The war was a long struggle that demanded much of the American people. Rhode Island responded to those demands with patriotic fervor, enduring the dangers 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 in their battles for independence. Between 1775 and 1783 more than 7550 of these men served as Rhode Island soldiers in the Continental Army and the state militia. From the beginning of the war, there were blacks and Indians fighting along with the white soldiers in the various Rhode Island regiments and militia groups.
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 to “every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state,” and provided compensations for the affected slaveholders. In return for their service for the duration of the war the soldiers would be granted their freedom, as well as their 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 the 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.
Rhode Island’s militiamen 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 America’s 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 Charles-Henri d’Estaing would attach from the sea. This was to be the first joint American-French operation of the war.
Admiral d’Estaing’s fleet arrived at Newport on August 8th and began unloading 4,000 troops on Conanicut Island the next day after consulting with the generals. Sullivan successfully ferried his 10,000 troops onto Aquidneck Island on the 9th. British General, Sir Robert Pigot, began fortifying Newport from within.
The tide changed when British Admiral Richard Howe arrived with reinforcements. On the 10th, Admiral d’Estaing quickly reloaded his troops and sailed out to do battle with Howe’s fleet. As the two forces maneuvered, a great storm arose that tossed the fleets around for two days. Separated and damaged, both fleets had to regroup and sail to harbor for repairs. Howe’s fleet sailed back to New York, while d’Estaing abandoned his mission to help in the attack on Newport and sailed for Boston.
The departure of d’Estaing greatly angered the Americans. Many in Sullivan’s army deserted, thinking it impossible to capture the city without French help. By late August, and already surrounding Newport, Sullivan decided to abandon the attack, his force greatly depleted by desertion. On the 29th, General Pigot began pursuing and caught up to the Americans who were dug in on the northern tip of the island.
The Battle of Rhode Island began as the Americans shot at their pursuers. On the island’s main east road, Brigadier General John Glover stopped the British advance. On the main western road, Colonel Christopher Greene’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the Continental Army’s only regiment made up entirely of African-Americans and Indians, repelled several Hessian attacks, inflicting so much destruction that the nearby creek was called Bloody Run Creek because it ran red with Hessian blood. They beat them back with such tremendous loss that Count Donop at once applied for an exchange, fearing that his men would kill him if he went into battle with them again, for having exposed them to such slaughter. Different sources vary some but most are:- Americans: 30 killed, 138 wounded, and 44 missing- British: 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing.
The next day, the entire American force was successfully ferried across to Tiverton and Bristol, bringing the Battle of Rhode Island to a close. The battle was the largest engagement of the war in New England in terms of men involved with nearly 17,000 fighting. It was a tactical tie, but Britain continued to hold Newport for another year, until it abandoned the city to focus its efforts on New York and a new campaign toward the southern colonies.
Dearden, Paul F (1980). The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778. Providence, RI: Rhode Island Bicentennial Federation.
Lippitt, Charles Warren (1915). The Battle of Rhode Island. Newport, RI: Mercury Publishing. OCLC 9887723.
Murray, Thomas Hamilton (1902). Gen. John Sullivan and the Battle of Rhode Island: a Sketch of the Former and a Description of the Latter. Providence, RI: The American-Irish Historical Society. OCLC 2853550.
Schroder, Walter (2009). The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island 1776-1779. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books. ISBN 978-0-7884-4074-8. OCLC 497813357.