The 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.
In 1778 Rhode Island was having difficulties recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas. When General James Varnum had raised an idea in a letter to General George Washington to raise a Regiment of volunteer “Blacks, Mulattoes, and Indians” from northern colonies. Washington forwarded the letter to the Governor of Rhode Island Nicholas Cooke. By February 23, 1778, Cooke notified Washington that the Rhode Island General Assembly had approved the plan.
The Rhode Island General Assembly decreed that the individual slave enrolled in the regiment would “upon passing muster, he is made absolutely free, and entitled to all wages, bounties, and encouragements given by Congress to any soldier enlisting.”
The Rhode Island General Assembly also provided for compensation to the slave owners of up to $400.00 in Continental currency. The slave then, would be purchased by the state and, contingent upon service in the Army for the duration of the war or until property discharged, freed.
Within a week of the opening of the recruitment three men had enrolled and large numbers attempted to join. Most of them came for southern counties of the state where by far the most slaves were held. As potential soldiers gathered at the recruitment centers in large numbers, local white men attempted to dissuade enlistment. They exhorted the slaves not to enlist as the Continental Army intended to use them in the most vulnerable and dangerous advanced positions and that, if captured, the men faced the sure fate of being sold into slavery in the Caribbean.
Keeping their minds on the reward of liberty, (the quality or state of being free) approximately 250 men ignored the advice of the agitators, passed the enrollment committee and join the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was under the command of Colonel Nicholas Greene and became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers.
By early summer the regiment were trained, they gathered their equipment and marched straight to battle. The Regiments first experienced combat was at the Battle of bloody Run Brook in Rhode Island on August 28, 1778. The Regiments went on fighting for the next five years. At one point, they were ambushed near Groton, New York by British Troops intent on capturing Colonel Greene, the regiment’s men threw themselves in front of charging British horses. More than 80 men died helping their commander escape.
In 1781, Colonel Greene and 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. After Colonel Greene death, 1st Rhode Island command were assumed by Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney.
In 1781 General George Washington Joined the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiment and formed The Rhode Island Regiment. Which participated at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, the engagement that led to the British surrender and the end of war.
The Black soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment were demobilized at Saratoga in June of 1783 were left to find their own way home as best they could. Their commander, Lt. Colonel Olney left them with an address full of praise for their “valor and good conduct” and regret that men for whom he felt “the most affectionate regard and esteem” should be left with pay owed to them. Olney pledged to them continued “interest in their favor.”
There is evidence that Olney was true to his word. He assisted men who fought attempts to re-enslave them and wrote in support of claims for pensions from the government of wages owed from the state. Each black American soldier who left the army at Saratoga that day did so with the knowledge that he was a citizen of a free country.