1st The Rhode Island Regiment, widely regarded as the first black battalion in American military history, grew in part from the desperation of George Washington.
At the end of 1777, during the American Revolution, the Continental Army, led by General Washington, faced severe troop shortages in its war with the British. “No less than 2,898 men currently in the camp [are] unfit because they are barefoot and otherwise bare, ”Washington wrote to Congress, requesting material support. The disease claimed nearly 2,000 soldiers during the army’s winter camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. When enough white men couldn’t be persuaded to enlist in the dying army with land and cash bounties, Congress resorted to the project. Its mandate: Each state must fulfill a quota of militias, according to its population.
Rhode Island, the smallest state with a population of less than 60,000 on the eve of the Revolution, needed to fill two battalions. When the state couldn’t recruit enough white men, its leaders appealed to Washington to allow free and enslaved black men to enlist.
As slave owner and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army since its formation in 1775, Washington had long opposed the use of black soldiers, fearing that armed black men would incite rebellion among the slaves and alienate the southern slave owners. But over time, the harsh realities of a failed war effort called on America’s Founding Fathers to make pragmatic decisions to preserve their nation’s future.
1st The Rhode Island Regiment, widely recognized as America’s first black military regiment, didn’t start out that way. From its creation in 1775 as part of the Rhode Island Observation Army until its reorganization as 1st Rhode Island in 1777, and its recruitment of black soldiers into their own unit from February 1778, the regiment was one of the few in the Continental Army to serve the Seven Years of War. The unit distinguished itself in battles from the Siege of Boston to the Battle of Rhode Island and beyond to Yorktown.
READ MORE: 7 Black Heroes of the American Revolution
The British recruit the slaves first
For the Continental Army, the use of black soldiers has proven to be one of the most controversial issues of the war. Lord Dunmore, British colonial governor of Virginia, infuriated that state’s slave class when, in 1775, he declared martial law and promised freedom to any enslaved person who abandoned their owner and joined British forces. The owners encouraged their enslaved workers to resist the temptation to “go broke” and promised pardons to those who returned within 10 days of their flight. Yet the promise of freedom inspired around 20,000 enslaved men to flee and enlist in the British forces. One of Washington’s enslaved laborers, Henry Washington, escaped Mount Vernon to join Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, a group of 300 black men who were the first to respond to the proclamation.
General Washington feared Lord Dunmore’s work and wanted his efforts to be crushed. “Otherwise, like a snowball while rolling, [Dunmore’s] the army will grow in size, ”writes the future first president to his aide-de-camp, Joseph Reed. So, not long after Lord Dunmore’s bold appeal, Washington asked Congress to allow free black men to enlist in the Continental Army. According to Philip Morgan, professor of early American historians at Johns Hopkins University, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation changed Washington’s thinking about the employment of African Americans in the Continental Army. “Clearly, Washington’s reversal on black troops has a lot to do with its fears of what Dunmore might accomplish,” he wrote. “Washington now commanded an integrated racial force.”
READ MORE: The ex-slaves who fought with the British
“A battalion of negroes can easily be raised there.
General James Mitchell Varnum, a lawyer and one of Washington’s most trusted officers, became the most ardent supporter of the formation of a black regiment in Rhode Island. One of his most radical proposals in Washington was to counter the lack of white recruits with enslaved men, as well as black and free Indian men. “One imagines that a battalion of negroes can easily be raised there,” wrote Varnum in Washington, who forwarded the proposal – without tacit approval or disapproval – to the General Assembly in Rhode Island, where it was given the green light. .
The Slave Enrollment Act, passed in February 1778, stipulated that any enslaved person accepted at 1st Rhode Island is “immediately released from the service of its master or mistress, and be absolutely free, as if it had never been encumbered without any kind of bondage or slavery.” He also demanded financial compensation for the owners who had lost their enslaved workers to the new regiment – up to $ 400 each in colonial dollars. More than 130 enslaved men from across the state joined the black regiment in the first few months after the law came into force. They did so despite propaganda spread by disgruntled slavers who, in trying to quell an exodus of enslaved men, claimed that black soldiers would be placed in the most frequent front-line danger and, if they were captured, would be sold as slaves in the West. Indies.
READ MORE: Black Heroes Through American Military History
The Battle of Rhode Island
Led by all-white officers, the Black Regiment had its first combat experience at the Battle of Rhode Island. On August 29, 1778, the regiment was posted to Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay near Newport, where it had been tasked with maintaining a defensive position anchoring the right wing of the Continental Army. During the battle, the regiment pushed back three Hessian (German) regiments of the British Army. “It was by repelling these furious attacks that our black regiment distinguished itself with acts of great bravery,” recalls a member of the regiment. “Yes, it was a regiment of negroes, fighting for our freedom and our independence. Major-General John Sullivan expressed Washington’s satisfaction with the regiment’s performance when he said: “Based on the best information, the Commander-in-Chief believes the regiment will be entitled to a fair share of today’s honors. .
Watch ‘Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution’ on HISTORY Vault.
The legacy of the first Rhode Island
The courageous performance of 1st Rhode Island at the Battle of Rhode Island led to the enlistment of more African Americans in the Continental Army, but the Slave Enlistment Act was repealed by the Rhode Island Legislature less than six months later, which means that most of the subsequent volunteers to the regiment came from the ranks of white or freed black men.
According to Cameron Boutin, a scholar of the regiment, Congress and the military leadership have never fully embraced the recruitment of enslaved people. “Allowing enslaved African Americans to serve as soldiers in return for their freedom in units similar to the 1st Rhode Island is said to have alleviated the manpower shortages of US forces, increasing their operational capabilities and increasing their effectiveness, particularly in combat, ”he wrote. “Despite the successful example set by the Rhode Island Act of February 1778 and the combat performance of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, many civilian leaders across the country maintained their opposition to the recruitment of slaves and no large-scale legislation. authorizing the enrollment of enslaved individuals has not been adopted. “
READ MORE: How a man turned enslaved spy helped secure victory at the Battle of Yorktown