1st Rhode Island Regiment

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For the Civil War and Spanish-American War units see 1st Rhode Island Infantry.

Varnum's Regiment
9th Continental Infantry Regiment
1st Rhode Island Regiment
Rhode Island Regiment
Rhode Island Battalion
1st Rhode Island Regiment Soldier Cropped.jpg
A 1781 watercolor Drawing, of a black infantryman of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, of the Continental Army, at Yorktown. The 1st Rhode Island was one of the few regiments in the Continental Army which had a large number of black Patriot soldiers in its ranks.
Active 1775–1783
Country  United States of America
Allegiance Rhode Island
Branch Continental Army
Type Infantry
Part of Rhode Island Line
Nickname(s) Varnum's Continentals (1775–76)
Black Regiment (1778–80)
Colors white uniforms
Engagements Siege of Boston
New York campaign
Battle of Red Bank
Battle of Rhode Island
Siege of Yorktown
James Mitchell Varnum,
Christopher Greene,
Jeremiah Olney
War Flag
1st Rhode Island Regiment Flag.gif

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment (also known as Varnum's Regiment, the 9th Continental Infantry, the Black Regiment, the Rhode Island Regiment, the Rhode Island Battalion and Olney's Battalion) was a regiment in the Continental Army from Rhode Island, during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). It was one of the few units in the Continental Army to have served through the entire war.

Like most regiments of the Continental Army, the unit went through several incarnations and name changes, it became well known as the "Black Regiment" because, for a time, it had several companies of African American soldiers. It is regarded as the first African-American military regiment, despite the fact that its ranks were not exclusively African-American.[1]

Regimental history[edit]

Varnum's Regiment (1775)[edit]

Like many Continental Army regiments, the 1st Rhode Island was initially formed by a colonial or state government before being taken into the national (or "Continental") army, the revolutionary Rhode Island Assembly authorized the regiment on 6 May 1775 as part of the Rhode Island Army of Observation. The regiment was organized on 8 May 1775 under Colonel James Mitchell Varnum, and was therefore often known as "Varnum's Regiment." The regiment originally consisted of eight companies of volunteers from Kent and King Counties.

Varnum marched the regiment to Roxbury, Massachusetts, in June 1775, where it took part in the siege of Boston as part of the Army of Observation, the regiment was adopted into the Continental Army by act of Congress on 14 June 1775. On 28 June it was expanded to ten companies, on 28 July 1775, it was assigned to General Nathanael Greene's Brigade in General George Washington's Main Army. General Washington officially took command of the Continental Army upon his arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 3 July 1775.

As the soldiers of Varnum's Regiment, like all others in the Continental Army, had only enlisted until the end of 1775, the Regiment, along with the remainder of the Army, was discharged on December 31, 1775.

9th Continental Regiment (1776)[edit]

At the beginning of 1776, the Continental Army was completely reorganized, with many regiments receiving new names and others being disbanded. Enlistments were for one year, on 1 January 1776, Varnum's Regiment was reorganized with eight companies and re-designated as the 9th Continental Regiment. Under Colonel Varnum the regiment remained near Boston until the British evacuated the city in March, the Regiment was ordered to Long Island and took part in the disastrous 1776 campaign, including the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Harlem Heights, retreating from New York with the Main Army.

As was the case in 1775, the Continental Army was reorganized at the end of the year. Unlike the previous practice of having soldiers enlist until the end of the year, soldiers were given the option of enlisting for "three years or the war".

1st Rhode Island Regiment (1777-1780)[edit]

In 1777, the Continental Army was reorganized once again, and on 1 January 1777 the 9th Continental Regiment was re-designated as the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Colonel Varnum was promoted to brigadier general and was succeeded by Colonel Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of General Nathanael Greene. Under Colonel Greene the regiment successfully defended Fort Mercer at the Battle of Red Bank on 22 October 1777 against an assault by 2,000 Hessians.

1781 watercolor drawing, of American soldiers, from the Yorktown campaign, showing a black infantryman, on the far left, from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment

The "Black Regiment" (1778-1781)[edit]

Blacks had initially been barred from military service in the Continental Army from November 12, 1775 until February 23, 1778, this was because “bigoted Southern politicians” objected to black involvement in the War because they thought they would be bad soldiers, and they feared armed “negroes.”[2]

In 1778, when Rhode Island was having difficulties recruiting enough white men to meet the troop quotas set by the Continental Congress, the Rhode Island Assembly decided to pursue a suggestion made by General Varnum and enlist slaves in 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Varnum had raised the idea in a letter to George Washington, who forwarded the letter to the governor of Rhode Island without explicitly approving or disapproving of the plan,[3] on 14 February 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of "every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave" that chose to do so, and that "every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free...."[4] The owners of slaves who enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly in an amount equal to the market value of the slave.

A total of 88 slaves enlisted in the regiment over the next four months, as well as some free black men, the regiment eventually totaled about 225 men; probably fewer than 140 of these were African Americans.[5] The 1st Rhode Island Regiment became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies of black soldiers. (Other regiments that allowed black men to enlist were integrated.) The enlistment of slaves had been controversial, and after June 1778, no more non-white men were enlisted. The unit continued to be known as the "Black Regiment" even though only white men were thereafter recruited into the regiment to replace losses, a process which eventually made the regiment an integrated unit.[6]

Under Colonel Greene, the regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, the regiment played a fairly minor—but praised—role in the battle, suffering three killed, nine wounded, and eleven missing.[7]

Battle of Rhode Island[edit]

The first engagement of the “Black Regiment” came in 1778 at the Battle of Rhode Island, the Continental Army was soundly beaten at the Battle of Rhode Island and could have been completely routed had it not been for the actions of the First Rhode Island Regiment.[7] The regiment, under the leadership of Colonel Greene, held the line admirably, especially considering the British expected to break the line where the Rhode Island Regiment was.[7]

The Rhode Island Regiment were situated behind a “thicket in the valley,” which gave them a strong defensive position.[8] Repeated attacks from British regulars and Hessian forces failed to break the line, and allowed for the successful retreat of Sullivan’s army.[7] Historian Samuel Greene Arnold, while recounting the battle, noted that the Hessians charged three times and were repulsed each time.[8] According to Arnold, the Hessian Colonel “applied to exchange his command and go to New York, because he dared not lead his regiment” into battle again, “lest his men should shoot him for having caused them so much loss.”[8] In total the retreat lasted for four hours, with six Continental brigades retreating.[9]

It can concluded that the retreat of Sullivan’s army was successful because the Continental Army was able to sustain low casualties and preserve their equipment, despite the aggressive charges made by British regulars and Hessian forces.[7] Sullivan praised the Rhode Island Regiment for its actions, saying that they “a proper share of the day's honours.”[7] General Lafayette proclaimed the battle as “the best fought action of the war.”[9]

Like most of the Main Army, the regiment saw little action over the next few years, since the focus of the war had shifted to the south.

Rhode Island Regiment (1781-1783)[edit]

On 1 January 1781, the regiment was consolidated with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment and Sherburne's Additional Continental Regiment and was re-designated as the Rhode Island Regiment. The regiment spent the early months of 1781 in an area of the Hudson River Valley called by some historians the "Neutral Zone".

Campaign in the Neutral Zone[edit]

The "Neutral Zone" was an area in the Hudson River Valley described as “a desolate, sparsely populated buffer zone between the forces of the English to the South and the Americans to the North.”[10] People who continued to live in the area had to deal with “theft, murder, and destruction” by renegade groups, such as the “cowboys” or the “skinners.”[11] These renegade groups “cloaked their plundering under an alleged allegiance to one of the combatants.”[11] To whichever side the renegade groups leaned, they would forage for goods to sustain “both men and beasts of burden.”[11]

The constant foraging and raiding in the neutral zone, especially by the British supporting “cowboys,” caused Major-General Heath to command Colonel Greene and the Black Regiment to defend Pines Bridge on the Croton River from “marauding Cowboys” who frequently made incursions from their base in Morrisiania (South Bronx), under the command of insurgent leader James Delancy.[11] However, on the 14th May 1781, Colonel Delancey and his Cowboys assaulted Pines Bridge and caught Colonel Greene and the Black regiment by surprise,[11] the Cowboys scored a resounding victory, killing “Colonel Greene, another officer, and many of the black troops.”[11] The black troops were reported to have “defended their beloved Col. Greene so well that it was only over their dead bodies that the enemy reached and murdered him.”[11]

Last years[edit]

In May 1781, Colonel Greene, Major Ebenezer Flagg and several black soldiers were killed in a skirmish with Loyalists at Greene's headquarters on the Croton River in Westchester County, New York. (Major Flagg was the great great grandfather of Alice Claypoole Gwynn who married Cornelius Vanderbilt II.)

With Colonel Greene's death, command of the regiment devolved on Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah Olney. Under Olney's command, the regiment took part in the Siege of Yorktown in October 1781, which proved to be the last major battle of the Revolution.

After Yorktown, the regiment moved with the Main Army to Newburgh, New York where its primary purpose was to be ready to react in the event British forces in city of New York went on the offensive.

Rhode Island Battalion (1783)[edit]

On 1 March 1783 the regiment was reorganized into six companies and re-designated as the Rhode Island Battalion (a.k.a. "Olney's Battalion"). On 15 June 1783, the veteran "during the war" enlisted men of the Rhode Island Regiment were discharged at Saratoga, New York, the remaining soldiers of the Battalion who were enlisted for "three years" were organised into a small battalion of two companies. After the British Army evacuated New York, the unit was disbanded on 25 December 1783 at Saratoga, New York, it was one of the few units in the Continental Army to have served through the entirety of the Continental Army's existence.


An African American soldier's payslip for service to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.[12]

The Rhode Island Regiment served its final days in Saratoga, New York, under the command of Major William Allen,[13] the regiment was left waiting in Saratoga for months, with low supplies and a terrible snowstorm until December 25, 1783, when Major William Allen and Adjutant Jeremiah Greenman printed the discharge certificates.[14] The discharged troops were “dumped back into civilian society,” with only the white soldiers being guaranteed 100 acres of bounty land from the Federal Government, as well as a pension.[13]

The Rhode Island General Assembly had already guaranteed the African-Americans who had served in the war their freedom after the war.[7] However, the Rhode Island General Assembly, on February 23, 1784 passed an act that forbade “any person born in Rhode Island after March 1, 1784 from being made a slave."[15] The act also stipulated that children born into existing slaves were to be supported financially by the Rhode Island town they were born in,[13] during the same meeting Col. Olney presented the two colors of Rhode Island’s Continental Regiment to the General Assembly, and they have been housed in the State House ever since.[13] Colonel Olney had promised his men his “interest in their favour,” and he continued to advocate for his former troops right to remain free, and to have the government pay them the wages or pensions that they deserved.[7]

In June 1794, thirteen African-American veterans of the Rhode Island Regiment hired Samuel Emory to present their claims for back pay to the War Department Accounts Office, in order to help alleviate the financial difficulties that most African-American veterans faced after the war;[13] in response the Rhode Island Assembly passed a special act for these soldiers on February 28, 1785. The act called for “the support of paupers, who heretofore were slaves, and enlisted into the Continental battalions.”[15] Therefore, any “Indian, negro or mulatto” who was sick or unable to support himself must be taken care of by the town council of where they live.[15] While most colored veterans remained in Rhode Island, many moved onto the 100 acres of Bounty Land they were promised in either New York or Ohio. Most veterans, including white ones, who survived into their 50s or 60s were generally in desperate poverty because of the economic depression that occurred after the end of the Revolution.

Significant campaigns and battles[edit]

Senior officers[edit]

Colonels and commanding officers

  • Colonel James M. Varnum; 3 May 1775 - 27 February 1777 (promoted to brigadier general)
  • Colonel Christopher Greene; 27 February 1777 - 14 May 1781 (killed in action)
  • Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Jeremiah Olney; 14 May 1781 - 25 December 1783 (discharged)

Lieutenant Colonels

  • James Babcock; 3 May 1775 - 31 December 1775 (discharged)
  • Archibald Crary; 1 January 1776 - 31 December 1776 (discharged)
  • Adam Comstock; 1 January 1777 - April 1778 (resigned)
  • Samuel Ward, Jr.; 26 May 1778 - 31 December 1780 (retired)
  • Jeremiah Olney; 1 January 1781 - 14 May 1781 (became regimental commander)


  • Christopher Greene; 3 May 1775 - 31 December 1775 (taken prisoner)
  • Christopher Smith; 1 January 1776 - October 1776 (transferred to 2nd Rhode Island Regiment)
  • Henry Sherburne; October 1776 - 12 January 1777 (promoted to colonel)
  • Samuel Ward, Jr.; 12 January 1777 - 26 May 1778 (promoted to lieutenant colonel)
  • Silas Talbot; 1 September 1777 - 12 November 1778 (promoted to lieutenant colonel)
  • Ebenezer Flagg; 26 May 1778 - 14 May 1781 (killed in action)
  • Coggeshall Olney; 14 May 1781 - 17 March 1783 (resigned)
  • John S. Dexter; 25 August 1781 - 3 November 1783 (discharged)


There is a monument to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment at Patriots Park in Portsmouth, Rhode Island on the site of the Battle of Rhode Island.

The flag of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment is preserved at the Rhode Island State House in Providence.

The Varnum Continentals is a historic military command founded in 1907 and located in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, their ceremonial unit portrays the 1st Rhode Island Regiment during the early months of the American Revolution while it was under the command of Colonel James Varnum.

The home of General Varnum, called the Varnum House, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island is owned by the Varnum Continentals and is open to the public on weekends from April to October. There is a portrait of General Varnum in the Varnum house.

There is a portrait of Colonel Christopher Greene in the Hay Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

African-American units in the United States Army[edit]

During the American Civil War, Rhode Island raised an African-American regiment named the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) which was later renamed the 11th United States Colored Troops.

The United States Army did not allow enlistments of men of color until 1862 during the American Civil War, during the war, over 100 regiments of African-American soldiers were raised but most did not see combat. After the war, the Army organized four "colored" regiments - the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments and the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. Additional African-American units were raised during the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II but were disbanded soon after the wars ended. The integration of the Army began in 1948, 170 years after the 1st Rhode Island was integrated; in 1950 President Harry S Truman signed an executive order abolishing racial segregation the United States Armed Forces.

Peter Salem[edit]

This painting by John Trumbull is called, "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill." It depicts Peter Salem in the bottom right corner as a sign of his importance during the battle.

One of the most famous African-American soldiers of the Revolution, although he was not a member of the First Rhode Island Regiment, was Peter Salem (c. 1750-1816) who served with the Continental Line of Masschusetts.

Peter Salem was born a slave in Framingham, Massachusetts, to a New England army captain named Jeremiah Belknap. Salem worked as a blacksmith for his masters and was known to be a “crack shot” with a rifle;[16] in 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety passed a law allowing free black to join the Framingham militia. As the story goes, a group of white patriots approached Salem and asked him to “come and fight the British with us. You can earn your freedom that way,” to which the Salem’s owner Jeremiah, an ardent patriot, allowed him the freedom to go and fight.[17] By doing so Salem became one of the first African American minutemen of the American Revolution. Two months after joining, Salem fought at the first confrontation of the Revolutionary war, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, before he joined Nixon’s Fifth Massachusetts regiment. Salem then served at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the British siege of Boston. While fighting at Bunker Hill, Salem is credited with having killed British commander John Pitcairn which launched him into minor fame, during the battle Major Pitcairne had reportedly attempted to rally his troops for another charge at the American defenses, yelling, “the days is ours!” before Salem put a musket ball through his head.[18] Samuel Swett, writing in 1818, reported, "Among the foremost of the [British] leaders was the gallant Maj. Pitcairn, who exultingly cried 'the day is ours,' when Salem, a black soldier, and a number of others, shot him through and he fell.. . . [A] contribution was made in the Army for Salem and he was presented to Washington as having slain Pitcairn."[19]

Peter Salem went on to fight at Stony Point and Saratoga during the war, after the war ended he became a freedman and took up cane weaving and built his own cabin near Leicester, Massachusetts. He later died in poverty and anonymity in 1816 in a Framingham poorhouse.[18]

Peter Salem is also celebrated in John Trumbull’s 1786 painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which a black soldier with a flintlock pistol can be seen supposedly gunning down Major Pitcairne. Salem’s rifle is also on display at the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "THE FIRST RHODE ISLAND". Archived from the original on 3 July 2007. 
  2. ^ Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Steinberg, Alan (2000). Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement. New York, NY: Perennial. p. 17. 
  3. ^ Lengel, General George Washington, p. 314.
  4. ^ Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War, p. 205.
  5. ^ Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War, pp. 75–76.
  6. ^ Lanning, African Americans in the Revolutionary War, p. 78.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Adams, Gretchen. "Deeds of Desperate Valor: The First Rhode Island Regiment". UNH. 
  8. ^ a b c Rider, Sidney (1880). "Rhode Island Historical Tracts". Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. 10: 59. 
  9. ^ a b Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Steinberg, Alan (2000). Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement. New York, NY: Perennial. p. 31. 
  10. ^ Williams-Myers, A.J (2007). "Out of the Shadows: African Descendants -- Revolutionary Combatants in The Hudson River Valley; A Preliminary Historical Sketch". Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. 31 (1): 96. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Williams-Myers, A.J (2007). "Out of the Shadows: African Descendants -- Revolutionary Combatants in The Hudson River Valley; A Preliminary Historical Sketch". Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. 31 (1): 97. 
  12. ^ "Unknown Pay warrant to African American soldier". Gilder Lehrman Lounge. 
  13. ^ a b c d e Popek, Daniel (2015). 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. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse. p. 1784. 
  14. ^ Popek, Daniel (2015). 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. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse. p. 1783. 
  15. ^ a b c Popek, Daniel (2015). 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. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse. p. 1785. 
  16. ^ Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Steinberg, Alan (2000). Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement. New York, NY: Perennial. 
  17. ^ Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem (2000). Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement. New York, NY: Perennial. p. 33. 
  18. ^ a b c Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Steinberg, Alan (2000). Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement. New York, NY: Perennial. p. 34. 
  19. ^ Swett, Samuel (1818). "Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle, with a Plan": 75. 


Further reading[edit]

  • "Death Seem'd to Stare": The New Hampshire And Rhode Island Regiments at Valley Forge by Joseph Lee Boyle, Clearfield Co, 1995 ISBN 0-8063-5267-1
  • Greene, Lorenzo J. "Some Observations on the Black Regiment of Rhode Island in the American Revolution." The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 37, No. 2, April 1952
  • Popek, Daniel M. 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, AuthorHouse, November 2015.
  • Geake, Robert. 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Westholme Publishing, 2016. ISBN 1594162689
  • Rees, John U. "They were good soldiers.": African Americans in the Continental Army, and General Glover's Soldier-Servants." Military Collector & Historian 62, no. 2 (Summer2010 2010): 139-142. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost.