1st Regiment of Rhode Island and The Role of Slaves in the American Revolution
The story of the 1st regiment of Rhode Island and of the role of slaves in the Revolutionary War is not one commonly told, but should be. In January 1778, General Washington had given his approval for Rhode Island’s plan to raise an entire regiment of black soldiers. Over the next five years, 250 former slave and freedmen served in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
The 1st Rhode Island Infantry Regiment
The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was a Continental Army regiment from Rhode Island during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Like most regiments of the Continental Army, the unit went through several incarnations and name changes. It became well known as the “Black Regiment” because, for a time, it had several companies of African American soldiers. It is regarded as the first African-American military regiment, despite the fact that its ranks were not exclusively African-American. The regiment eventually totaled about 225 men. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers. (Other regiments that allowed blacks to enlist were integrated.) The enlistment of slaves had been controversial, and after June 1778, no more non-whites were enlisted. The unit continued to be known as the “Black Regiment” even though only whites were thereafter recruited into the regiment to replace losses, a process which eventually made the regiment an integrated unit.
The Back Story
As war with Britain began, Massachusetts needed every man they could get to help fight for freedom. A number of black men (The use of the term, black, is historically accurate.), both slave and free, served bravely at Lexington and Concord and against at Bunker Hill. According to archives, a former slave, Salem Poor [Editor’s Note: See TFP article about Salem Poor by Peter Crowell Anderson on TFP’s website.] performed with such bravery that 14 officers wrote to the Massachusetts legislature to commend him and request a reward for him. The details of Salem Poor’s heroism aren’t completely known, but the commendation was not lost to history. There are numerous accounts of black soldiers’ bravery and heroism during the Revolutionary War and the need for more brave men was apparent.
Britain began actively recruiting slaves, offering freedom to any who escaped and joined the British. Many slaves though saw a better opportunity for freedom in a nation fighting for its own freedom from an oppressive king. This prompted similar offers from America and Rhode Island, which struggled to fill their need for more troops, began by offering freedom to all black, Indian, mulatto and white slave who enlisted.
Initially, the 1st Regiment of Rhode Island was a segregated unit, while most other regiments were integrated. Eventually, this regiment also became integrated. The soldiers all fought, drilled, marched, ate and slept alongside each other. They shared hardships equally.
History Looks Back
Retired Maj. Glenn Williams, a historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, stated that the role of slaves in the Revolutionary War is not completely known, as muster roles were destroyed making it impossible to get an exact count. But, he further noted that most historians estimate that 10-15% of the revolutionary army was comprised of slaves seeking freedom. The 1st Regiment of Rhode Island became well-known as a unit almost exclusively comprised of slaves, at least at its inception. Their fight mirrored that of their country’s: freedom.
Here is the proclamation from 1778:
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 enclosed 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 defense 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 defense, 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 C
ongress 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 encumbered and be encumbered 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.
“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
Williams (retired Major and historian with the U.S. Army Center for Military History) calls the service of these slaves and their heroism “invaluable:”
It (their service) “came at a time when the new United States needed it very badly and they stepped up and they took their place in the ranks. If they were misrepresented in our histories before, then we owe it to them to make sure we include it now, because they certainly did their part to earn not only their own freedom, but ours as well. We should never forget that for them, it was a double fight for liberty: their own and their country’s.”
– ret. Major Glenn Williams
Ref: Manual of the Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution … 1899, Published by the Sons of the American Revolution. Rhode Island Society, Edward Field, 1900 c http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/tag/1st-rhode-island-regiment/