The Black Regiment

By Robert Geake and Fred Zilian, Ph.D.

The Black Regiment

Also largely lost to history was the significance of the “black regiment”. Once aligned with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment in January 1780, it then became a fully racially integrated regiment in the Continental Line. Their contributions to American victory, particularly at Yorktown, have only recently been acknowledged.

A monument to the Black Regiment now stands in Patriots’ Park, Portsmouth, and is dedicated to the “first black slaves and freemen who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island as members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.”

Members of this regiment exhibited great courage on the battlefield as well as during expeditions undertaken by American forces during the course of the war. As freemen after the war, some of those former slaves who had enlisted established themselves successfully in communities throughout Rhode Island. Many more however lived in destitution, eking out a living at the lowest rung, or relying on charity since pensions took 40 years to arrive – often too late.

The Soldiers

Ruttee Gardner was sold to the Assembly on May 8, 1778 for £30 by Nicholas Gardner of Exeter – the smallest amount for any recruited slave. He served in the regiment with Capt. Lewis’ company. He appears to have served out his time with the regiment and likely was injured or became ill during his time of service. He is listed as “sick in North Kingstown in March of 1779 and was honorably discharged from service in April of that year. His illness or injuries seem to have continued to plague him, for on March 28, 1785, Hezekiah Babcock submitted a bill to the town of Hopkinton for the “boarding and nursing of Rutter Gardner, a negro man who formerly belonged to Nicholas Gardner of Exeter, and a late soldier in the Rhode Island Continental Regiment”.

Prince Brown was a slave owned by the Brown family of Providence, founders of Brown University. Joseph Brown and cousin Nicholas Power discovered their slave Prince had legally enlisted in the 1st Regiment under Col. Christopher Greene. Amidst the height of public denunciations of British usurpation of American freedom, the two owners immediately petitioned and persuaded the General Assembly to “resolve that a negro man Prince belonging to [them]… be discharged from the said regiment.” He was returned to slavery on their farm in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Ichabod Northup of North Kingstown was sold to the Assembly for £120 by one of the Northups of North Kingstown. The slave master’s homestead still stands on Featherbed Lane in that town. Ichabod not only fought in the Battle of Rhode Island but also at Croton, N.Y. when attacked by loyalists who killed Col. Greene. He was captured, threatened with hanging for not divulging troop movements to the enemy, and spent the remainder of the war a prisoner. He returned after the war to East Greenwich, purchasing a house on Division Street which still stands today. In 1820 he testified that he relied on charity, was unable to work, his toes having frozen in the war, was “impoverished”, and “could not support himself” and family, and his house was “much out of repair”. Later his son campaigned to desegregate Rhode Island schools, while a grandson and great-grandson fought in the civil war.

Caesar Updike was sold for £120 by Lodowick Updike, one of the wealthiest landowners in Kings County. He served under Colonel Christopher Greene, earning an “Honorary Badge of Distinction”, given to soldiers serving “at least three years with bravery”. After being furloughed in June 1783, he returned and in 1795 was working at Smith Castle in North Kingstown as a wage laborer for the Updike family – his former owners. He was paid in corn, shoes, and sometimes currency. By 1800 he was in East Greenwich, finally receiving a pension in 1818 and died a year later.

London Hall was 40 when he enlisted in 1778 in Capt. Dexter’s Company for three years. However, in 1790 his former master, William Hall of North Kingstown, claimed he has never been appraised for his value before enlisting, and demanded his re-enslavement or £80. Luckily by 1790 the legislature considered his required three years’ service sufficient for his freedom and dismissed the claim.

The Legacy

Many members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment faced hardship after the war, but their legacy would be left for the generations to come who continued the fight for freedom that they began. They took the first ground in the long battle for their people—black and indigenous—to change the landscape of America to reflect the  promise that lies within its Declaration of Independence, that all are created equal and have the inalienable right to “life, liberty. and the pursuit of happiness.”

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A soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, left, next to an assortment of Revolutionary War soldiers.

Colonel Christopher Greene.

Announcement of capture of Ichabod Northup and death of Col. Greene – Providence Journal 1781 (left) and the mark of Ichabod Northup from his pension file, 1820 (right.)

Smith Castle, North Kingstown – workplace of Caesar Updike, 1795.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment at the Battle of of Rhode Island. Courtesy of the American Battlefield Trust/David Wagner.