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FIRST RHODE ISLAND:The “Desperate Valor” of an Afro-American Regiment
Clues to the Story of Afro-American Soldiers
in the War for Independence
In January 1975, the Connecticut town of Lebanon commissioned painter and archaeologist David R. Wagner to create a series of historical murals for its school buildings. Wagner researched events such as the Lebanon-born William Williams' signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the Lebanon encampment of allied French troops under the Duc de Lauzun. "Lauzun's Legion," a part of the main French army under General Rochambeau, was headquartered at Newport some 80 miles west, and numbered almost 1500 mounted troops and infantry during its stay there.
Wagner also studied the war-diary of the Marquis de Chastellux, whose troops were moving eastward in January 1781 from New York toward Wethersfield and Hartford.
At a river-crossing, Chastellux noted, his force was "met by a detachment of the Rhode Island Regiment...[and] the majority of the enlisted men are Negro." Struck by this rare mention of an African-American unit, Wagner charted the marching-distances recorded by these units across the actual landscape. He found that these "Black" soldiers must have been mounted on horseback, like their French and American compatriots. Surely, Wagner knew, there had to be more information about these men.
Soon, the First Rhode Island Regiment's origins and Revolutionary actions began to emerge from fragmentary records. It all began with a promise of freedom.
Raising the Regiment to Fill Rebel Ranks
The American Revolution's Continental Army was fighting hard in late 1777. General George Washington faced a serious shortage of soldiers to serve through more than the usual 90-day enlistment. General James Varnum gave Washington the idea to raise a regiment of volunteer "Blacks, Mulattoes, and Indians" from Northern colonies. In January 1778, Washington ordered Rhode Island governor Nicholas Cooke to organize the new force.
While Northern slave-owners received 120 English pounds for each volunteer, the volunteers themselves were promised more than pay---full freedom in exchange for loyal service through the war.
By June 10, about 138 Northern slaves from several colonies had volunteered to form the First Rhode Island Regiment, under the command of Colonel Nicholas Greene (a cousin of the more famous Nathan).
Wagner found that these "Black, Mulatto, and Indian" troops wore not the blue-and-white uniforms of Northern Continental regiments, but white uniforms---with brown sashes, and tall blue hats plumed with feathers. The hats bore a crest in the form of a white anchor (still the state symbol), and in red, the volunteers' motto: For Our Country.
These individuals, like all "minute men," had no idea of how long the war would last, or its outcome. But especially for them, the Revolution was a chance to become free citizens. Upon inspecting these American and French forces, Baron Ludwig von Closen (an aide-de-camp of General Rochambeau) noted that "Three quarters of the Rhode Island regiment consists of Negroes---and that regiment is the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers.”
Details like these suggest that the First Rhode Island’s men rose to their situation every way they could, and applied every effort to distinguish themselves. Behind the colonial scenes, King George's ministers were already pressuring Northern slave-owners to free their slaves or to sell them to Southern buyers.
The North's white tradesmen spoke their own interests in this development to the authorities. In normal times, many of these "Blacks, Mulattoes, and Indians" worked as expert carpenters, woodcarvers, and craftsmen: they were in great demand for embellishing the finer houses of wealthy New Englanders. White tradesmen disliked the prospect of their freedom---for if these slaves lived free after the war, they would become competitors in the marketplace.
A Record of Honor
in the American War for Independence
Gathered, equipped and trained by early summer, the First Rhode Island's volunteers marched straight to battle.
By August 28, 1778, the American Continental Army was in serious retreat from a British offensive that threatened to trap them, as part of an invasion of New England. The First Rhode Island’s forces took up positions on a hillside overlooking Portsmouth (Rhode Island). There, General John Sullivan hoped that they might give the main American forces a chance for a tactical retreat, by delaying the British with a challenge and engagement on this ground.
The British, knowing the importance of their offensive, sent warships up-river to pulverize the First Rhode Island's positions with hours of cannon-fire.
Then, they deployed a more fearsome weapon: the Anspach Regiment of their allied Hessian (German mercenary) troops, a force of no less than 3,000 professional foot-soldiers. Thus began a full day of human-wave assaults against the First Rhode Island's hilltop under Colonel Green.
The Hessian ranks charged the crest, and were driven back. They charged it again that hot August afternoon, but the volunteers held, through desperate hand-to-hand fighting. At last, as darkness fell, a third determined wave broke the American line’s strength across the hill. The ferocity of this fight gave the place its later name, Bloody Run Brook. But the strategy worked.
Green himself remarked his volunteers' "desperate valor" against overwhelming odds. Because of all the First Rhode Island’s courage and casualties that day, the main American forces escaped to fight again.
The First Rhode Island went on fighting---not for 90 days, but for five years. At one point, the Regiment was ambushed near Groton, New York, by British troops intent on capturing Colonel Green. First Rhode Island men threw themselves in front of charging British horses to prevent the attempt. More than 80 of them died that day in helping their mortally-wounded commander to escape.
The First Rhode Island’s men became veterans of Yorktown, too, standing present at the Revolution's end as Lord Cornwallis surrendered to American forces.
The First Rhode Island was kept on active duty for another two years. At last, they were mustered at West Point. There they received "promissory notes" of payment, which proved mostly worthless. Then, with the before-mentioned racial, economic and political pressures in colonial play, these men were returned to their "masters,” their servitude or outright slavery.
Patriots and the Politics of American History
Works on The Civil War (80 years after these events) have paid tardy tribute to the 54th Massachusetts, another Afro-American regiment, through St. Gaudens' sculpture on Boston Common, Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead," and the recent film Glory.
In those works we experience the empowerment (rather than the "threat") of multicultural, fact-based historical memory---but the Revolution's First Rhode Island Regiment still waits its place in the sun.
So far, it seems impossible to trace individual names of volunteers who lived this story. Their pay-records stand in the names of each man's "owners."
And, because in their white neighbors' eyes they were not "men," there seemed no reason to write down more about the First Rhode Island. Presumably, its members would not be able to read about it themselves. The new United States, forced to arm its "noncitizens" and helped to victory by those "Blacks, Mulattoes and Indians" on the field of battle, remained far from ready to allow them more than labor-skills in spite of their exceptional service. Later generations faced the same obstacles set up in their paths.
The First Rhode Island's surviving volunteers ended their lives in servitude throughout the Northern towns that had sent them, while others as American citizens reaped the benefits of victory and independence. By the time of these volunteers' grandchildren in the 1830s, a woman named Prudence Crandall founded a small school in Canterbury, Connecticut, to teach young African-American women to read and empower themselves in the dominant white world. Crandall's hope was short-lived. Local residents burned the school to the ground, once aware of its intentions.
Samuel G. Arnold's rare mention of this regiment (in his History of Rhode Island) grants that "their conduct at the Battle of Rhode Island entitles them to perpetual honor." But the First Rhode Island's story remains to be told.
Twenty Years, and “Best of Luck, Colin Powell”
Back in 1975, artist David Wagner worked through circles of professional colleagues and state officials to suggest that various tributes to the Regiment should become part of the new Library of Congress. The Regiment's heroism, and the national import of this discovery, moved the discussion toward Mr. George M. White, then Architect of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Mr. White launched a review of the historical representations of African-Americans on display in that building. He found "an unidentified black man holding Washington's horse," another "unidentified black man preparing food, while General Francis 'Swamp Fox' Marion invites a British officer to share his food," and "a third...black man in the back of the boat at the Battle of Lake Erie" (New London Day editorial, 1975).
But Mr. White informed the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Library---then Senator Howard W. Cannon, D-Nevada---that he saw no need in these national galleries for anything more on African-American historical subjects. Connecticut's then-Representative Christopher J. Dodd, and Governor Ella Grasso, did protest and promised further action. But again, the First Rhode Island Regiment faded from any list of priorities.
Twenty years later in 1995, a researcher for cable TV's The Learning Channel also found evidence of this Regiment's importance, and contacted David Wagner for rights to include his paintings in their 6-part series The American Revolution. It cannot be said that their production’s treatment of the Regiment created much impact toward recognition of these American patriots.
Wagner has not given up. While today's publishers' fix on the profits of formula make them more inaccessible (and boring) than ever, African-American scholars and historical organizations contacted have been curiously silent.
In August 1992, Wagner wrote an appeal for the Regiment's recognition to the influential Colin Powell, at that time Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Here is Powell's reply (original letter in Wagner's possession).
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Washington D.C. 20318-0001
31 August 1992
Dear Mr. Wagner:
Thank you for your letter, for the photographs of your paintings and for the accompanying narrative of your efforts in painting them. The story---in all respects---is a very interesting one.
The brave men of the First Rhode Island Regiment occupy a prominent place in America's history. I suspect that the Joint Committee on the Library and the Capitol receive many worthy suggestions such as yours.
Regrettably, I cannot express a view or preference for any one proposal.
Best of luck,
Colin L. Powell,
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
It’s Time to Tell
The First Rhode Island’s Story
David Wagner and writer/producer Jack Dempsey want to assist or produce the story of the First Rhode Island Regiment. If you can help this happen, contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-438-3042.
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