At the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, we have discovered an American Revolutionary War-period letter written (dictated) by African American Thomas Nichols and signed with “his mark”. Freed from enslavement to serve in the First Rhode Island Regiment, Thomas writes to his former “master and mistress” asking for help in getting a discharge since the Revolutionary War had been “very disagreeable to my mind as well as destructive to my health.”
Thomas fought at the Battle of Rhode Island 2 years earlier and was wounded while helping to repel three Hessian charges. The letter is powerful … you can’t help but feel bad for Thomas’s plight and his desperate wish to go home. He appears to be suffering from PTSD. This is an astoundingly rare artifact from the beginnings of our nation. It also reminds us that many of the men serving and fighting for their freedom and country were people of color.
This is an astoundingly rare artifact. To our knowledge, only one other war-time letter from an African American in the American Revolutionary War exists. And, this may be the only one written by a former slave. This letter is a State and National treasure. However, it requires professional conservation work that will cost approximately $990. This work will stabilize the document physically, make it more readable, and most importantly, will make it possible to safely put it on long term display in our climate-controlled, secure museum. Framing and matting with archival grade materials and the highest quality museum glass will likely cost an additional $500 for an estimated total of $1490.
We also experienced a fantastic moment of serendipity regarding this particular letter. On the exact day that we met our fundraising goal, we were recently joined by two U.S. Army veterans and their daughter. They were moved by many exhibits in our collection, but this letter proved to be the focal point of their tour. Moments like this is why we work so hard to preserve our local and national U.S. history!
Letter transcription (preserving the original spelling and punctuation):
“Windham January 18th 1781
Onered Master & Mistress I take this opportunity to inform you of my citiation att this time & desire your ade = after I drove 3 waggons as far as Windham I hade waggoner tookaway my bath[?] of driving & ordered me to gard ye waggons which I refused & turned back to colonel green att Covintree & ye wagoner sent back two men after me Ye Colonal did not blame me but told ye men and me to go on again & that I should take my waggon again but being over worried with this tramp I got but 3 miles further than where I left ye waggons in So. Windham att ye house of one Dan Murdock where I have been confined with my old fits But have good care taken of me But I have a desire to Return to you Not having any money Nor Clows fit to wair & all strangers to me makes it something difficult for me I have had a Doctor and a Surgans mate to me which advize me to go to xxx corps of invalids at Boston where I may be under half pay During Life Remaining in this poor State of Body But I ante able to go thether Neither do I incline to with out advice from you But I have a desire that Master or Mistress would go to Colonel Green & see if you cant git me Discharged from ye War it being very Disagreabell to my mind as well as Destructive to my helth I suppose I could ride on a horse or att least in a Slay if you could obtain a Discharge for me So that I may Return to my Master and his family again baring[?] the will of god & your pleasure So No more att this time But I Remain your humble & dutiful Thomas “N” His mark
December 31 1780 These lines I recv’d from ye Surgeon’s mate where as Thomas Nickols a soldier belonging to ye first Regiment in Rhode Island State hath been for some time attended with fits in this place & still likely to Remain unfit for military life”
Endnote on Thomas
Sadly, Thomas didn’t get to go home then. He was transferred to the Invalid Corps in February 1781 to serve in whatever capacity his illness allowed (at half pay). More research is needed to determine what his ultimate fate was during and after the War.