BOOK REVIEW: Revolutionary Blacks, Discovering the Frank Brothers, Freeborn Men of Color, Soldiers of Independence by Shirley L. Green (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2023)
This captivating book tells a new American story. It is the first book to detail the life, challenges, fears and hopes of a Black soldier in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Even better, the lives of two soldiers are examined—brothers, who are freemen. They take wildly divergent paths, which makes for even more fascinating reading. The book raises a key question: in a country that enslaves one’s fellow man, does a Black man fight for it and try to make it better, or does a Black man escape it and start life in a new land? One brother takes one path and the other takes the opposite one.
To me, reading history works about Black people in extraordinary situations is inherently interesting. The Black people may be enslaved or have been recently freed from bondage. Even if they are free, they live in a society that enslaves other Black people and that discriminates against them in multiple ways based on their skin color. When they become free to make their own decisions; what will they decide and why?
Brothers William and Benjamin Frank were freemen when they enlisted in the Second Rhode Island Regiment of Continentals in early 1777. They were the sons of Rufus Frank, who in 1774 headed a household of free Blacks in Johnston, Rhode Island, a small rural town west of the seaport town of Providence. In 1774, the vast majority of Rhode Island Black people were enslaved, so it was unusual for a Black man to head a household.
Rufus Frank was a veteran of the French and Indian War, having served in Rhode Island’s militia. Thus, when his two sons enlisted in the Continental Army in 1777, fathers and sons started a long tradition of military service by members of the Frank family. Shirley L. Green, the book’s author and a professor at The University of Toledo in Ohio, pens an intriguing discussion about Rufus’s background and how his ancestors may have become free.
The Frank brothers, along with about forty-five other free Black men and other men of color in the integrated 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments, acquired crucial experience in 1777. First, they fought in the successful defense of Fort Mercer at Red Bank, in New Jersey, helping to fend off a charge by German infantrymen who vastly outnumbered the defenders. Then the brothers endured and survived the strains of the winter encampment at Valley Forge, where soldiers sometimes went with little or no food, and as a result, frequently came down with debilitating and sometimes deadly illnesses. Next the Frank brothers and other soldiers in the two Rhode Island Continental regiments, on June 28, 1778, fought in a major engagement in New Jersey, the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse. They were part of a courageous stand against elite British Redcoat soldiers at the Hedgerow, where some of the fiercest fighting of the war in the North occurred. This battlefield experience of these free soldiers of color has only recently begun to be studied.
In February 1778, the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments were dramatically restructured. All of the white soldiers in the 1st Rhode Island were transferred to the 2nd Rhode Island, and all of the soldiers of color in the 2nd Rhode Island, including the Frank brothers, were transferred to the 1st Rhode Island. Another change came when the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted legislation providing for freedom to any Rhode Island enslaved man who enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island. General George Washington himself approved the measure, which was intended to enlarge his army and to prevent enslaved men from joining the enemy’s forces. More than one hundred enslaved men enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island.
Where previously soldiers of color had served in integrated units, the 1st Rhode Island was the American army’s first segregated regiment in the war. Professor Green has a revealing discussion of how the Frank brothers, freemen, may have felt serving in a segregated regiment that included formerly enslaved men.
After fighting at Monmouth, the free soldiers of the re-established 1st Rhode Island marched to Rhode Island to join the newly enlisted former enslaved men in the regiment. Soon afterwards they fought in the most famous battle associated with the regiment. Manning an advanced redoubt, the soldiers played a key role in repelling three assaults by German and Loyalist troops in the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29, 1778.
Along with white Continental soldiers during the next two winters, the Frank brothers and other soldiers of color in the 1st Rhode Island suffered from a lack of support by the Continental Congress. Pay was often tardy or nonexistent, and because Congress printed money as if there was no tomorrow, what paper money was received was greatly depreciated in value. Congress, which lacked taxing power, also often failed to adequately feed and clothe the troops. Not surprisingly, desertion became rampant in Continental regiments.
In February 1780, while encamped near Providence, Ben Frank deserted the 1st Rhode Island. He ultimately found his way to New York City, served in the British army in a support capacity, and at war’s end in 1783 evacuated with some 3,000 other Black persons to Nova Scotia, Canada. Professor Green has a fascinating chapter detailing the trials, tribulations and opportunities Ben and other Black persons faced in Nova Scotia.
Meanwhile, William chose to endure the sufferings and to serve in the regiment until it disbanded in June 1783. He experienced the regiment’s lowest point, when its commander, Col. Christopher Greene, along with eight Black soldiers, were killed in a raid by horse-riding Loyalists under Col. James Delancey at Pines Bridge on the Croton River in Connecticut on May 14, 1781. William also served in the disastrous winter expedition against Fort Oswego in 1783. But he also experienced the thrill of participating in the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, and seeing the subsequent surrender of a British army.
William married a Rhode Island woman of color early in his wartime service, but the marriage was rocky, in part because he had no extra funds to send to his new family. Professor Green tells of the struggles many veterans of the re-established 1st Rhode Island Regiment experienced in post-war years.
The book has yet another layer: Professor Green is a descendant of one of the brothers (you will have to read the book to find out which one!). Thus, readers also accompany the author in her investigation into her family’s past. Professor Shirley L. Green weaves fascinating and fresh stories about her descendants from 1750 to the 1830s.
The author skillfully employs a broad range of original sources, recent scholarship in secondary sources, and her own family’s oral histories. She raises many pertinent questions faced by the Frank brothers and uses her sources to arrive at well-reasoned answers.
Green’s care in research is demonstrated by the fact that when she read an entry in a book setting forth the results of the 1774 Rhode Island census, she delved further into the original census records in Rhode Island state archives and found even more detail than the published book provided about the Frank household in Johnston.
This book is an important contribution to understanding the American experience in the Revolutionary War and is highly recommended.