February is Black History Month, an opportunity to take a brief look at an important aspect of General James Mitchell Varnum’s illustrious career: the inclusion of men of color into the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, known as Varnum’s Continentals and from which we take our name and heritage as a historic state militia.
On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to enable “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man” to voluntarily enlist and earn freedom “upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress and be absolutely free.” Greene had been delegated by Varnum to return to Rhode Island and expand the regiment. To arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the roots of the American Revolutionary War.
The first shots of the Revolution echoed down from the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. But, the men of East Greenwich, RI, had already been preparing to respond. In August of 1774, in protest of “the Late Cruel, malignant and more than savage acts of the British Parliament”, the Military Independent Company of East Greenwich was organized. They hired some ex-military men to teach them the rudiments of military science. 25-year old James Mitchell Varnum, who had already gained fame and respect as a skilled lawyer and orator, was charged with obtaining the needed financial support and seeking approval from the colonial General Assembly for the men to function as an official militia unit. Permission was granted by an act of October 24, 1774 and the group took the name “Kentish Guards”. They openly drilled in the community to attract new recruits.
Varnum was elected Captain, Richard Fry as First Lieutenant, Christopher Greene as Second Lieutenant, and Hopkins Cook as Ensign. Varnum’s very close friend, Nathanael Greene, an ardent supporter of the unit, was not chosen as an officer. Some felt it was because a deformity caused him to walk with a slight limp. Greene, who had secretly purchased a musket in Boston, bore no malice and gladly enrolled as a private. During the war, he was to become George Washington’s Quartermaster and has been acknowledged by some historians as perhaps the best general of the Revolution. The Kentish Guards’ officers were given the same ranks as other state militia companies. Thus, Varnum became colonel of the unit.
On April 22, 1775, The Rhode Island General Assembly created a 1,500-man “Army of Observation”: one brigade of three regiments under a Brigadier General. Although earlier rejected as officer material by the Kentish Guards, Nathanael Greene was named to the post. The exact reason he was chosen is not known, but history proved the Assembly made a wise decision. Immediately pledging his full support to Greene, Varnum was given command of the brigade’s 3rd Regiment: men from Kent and King’s (later Washington) Counties. It is from this appointment (on May 3, 1775) that Varnum’s Regiment dates its history giving us seniority in the Rhode Island Militia.
The unit became known as the First Regiment, Rhode Island Infantry. Taken into the Continental Army, it became the 12th Continentals or simply, Varnum’s Continentals. Under Nathanael Greene, the troops took part in the Siege of Boston between July and December of 1775. At that point, their initial enlistment ended. In response to requests from Generals Washington and Greene, most of the men remained with the Continental forces, joining the 9th Continentals, under Varnum’s command.
From Boston, the regiment marched to New York where they fought through the summer of 1776. Varnum had lobbied for promotion to Brigadier General. For mostly political reasons, his advancement was not forthcoming. His complaints to Washington went unanswered and in December, Varnum made good on repeated threats to resign and returned to Rhode Island.
His regiment remained with the Continental Army under Lt. Col. Archibald Crary. The unit fought well at the Battles of Trenton and Patterson in New Jersey. In January of 1777, Col. Christopher Greene became commander of the 1st Rhode Island. (the unit was later merged into the 2nd RI, Continental Line, created from Varnum’s disbanded 9th Continentals). As we shall see, it would be reconstituted as the 1st RI, or the “Black Regiment” in the spring of 1778. Christopher Greene would essentially command until he was killed in New York in 1781.
Meanwhile, the British (supported by Hessian troops) occupied Newport, RI, and Aquidneck Island (also known then as Rhode Island) in late 1776. In December, they burned the town of Jamestown, RI, in retaliation for opposition by local residents. Over the next few years, their suppression of trade and forays against the rest of the colony created anger, hardship, and frustration among the much of the populace. The General Assembly called on Governor Nicholas Cooke to raise a brigade of infantry to defend the colony. Varnum was given the rank of Major General and took command of all Rhode Island militia infantry. He briefly remained in that post before being recalled by Washington on February 21, 1777, promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental Army.
Varnum’s troops, like most of the colonial forces, were in bad shape. They were ill-paid, ill-clothed, ill-fed, and ill-supplied. They should have numbered 1,200 in four regiments (two from Rhode Island and two from Connecticut), but only about 600 men could be mustered. Varnum and his top officers, Colonels Christopher Greene and Israel Angell, complained to Generals Washington and Nathanael Greene, but the entire Continental Army was in the same straits.
Instead of a proposed major offensive along the Hudson River, British General William Howe had decided to occupy Philadelphia in September of 1777. This led to the Battle of Red Bank, New Jersey with American defenses under General Varnum. In the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum is a personal letter from Washington to General Varnum ordering Colonels Christopher Greene and Israel Angell to come Red Bank as quickly as possible. During the battle, Greene’s 400-man force defeated 1,200 Hessian troops at Fort Mercer. The Continental Congress later awarded him a ceremonial sword for personal bravery.
During the winter of 1777-78, American troops, including the Rhode Islanders, survived an arduous winter at Valley Forge. Varnum remained motivated to address the brutal British occupation of Newport and defended his home state’s reluctance to provide more troops to the Continental Army given the British presence.
It was at this point that Varnum lobbied George Washington to recruit black slaves and freemen as well as Native Americans from Rhode Island into a military unit. Washington forwarded the General’s proposal to the Rhode Island General Assembly, neither specifically approving or disapproving the request.
The General Assembly, in spite of strong opposition by slave owners from the southern part of the state, agreed to the plan. Men who enlisted would be freed on their acceptance into the unit and completion of military service. Slave owners were to be compensated by the Rhode Island Assembly who would then be reimbursed by the Continental Congress (or so it was hoped) for the market value of the individual enslaved recruits. Consolidating the 1st and 2nd RI Regiments at Valley Forge, Colonel Christopher Greene, Lt. Col. Jeremiah Olney, and Major Samuel Ward Jr. were sent back to Rhode Island to raise the regiment.
Col. Greene and his fellow officers recruited 225 men, of whom probably fewer than 140 were enslaved or freed black men, none above the rank of sergeant. All officers were white. The 1st Rhode Island was the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies (other regiments were integrated). Although the 1st Rhode Island became known as “The Black Regiment”, Caucasians were recruited to fill remaining vacancies as time went by. The unit eventually became integrated by necessity.
Following training in East Greenwich, the unit’s first engagement was at the Battle of Rhode Island in August of 1778. The French had come into the war and dispatched a fleet and troops with the goal of evicting the British from Newport. Relying on the presence of the major French forces, Rhode Island troops, under command of General John Sullivan, invaded the northern end of Aquidneck Island. The British were well entrenched and the outcome of the battle was in their favor after a major storm drove the French fleet away from the coast seriously damaging a number of French warships. The American forces were forced to withdraw. Although the battle has been considered a defeat for Continental forces, the Black Regiment’s performance prevented a complete rout.
Sullivan knew he could not press a confrontation against the well-entrenched enemy forces. The Americans were arrayed in three elements on the northern end of Aquidneck Island. Under Col. Greene, the men of the 1st Rhode Island, positioned on the west flank of the line, held firm against repeated attacks by British and Hessian troops.
…distinguished itself in deeds of desperate valor. Posted behind a thicket in the valley, three times they drove back the Hessians, who charged repeatedly down the hill to dislodge them.
The Hessian colonel commanding later applied for a transfer, claiming his men would likely shoot him for having caused them so much loss.
History loves legend and according to one tale, an unnamed African American artillerist, wounded in the arm, exchanged places with a white soldier telling him, “I’ve got one arm to fight for my country.” As he took up his place, he was shot and killed on the spot.
Aquidneck Island remained in British hands for the time being, but thanks especially to the heroic efforts of Greene’s troops, Sullivan was able to complete an orderly withdrawal of his 5,000-man force to Bristol, RI, and Tiverton, RI. The September 15, 1778 New Hampshire Gazette reported the retreat made:
in perfect order and safety, not leaving behind the smallest article of provision, camp equipage or military stores.
Patriot’s Park in Portsmouth, RI, marks the battle site’s two principal areas. The sites were designated in 1974 as a National Historic Landmark. A small monument was erected at this location in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial observance to commemorate the bravery of the men of the 1st Rhode Island, specifically its many black soldiers. In 2005, a larger and more expansive monument funded by private donations was dedicated beside the 1976 stone tablet.
In March of 1779, for economic reasons, Varnum resigned from the Continental Army for the final time and returned to resume his law practice in East Greenwich, RI. He did so after making sure that Washington would not be displeased. On his return, he was placed in command of the Rhode Island militia. In October of that year, the British pulled out of Newport and French troops shortly thereafter returned in large numbers to jointly pursue the end of the war.
Elements of the 1st RI spent time in Rhode Island and in New Jersey before being consolidated with the 2nd RI, Col. Christopher Greene still commanding. They were sent to defend an area on the northern bank of the Croton River in New York. On May 14, 1781, the British attacked in a lightening raid. According to the July 4, 1781 edition of the American Journal and General Advertiser, the raid killed 14 colonials, wounded 4 (2 later died), and 2 officers and 22 enlisted men were captured. Col. Greene was killed by multiple saber wounds, his body carried off and later discovered mutilated. Some historians consider it an act of revenge by the British for Greene’s efforts in commanding black troops.
The Rhode Island Regiment was reconstituted under Lt. Col. Jeremiah Olney who would retain that post until the after the war. The regiment was at the Siege at Yorktown for the last major battle of the Revolution in October of 1781.
Other states had opposed the recruitment of slaves or freemen although individuals were able to enlist here and there, primarily as substitutes for white men drafted into service. There was at least one concerted effort to create a unit of African Americans in South Carolina, but slaveholders prevented it. Interestingly, Washington, himself a slaveholder, refused to openly support efforts in South Carolina (he had neither opposed or supported Varnum’s proposal). There was a concern that the British might try to recruit large numbers of enslaved men, especially from Southern states.
…by squandering the opportunities to establish battalions of enslaved African Americans, several military advantages and economic benefits were lost. (These) included the strengthening of the Continental Army by lessening the manpower crisis, weakening the British forces be denying them a source of support personnel, and averting negative economic effects on the nation’s slaveholding population.
Following the end of hostilities, the 1st Rhode Islanders were at Saratoga until they were discharged on December 25, 1783. White soldiers were granted land and a pension. Black soldiers who had been slaves were granted their freedom, but no pensions were forthcoming. Col. Olney formally returned the regiment’s colors (they remain today at the Rhode Island State House).
For nine years after Varnum returned to Rhode Island, he and his wife Martha remained in their handsome residence on Peirce Street. He served Rhode Island in various capacities including twice as a member of the Continental Congress. In 1787, Varnum was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territory in Marietta, Ohio. Varnum died there of consumption on January 9, 1789 less than a month after his 40th birthday.
But what of Rhode Island’s black veterans? For some time, they received no government pay or pension. This had bothered Varnum immensely and he campaigned unsuccessfully on their behalf, as did Col. Olney. In 1794, thirteen black veterans hired Samuel Emory to present their claims to the War Department in Washington, DC. The Rhode Island General Assembly had previously passed an act to support “paupers, who were formerly slaves and enlisted in the Continental battalions”. Local town governments were mandated to provide for the indigent veterans. Most had remained in Rhode Island, but some moved onto the 100 acres of promised bounty land in New York state or the Ohio territory. In 1818, the Black Regiment veterans were finally granted Federal pensions (as were all veterans who could prove their service).
One black veteran was East Greenwich resident Ichabod Northup. Historian Bruce MacGunnigle compiled a biography of Northup for the Rhode Island Genealogical Society’s “RI Roots” in December 2008. Born a slave around 1745, Northup enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island in 1778 and served honorably as a fifer. Northup was captured at Croton, New York, when Christopher Greene was killed. He spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of the British and was granted a pension under the 1818 Act of Congress. Despite a handicap from a wartime wound, he worked as a laborer in Warwick and East Greenwich and managed to buy a home for his wife and eight children.
Their handsome little house at 110 Division Street was occupied by his descendants and by other families of color for many years. When he died in 1821, Northup was given an obituary in the local newspaper (unusual for a black man at the time), which referred to him as a “Soldier in the Revolution”. As were his fellows, men of all colors and heritage who comprised the 1st Rhode Island Regiment contributed bravely and loyally to the outcome of the Revolution.
For detailed accounts of the formation and campaigns involving the Black Regiment, this writer suggests The RI Bicentennial Foundation’s 1980 book “The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778, Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance” by Paul F. Dearden and Robert Geake’s 2016 book “From Slaves to Soldiers”. Also, take a look at my fellow historian Christian McBurney’s 2011 book “The Rhode Island Campaign” and Daniel M. Popek’s extensive 2015 volume “They… fought bravely, but were unfortunate: The True Story of Rhode Island’s ‘Black Regiment and the Failure of Segregation in Rhode Island’s Continental Line, 1777-1783”.
Join the Varnum Continentals for $35!
At only $35 per person annually, membership keeps you in the Varnum loop and supports our efforts to preserve U.S. history and educate the public. Members get a monthly newsletter and can also attend our monthly dinner programs that feature authoritative and engaging speakers on historic and military topics. CLICK HERE TO JOIN NOW!