(Note: In this article I refer to the states as colonies for a couple reasons. First, although there was a Continental Congress, the individual colonies for the most part saw themselves as British subjects and fell under the representation of the colonial governments. Second, the individual colonies had not established what would happen once the revolt ended, so the idea of states, was not yet present.)
In 1778, The British colonies in the Americas were rebelling, General George Washington was the overall commander of Continental forces by the Continental Congress. Washington and his army were winter camped at Valley Forge, supplies were scarce and the troops were starving due to the lack of the supplies and brutal winter weather. Soldiers were deserting the army, just for a chance to eat and be warm. The individual colonies were responsible to provide troops to fight the British, the colonies however were not reaching the quotas that had been established. The continental army needed soldiers to defeat the British. General Washington was vocally against using black freemen and slaves as soldiers. The British Governor of Virginia had approved the use of black soldiers and guaranteed freedom for any slaves who joined the British Army. After intense pressure from the continental congress and some of his own officers, Washington agreed to enlist black soldiers into the continental army.
In 1778, the first colony to allow the recruitment of black soldiers was Rhode Island. In the Rhode Island Assembly on February 14, 1778, the assembly voted to allow, “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state to enlist into either of the Continental Battalions being raised… every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free.” This was not popular with Rhode Island slaveholders who vehemently opposed the idea of armed black freemen and former slaves influencing others slaves in the colony. The slaveholders would eventually get there way four month later, but in that four month period over 100 free black men and former slaves would join the military to fight the British. Even after the law had been repealed, 44 more slaves had signed up to fight. The First Rhode Island Regiment would number 225 men, including 140 black men, roughly 66% of the regiment. The companies within the regiment were initially segregated, after the end of black recruitment, the companies were integrated.
On August 28, 1778, The First Rhode Island saw their first combat at the Battle of Bloody Run Brook (Also, called the Battle of Rhode Island). The Continental Army was in retreat as the British tried to trap the Continentals in New England. General John Sullivan, who was then in command of the First Rhode Island, ordered the men to take up positions on the hillsides around Portsmouth. The British sent ships up river to bombard the First. The bombardment continued for hours, the British command would then send ground troops to fight the first. The British command sent the Anspach Regiment, one of the most feared Hessian mercenary units. The Hessians repeatedly attacked the crest of the hill where the First Rhode Island held there ground. The First Rhode Island a small regiment of colonial volunteers were holding their ground against 4,000 professional soldiers. As night fell, the Hessians made a push that broke the Continental line. The hard fighting done by the First Rhode Island Regiment gave the rest of the Continental Army the ability to escape the British and regroup.
The members of the First Rhode Island regiment joined the Continental Army for a 90 day service, however the soldiers continued their service for five more years completing their service at Yorktown. During their service they are credited with stopping a cavalry charge during an ambush of continental forces at Groton, New York, 80 member of the First died during that attack. As the First Rhode Island was mustered out at West Point, they were paid with promissory notes, which were essentially worthless. Due to the law regarding freedom for those who were enslaved prior to the war being repealed in the Rhode Island Assembly, those men were returned to their “masters” after the war. The legacy of these soldiers does live on however with African-American reenactors who portray the important history of the unit.
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