The Almost Forgotten… First Rhode Island Regiment
The First Rhode Island Regiment, a Continental Army regiment, was well known as the “Black Regiment”, because for some time, it allowed several companies of African American soldiers. They served in their own segregated companies within the larger integrated unit.
The First Rhode Island Regiment, in 1778, was made up mostly of recently freed black slaves. These men that fought in the American Revolutionary War not only fought for political liberty, but for personal liberty as well.
(Click the picture for First Rhode Island Regiment Video)
In the south, as many as 10,000 black soldiers were enlisted by the British army, with promise of freedom for service, and at least 5,000 blacks served the Americans. On the American side, they served anywhere from being infantrymen to cooks, and some used their Navy experience as seamen and pilots. On the British side, they were rarely given any combat duty. They were mostly used as they had been their whole lives, for meaningless manual labor. They dug most of the trenches and fortifications.
In January of 1778, Rhode Island was having trouble filling the troops quota, so General James Vernum had the idea to allow current slaves be enlisted in the Army as well. George Washington took this idea to Rhode Island’s Governor, Nicholas Cooke. “On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow ‘every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state to enlist into either of the Continental Battalions being raised. The assembly further stipulated that ‘every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free.'” (click here to learn more) Many slave owners loathed this idea, concerned of arm-bearing ex-slaves. They argued that enlistment would lead to rebellion and unrest among those still in bondage lead by slaves armed for the war. Four months later, the law was appealed by the Rhode Island Assembly – but within that four month period, 100 free and formerly slaved African American enlisted, and after the appeal, 44 more more enlisted in Rhode Island as well.
The First Rhode Island Regiment ended up totaling 140 blacks out of the 225 men – the largest percent of blacks in an integrated unit during the American Revolution. The African Americans, at first, were in separate companies from whites in the regiment, but slowly the regiment became completely integrated.
Colonel Greene commanded the unit from its formation in 1778 until his death at Points Bridge. “In 1781, Colonel Greene and a many of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with American loyalists; Greene’s body was reported mutilated likely as punishment for having led black soldiers.” (click here to learn more) The command was then taken over by Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney. In August 1778, the regiment experienced its first battle. The unit saw 5 years of battle all together. They fought in Fort Oswego and Saratoga, NY; Red Bank, NJ; and Yorktown, VA.
As troop strength in General Washington’s Continental Army diminished, the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments were joined to form The Rhode Island Regiment which participated at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the engagement which led to the British surrender and the end of the war.