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The contributions of men of color during the American Revolution were explained by historian and author Robert Geake on Feb. 22 to commemorate Black History Month at Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport.
Titled “Privates, Pilots and Privateers,” the discussion focused on the history of the Continental Army’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, known as the “black regiment.” The unit was comprised of free and enslaved African Americans, as well as Native American enlisted men.
“Men of color from Rhode Island played a significant role in our fight for independence, and New England states had the largest amount – 755 black soldiers in 14 brigades,” Geake said. “Black men negotiated their freedom as soldiers and traded their labor.”
Contributions were made not only in the infantry division, but also aboard ships transporting soldiers on Narragansett Bay, Geake said. They utilized their mariner skills and also served as cooks, cabin boys and alongside women as seamstresses.
Formed in December 1777, the regiment has a rich history that is linked to Gen. George Washington. The Continental Army, encamped at Valley Forge in 1777, and subject to weeks of brutal winter weather, hunger and sickness, was in need of reinforcements. Rhode Island and other states were struggling to fill troop quotas set by the Continental Congress when R.I. Gen. James Mitchell Varnum proposed in a letter to Washington a plan to allow the enlistment of “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” who chose to sign up. Washington forwarded Varnum’s letter to R.I. Gov. Nicholas Cooke. The R.I. General Assembly then took up the issue for debate and eventually passed a law allowing enlistment.
Slave owners were compensated for each man by the General Assembly at “market value” which ranged from “60 to 120 pounds,” Geake said.
Documents show that 88 slaves enlisted in the regiment in the first four months, that the regiment eventually totaled about 225 men, and that 140 of these men were “negro, mulatto, or Indian,” Geake said. “This included European-born men of color, as well.”
The regiment was the first in the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers and white colonists, Geake added.
The first real test of the black soldiers’ prowess was in the Battle of Rhode Island on Aug. 29, 1778. Under the direction of Col. Christopher Greene, the regiment repelled three British and Hessian attacks, all while holding a key position.
The battle location is partially preserved at Patriots Park, a National Historic Landmark, located at the intersection of routes 24 and 114 in Portsmouth. The monument is inscribed with the names of black soldiers to “commemorate their participation in the cause of American liberty even though they labored under the burdens of slavery and racial discrimination,” the R.I. Society of the Sons of the American Revolution states on their website.
The monument was erected in 1976, and Geake noted that while living, these men of color often did not get the heroic recognition they deserve. “Their obituaries show the extent of their abilities,” Geake said.
Geake named a few of the more notorious men including Jack Sisson. Click here to see a full list of the names, which was compiled in 1929.
Prior to his enlistment in the regiment, Sisson, who was from New Shoreham, is believed to have played a key role in the capture of British Brig. Gen. Richard Prescott from a Portsmouth home on July 10, 1777. Sisson steered the lead boat of five whalers with 40 men across Narragansett Bay to the scene of the capture at Overing Farm. Historic accounts report Sisson, upon entering the home, broke down the bedroom door where the general was hiding.
Geake also explained that many men of color found other ways to serve on the sea as staff on sloops or as cabin boys.
These brave African Americans and Native Americans were not recognized until the 20th century, and, sadly, it is not known what became of many of them after the war, Geake said.
Geake quoted a speech made by a man known as “Dr. Harris” as a way to further explain the important role played by men of color in the Revolution. Harris, a Revolutionary War veteran, addressed a New Hampshire congregation in 1842: “Then liberty meant something. Then, liberty, independence, freedom, were in every man’s mouth. They were the sounds at which they rallied and under which they fought and bled.
“… The word slavery then filled their hearts with horror. They fought because they would not be slaves. Those whom liberty has cost nothing, do not know how to prize it.”
Division Newport Commanding Officer Capt. Michael Coughlin offered some closing remarks after the event. “It’s important to listen to history and to think more about it,” he said. “Take in what our teammates and countrymen and women did to give us our freedom today. People fought hard for those freedoms.”
NUWC Division Newport, part of NAVSEA, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Wash.