Major General John Sullivan reporting upon the Battle of Rhode Island shortly after its conclusion, specifically commended the portion of the Continental line which included the First Rhode Island Regiment as: "entitled to a proper share of the day's honors." The ability of this portion of the line to hold fast was crucial to the successful retreat of Continental forces from Newport to the mainland. The failure of the storm-damaged ships carrying French reinforcements to arrive by sea led to a concentrated British attempt to destroy the six battalions commanded by Sullivan. The success of Sullivan's strategic retreat was evident in the low casualty rate and the preservation of equipment despite the aggressive charges made by British regulars and Hessian forces. The British specifically expected to breach the Continental line where the inexperienced Rhode Island soldiers were stationed. Recently recruited and trained, Newport was the first campaign for the unit in late August of 1778. In spite of several charges by seasoned British forces, the regiment tenaciously held position and inflicted heavy casualties upon the British.
While the First Rhode Island's acknowledged courage in battle was central to the day's events, the composition and origins of the regiment are of special interest. The First Rhode Island Regiment in August of 1778 was a nearly all-black unit made up largely of recently freed slaves. Commended for valor by commanders in its own day, and a frequent reference for abolitionists in the nineteenth century for "deeds of desperate valor," the First Rhode Island has been largely forgotten in our own. It is important, however, when considering the Revolution to understand that men fought not only for the idea of political liberty, but also for personal liberty.
The American Revolution yields many examples of military service by African American men on both sides of the conflict. While as many as 10,000 were recruited, primarily in the South, by the British promises of freedom in return for service, as least 5,000 black men served the American effort. Black men served in the Continental Army in every enlisted position from infantryman to cook. Black sailors used their considerable experience at sea in the Continental Navy as able seamen and pilots. Black soldiers were present at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Saratoga, and virtually every other battle of the Revolutionary War. Individuals such as Salem Poor, Peter Salem, and Crispus Attucks were commended for gallantry or died in defense of the Patriot cause. A Hessian officer wrote in 1777 of the American army that "no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance; and among them there are able bodied, strong and brave fellows."
Commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene, the regiment at the time of the Battle of Rhode Island was as close to a "segregated" unit as it would ever be. Recruited to meet the quota of the Continental Congress for two regiments from the state to augment the Continental line, initial recruitment efforts were concentrated upon enrolling slaves. The regiment, however, was never entirely composed of former slaves or even African-Americans. White men, free blacks, and a few Narragansett Indians were present from the beginning. Over time, the unit resembled most of the Continental forces with a mix of whatever recruits could be found. That the majority of the men in this regiment were African American through most of the war was due to the terms of enlistment for former slaves.
Policy regarding African American military service (particularly that of slaves) from the colonial period through the Revolution shifted from philosophical opposition to practical acceptance in times of need. Between 1775 and 1778 policy changed from formal exclusion of any black man to acceptance of those free men already under arms to active recruitment not only of free black men but slaves. Catalysts for this change were the British offer of freedom in exchange for service and the desperate conditions of the Continental Army.
As General George Washington (at the insistence of both his generals and members of Congress) issued an order barring black enlistment in the Continental Army in November of 1775, Lord Dunmore, the British royal governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom in exchange for service to indentured servants and slaves. The promise of freedom was effective and the response swift. Within a month of the offer at least 300 enrolled. Many came hundreds of miles on the strength of a rumor of the proclamation. Washington, fearing that the discharged free blacks from the Continental Army would join the Loyalist forces, urged the reenlistment of the free African American men currently serving in the Army. Others, like Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene, supported the idea of slave enlistment believing that the promise of freedom in exchange for service would draw recruits and ensure their loyalty. By the winter of 1776, Washington was urging the Continental Congress to enroll free blacks under the new quotas they were setting for the states.
The winter of 1777-1778 saw the Continental Army in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Conditions and prospects for the Americans were bleak. The British occupied major cities, including nearby Philadelphia, and supplies and morale were low. States were having problems raising the quotas of men set by the Congress in 1776. Rhode Island, ordered to supply two of the desired eighty-eight battalions, faced its own defense problems with the occupation of the capital at Newport. The economy, largely supported by the slave trade, shipping, and agriculture was close to collapse from blockade and occupation. All available men were involved in the defense of the rest of the state from British advancement. The recruitment of slaves was the only option, in the view of General James Varnum, for raising any Rhode Island men for the Continental line.
Varnum urged Washington to merge the remnants of Rhode Island's two battalions and send the officers of the second to Rhode Island to recruit slaves. Colonel Christopher Greene, Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney and Major Samuel Ward were assigned to the duty. Washington wrote to Rhode Island governor Nicholas Cooke requesting assistance for the men. The speed in which this transaction---from Varnum's initial letter to Washington on the subject in January of 1778 until legislation passed the Rhode Island General Assembly in February reflected the dire local and national situation. By February 23, 1778, Cooke notified Washington that the legislature had approved the plan. The General Assembly decreed that the individual slave enrolled in the regiment would "upon his passing muster, he is absolutely made free, and entitled to all the wages, bounties, and encouragements given by Congress to any soldier enlisting."
The Rhode Island General Assembly permitted "every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian man slave" to enlist in either of the two state regiments. The legislature, full of men connected to Rhode Island's extensive slave trade, provided state support for any former slaves who became sick or injured during their service. This was an alteration of the statutes which fixed responsibility for support on the owner of freed slaves who might otherwise be manumitted when sick or aged. The legislature also provided for compensation to the slave owners of up to $400.00 in Continental currency. The slaves, then, would be purchased by the state and, contingent upon service in the army for the duration of the war or until properly discharged, freed.
The legislation did not, however, pass without some contention despite the concessions made to slave interests and the military situation facing the state and the nation. Pro-enlistment advocates used classical examples of liberty in exchange for military service by slaves. The opposition came from General Assembly members most involved with the slave trade. They argued that enlistment would lead to insurrection and unrest among those still in bondage lead by slaves armed for the war. Additionally, they insisted that slave service was inconsistent with the rhetoric and principles for which the war was being fought. Those opposed to the general enlistment scheme managed to pass legislation in May that would terminate the experiment on June 10, 1778. But, as records show, slave enlistment continued without pause in Rhode Island.
Within a week of the opening of recruitment three men had been enrolled and large numbers attempted to join. Most of those who are identified in the records by geographic designation came, as would be expected, from the southern counties of the state where by far the most slaves were held. A few, like Pero Mowey of Smithfield and Primus Brown of Johnston, came from small farming towns in the northern part of the state. As potential soldiers gathered at the recruitment centers in large numbers, local white men attempted to dissuade enlistment. They exhorted the slaves not to enlist as the Continental Army intended to use them in the most vulnerable and dangerous advance positions and that, if captured, the men faced the sure fate of being sold into slavery in the Caribbean.
Approximately 250 men ignored the advice of the agitators, passed the enrollment committee and joined the First Rhode Island Regiment. Like other African American recruits they saw service as enlisted men. In the state militias and the Continental Army, black enlisted men were often assigned positions related to personal service for officers or as foragers, cooks, and waiters. The predominance of black men in the Rhode Island unit, however, provided additional opportunities for service in other specialties such as infantry positions. The contingent nature of their service also undoubtedly contributed to the comparatively low rates of "unofficial absences" or outright desertions found among their white fellow enlistees. Other factors such as familiarity with rough conditions and the lack of some of the most common reasons for white desertion such as concern for the welfare of a family, farm, or business undoubtedly played a role. But, the reward of personal liberty for service undoubtedly was the primary factor. The white soldier enlisted usually for a short tour of duty (often only three months) and faced unfamiliar temporary restrictions on his personal liberty and separation from his community. The former slave soldier, familiar with restrictions on his liberty, faced his service with the promise of an ultimate and unfamiliar permanent freedom.
The First Rhode Island was commanded by the men sent by Washington to recruit them. Colonel Greene commanded the unit from its formation in 1778 until his death at Points Bridge in 1781 when the command was assumed by Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney. In all, the unit saw five years of service and was a part of the Continental line at the battles which included Fort Oswego, Saratoga, Red Bank, and Yorktown. The regiment was an active part of the American effort, and in the Battle of Rhode Island and at Points Bridge, they were particularly noticed for their effectiveness in the field.
Like white enlisted men, the black soldiers of the First Rhode Island Regiment who were demobilized at Saratoga in June of 1783 were left to find their own way home as best they could. Their commander, Lt. Colonel Olney left them with an address full of praise for their "valor and good conduct" and regret that men for whom he felt "the most affectionate regard and esteem" should be left with pay owed to them. Olney pledged to them his continued "interest in their favor." There is evidence that Olney was true to his word. He assisted men who fought attempts to re-enslave them and wrote in support of claims for pensions from the government or wages owed from the state. Each American soldier who left the army at Saratoga that day did so with the knowledge that he was a citizen of a free country. For many of the men of the First Rhode Island Regiment freedom had not only political meaning, but personal meaning as well.
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution and Black Mosaic; Lorenzo J. Greene, "Some Observations on the Black Regiment of Rhode Island in the American Revolution," The Journal of Negro History, April 1952. Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution; Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War.