1st Rhode Island Regiment

Soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, 1781
Soldiers at the siege of Yorktown, including 1st Rhode Island Regiment soldier (left), 1781
Illustration by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was a Continental Army regiment during the American Revolutionary War. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became known as the “Black Regiment” due to its allowing the recruitment of African Americans in 1778.  This decision, designed to help fill dwindling ranks among the Rhode Island regiments, is regarded as having produced the first African American military regiment.  This is incorrect, however, since its ranks were never exclusively African American.  Instead blacks served in their own segregated companies within the larger integrated unit.

In January 1778 Rhode Island, having great difficulty meeting troop quotas set by the Continental Congress, pursued a suggestion made by General James Varnum who had commanded the 1st Rhode Island at the outset of the war. Varnum urged General George Washington to enlist slaves in The Continental Army.  Varnum argued that a regiment of African Americans could easily be raised in Rhode Island which prompted Washington to pass along his recommendation to Nicholas Cooke, the Governor of Rhode Island.

On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state to enlist into either of the Continental Battalions being raised.” The assembly further stipulated that “every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free.”  Rhode Island slave owners opposed the new law fearing that consequences of armed ex-slaves on those still in bondage.  Their opposition prevailed and in June the Rhode Island Assembly repealed its law.  In that four month period, however, over 100 free and formerly enslaved African Americans enlisted.

After the repeal Rhode Island’s treasurer recorded another 44 slaves who enlisted.  The 1st Rhode Island Regiment eventually totaled around 225 men including 140 who were African Americans, by far the largest percentage of blacks in an integrated military unit during the American Revolution.  Although the 1st Rhode Island Regiment initially placed its African American soldiers in separate companies within the regiment, this process eventually gave way once more African Americans were no longer recruited.  Slowly the entire regiment became fully integrated.

The regiment first experienced combat at the Battle of Bloody Run Brook in Rhode Island on August 28, 1778. Over the next few years, however, the 1st Rhode Island remained in northern colonies as the focus of the war shifted to southern colonies.  In 1781, Colonel Greene and a many of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with American loyalists; Greene’s body was reported mutilated likely as punishment for having led black soldiers. As troop strength in General Washington’s Continental Army diminished the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments were joined to form The Rhode Island Regiment which participated at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, the engagement which led to the British surrender and the end of the war.