1778: 1st Rhode Island Regiment Opens to Non-Whites


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    A black soldier in the Revolutionary War.


      Editor’s note
      In February 1778, the Rhode Island legislature voted to begin enlisting slaves and American Indians in the Continental battalions to help fight the British forces. In return, they would receive freedoms and wages similar to other soldiers. Below, we have transcribed the original resolution made by the legislature, explaining what was to be done. Later, we have explained what happened as a result of this resolution.

      An Act of the Rhode Island legislature, February, 1778:

      Whereas, for the preservation of the rights and liberties of the United States, it is necessary that the whole power of Government should be exerted in recruiting the Continental battalions; and, whereas, His Excellency, General Washington, hath inclosed to this State a proposal made to him by Brigadier General Varnum, to enlist into the two battalions raising by this State such slaves as should be willing to enter into the service; and, whereas, history affords us frequent precedents of the wisest, the freest and bravest nations having liberated their slaves and enlisted them as soldiers to fight in defence of their country; and also, whereas the enemy have, with great force, taken possession of the capital and of a great part of this State, and this State is obliged to raise a very considerable number of troops for its own immediate defence, whereby it is in a manner rendered impossible for this State to furnish recruits for the said two battalions without adopting the said measures so recommended,

      It is Voted and Resolved, That every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man-slave in this State may enlist into either of the said two battalions, to serve during the continuance of the present war with Great Britain; That every slave so enlisting shall be entitled to and receive all the bounties, wages and encouragements allowed by the Continental Congress to any soldiers enlisting into this service.

      It in further Voted and Resolved, That every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster by 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 and be incumbered with any kind of servitude or slavery. 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 to the owners for the loss of their service,

      It is further Voted and Resolved, That there be allowed and paid by this State to the owners, for every such slave so enlisting, a sum according to his worth, at a price not exceeding one hundred and twenty pounds for the most valuable slave, and in proportion for a slave of less value, provided the owner of said slave shall deliver up to the officer who shall enlist him the clothes of the said sum.

      And for settling and ascertaining the value of such slaves,

      It is further Voted and Resolved, that a committee of five shall be appointed, to wit, one from each county, any three of whom to be a quorum, to examine the slaves who shall be so enlisted, after they shall have passed muster, and to set a price upon each slave, according to his value as aforesaid.

      It is further Voted and Resolved, That upon any able-bodied negro, mulatto or Indian slave enlisting as aforesaid, the officer who shall so enlist him, after he has passed muster as aforesaid, shall deliver a certificate thereof to the master or mistress of said negro, mulatto or Indian slave, which shall discharge him from the service of said master or mistress.

      It is further Voted and Resolved, That the committee who shall estimate the value of the slave aforesaid, shall give a certificate of the sum at which he may be valued to the owner of said slave, and the general treasurer of this State is hereby empowered and directed to give unto the owner of said slave his promissory note for the sum of money at which he shall be valued as aforesaid, payable on demand, with interest, which shall be paid with the money from Congress.

      A true copy, examined, HENRY WARD, Sec’y

      The results of this resolution

      When the 1776 enlistments were about up, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to raise two regiments numbering 1,430 men combined. The recruiting did not go well. In spite of additional bounties offered, by February 1777, only 50 men had enlisted in the two regiments. As veterans of 1776 returned home, the situation improved a bit.

      By March, the two regiments had a total of about 400 men. (Rhode Island had an estimated 1,200 men serving on ships, mostly privateers, and another 1,800 serving in the state’s brigade, keeping an eye on Newport).

      General Washington ordered the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island to join him despite the lack of strength. On Washington’s suggestion, Christopher Greene was appointed commander of the 1st Rhode Island. Because he was still a prisoner at this time (he was captured during the Arnold expedition to Quebec), Lt. Colonel Comstock was put in command until Greene could join his unit.

      Upon arrival in the American encampment, the Rhode Island regiments were brigaded with the 4th and 8th Connecticut and the four units were placed under the command of General Varnum, who became a Brigadier General in the Continental Line on February 27, 1777 (while remaining a Major General in the Rhode Island Militia.)

      During the summer of 1777, the two Rhode Island regiments peaked in strength at 600 men combined. At this point, Christopher Greene managed to join his regiment. In October and November of 1777, the Rhode Island units fought in the battle at Red Bank. After the battle, Greene evaded the British and got the two Rhode Island units back to Valley Forge for winter camp.

      In camp, the Rhode Island offlcers, concerned about the very low numbers in the ranks, came up with the idea of raising a regiment from slaves. Washington wrote Gov. Cooke of Rhode Island asking his opinion of the plan. The governor expressed cautious optimism and said 300 men could be expected. So the troops of the 1st Rhode Island were transferred to the 2nd Rhode Island, numbering 400 as a result. This regiment served at Monmouth under Lee.

      Greene and his staff were sent back to Rhode Island to raise a black regiment to fill the ranks of the depleted 1st Rhode Island. The General Assembly voted that every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto and Indian slave could enlist for the duration of the war. Bounties and wages would be the same as those of free men. Once enlisted and approved of by the officers of the regiment, the recruits would be free. At this time, there was a Black and Indian population of 3,331 in Rhode Island. The scheme, which compensated owners, produced less than 200 men. Seeing how expensive the plan was becoming, the Assembly cut off recruiting of slaves on June 10, 1778.

      This incarnation of the 1st Rhode Island first saw action in the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. The Continental troops that fought in the battle (1st and 2nd Rhode Island; Sherburne’s, Webb’s and Jackson’s and Livingston’s regiments) remained in Rhode Island for the winter of 1778-79. On October 25, 1779, the British evacuated Newport, Rhode Island.

      All the Continental units in Rhode Island were ordered to march. However, at the last minute, the 1st Rhode Island was told to stay in the state and guard Newport. The 1st Rhode Island remained home into 1780. In July of that year, Rochambeau arrived in Newport with 4,000 French troops. An officer with Rocharnbeau, von Clausen, provides us with a description of one of the Black soldiers wearing a cast-off French waistcoat with long sleeves and red cuffs, as well as the waved helmet with bluish plumes.

      In October of 1781, Congress reorganized the army again. The 1st and 2nd Rhode Island and Sherburnes regiment were all merged into one unit, designated the 1st Rhode Island. Greene maintained command, with subordinates Jeremiah Olney and Ebenezer Flagg. Sherburne, Isreal Angell and Ward were all forced to retire. The reorganization took place at West Point. Although authorized for 650 men, the actual strength was about 450 men.

      In May of 1781, the 1st Rhode Island was stationed along the Croton River, north of Manhattan. On the 14th, a raiding party of Delancey’s Tories surprised the Rhode Islanders at two points. Greene and Flagg were killed. Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney assumed command. Coggeshall Olney and John Dexter were promoted to major and made his subordinates. Though the official designation was still the 1st Rhode Island, it became known as Olney’s Rhode Island Regiment.

      The 1st Rhode Island was one of the first to head south to Yorktown. It was brigaded with New Jersey troops under Colonel Dayton, and placed in Lincoln’s division. Stephen Olney’s light infantry detached from the regiment and were given to Lafayette’s Light Infantry. In February of 1782, the regiment numbered 31 officers and 413 enlisted men. The regiment was disbanded November 3rd through 5th of1783 when Congress decided to consolidate all regiments with less than 500 men and the state refused to spend additional recruiting money.

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