The 1st Rhode Island Regiment and Revolutionary America’s Lost Opportunity

"The siege of Rhode Island, taken from Mr. Brindley's house on the 25th of August, 1778," 1779. (Library of Congress)

As the battered Continental Army encamped in Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-1778 after a year of setbacks and defeats, Gen. James Varnum, the commander of the Rhode Island troops, proposed to George Washington that his state’s two depleted regiments be combined into a single formation, and that the extra officers be sent home to recruit a new unit consisting of African Americans. By this point in the war, the shortage in manpower in Rhode Island had become so severe that it seemingly had no others means of supplying the Continental Army with its proportion of replacement troops for the new campaign season. In a letter explaining his idea, Varnum assured Washington that “it is imagined that a battalion of Negroes can be easily raised there.”[1] Although Washington was a prominent Virginia slaveholder who had wanted to prevent African Americans from joining the Continental Army when he first became commander-in-chief three years earlier, the desperate need to recruit more men convinced him to endorse Varnum’s request.[2] Washington did not explicitly approve the proposal, but he indicated his support by forwarding the letter to Rhode Island governor Nicholas Cooke with the note, “I have nothing to say … on this important subject, but to desire that you will give the officers employed in this business all the assistance in your power.”[3]

Cooke took Varnum’s proposal before the Rhode Island General, causing a debate in which not all the legislators agreed with the radical idea. Despite the protests of some members, Rhode Island’s governing body passed a law on February 14, 1778, permitting the enlistment of able-bodied African Americans and Native Americans, both free and enslaved, in a new regiment, the 1st Rhode Island. Although the Slave Enlistment Act was passed, the six dissenting members of the General Assembly issued a formal protest explaining their objections, arguing there was an insufficient number of blacks in the state with an inclination to enlist, the measure would be too expensive, slaveholders would not be satisfied with the amount of compensation, and raising a unit of slaves was inconsistent with the principles of liberty that the United States was contending for.[4]

Brigadier-General James M. Varnum, 1749-1789. (New York Public Library)

The innovative law stipulated that by agreeing to serve in the Continental Army for the continuance of the war against Great Britain, a slave accepted into the 1st Rhode Island would be “immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free, as though he had never been encumbered with any kind of servitude or slavery.”[5] Additionally, the law asserted that the new troops would be entitled to receive the same bounties and wages of any other soldier joining the Continental Army, and promised that the state would support any slave disabled during their service. The enlistment law guaranteed that the white owners of enlisting slaves would receive compensation based on the slave’s value. While the recruitment of the unique regiment commenced, Cooke informed Washington that Varnum’s proposal had been adopted, reporting “liberty is given to every effective slave to enter the service during the war.”[6] Cooke optimistically predicted that though “the number of slaves in this state is not great…it is generally thought that 300, and upwards will be enlisted.”[7]

Whites who opposed the law discouraged slaves from enlisting. One of the recruiting officers, Capt. Elijah Lewis, reported that local whites were telling slaves that those who enlisted would be given the most dangerous assignments and sacrificed in battle by being used as breastworks.[8] As Cooke wrote to Continental General Nathanael Greene, “your observation upon North Kingston in respect to the Negro Rigment is very just; they [local whites] are not pleased with it at all and grumble a good deal.”[9] The support of the General Assembly was also short-lived. In the statewide elections held in April 1778, the populace of Rhode Island displayed their discontent by replacing over half of their legislators, and one of the first acts of the new administration was to repeal the controversial slave enlistment law.[10] A new edit issued in May declared that the freeing of slaves for military service had only been temporary, and that after June 10, “no negro, mulatto and Indian slave, be permitted to enlist into said battalions.”[11]

Over the several months that the Slave Enlistment Act was in effect, over one hundred thirty enslaved men joined the regiment and secured their freedom, recruited from various parts of Rhode Island, many came from North and South Kingstown.[12] Possibly around a dozen of the slaves recruited into the 1st Rhode Island were born in Africa and forcibly taken to a country that they were now fighting for.[13] Several of the recruits had been owned by the state’s largest slaveholding families. More often than not, the newly liberated men retained the surnames of their former owners. The first enlistee is believed to have been Cuff Greene, who had belonged to the son of William Greene, soon to be named new governor of Rhode Island.[14] Enlistees included Cato Greene from Governor William Greene of Providence, Dick and Jack Champlin from Stephen Champlin of South Kingstown, Cato Vernon from William Vernon of Newport, Peter and Jacob Hazard from the Hazards of South Kingston, Richard and Samuel Rhodes from Nehemiah Rhodes of Cranston, and Moses and Caesar Updike from Lodowick Updike of North Kingstown.[15] Free African Americans and Native Americans also enlisted in the new battalion.

The officers of the unit were all white. By the time the new battalion began active operations in late summer 1778, the regiment numbered around one hundred forty soldiers classified as “negro, mulatto, or mustee,” though an additional company soon augmented its overall strength.[16] Cooke’s original prediction about the ultimate number of manumitted slaves in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment may have proved incorrect, but the considerable amount of African Americans and other men of color who joined in the first half of 1778 indicates that the unit’s size was more the result of the limited time span that the enlistment law was in effect than an unwillingness of enslaved persons to gain their freedom by fighting in the Continental Army.

For its first combat operation, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment served with the American forces that sought to defeat the British troops occupying Newport, Rhode Island, with the aid of their French allies in the summer of 1778. The operations were ultimately a disaster, as the allies failed to capture Newport and the American army was forced to retreat. However, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment performed with distinction in the Battle of Rhode Island, the campaign’s concluding engagement that prevented the pursuing British forces from obstructing the American withdrawal on August 29. Assigned to guard a defensive position that anchored the right wing of the American army, the 1st Rhode Island withstood and helped repulse three attacks by Hessian regiments serving with the British army.[17] The prominent role of the 1st Rhode Island in the battle demonstrated the fighting efficiency of the unique battalion and proved that the men would remain stalwart even in the rigors of combat. In the aftermath of the clash, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, the commander of the American forces, declared that “by the best information the commander-in-chief thinks that regiment will be entitled to a proper share of the honors of the day.”[18]

Lost Opportunities

The performance of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the Battle of Rhode Island justified the enactment of Varnum’s controversial proposal. Besides meeting the state’s manpower needs, the manumitted individuals who composed the majority of the unique battalion proved themselves to be steady and proficient soldiers. Nevertheless, the Rhode Island General Assembly refused to reinstitute the Slave Enlistment Act and continued to prohibit additional enslaved persons from joining the 1st Rhode Island. The former slaves already in the ranks continued to serve, but after the summer of 1778, volunteers enlisting in the regiment were primarily whites and free African Americans, though small numbers of enslaved persons still joined. Some Rhode Island recruiting acts specifically stated, “deserters, Indians, mulattoes and negroes excepted” from the enlistment quotas for Rhode Island, depriving the state of a considerable source of manpower.[19] In January of 1781, Lt. Col. Jeremiah Olney, who had assisted in the original recruitment of blacks, was required to order that “negroes will not be received.”[20]

While Rhode Island was raising the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, other states, especially in New England, also began to enlist greater numbers of African Americans in order to alleviate the difficulties of meeting manpower demands. Some states accepted free black volunteers into the ranks of Continental and militia units, and less frequently allowed slaves to earn their freedom by choosing to enlist in the military. Although there was a significant surge in the racial integration in the army, “there is no record of a popular outcry against the black presence, no record of fights or interdisciplinary problems … The objections to the black presence came not from the rank and file but from the highest levels of policy makers and politicians.”[21] Despite the successful example set by the Rhode Island law of February 1778 and the combat performance of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, many civil leaders across the country maintained their opposition toward recruiting slaves and no large-scale legislation authorizing the enlistment of enslaved individuals was adopted. Increased numbers of enslaved and manumitted African Americans joined the Continental Army, but similar to the early years of the war, the primary way was as substitutes for drafted white men.[22] In the southern states, where slavery was more closely connected to the economic interests of the region than in the middle or northern states, enlistment of black men was even more rare.

As the main theater of the war shifted at the end of 1778, with the British focusing their offensive operations against the South, a controversial plan similar to the one devised by Varnum was proposed. Col. John Laurens, a member of Washington’s staff who had served at the Battle of Rhode Island and witnessed the capabilities of the 1st Rhode Island, approached his father, Henry Laurens, a member of the Continental Congress and its former president, with a plan to raise a force of several thousand slaves in South Carolina who would be freed at the end of the conflict. John Laurens, an abolitionist, understood that the British recognized the value of utilizing enslaved African Americans in the war, asserting that “our enemies have at length discovered the vulnerable point of the confederacy and determine to avail themselves [of it].[23] Realizing the advantages imparted by forming regiments of slaves, the younger Laurens contended, “those blacks who have hitherto been regarded as our greatest weakness may be converted into our greatest strength.”[24] Although he understood the idea would receive opposition in South Carolina, Henry Laurens reluctantly endorsed his son’s proposal in March 1779. Hoping to gain support for the scheme, the elder Laurens wrote to Washington, “had we arms for 3000 such black men as I could select in Carolina I should have no doubt of success in driving the British out of Georgia and subduing East Florida before the end of July.”[25]

Another supporter of John Laurens’ notion of enlisting enslaved African Americans was the Continental officer Alexander Hamilton, another of Washington’s aides. In a letter to John Jay, the new president of the Continental Congress, Hamilton attempted to convey the advantages of the younger Laurens’ plan. Expressing confidence in the fighting abilities of African Americans, Hamilton avowed, “I have not the least doubt, that the Negroes will make very excellent soldiers.”[26] Hamilton contrasted the view “that they [enslaved blacks] are too stupid to make soldiers,” instead arguing that “their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours) joined to that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life of servitude, will make them sooner become soldiers than our white inhabitants.”[27] Knowing that the project would face “opposition from prejudice and self-interest,” Hamilton realized that Americans needed to overcome “the contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks … that are founded neither in reason nor experience.”[28]

At the end of March 1779, the Continental Congress was induced to take action and support John Laurens’s proposal, recommending that South Carolina begin forming battalions of enslaved African Americans who would receive freedom at the war’s end as well as severance pay from the national government while white owners would be fairly compensated for their lost slaves. Expounding on the benefits of Laurens’s plan, Congress declared that a force of blacks “would not only be formidable to the enemy from their numbers, and the discipline of which they would very readily admit, but would also lessen the danger from revolts and desertions, by detaching the most vigorous and energetic from among the Negroes.”[29] Congress did not, however, explicitly order South Carolina to implement the controversial measure; the plan depended on the approval of the state government. As was predictable from a legislature comprised of slaveholding planters, the South Carolina government immediately rejected the proposition to raise black units. Many South Carolina officials were angry and disgusted with Congress over the proposal, but Henry Laurens and others hoped that Washington would save the radical scheme.[30]

The commander of the Continental Army refused to openly offer his support, writing “this is a subject that has never employed much of my thoughts.”[31] Washington expressed fear that the policy would result in discontent among those blacks remaining enslaved, as well as result in the British responding by raising regiments of African Americans faster than the United States could hope to. While Washington’s decision may have been influenced by political factors such as ensuring that South Carolina and the other states continued to support the war effort, another likely reason was that, similar to many slaveholders, “he feared the consequences for his own slave property,” as the example set by freeing some enslaved individuals would inevitably lead to an end of the entire institution.[32] It has been suggested that Washington may also have wanted to hold off utilizing African American slaves as soldiers until the British did it first, therefore avoiding the inevitable backlash from southern slave owners.[33] That argument does not seem valid because Washington did not endorse the widespread formation of enslaved African American battalions even after the British had started employing escaped slaves in their armed forces.

Throughout the conflict, many British officers had for pragmatic reasons been offering postwar freedom for enslaved individuals who deserted their American revolutionary owners and supported the British war effort. In June 1779, Gen. Henry Clinton, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, officially affirmed the policy, proclaiming “I do most strictly forbid any person to call or claim right over any Negro, the property of a Rebel, who may take refuge with any part of this army. And I do promise to any Negro who shall desert the Rebel standard, full security to follow within these lines, any occupation which he may think proper.”[34] Thousands of African Americans fled to the British in the hope of gaining their eventual freedom, serving the army primarily in labor and similar support roles.

American soldiers, including a member of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment at the far left, during the Yorktown campaign, 1781, drawn by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

Without the backing of Washington, John Laurens’ plan failed, though the young colonel continued his efforts to convince the South Carolina legislature to permit the enlistment of slaves. As the war spread throughout South Carolina, other American officers, including Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, advocated the freeing of enslaved blacks for service with the Continental Army, but the state government remained adamant in its refusal, despite numerous defeats inflicted by the British forces. The tide of the war eventually changed with the successes achieved by American forces led by Nathanael Greene in the lower south and the decisive Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781, but the British remained a threat. In the following year, to preserve the security of South Carolina and Georgia if renewed fighting erupted, Greene proposed the repeatedly thwarted plan of awarding enslaved African Americans freedom for serving in the Continental Army. With his forces undermanned, Greene wrote to John Rutledge, the Governor of South Carolina, “The natural strength of this country in point of numbers, appears to me to consist much more in the blacks, than the whites … that they would make good soldiers I have not the least doubt.”[35] Having had the 1st Rhode Island Regiment under his command at the Battle of Rhode Island, Greene had firsthand knowledge of the potential fighting capabilities of black troops. As earlier, the state legislatures of the lower south rejected the proposal to raise black battalions, and even a bill put forth in South Carolina to allow African Americans to serve as noncombatant support personnel failed to pass. The freeing of enslaved blacks for any type of military service was plainly an unacceptable concept in the states of the southern United States.

Having continually sought to have his plan of forming slave battalions enacted, John Laurens conveyed his frustrations over South Carolina’s intransigence to Washington, writing “the plan which brought me to this country, was urged with all the zeal which the subject inspired … but the single voice of reason was drowned by the howlings of a triple-headed monster in which prejudice, avarice and pusillanimity were united.”[36] Displaying condemnation for the self-interest of the southern legislatures, Washington responded, “I must confess that I am not at all astonished at the failure of your plans. That spirit of freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place.”[37] Washington’s angry assertion may have been somewhat hypocritical, as his personal slaveholding may have impacted his choice of not actively supporting measures liberating and raising units of enslaved blacks. Instead of permitting African Americans to be soldiers, the governments of South Carolina and Georgia began in 1782 to use slaves as bounties and bonuses to encourage white men to enlist in Continental units.[38]

Squandered Advantages

By refusing to liberate and arm enslaved African Americans for service with the Continental Army on a large scale, the leadership of the United States squandered the opportunity to enact a policy offering significant military advantages, as well as potential economic benefits. From the beginning of the war to its end, the American forces were nearly always in desperate need of manpower, with state governments continually struggling to meet troop enlistment quotas and military operations hindered by a lack of sufficient numbers of soldiers. The difficulties in fulfilling manpower demands was the reason that Rhode Island raised the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and that other states enlisted increased numbers of African Americans in the conflict’s later years. However, with the majority of the slave population across the country underutilized, a lack of troops was a persistent problem for the Continental Army. Permitting enslaved African Americans to serve as soldiers in return for their freedom in units similar to the 1st Rhode Island would have alleviated the American forces’ manpower shortages, increasing their operational capabilities and boosting their efficiency, especially in combat.

Additionally, greater numbers of trained black troops serving in the ranks of the Continental Army would have lessened its heavy reliance on state militias for assistance in active operations. While militiamen proved to be competent and valuable assets, at times they were unreliable and undisciplined compared to the regular soldiers of the Continental Army, particularly because they often served only for limited amounts of time. For example, the failure of the American campaign in Rhode Island was partly the result of thousands of militiamen deserting John Sullivan’s army. Commonly in the Continental Army, enlisted African American slaves committed to serve for the duration of the conflict in return for their liberation at the war’s end, while many whites and free blacks joined for limited lengths of time, varying from one year to several, and did not always reenlist. African Americans earning their freedom through military service were therefore soldiers who could be continually available for campaigning. Many of the former slaves of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment served in the ranks for a full five years, from 1778 to the end of the war in 1783, making them some of the most experienced soldiers in not only the regiment, but also the Continental Army as a whole.[39] The failure to implement legislation like the Rhode Island law of February 1778 and raise slave battalions deprived the Continental Army of a ready source of manpower that would have enhanced both the capacity and effectiveness of American operations in the critical final phases of the war.

Besides directly strengthening the Continental Army, slave enlistment measures implemented throughout the United States would have weakened the enemy by decreasing the numbers of enslaved African Americans who deserted to the British and aided their military operations. Over the course of the conflict, it is estimated that approximately twenty thousand slaves owned by American revolutionaries fled to the British.[40] Even though only a few served as soldiers in the British forces, many of them worked in noncombatant roles that assisted the war effort in various ways, from constructing fortifications to producing and moving supplies. For instance, Gen. Charles Cornwallis employed hundreds of black foragers and laborers to provision his army as it campaigned across the Carolinas and Virginia in 1780 and 1781.[41] The primary incentives encouraging enslaved African Americans to join the British were the promise of freedom following the war and wages for labor.

By offering enslaved blacks wages and the opportunity to gain their liberation through service with the Continental Army, American civil and military leaders would have diminished the British enticements with comparable ones of their own. While the establishment of policies allowing the formation of African American battalions would not have completely prevented enslaved persons from deserting to the British, the number would have been less, particularly among the able-bodied men qualified for military duty. A reduced quantity of enslaved blacks joining the British would have deprived the enemy of manpower for vital logistical positions and consequently lessened the effectiveness of their operations by requiring some of these support roles to be assumed by the troops themselves.

The refusal to institute policies authorizing the formation of battalions of enslaved African Americans not only squandered the opportunity to gain numerous military advantages, but also had a negative economic impact, specifically for the group most vehemently opposed to arming slaves, the white owners. The economic loss was the result of thousands of enslaved individuals escaping from their owners to join the British. The principal reason that slaveholders were unwilling to allow enslaved persons to earn liberation through military service was economic self-interest; they did not want to lose their relatively inexpensive labor force. The desire to persuade slaveholders to permit their bonded servants to enlist and compensate them for the loss of what was deemed property was why the Rhode Island law of early 1778 guaranteed to provide owners with a monetary sum determined by an enslaved man’s value, with the awarded amount reaching £120.[42] The failed legislation regarding raising slave regiments proposed to South Carolina by the Continental Congress in 1779 also promised compensation at a rate not exceeding one thousand dollars to slave owners.[43] The repeal of the Rhode Island Slave Enlistment Act and the repeated failure of attempts to enact similar laws reveal that most white owners considered that the stipulated compensation was not equal to the long-term value of their slaves and that they preferred to retain their labor force.

However, a substantial number of enslaved African Americans, especially in the South, deserted these same owners in order to join the British. Even George Washington lost slaves during the war, such as when seventeen ran away from his Virginia estate and sought refuge aboard a British warship in 1781.[44] With efforts to reclaim their escaped slaves often unsuccessful, white owners found themselves having lost their bonded workers in return for no compensation whatsoever. By supporting and establishing measures to raise units of enslaved African Americans, slaveholders would have both aided the national cause and received some degree of financial reimbursement. Although the compensation from the American national and state governments may not have been an amount that slave owners deemed ideal, some monetary return for their loss would nevertheless be preferable to the alternative of gaining nothing when a slave deserted.

Conclusion

Through its distinguished performance in the Battle of Rhode Island, the 1st Rhode Island demonstrated the capabilities and capacity of regiments of slaves gaining their liberation through fighting in the American forces, but nevertheless it remained unique in the Continental Army. Attempts to implement legislation forming regiments similar to the 1st Rhode Island were unsuccessful, as the majority of the American civil and military leaders allowed prejudices and short-term economic self-concerns to override the interests of the national war effort. By squandering the opportunities to establish battalions of enslaved African Americans, several military advantages and economic benefits were lost. The advantages included the strengthening of the Continental Army by lessening the manpower crisis, weakening the British forces by denying them a source of support personnel, and averting negative economic effects on the nation’s slaveholding population.

[1] James Mitchell Varnum to George Washington, January 2, 1778, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008) [hereafter PGWDE], rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/GEWN.xqy.

[2] George Washington, General Orders, November 12, 1775, PGWDE.

[3] Washington to Nicholas Cooke, January 2, 1778, PGWDE.

[4] John Russell Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, Vol. VIII, 1776 to 1779 (Providence: Cooke, Jackson and Co., 1863), 361.

[5] Ibid., 359.

[6] Cooke to Washington, February 23, 1778, PGWDE.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lorenzo Greene, “Some Observations on the Black Regiment of Rhode Island in the American Revolution,” Journal of Negro History 37, no. 2 (April 1952), 161.

[9] Cooke to Nathanael Greene, April 19, 1778, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. II, January 1777-October 1778, ed. Richard K. Showman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 346.

[10] Michael Lee Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War (New York: Citadel Press, 2000), 75.

[11] Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, Vol. VIII, 1776 to 1779, 399.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bruce C. MacGunnigle, Regimental Book: Rhode Island Regiment for 1781 &c. (East Greenwich, RI: Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, 2011), 35-45.

[14] “The Treasurer’s Account of the Negro Slaves Inlisted into the Continental Battalions, To Whom They Did Belong and the Valuation of Each Slave,” 1778, from Sidney S. Rider, R.I. Historical Tracts: An Historical Inquiry Concerning the Attempt to Raise a Regiment of Slaves in Rhode Island During the War of the Revolution, No. 10 (Providence: Providence Press Company, 1880), 53-56.

[15] “The Treasurer’s Account of the Negro Slaves Inlisted into the Continental Battalions,” from Rider, R.I. Historical Tracts, 53-56.

[16] Robert Geake and Loren Spears, From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2016), 42.

[17] Information on the Battle of Rhode Island can be found in Christian M. McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2011); Paul F. Dearden, The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778: Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance (Providence: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1980); Theodore P. Savas and J. David Dameron, A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution (New York: Savas Beatie, 2006).

[18] John Sullivan, General Orders and Orderly Book, August 30, 1778, in R.I. Historical Tracts, No. 6 (Providence: Providence Press Company, 1878), 115-116.

[19] John Russell Bartlett, ed., Records of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, Vol. IX, 1780 to 1783 (Providence: Cooke, Jackson and Co., 1864), 126.

[20] Jeremiah Olney quoted in Geake and Spears, From Slaves to Soldiers, 64.

[21] Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 201.

[22] Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War, 64-66.

[23] John Laurens, May 1779, quoted in Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 84.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Henry Laurens to Washington, March 16, 1779, PGWDE.

[26] Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, March 14, 1779, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. II, 1779–1781, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 17-19.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Continental Congress, March 29, 1779, “Continental Congress Recommends Negro Enlistments,” in George Livermore, An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic: On Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers (Boston: J. Wilson, 1862), 134.

[30] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War for Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 343.

[31] Washington to Laurens, March 20, 1779, PGWDE.

[32] Wiencek, An Imperfect God, 229.

[33] Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 343.

[34] Henry Clinton, The Philipsburg Proclamation, June 30, 1779, quoted in Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists, 120-121.

[35] Greene to John Rutledge, December 9, 1781, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, Vol. X, December 1781-April 1782, ed. Dennis M. Conrad (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 22.

[36] John Laurens to Washington, May 19, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives -National Historical Publications and Records Commission, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08462.

[37] Washington to John Laurens, July 10, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives -National Historical Publications and Records Commission, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08890.

[38] Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War, 71-72. White men who enlisted were promised a healthy enslaved African American between the ages of ten and forty, and in Georgia they could also receive a slave for participating in successful operations. Since the South Carolina and Georgia legislatures did not have any of their own slaves for the bounty, they fulfilled the enlistment award with enslaved persons captured or confiscated from Loyalists.

[39] Geake and Spears, From Slaves to Soldiers, 67. The many years of service of the formerly enslaved African Americans in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment made them not only some of the most experienced soldiers, but also probably some of the most war weary.

[40] Ferling, Almost a Miracle, 553.

[41] Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War, 144-145.

[42] Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, Vol. VIII, 1776 to 1779, 360.

[43] Continental Congress, March 29, 1779, “Continental Congress Recommends Negro Enlistments,” in George Livermore, Historical Research, 134.

[44] Lund Washington, “List of Runaways, April 1781,” The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, Vol. 22, ed. John Fitzpatrick (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1937), 14.

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The 1st Rhode Island Regiment and Revolutionary America’s Lost Opportunity

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3 Comments

  • Great article with lots of detail on the efforts of this worthy regiment of Americans.

    Unfortunately, the efforts by Rhode Island representatives in the U.S. Congress to recognize them has met with repeated obstacles, with the most recent attempt, introduced last June, now pending on the agenda: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr3123/text

    Even if passed by the Congress, it seems highly unlikely that our nation’s chief executive would ever sign it into law.

  • A very thoughtful article. One must consider that American culture has changed since the eighteenth century.
    A counter argument proposes many southern whites feared a slave rebellion should even small numbers of former enslaved negros receive arms and military training. In Virginia, Lord Dunmore’s November 7, 1775 decree to free “all indentured servants Negroes or others (appertaining to Rebels) … that are able and willing to bear Arms,” was problematic for the British because it alienated many former loyal supporters of the King and his royal governor. While this decree provided a supply of former slave who rallied to the governor’s cause, most of their lives were squander; they did not make a significant contribution to British cause in Virginia. Dunmore’s proclamation helped suppress loyalism at a critical time and raised fears of the committees of safety in other southern colonies. Dunmore’s actions actually had the unintended consequence of drawing people to the rebel cause or at best confirming their neutrality.
    The research and argument proposed in this fine article reaffirms the fear even northern whites possessed over arming former slaves. Slavery was an institution engrained into colonial American society. It would take another eighty plus years, industrial growth, demographic shifts, political maturation, and over 700,000 lives to end slavery. Not until July 26, 1948 did President Truman issue Executive Order No. 9981, Desegregating the Military. This is when the vision reflected by the Rhode Island Legislature in 1778 become the policy of the US government. One should note this was not a legislative initiative, but an executive order.

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