|Date(s):||August 29, 1790|
|Location(s):||Newport, Rhode Island|
|Tag(s):||Revolutionary War, 1st Rhode Island Regiment, General John Sullivan|
|Course:||“Digital History: New York, New York,” Stonehill College|
In Major General John Sullivan’s letter to George Washington, Commander in chief of the Continental Army, he explains how both the dwindling size of his force and the great numbers of the British justify his necessary retreat from Newport, Rhode Island, where the British were rapidly approaching. He continues, however, by praising the skillful tactics and
brave stand the 1st Rhode Island Regiment took under the command of Colonel Christopher Greene, describing them as “hav[ing] acquird great Honor by their activity and spirited exertions during the day.” As a direct result of the tactics employed by Colonel Greene’s black unit, Major General John Sullivan’s unit escaped with virtually no casualties. February of 1778 was a particularly difficult time in the war. The Continental army was slowly dissolving against the confident British forces. Given the state of their situation, the General Assembly of Rhode Island was desperate for new recruits. As a result, they passed a law that would allow “every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto, or Indian Man slave, in this state may enlist in either of the two Continental Battalions.” The state guaranteed freedom to any and all slaves brave enough to take up arms and fight for the very country that enslaved them. The establishment of black units in the Continental Army not only promoted the growth of the free black community in the North, but planted seeds for the future Emancipation Proclamation just 80 years later.
One of the most noted units created as a result of the recruitment of slaves was Rhode Island’s first regiment, sometimes referred to as the ‘black regiment’ for nearly its entire unit consisted of patriotic slaves or freed black men. On August 29, 1778, under Colonel Christopher Greene, the unit bravely marched into the battle of Newport, after French reinforcements failed to assist Major General John Sullivan against a pressing attack made by British and Hessian forces. Forced to retreat, General Sullivan left the defense of Newport and his successful retreat in the hands of these valorous men. Even after several waves of attack by British forces, this almost completely black unit repelled each wave that marched upon them. Major General John Sullivan, as a result, was able to retreat with extremely few casualties, and the Continental Army’s line at Newport was never broken.
This highly exalted victory at Newport forever changed the roles of African Americans in America. They demonstrated that they were willing to serve their country for the greater good despite their past slavery, proving to white leadership that they were capable and willing to serve alongside white soldiers. Their victory showed that the blacks had more than just courage, but that they were competent in battle. It was not an easy feat to successfully repel the British’s experienced, organized waves of assault. The former slaves freed by their service would go on to form a visibly activist community of African Americans in the North. Their efforts in the Revolutionary war set the stage for latter debates over citizenship and military service and their ancestors would see the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in the later years to come.
 Major General John Sullivan to George Washington, August 31, 1778, in The Papers of George Washington; edited by Theodore J. Crackel. (Charlottesville, Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2006) 450.
 Greene, Lorenzo. “The Journal of Negro History, Vol 37, No 2 (Apr., 1952), pp. 142
 Rhode Island Archives: Records of the State of Rhode Island, December 1777-October 1779, X, 41.
 Adams, Gretchen. "Deeds of Desperate Valor": The First Rhode Island Regiment. “http://revolution.h-net.msu.edu/essays/adams2.html”