During the early stages of the
Revolutionary war, General Washington was against using African Americans and
in November 1775 he issued an order barring black enlistment in the
Continental Army. The British were under no such delusions and Lord Dunmore of
Virginia issued a proclamation offering freedom to any indentured servants or
slaves who volunteered their service; within a month over 300 had volunteered.
General Washington fearing that the discharged African Americans from the Continental
Army would join the British began urging congress to enroll free Blacks.
In addition most states found it difficult to meet
the recruiting quotas set by the Continental Congress.
was in desperate straits.
The British blockade was strangling their commerce,
(of which the slave trade was an important part) and Newport
was occupied by British troops. In 1776 Newport
largest slaving port in the colonies and Rhode island
largest population of African Americans in New England
Rhode Island had been ordered to supply an
additional regiment and most of their available men were already involved in
fighting the British within their own borders. General James Varnum, in
command of the remnants of the two Rhode Island regiments already in service
with the Continental Army advised Washington to merge the two regiments and
send the officers of the
1st to Rhode Island to recruit African Americans for a new
Washington agreed and the legislation was quickly passed by
the Rhode Island General Assembly on February 23, 1778. It stated that each
individual slave enrolled in the regiment "upon his passing muster, he
is absolutely made free, and entitled to all the wages, bounties, and
encouragements given by Congress to any soldier enlisting."
Provision was also made by the State Legislature to provide
compensation to slave owners of up to $400.00. The slaves were purchased by
the state and after service in the army for the duration of the war or until
discharged would be freed.
Colonel Christopher Greene
(a distant relative of Nathaniel
Greene), along with his two senior officers; Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney and
Major Sam Ward were chosen by General Washington to lead the
1st Rhode Island, the first all-black
During the Battle of Rhode Island in
August 1778, Hessian troops directed their
main assault against the
1st Rhode Island. "They
experienced a more obstinate resistance than
had expected,” finding
“large bodies of troops …chiefly wild looking men in their
shirt sleeves, and among
many Negroes.” A Rhode Island
history of 1860 reported that Colonel Greene’s regiment “distinguished
itself by deeds of desperate valor.” Dr Harris, a veteran of the
battle in an address to a New Hampshire antislavery society in 1842: “When
State of Rhode Island,
regiment to which I belonged was once ordered to what was called a flanking
position …it was a post of imminent danger. They
attacked us again, with more vigor and determination, and again were repulsed.
reinforced, and attacked us
third time, with
most desperate courage and resolution, but a third time were repulsed. The
contest was fearful. Our position was hotly disputed and as hotly maintained."
The Americans lost the Battle of
Rhode Island, however, the British lost 5 times as many troops. The
1st Rhode Island held the line for over four
hours against the British assault and it was largely due to their efforts that
the American Army was able to escape. General Lafayette
called it, “
best-fought action of
1st Rhode Island went on to fight at
Fort Oswego, Saratoga,
During the spring of
1st Rhode Island was stationed north of Manhattan along the Croton
River. On May 14th a raiding party of Tories surprised the Rhode
Islanders at two points. Both Greene and Flagg were killed and Lt. Colonel
Jeremiah Olney assumed command.
William Cooper Nell in describing the
death of Colonel Greene at Points Bridge wrote,
regiment, was cut down and mortally wounded; but
enemy only reached him through
bodies of his faithful guard of Blacks, who hovered over him to
protect him and
one of whom was killed."
1st Rhode Island was demobilized at Saratoga
in June of 1783 after having fought valiantly as a part of the Continental
Army for over 5 years. The troops were left to find their own way home and in
later years often had to resist efforts to re-enslave them. Colonel Olney
assisted his former troops in their efforts to remain free and also supported
their claims for pensions from the U.S. government.