enemy attacked with greater numbers. Aid was sent forward. There was a short conflict for an hour. Cannon fired on both sides from the hills. The enemy fled to Turkey Hill, leaving his dead and wounded.”[33]

After fighting since early morning, the battle was finally finished by four in the afternoon. General Greene and other officers attempted to persuade General Sullivan to launch an attack on the enemy positions that same afternoon. Assessing that some 5,000 British forces had deployed on the hills, the General deferred, and through the night of August 29th the two sides exchanged long-range artillery fire.

“… we soon put the Enemy to route” Greene would report, adding that “I had the pleasure of seeing them run in worse disorder than they did at the Battle of Monmouth.”[34]

Daniel M. Popek, in his massive, encyclopedic work, sadly seeks to rewrite that history, based largely on Sidney S. Rider’s previous questioning of their “deeds of valor.”[35] He refers first to one account which stated the regiment was “literally cut to pieces”, though he admits it was more likely a scene of disorder under which “the black regiment…was forced to retreat by the superior numbers and firepower of the enemy who with two Hessian infantry battalions likely were at least 800 strong.”[36]

Popek then reaches the judgement that “their disordered actions and retreat to one hundred yards past the redoubt “failed the standards of their fellow veteran American Continental Infantrymen.”[37] The author cites the military code of honor, in which an infantry unit was not to retreat in the face of the enemy unless faced with certain destruction, and that those hardened troops among the Black Regiment should have stood their ground.

Unfortunately, only 36 hardened veterans from what had been Captain Arnold’s detachment of 62 men in May 1778 were fit for duty as mustered on August 22, 1778. This means the majority of those of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the field that day were those that had six months preparation and no on-field experience.[38]

Still, as Popek admits, after the initial fallback by the unit, “the First R.I. regiment probably regrouped behind the retreat after their initial retreat and returned to fight on the flanks of Col. Angell’s veteran 2nd R.I. regiment, fighting steadfastly from the redoubt.”[39]

As Popek has represented this action as an indictment of the dishonor of those patriots of color while facing the test of battle for the first time, let’s examine a similar situation that the veteran 2nd Rhode Island Regiment found themselves in several months before during the Battle of Monmouth. As described by veteran marine commander and military historian Anthony Walker:

“During the battle, Varnum’s and Wayne’s brigades were ordered to advance in the stifling heat and attack the enemy’s rear guard.”[40] When the Americans found themselves struggling on “unfavorable ground” the Redcoats turned and faced their attackers. Walker then describes the disorder that can easily come about in the heat of the initial confrontation:

“The 2nd Rhode Island was ordered to occupy some woods on the left, but on reaching the woods the column unaccountably wheeled and began a “retrograde movement”. Enemy artillery opened fire, the Americans retreated in good order, covered by their own cannon. After falling back some distance the battalion formed a line in front of a morass and fired their muskets at the pursuing British.”[41]

This “retrograde movement” as described by the former marine was not deemed dishonorable, but rather more of an intuitive action during the heat of battle. The 2nd Rhode Island Regiment regrouped at Monmouth, as did the 1st Regiment did in the Battle of Rhode Island.

The action is also like that taken at Red Bank by Colonel Green the year before, when the outnumbered American forces lured Hessians into a lightly defended area only to fire from the redoubt where they had hidden most of the troops.

Could Generals Greene and Varnum have had the same strategy in mind, placing inexperienced and untested troops that were certain to draw back in the path of a formidable Hessian force, while having Colonel Angell’s Regiment and Jackson’s Regiment close by? Or were they merely surprised by the torrent of Hessians flooding down Turkey Hill and coming toward them and called Angell and Jackson’s regiments into action almost immediately?

After fighting since early morning, the battle was finally finished by four in the afternoon. Curiously, given Popek’s analysis of the incompetence of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, Greene and other officers attempted to persuade Sullivan to launch an attack on the enemy positions that same afternoon. Assessing that some 5,000 British forces had deployed on the hills, the General deferred, and through the night of August 29th the two sides exchanged long range artillery fire. On August 30-31, General Sullivan quietly withdrew the army from the island and rowed the remaining troops back to Tiverton and Bristol.

Most of those patriots of color who enlisted with the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments would serve for the duration of the war, many sacrificing the life they would have seen as free men over the next five years.

It is to my mind, an injustice then, that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, more than two hundred years after the Battle, that such accreditation be given to this interpretation of the legacy of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. To base the supposition of failure without additional evidence but rather upon lack of evidence – namely letters or journal entries extolling their performance in the campaign – neglects the fact that the campaign itself was a mission of rescue and retreat by August 29th, 1778, after what must have seemed a long and disappointing summer.

How many senior or junior officers of the Continental Line would write much of such an operation beyond what was written that day and the days after? As most black members of the “black regiment” were enslaved men who were not allowed to read or write, no letters or diaries were written to aid them in later recollection as with many troops that left Accounts in Pension applications. Those that were written were second-hand, and most recollections but a few were lost in the fog of war that occurred after this introductory battle and the long years that followed.

Furthermore, the idea that the attempted formation of a “black regiment” in Rhode Island was entirely a failure is far removed from the decided view of those who lived and fought in the war with enlisted patriots of color and the post-war generations veneration of these veterans.

Both Rider and Popek devote much time to the “poor performance” of the regiment at the Battle of Rhode Island, as well as the periodic misconduct, desertions, and mutinies they ascribe to the “black regiment”; whereas such misconduct, desertions, and mutinies were occurring in units of the Continental Army throughout the war and after.

To believe that America’s first “standing army” would be anything more than a muddle of self-ruled militia, inexperienced enlistees, and those initial commissioned officers who were fair-weather leaders at best is to underappreciate the miracle wrought by Washington and those talented American officers in forging those factions into the integrated military force that secured the American Revolution.

In the aftermath of war, men of color shared the victory with their white brothers in arms. Letters written by officers and fellow soldiers on these veterans’ behalf, written recollections from throughout the colonies, and laudatory remarks within printed obituaries of patriots of color, deemed them “soldiers of the revolution” and would seem to support Samuel Greene Arnold’s assessment that the overall service of the black regiment during the war “settled conclusively this disputed question of the capacity of the colored troops, well drilled and well officered, to make brave and reliable soldier.”[42]

Furthermore, two incidents that took place in the months after the battle would seem to substantiate Arnold’s claim, if not in their first test of battle, then in the months after under the strict, but fair discipline of Colonel Greene.

In the summer of 1779, a series of events lead to a list of growing grievances among the men of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment. The regiment had been under a cloud since spring when a popular soldier of the regiment, Private John Deuce was sentenced to death for desertion. The regulars believed the young Deuce had been talked into desertion by others from his native Block Island, Rhode Island. He was court-martialed on July 11, 1779, but escaped twelve days later. In his memoir, Private Samuel Smith also notes that the enlisted men had gone without pay for months: “our payment for services being unnecessarily detained, we all agreed to have a letter formed, setting forth our grievances, and send to our General.”[43]

The men marched as ordered to Barbers Heights off Boston Neck in Saunderstown, Rhode Island where they encamped. The task of delivering the composed petition was given to Private Benjamin Twitchell who hand delivered the letter to Colonel Angell to be passed along to General John Stark. Given that a few the men who signed the letter had been protesting orders and stirring unease among the men for weeks, the Colonel arrested the unfortunate Twitchell, and had him bound for court-martial in East Greenwich, where on July 28, 1779, he was sentenced to death.

After a morning rain had ended on July 29th, drummers of the regiment “beat the long roll as a signal. Every soldier was on parade with his gun loaded and his bayonet affixed. We were determined to rescue the prisoner, who was innocent of any crime on behalf of his fellow soldiers. We were determined to a man to lose our lives or rescue our brother.”[44]

The mutiny nearly came to that. An attempt by Lieutenant Colonel Olney to send the drummers back to their tents by thrashing at them with his sword, produced a cut hand, but did not deter the men’s determination. Private George Milliman of Coggeshall’s Light infantry cocked his flintlock and levelled it at the officer. He called for others to charge and take the officers prisoner. Within minutes, the soldiers had secured the cannon for the encampment and forced negotiations with Olney, who told them they had crossed the line to mutiny.

In his memoir, Private Smith records that the men refused to lay down their arms and told the General (Stark) that they would “march for the condemned man”. In response, “The General told him that he had one Black Regiment in the fort, which we had to pass, who would cut us to pieces”. Their commander Colonel Greene had, in fact, already been informed of the uprising and was marching a contingent from their encampment in East Greenwich.[45]

The men were still determined to march and release the prisoner. More bloodshed might have been spilled that day, but a major confrontation was avoided by the intervention of Governor William Greene, Major Simeon Thayer and Colonel Greene who rode out on horseback to meet the mutineers before they reached East Greenwich and agreed to hear the men’s grievances. But for the ringleaders, Colonel Greene negotiated pardons for all the men under charges of mutiny.

The question remains however, that if the reputation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the aftermath of the Battle of Rhode Island were so poor, why threaten their use against men who knew the caliber of their service? Surely Stark would not have made such an “idle threat” if their reputation were so poor among their fellow soldiers.

Later that summer, a second call for military policing went out to the regiment. In August 1779, some fifteen prisoners managed to escape from a prison ship located in Fox Point at the entrance to Providence harbor.

The Council of War determined that:

“Wheras Silas Gardner and others laid before the Council an Account of them charged against the State for their Time and Expense in apprehending Fifteen prisoners who escaped from the Prison Ship at Providence, and securing and delivering them to East Greenwich…” The council ruled to pay them Two hundred and three pounds and two shillings “for the use of himself and other Persons who assisted him in said Service.”[46]

As for the prisoners themselves, those who could be removed were quickly dispatched. An order from the Council the following day resolved that “…all the prisoners of war in this state, who lately made their escape from the Prison Ship at Providence, be immediately sent to Rutland, and that it be and hereby is recommended to the Deputy Commissioner of Prisoners in this State to send them forward accordingly, and that it be recommended to Colo. Greene to furnish a sufficient Guard for that purpose”.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment marched from their encampment at John Greene’s farm in Coventry to pick up the prisoners in the East Greenwich jail and march them as ordered to the prison camp in Connecticut.

It seems that these incidents validate Arnold’s statement and the leadership of Colonel Greene, well known for his insistence on camp discipline and order.[47]

General Greene would come to believe in the success of the “black regiment”, and during his command of the Southern campaign, would strive to convince the South Carolina and Georgia Assemblies to raise regiments of slaves for the Continental Army.

“Such legislation cannot fail” Greene wrote to Governor John Martin of Georgia, “if adopted to fix their liberties upon a secure and certain footing.”48 The Governor responded that “A body of blacks I am sure would answer every purpose intended” but knew his constituents would never consent to arming manumitted slaves; “it will never go down with the people here” he bluntly informed the General.[49]

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment would continue in service and sacrifice for the next two years. In January of 1781, the regiment was merged with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment and was known as the “Rhode Island Regiment” for the remainder of the war. Washington had by this time, become convinced that integrating black soldiers into experienced white regiments was preferable than segregating his army.

The Rhode Island Regiment’s greatest loss came in May,1781 while stationed along the Croton River, New York, when the encampment was taken by surprise at dawn on the morning of the 13th by Colonel James Delancy’s Loyalist Light Horse Infantry.

More than a dozen were killed, including their commanding officers, Colonel Greene and Major Ebenezer Flagg. Most of the dead were black soldiers. Some twenty-two others were taken prisoner that morning.[50]

The regiment would recover and play an important role in the Battle of Yorktown. At the siege’s beginning it was patriots of color from the Rhode Island Regiment who were digging trenches under fire for the stationing of the great French cannons given to aid the Americans. Their young commander Stephen Olney would lead the successful charge on redoubt #10, one of the last defenses of the shattered British line taken on October 14, 1781.

Another heavy loss would occur that fall and winter when during a tedious twenty-oneday passage on the Chesapeake, smallpox broke out among the Rhode Island troops. Between November 1781 and March of 1782, some forty-five survivors of the attack at Pines Bridge, New York, and the Battle of Yorktown would succumb to this disease in the Army hospital at Philadelphia, a few each day at times, being buried in the potter’s field of the city common.[51]

Every state in New England had such stories of such patriots of color and Rhode Island was no exception. These returning veterans were often lauded in local newspapers after the war and became a kind of living memory of the Revolution by appearing in parades and memorial events dressed in their old uniforms. Their stories would become part of the local histories written over generations and thus further interwoven into the full story of the American Revolution.

For many of the former slaves who returned to their homes, such as they were, life was largely occupied with the hand-to-mouth existence forced upon these veterans by the harsh realities they had briefly left behind in the service to their new country. Many faced having to return as laborers to the great estates that had once held them as enslaved men. As these estates were now largely in decline, they received food, clothing, shoes, and on infrequent occasions, money for their work. Often these were now short-term tasks such as building a wall, removing trunks from a field that needed to be cleared, building roads, or seasonal work for planting and harvesting. To provide for their families, such men often had to work a variety of jobs at several farms each week during those long years waiting to receive even a small pension from a cash-strapped Congress.

Despite these difficult years after the war, the legacy of service and sacrifice that these Rhode Islanders earned, brought honor to their brothers who remained shackled to a life of labor. They lifted the stature of their people in those who thought their minds already enlightened and fired the first salvo in demanding that the nation for which they fought include people of color within those citizens whose rights included liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Resources:

[1] Malcom, Joyce Lee Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution. Yale University Press 2009 p. 98

[2] Ibid. p. 104

[3] Livermore, George An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic as Slaves, as Citizens, As Soldiers Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society Vol VI. (1862-1863) 185

[4] Journals of Congress Vol. 2, 26

[5] McBurney, Christian Kidnapping the Enemy Yardley, PA Westholme Publishing 2014 pp. 213-219 

[6] Ibid, 17 

[7] Showman, Richard, ed. The Papers of Nathanael Greene Vol. II 1 January 1777-16 October 1778Chapel Hill, UThe University of South Carolina Press 1980 p. 249 

[8] Dower, John Remembering Caeser and Moses Updike The Cocumscussoc Review 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Livermore, 118 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Livermore, 119 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Popek, Daniel M. They Fought Bravely…But Were Unfortunate: The True Story of Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment” and the Failure of Segregation in Rhode Island’s Continental Line 1777-1783 North Carolina, Privately published 2016 p. 82 

[15] This was Captain Thomas Arnold’s Company, which was dispatched in June and played a considerable role in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Among the reported 37 soldiers of African descent with the company, were Winsor Fry and Richard Rhodes. 

[16] Richard K. Showman, ed. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene Vol. II (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1980) 248 

[17] Livermore, 125 

[18] Geake, Robert A. ed. Fired A Gun at the Rising of the Sun: The Diary of Noah Robinson of Attleboro in the Revolutionary War Providence, Rhode Island Footprints Publishing 2018 pp. 57-59 

[19] Ibid. 

[20] Ward seems to have used the occasion of his release to marry Phebe Greene of Warwick on March 8, 1776. 

[21] Geake/Spears From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution Westholme 2016 p.139 

[22] Greenman, Jeremiah Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution 1775-1783 Norther Illinois University Press 1978 p. 

[23] Popek, 83 

[24] Greenman, Jeremiah Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution 1775-1783(Bray/Bushnell, editors. Northern Illinois University Press 1978) 113 

[25] Ibid, 114 

[26] Shenawolf, Harry Muskets and Rifles of the American Revolution: Differences and Tactics Revolutionary War Journal, June 19, 2019, accessible on revolutionarywarjournal.com 

[27] NARA Microfilm M246, Roll 85 

[28] Popek, p. 211 

[29] Ibid, p. 223 

[30] Geake/Spears, p. 52 

[31] Popek, p. 226 

[32] Ibid. p. 63 

[33] Walker, p.65 

[34] Ibid p. 111 18 

[35] Sse An Historical Inquiry Concerning the Attempt to Raise a Regiment of Slaves in Rhode Island During the War of the Revolution Providence, privately printed,1880 

[36] Popek, p. 234 

[37] Ibid. 

[38] See NARA Microfilm M246, Roll 85. Popek, pp. 220, 253 

[39] Popek, p. 235 

[40] Walker, Anthony So Few the Brave Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution 1981 p. 49 

[41] Ibid 

[42] Arnold, Samuel Greene The Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Rhode Island, Historical Tract No. 8 (Rhode Island Historical Society, 1878), p. 15 

[43] Smith, Samuel Memoirs of Samuel Smith, A Soldier of the Revolution, 1776-1786 New York 1860 p. 16. Smith either mistook or mis-recalled the General in question as John Sullivan when in fact, it was General John Stark. 

[44] Ibid. p. 17 

[45] Jeremiah Greenman recorded that “the Mutiners all returned to camp/ all pardined and marcht thru the Colours except one-George Milliman by Name / he was sent to providence”. Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution 1775-1783, p. 138 

[46] Robertson, John K., Proceedings of the Committee of the RI General Assembly & The Council of War, 1778-1783 (Rhode Island Publications Society, 2019) p. 381 

[47] Walker, Anthony So Few the Brave, pp. 35, 39, 

[48] Geake/Spears From Slaves to Soldiers 83-84 

[49] Letter from Gov. John Martin to Gen. Nathanael Greene, March 17, 1781, see Massey and Piecuch, eds., General Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution in the South Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 2012, p. 244 

[50] Ibid, pp. 68-72 

[51] Ibid, 81-82

About the Author

Robert A. Geake is a public historian and the author of fourteen books on Rhode Island and New England history, including From Slaves to Soldiers: The First Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution. Other books include A History of the Narragansett Tribe: Keepers of the Bay, Native and New Americans, New England’s Citizen Soldiers: Mariners and Minutemen, Fired A Gun at the Rising of the Sun: The Journal of Noah Robinson of Attleboro in the Revolutionary War, and is currently working on another book to be titled The Battle Off The Field Mr. Geake currently serves as the President of The Cocumscussoc Association which maintains Smith’s Castle historic house museum in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. He is a contributor to three blogs: smallstatebighistory.com, rifootprints.com, and most recently, The Cocumscussoc Review on smithscastle.org. Mr. Geake is also a contributor to EnCompass, online tutorials for the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Department of Education.

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