The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, widely regarded as the first Black battalion in U.S. military history, originated, in part, from George Washington’s desperation.
In late 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 now in camp [are] unfit because they are barefoot and otherwise naked,” Washington wrote to Congress, begging for material support. Disease claimed nearly 2,000 soldiers during the army’s winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. When enough white men couldn’t be persuaded to enlist in the depleting army with bounties of land and money, Congress resorted to the draft. Its mandate: Each state must fill a quota of militias, based on its population.
Rhode Island, the smallest state with a population under 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 both free and enslaved Black men to enlist.
As both a slaveowner and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from its formation in 1775, Washington had long opposed the use of Black soldiers, fearing that armed Black men would incite a rebellion among enslaved people and alienate southern slaveholders. But over time, the harsh realities of a failing war effort called for America’s founding fathers to make some pragmatic decisions to preserve their nation’s future.
The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, widely recognized as the America’s first Black military regiment, didn’t start out that way. From its inception in 1775 as a part of the Rhode Island Army of Observation to its reorganization as the 1st Rhode Island in 1777 and its recruitment of Black soldiers to their own unit starting in February 1778, the regiment was one of the few in the Continental Army to serve all seven years of war. The unit distinguished itself in battles from the Siege of Boston to the Battle of Rhode Island and beyond to the culminating battle of Yorktown.
The British Recruited Enslaved People First
For the Continental Army, the use of Black soldiers had proved one of the war’s most controversial issues. Lord Dunmore, Britain’s colonial governor of Virginia, infuriated that state’s slaveholding class when in 1775 he declared martial law and promised freedom to any enslaved person who abandoned his owner and joined the British forces. Owners encouraged their enslaved workers to resist the temptation to “ruin your selves” and promised pardons to those who returned within 10 days of their flight. Still, the promise of freedom inspired an estimated 20,000 enslaved men to flee and enlist with British forces. One of Washington’s enslaved workers, Henry Washington, escaped Mount Vernon to join Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, a group of 300 escaped Black men who were the first to respond to the proclamation.
General Washington feared Lord Dunmore’s work and wanted his efforts crushed. “Otherwise, like a snow ball in rolling, [Dunmore’s] army will get size,” the future first president wrote to his aide-de-camp, Joseph Reed. So shortly after Lord Dunmore’s bold appeal, Washington asked Congress to allow free Black men to enlist in the Continental Army. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation changed Washington’s thinking about employing African Americans in the Continental Army, according to Philip Morgan, professor of early American historian at Johns Hopkins University. “Clearly Washington’s reversal on Black troops had much to do with his fears of what Dunmore might achieve,” he wrote. “Henceforth Washington commanded a racially integrated force.”
‘A Battalion of Negroes can easily be raised there.’
General James Mitchell Varnum, an attorney and one of Washington’s most trusted officers, became the most ardent supporter of forming a Black regiment in Rhode Island. One of his most radical proposals to Washington was to counter the shortfall of white recruits with enslaved men, along with free Black and Indian men. “It is imagined that a battalion of Negroes can easily be raised there,” Varnum wrote to Washington, who forwarded the proposal—without tacit approval or disapproval—to the Rhode Island General Assembly, where it was given the go-ahead.
The Slave Enlistment Act, passed in February 1778, stipulated that any enslaved person accepted to the 1st Rhode Island be “immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free, as though he had never been encumbered without any kind of servitude or slavery.” It also mandated financial compensation for owners who lost their enslaved workers to the new regiment—up to $400 each in colonial dollars. More than 130 enslaved men from all over the state joined the Black regiment in the first several months after the act went into effect. They did so despite propaganda spread by disgruntled slaveholders who, in trying to quell an exodus of enslaved men, asserted that Black soldiers would be placed in the most frequent front-line danger, and, if captured, would be sold into bondage in the West Indies.
The Battle of Rhode Island
Led by all-white officers, the Black regiment saw its first combat experience at the Battle of Rhode Island. On August 29, 1778, the regiment was on assignment at Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay near Newport, where they had been tasked with guarding a defensive position anchoring the Continental Army’s right wing. Over the course of the battle, the regiment drove back three Hessian (German) regiments of the British army. “It was in driving back these furious attacks that our Black regiment distinguished itself with deeds of great valor,” remembered a regiment member. “Yes, this was a regiment of Negroes, fighting for our liberty and independence.” Major General John Sullivan spoke for Washington’s satisfaction at the regiment’s performance when he said, “by the best information the commander-in-chief thinks that the regiment will be entitled to a proper share of the honors of the day.”
The First Rhode Island's Legacy
The 1st Rhode Island's courageous performance at the Battle of Rhode Island led to more African Americans being enlisted to the Continental Army, but the Slave Enlistment Act was repealed by the Rhode Island legislature less than half a year later, meaning that most 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 never fully embraced the recruitment of enslaved people. “Permitting enslaved African Americans to serve as soldiers in return for their freedom in units similar to the 1st Rhode Island would have alleviated the American forces’ manpower shortages, increasing their operational abilities and boosting their efficiency, especially in combat,” he wrote. “Despite the successful example set by the Rhode Island law of February 1778 and the combat performance of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, many civil leaders across the country maintained their opposition toward recruiting slaves and no large-scale legislation authorizing the enlistment of enslaved individuals was adopted.”