America’s First Black Regiment Earned Their Freedom by Fighting Against the BritishHistorians in the News
tags: George Washington, military history, African American history, Revolutionary War, Rhode Island
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 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 history 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.”