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." It 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. The regiment was adopted into the Continental Army on 14 June 1775. On 28 June it was reorganized into ten companies. On 28 July 1775, it was assigned to General Nathanael Greene's Brigade in General George Washington's Main Army.
In 1776, the Continental Army was completely reorganized, with many regiments receiving new names. 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 took part in the disastrous 1776 campaign, retreating from New York with the Main Army.
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. Varnum no longer commanded the regiment, having been made a brigadier general; his eventual successor was 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.
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.”
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. On the 14th of 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...." 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. The Rhode Island Regiment were situated behind a “thicket in the valley,” which gave them a strong defensive position. Repeated attacks from British regulars and Hessian forces failed to break the line, and allowed for the successful retreat of Sullivan’s army. Historian Samuel Greene Arnold, while recounting the battle, noted that the Hessians charged three times and were repulsed each time. 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.” In total the retreat lasted for four hours, with six Continental brigades retreating. We can conclude 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. Sullivan praised the Rhode Island Regiment for its actions, saying that they “a proper share of the day's honours.” General Lafayette proclaimed the battle as “the best fought action of the war.”
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 Regiment who were enlisted for "three years" were organised into a small battalion of two companies known as the "Rhode Island Battalion" (a.k.a. "Olney's Battalion"). After the British Army evacuated New York, the unit was disbanded on 25 December 1783 at Saratoga, New York.
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.” 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.” These renegade groups “cloaked their plundering under an alleged allegiance to one of the combatants.” To whichever side the renegade groups leaned, they would forage for goods to sustain “both men and beasts of burden.”
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 Colonel James Delancey. However, on the 14th May 1781, Colonel Delancey and his Cowboys assaulted Pines Bridge and caught Colonel Greene and the Black regiment by surprise. The Cowboys scored a resounding victory, killing “Colonel Greene, another officer, and many of the black troops.” 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.”
The Rhode Island Regiment served its final days in Saratoga, New York, under the command of Major William Allen. 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. 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.
The Rhode Island General Assembly had already guaranteed the African-Americans who had served in the war their freedom after the war. 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. The act also stipulated that children born into existing slaves were to be supported financially by the Rhode Island town they were born in. 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. 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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.Colonel James M. Varnum - April 1775 - 27 February 1777 (promoted to brigadier general)
Colonel Christopher Greene - 27 February 1777 - 14 May 1781 (killed in action)
Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah Olney - 14 May 1781 - 25 December 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.
During the American Civil War, Rhode Island raised an African-American regiment named the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery which was later renamed the 11th United States Colored Troops.
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. 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. 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. 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."
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.
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.