Continuing of this week’s theme with more African-American firsts, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was a Continental Army regiment from Rhode Island during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Like most regiments of the Continental Army, the unit went through several incarnations and name changes. It became well known as the “Black Regiment” because, for a time, it had several companies of African American soldiers. It is regarded as the first African-American military regiment, albeit with the misconception that its ranks were exclusively African-American.
In 1778, when Rhode Island was having difficulties recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress, the Rhode Island Assembly decided to pursue a suggestion made by General Varnum and enlist slaves in 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Varnum had raised the idea in a letter to George Washington, who forwarded the letter to the governor of Rhode Island without explicitly approving or disapproving of the plan. On the 14th of February 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” that chose to do so, and that “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….” The owners of slaves who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an amount equal to the market value of the slave.
A total of 88 slaves enlisted in the regiment over the next four months, as well as some free blacks. The regiment eventually totaled about 225 men; probably fewer than 140 of these were African Americans. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers. (Other regiments that allowed blacks to enlist were integrated.) The enlistment of slaves had been controversial, and after June 1778, no more non-whites were enlisted. The unit continued to be known as the “Black Regiment” even though only whites were thereafter recruited into the regiment to replace losses, a process which eventually made the regiment an integrated unit.
Under Colonel Greene, the regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. The regiment played a fairly minor—but praised—role in the battle, suffering three killed, nine wounded, and eleven missing.
Like most of the Main Army, the regiment saw little action over the next few years, since the focus of the war had shifted to the south. In 1781, Greene and several of his black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Loyalists. Greene’s body was mutilated by the Loyalists, apparently as punishment for having led black soldiers against them
On 1 January 1781, the regiment was consolidated with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment and re-designated as the Rhode Island Regiment. It took part in the siege of Yorktown.
On 15 June 1783, the veteran “during the war” enlisted men of the Rhode Island Regiment were discharged at Saratoga, New York. The remaining soldiers of the Regiment who were enlisted for “three years” were organized into a small Battalion of two companies known as the “Rhode Island Battalion”. This unit was disbanded on 25 December 1783 at Saratoga, New York