HistoryFebruary 13, 2019
From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution
During the winter at Valley Forge General Washington faced chronic shortages of manpower. Rhode Island general James Varnum proposed a possible solution - he suggested that Rhode Island recruit an all-African American regiment to serve in the Continental Army. Washington did not object, and Varnum began recruiting that spring of 1778. In From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution Robert A. Geake and Lorén M. Spears use a combination of microhistory and narrative storytelling to tell the story of the men who enlisted and where the regiment served. Though often associated with African American soldiers, as Varnum had first proposed, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was an integrated unit composed of African American, Native American, and white soldiers, who served together from 1778 through the end of the war in 1783. The authors include stories of those individual soldiers, as well as lists of the African Americans, Euro-American, and Indigenous soldiers who served in the regiment.
In the excerpt below, Geake and Lorén share a look at the makeup of the regiments and the kinds of service the Rhode Islanders performed.
Throughout the war, men served in a variety of ways, often beginning at a young age with a local militia, where they mustered, marched, and provided protection for their own communities. Many of these signed on with the Continental regiments as the war progressed and climbed the ladder, so to speak, into a junior officer position. Such was not the case with blacks or indigenous peoples, who were long confined to the local militias. But once they were allowed to join, New England states contributed the largest portion of blacks to the Continental Army. A report of those returning from leave in August 1778 records some 755 black soldiers scattered over fourteen brigades." None of these men would ever climb above the rank of private.
A careful reading of Rhode Island’s historical records shows that merely a handful of men of color deserted the regiment after it was integrated with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment. In addition, research shows that of the fifty-eight slaves of African or indigenous descent who escaped from their masters in the years 1774—1783, twelve appear on the muster rolls of the 1st or 2nd Rhode Island regiments. At least three others appear in regiments in adjoining Massachusetts or Connecticut, who also admitted blacks and indigenous men into the army, following Rhode Island’s lead. Cato Brown of East Greenwich served in both Rhode Island and Connecticut regiments. Sambo Brown deserted Nixon’s Brigade in 1776 but later appears on the Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service during the Revolutionary War. A Narragansett named Anthony Jeremiah served in a Massachusetts regiment, where his fellow soldiers dubbed him “Red Jerry.”
The great majority of those men of color who enlisted in the Rhode Island regiments would serve five full years. Historian Benjamin Quarles notes in his historic work The Negro in the American Revolution that “The New England states, despite their relatively small Negro population, probably furnished more colored soldiers than any other section.” As Quarles explains, once enlisted, “Negros were less inclined than white soldiers to walk off without official leave. They were not likely to have a farm that needed protection, nor the kind of home that inspired homesickness. They had less to desert to.”
It can also be said that the greater number of white soldiers who were integrated into the 1st Rhode Island Regiment also stayed to serve—men such as Thomas Stafford, a laborer, and William Holston, a cooper, both from the village of West Greenwich, who enlisted in March 1777.Similarly, fifers Thomas Mitchell and Joseph Dexter had both enlisted from Glocester in May 1777. All these men served in the regiment until the end of the war.
As historian Henry Wiencek has observed, “There is no record of a popular outcry against the black presence, no record of fights or interdisciplinary problems caused by racial integration. The common white New England soldier seems to have accepted blacks. The objections to the black presence came not from the rank and file but from the highest levels of policy makers and politicians.”
The Continental Army was stationed near Fishkill, New York, while Colonel Christopher Greene was sent with the Rhode Island regiment to a location some ten miles distant, at Pines Bridge on the Croton River. They encamped at the so-cal1ed “Rhode Island Village,” while Greene took up residence in a nearby farmhouse belonging to the Davenport family. Major Ebenezer Flagg Jr. of Newport joined him in mid-Apri1.
Colonel Greene would write in upbeat spirits to Colonel Samuel Ward—a leader in the Battle of Rhode Island—on April 16: “I often very agreeably reflect upon the toils and dangers we have passed through together during the course of this horrid war and nothing could have been more agreeable than to have had your company in command to its close—But this could not be… we must therefore for the present be separated. I was overjoyed at the Major’s arrival and yesterday went with him to the lines at Pines Bridge where I left him in command. Shall join myself in a very few days.” He also, however, alluded to the shortage of men, both from disease and the recent desertions: “We have at present only about two hundred men including officers to guard twenty miles but expect as soon as the men get out of the small pox to have our force augmented to three or four hundred.”
Their movements had not gone unnoticed, however, and in the pre-dawn hours of May 14, 1781, a reported two hundred and sixty light horse infantry made up of Loyalists under the command of Colonel James DeLancey forded the river and laid a surprise attack on the encampment. Early historian William Cooper Nell, in his book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, would write of the bravery of the black men in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment: “Among the traits which distinguish the black regiment was devotion to their officers… Colonel Greene, the commander of the Regiment was cut down and mortally wounded but the sabers of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of blacks,who hovered over him to protect him, and every one of whom was killed.”
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.