The 1st Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Line
1775 - 1783
The war for American Independence was a long and arduous struggle that demanded much of the American people. Rhode Island responded to those demands with patriotic fervor, enduring the dangers and deprivations of invasion and occupation at home, while sending soldiers to almost every major campaign throughout the war. Some of the most noteworthy contributions were made by African-Americans, Indians, and by members of the sovereign Narragansett Indian Tribe who fought alongside them in their battle for independence. Between 1775 and 1783 more than 750 of these men served as Rhode Island soldiers in the Continental Army and the state militia. This monument is inscribed with their names to commemorate their participation in the cause of American liberty even though they labored under the burdens of slavery and racial discrimination.
From the beginning of the war, there were blacks and Indians fighting alongside the white soldiers in various Rhode Island regiments and militia groups. By 1775, there were at least thirty-one free blacks and Indians enrolled in several companies and regiments, including regiments commanded by James Varnum, Archibald Crary, William Richmond and John Topham.
In December 1776, the British army seized control of Newport and subsequently occupied all of Aquidneck Island. In response, the Rhode Island legislature voted to raise three regiments to help dislodge the enemy. At the same time, the state was committed to providing two battalions to General George Washington and the Continental Army. As Rhode Island struggled to meet these quotas in 1777, General James Varnum of East Greenwich proposed to Washington that Rhode Island be allowed to raise a "battalion of Negroes". Washington forwarded the proposal to the Governor Nicholas Cooke and on February 8, 1778, the General Assembly passed an act that opened enlistment to "every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this State . . . " and provided compensation to the affected slaveholders. In return for their service for the duration of the war the soldiers would be granted their freedom, as well as the wages and other bounties to which Continental soldiers were entitled.
The act, which was in effect for only four months, succeeded in raising nearly one hundred soldiers, who became the core of the re-formed First Rhode Island Regiment.
The regiment's officers, led by Colonel Christopher Greene, were white, but rank and file were predominantly blacks and Indians, both free men and those recently freed. The majority of the soldiers in the First Rhode Island Regiment were believed to be of African descent, which has led to its being celebrated as the Black Regiment; regimental rosters reveal a significant number of soldiers to be Indians.
The newly organized First Rhode Island Regiment faced combat for the first time in the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29, 1778 here on the southern slope of Lehigh Hill, the regiment repulsed three attacks by British and Hessian forces, while holding a key position in the American army's right wing. The bravery and determination of these soldiers earned them special mention from the American commander, General John Sullivan.
After the British troops departed from Newport in October 1779, Rhode Island's Continental troops moved south with the army, taking part in various campaigns in New York and New Jersey. In 1781, the First Rhode Island and Second Rhode Island Regiments merged to create the Rhode Island Regiment, which retained many black and Indian soldiers. The regiment suffered serious losses, including Colonel Greene, in an ambush near Points Bridge, New York, in May 1781, but carried on under Lt. Colonel Jeremiah Olney to fight the decisive American victory at Yorktown in October 1781. The Rhode Island Regiment finally disbanded at Saratoga, New York on December 31, 1783.
The Siege of Newport and
The Battle of Rhode Island
On December 7, 1776, a British fleet sailed into Newport harbor with an invading army that quickly seized control of Newport and the rest of Aquidneck Island. With a garrison of 6,000 British and Hessian soldiers, The British army had secured an excellent port and a strategic base to support its grand plan to split the northern colonies at the Hudson River and subdue an isolated New England.
Rhode Island militiamen across the Bay maintained a constant watch on the invaders, while their political leaders turned to the neighboring colonies and the Continental Army for help raising the forces necessary to dislodge the enemy. An initial attempt to mount an attack failed in 1777, but in July of the following year, a new plan took shape for an invasion to be carried out with the aid of the Americans' new allies, the French. An American force of Continental soldiers and New England militiamen led by General John Sullivan would launch a land assault, and the French fleet commanded by Admiral Valery Giscard d'Estaing would attack from the sea. This was to be the first joint American-French operation of the war.
The attack began on August 8, 1778 as d'Estaing's fleet sailed past the British batteries and anchored off Conanicut Island, ready to unload four thousand French troops. The next day General Sullivan ferried his force of 10,000 men from Tiverton to Portsmouth at the north end of Aquidneck Island, where he occupied the batteries abandoned by the British and prepared to march on Newport.
At this point, the tide of events turned against the American forces. A British fleet led by Admiral Richard Howe arrived at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, forcing d'Estaing to sail out to confront the enemy. As the two fleets maneuvered for position, a violent storm struck, scattering the ships and damaging many of them. To carry out needed repairs the British fleet returned to New York and the French fleet headed to Boston, a move bitterly protested by the Americans.
After weathering the same storm that struck the fleets, the American army had advanced to the outskirts of Newport where they encountered the extensive British defenses. When the French fleet departed for Boston on August 22, the Americans were entrenched on Honeyman's Hill, where they traded bombardments with the British forces dug in on the east side of Easton's Pond. With his forces dwindling and threatened by the return of the British fleet, Sullivan decided to abandon the siege. On the night of August 28, the army withdrew to the north end of the island. When dawn revealed their departure, British General Pigot sent his army in immediate pursuit.
General Sullivan had arranged his army on the high ground just north of this monument, with General Nathanael Greene on the right flank, covering West Main Road, and General John Glover on the left, controlling East Main Road. Sullivan had his headquarters in the fort on Butts Hill behind the front line. American skirmishers in front of the main army ambushed the approaching columns of British and Hessian soldiers, then withdrew before their superior force. The British advance halted as they confronted the American front line, and they took up opposing positions on Quaker Hill, Turkey Hill and Almy Hill on the south side of this valley.
An initial British advance from Quaker Hill was turned back by the soldiers commanded by General Glover. General Pigot then launched an assault on the American right from Turkey and Almy Hills. The attack force, which was largly made up of Hessian troops, was turned back by General James Varnum's brigade firing from behind stone walls, thickets and an earthwork redoubt. After a second attack fared no better, the Hessians made a third furious charge that nearly took the redoubt held by the First Rhode Island Regiment, before reinforcements arrived and forced the Hessians to retreat.
The day ended with the two armies facing each other across the valley and tending to their casualties, which totaled more than four hundred. They both held their positions while exchanging cannon fire on the following day, but that night Sullivan successfully ferried his army back to the mainland without opposition. The Battle of Rhode Island, the largest land action of the war fought in New England, ended inconclusively. Had the Americans and French succeeded in capturing the British army, it would have changed the course of the war, but final victory would have to wait for the more successful campaign at Yorktown in 1781. Though the campaign failed in it's overall goal, the Americans could justly take pride in their troops, who, in General Sullivan's words, "Repelled the British forces and maintained the field."
[ Battle of Rhode Island Battle Map : ]
1. ? Late 1776 - British Army occupies Newport.
2. ? August 8, 1778 - French fleet forces past Newport harbor.
3. ? August 9, 1778 - American army moves onto Aquidneck Island.
4. ? August 10, 1778 - British fleet lures French fleet and troops away from Newport.
5. ? August 28, 1778 - American army begins retreat north.
6. ? August 29, 1778 - British troops pursue retreating American army northward.
7. ? August 29, 1778 - Hessian troops march north on West Road in pursuit of American army.
8. ? August 29, 1778 - British regulars advance to Quaker Hill.
9. ? August 29, 1778 - Hessian mercenaries attack but are repulsed by the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
10. ? August 30, 1778 - American army withdraws onto mainland.