"Negro, Mulatto, or Indian man slave[s]": African Americans in the Rhode Island Regiments, 1775-1783

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

Five Black Regiments, 1775-1783. During the War of the American Revolution there were a number of units, large and small, recruited solely with men of color (in one case, men of African descent, as well as Native Americans). Five regiments of different nationsthe Ethiopian Regiment (1775-1776), the 1st Rhode Island (segregated) (1778-1780), The Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Domingue (1779-1780), and the Free Battalions of Havana, one Pardo (mulatto) and one Moreno (black) (1779-1783)are of particular interest, and stood out for several reasons: British and French regiments were segregated and any men of color in them served as musicians or officer’s servants, not as musket-bearing soldiers. British Loyalist units initially allowed black arms-bearing men in the ranks, but that officially changed in March 1777 when the British commander-in-chief barred them from serving in Loyalist regiments on the Provincial Establishment. For American Whigs, whose army was integrated throughout the war, the sole large-scale exception was a regiment manned with black and Indian private soldiers. Spain had long armed Africans for defense in the West Indies and South America. Their 1770s and 1780s Afro-Cuban battalions were divided according to whether their soldiers were black or mulatto, as were the companies of the 1779-1782 French Saint Domingue regiment. 

The Wartime Saga of the Rhode Island Regiments. In an army with predominantly integrated units, the segregated 1st Rhode Island Regiment (1778-1780) was one of the few exceptions. The first known recommendation for founding a Whig all-black unit occurred in August 1776 when New Jerseyan Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant suggested raising a regiment of freed slaves to augment the state’s militia. He sent his detailed plan to John Adams to put before Congress; Adams demurred, replying, “Your Negro Battalion will never do. S. Carolina would run out of their Wits at the hint of such a measure.” In early 1778, John Laurens, South Carolinian and aide to General George Washington, learned of the Rhode Island plan to form a regiment filled with slaves, emancipated upon enlistment. Long uneasy with the institution of slavery, Laurens determined on doing the same in his home state. He wrote his father Henry, president of Congress and prominent plantation and slave owner, on 14 January, 

"I barely hinted to you, my dearest father, my desire to augment the Continental forces from an untried source. I wish I had any foundation to ask for an extraordinary addition to those favours which I have already received from you. I would solicit you to cede me a number of your able bodied men slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune. 

I would bring about a two-fold good; first, I would advance those who are unjustly deprived of rights of mankind to a state which would be proper gradation between abject slavery and perfect liberty, and besides I would reinforce the defenders of liberty with a number of gallant soldier. Men, who have the habit of subordination almost indelibly impressed on them, would have one very essential qualification of soldiers. I am persuaded that if I could obtain authority for the purpose, I would have a corps of such men trained, uniformly equip’d and ready in every respect to act at the opening of the next campaign."

Henry Laurens, initially unconvinced, by March 1779 helped shepherd the proposal before Congress, who approved a plan that South Carolina and Georgia (if they thought proper) enlist “three thousand able bodied negroes [slaves] … formed into separate corps as battalions, according to the arrangements adopted for the main army, to be commanded by white commissioned and non-commissioned officers.” Promoted to lieutenant colonel, John Laurens tried and failed three times (1779, 1780, and 1782), to convince the two state assemblies to approve the project. 

Rhode Island fielded three one-year Continental regiments in 1775 and two in 1776. The state’s establishment remained the same in 1777, but the men were enlisted for three years, or during the war and, for the first time, the units were called the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island regiments. Having had a relatively quiet summer garrisoned near the Hudson River, the Rhode Island regiments experienced hard service that autumn, being heavily involved in the defense of the Delaware River forts below Philadelphia. Elements garrisoned Fort Mifflin, but their main responsibility was Fort Mercer in New Jersey, which on 22 October 1777 was attacked by 2,300 Hessian grenadiers. Outnumbered, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Navy the German force was defeated. 

Five days after the battle, both regiments numbered 369 musicians and privates (the only ranks soldiers of color could hold). Adding ten privates who were killed between 22 October and the 27 October strength return, brings the rough total during the Fort Mercer assault to 379 musicians and privates. Of those, forty-eight (12.6%) were soldiers of color, including thirty-nine African Americans (10.3% of the whole), seven Native Americans (1.8%), and two mixed African/Indians (0.52%). The Rhode Island regiments continued sending men to garrison Fort Mifflin, until it was evacuated on the night of 15/16 November. Following that it joined Washington’s army at White Marsh, and entered the 1777-1778 Valley Forge winter camp on 19 December.  

At Valley Forge, just before the new year, Rhode Island Brigadier General James Varnum proposed that the state’s depleted regiments be completed with enslaved men (“negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave[s]”) purchased and manumitted for that purpose. Receiving the go-ahead, Varnum dispatched the 1st Rhode Island command staff home to recruit; at Valley Forge the white enlisted men of both regiments were combined in the 2nd Regiment, while a single segregated company was formed under Captain Thomas Arnold comprising black and Indian soldiers of both regiments. Arnold’s company belonged to the 1st Rhode Island, but while separated would form and maneuver with the 2nd Regiment. Thus, in that combination, Captain Arnold’s company served in the 1778 Monmouth campaign, and saw combat at the Hedgerow defense line during the 28 June battle. There the captain lost his leg, and the company was afterwards taken over by Jonathan Wallen. Marching north with Washington’s army, in July the veteran black company returned to Rhode Island, where it joined the 1st Regiment.

Earlier in the year, when the state assembly passed legislation authorizing slave recruiting, the law stipulated that any enslaved men so-enlisted receive their freedom and their owners remunerated. Unpopular with many slaveowners, in early May the legislature set a 10 June 1778 cutoff date for slave recruiting, though free blacks could continue to enlist. At best less than 200 African Americans ever joined the 1st Regiment, and it was never able to form a full battalion for service with General Washington’s main army. 

The 1st Rhode Island (segregated), with its brother regiment, took part in the 29 August battle of Rhode Island, at the northern end of Aquidneck Island. The 1st Regiment seems to not have performed well, one observer noting they, “fought bravely, but were unfortunate”; hardly surprising as it was the first time most of the men were under fire, the unit having only forty-four veteran soldiers (23.2 percent) versus 146 newly-enlisted men. 

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment remained in its home state until the end of 1780. It existed as a segregated unit (filled with black and Indian private soldiers, commanded by white officers, sergeants, and corporals) from February 1778 to July 1780, only two years and five months. Formed into five companies in 1778, in 1779 it was reduced to four companies. In June 1780, with only 124 private soldiers, the unit was formed into two large companies, and in July was attached to a 400-man integrated six-month levy battalion. The levy soldiers were discharged in December 1778 and in February 1781 the first detachment from the former 1st Rhode Island joined the 2nd Regiment at “Rhode Island Village” in the Hudson highlands, thus forming the conjoined Rhode Island Regiment. When all the 1st Regiment private soldiers arrived they were formed into two segregated companies, the 6th and 8th.

For the first seven months of 1781 the newly-formed regiment was stationed in New York and New Jersey. That April a sizeable Rhode Island detachment was surprised at their Pines Bridge post, near a crossing of the Croton River; in addition to many enlisted casualties, their veteran colonel Christopher Greene was killed, as was Major Ebenezer Flagg. At summer’s end the Rhode Island Regiment marched to Virginia with the combined Franco-American army to confront Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Also present were three Rhode Island soldiers (two black) selected to join the Corps of Sappers and Miners, and one lieutenant, two non-commissioned officers, and nineteen privates (including seven black soldiers) detached from the Rhode Island Regiment to serve with Col. Alexander Scammel’s Light Infantry Battalion, formed in late May 1781. Following the British capitulation at Yorktown, the Rhode Islanders endured several months of rampaging illness while forming part of the Philadelphia garrison. In June 1782 the regiment joined the grand army at West Point and took part in the encampment and field maneuvers at Verplank’s Point that autumn. Ordered to join the Northern Department, the Rhode Islanders spent the winter at Saratoga, and in February 1783 portions of five Rhode Island companies, with both black and white soldiers, took part in an ill-fated expedition against British-held Fort Oswego. 

In February 1783 the regiment was reorganized into a six-company Rhode Island Battalion. Four of the companies consisted of white soldiers, a fifth company had only African American musicians and privates, while the sixth was integrated. In June all but the 1781 three-years men were discharged and the battalion reformed with two companies. The Rhode Island Detachment was one of the last Continental units discharged in the war. Containing only two companies, the segregated white 1st company, and the integrated 2nd. The combined companies had ninety-one musicians and private soldiers as of 25 December 1783; soldiers of color (consisting of twelve blacks, four mulattos, seven Indians, and two Mustees) comprised 27.47% of the combined companies. The Detachment left camp at Saratoga, New York, in late December, and did not reach Rhode Island until mid-January 1784.

John Dower attempted to reconcile the fate of the 1778 Rhode Island enslaved enlistees, using the published Regimental Book for Rhode Island 1781; there seems to be some inconsistency in overall numbers, but for the moment it is the best we can do: 

"Of the approximately 125 former slaves from Rhode Island, 51 died of unknown causes (most likely disease) during the five years from 1778 to 1783, at least 11 were killed in action, 3 of the several POWs were never seen again, 3 never mustered in after signing up, 8 deserted permanently… and 42 were honorably discharged. Many suffered from starvation, injuries and illnesses…"

There were other segregated Whig units, but they were company-size and few in number. One much touted organization was the Bucks of America, a Massachusetts militia unit commanded by Boston freeman George Middleton. It seems to have been mostly ceremonial, without any real military role. Another was Captain David Humphrey’s company of Colonel Zebulon Butler’s 4th Connecticut Regiment, organized in 1782. Possibly preceded by Captain Samuel Barker’s 1781 6th Regiment company, Humphrey’s company was formed at the beginning of 1782 and consisted of African American privates with white officers and non-commissioned officers. The company seems to have been disbanded and the men dispersed by the following January. The other “black” companies, those in the 1781-1782 Rhode Island Regiment, have already been discussed, but a little-known Massachusetts segregated company was created near the end of August 1781. Muster rolls have yet to be uncovered, but regimental orders directed its formation: 

"26th Augt [1781] … Serjeant Fisk of the 1st company & Serjeant Barker of the 3rd company are Transferred to the [Captain William North’s] 2nd company – all the Black men, Molattoes, & Indians in the Regiment, will be transferred to the 2nd company – The commanding Officers of the several companies will furnish Lieut. Selden with the Names of their Men transferred, and the duty on which they are employed, with a compleat description list of them – The present state of their Arms & Accoutrements, together an exact account of all clothing Received since the first of January last."

It is not known whether North’s company continued to be segregated to the war’s end, but given the reduction of all the state lines in 1782 and 1783, it is highly doubtful.


Related Battles

York County and Newport News, VA | April 5, 1862
Result: Inconclusive
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Rhode Island | August 29, 1778
Result: Inconclusive
Estimated Casualties
New Jersey | October 22, 1777
Result: American Victory
Estimated Casualties