General George Washington was finding it quite difficult to raise enough men to fill the quotas of his Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. It was eventually suggested that men of color be given the opportunity to serve. The idea was met with some degree of hesitation by those who felt it was not safe to arm men who were enslaved or who had formerly been enslaved. Still, in Feb. of 1778, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to allow all African-American male residents to enlist in the military if they chose to do so.
An announcement was made that any slave who enlisted in the Army would be granted his complete freedom at war’s end. Within four months of the announcement, 88 Rhode Island men of color had enlisted and the number increased as time went on.
The 1st Rhode Island Regiment underwent several changes of name and was known at different times as Varnum’s Regiment, the Rhode Island Regiment, the 9th Continental Regiment and the Black Regiment. It originally contained 8 companies but grew to include ten. The likes of Rhode Island men such as Mingo Robinson, Cudge Champlin, Cato Brown, Cuff Slade and Prince Rodman saw this as an opportunity to fight for freedom on a very personal level.
The regiment saw combat in August of 1778 at the Battle of Rhode Island. During the Battle of Pine’s Bridge, in May of 1781, six of the regiment’s soldiers were killed along with their leader, a Caucasian man named Christopher Greene. Colonel Greene’s body was dragged into the woods by the enemy and mutilated, an act which was believed to have been in retaliation for his leading an African-American army against them.
The regiment’s last battle was later that year, at Yorktown, which would bring about a surrender by the enemy and an end to the long war.
On Feb. 24, from 7 to 8 p.m., Linden Place Museum in Bristol will host the virtual presentation “From Slave to Soldier: A Look at the First Rhode Island Regiment.” Historian Robert Geake will discuss the regiment’s formation and delve onto the legacies of those who chose to step out of shackles and into a uniform.
The presentation will take place via Zoom and, although there is no cost to view, a $5 tax-deductible donation is suggested to help ensure that future historical presentations may be brought to the public.
Those who would like to register, may do so by calling 401-253-0390 or by sending an email to email@example.com.