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On this date in 1778, the Black, elite First Rhode Island regiment defeated three assaults by British troops at the Battle of Rhode Island (Newport).
The First Rhode Island regiment was the first all-Black unit in America. Most Continental regiments were integrated except this northern regiment.
Assembled into service in late 1776 and early 1777, they numbered 197 Black enlisted men commanded by white officers. Col. James Varnum was commander from Jan. 1, 1777, to Feb. 27, 1777, then Col. Christopher Greene, Feb. 27, 1777, to May 14, 1781, when Rhode Island Continentals were reorganized. The regiment saw further service, including Yorktown, when, on the night of October 14, 1781, the regiment took part in the assault and capture of Redoubt 10.
The First Rhode Island was disbanded in 1783 when Congress decided to consolidate all regiments with fewer than 500 men and the state refused to spend additional recruiting money.
Unfortunately, unlike their white counterparts, these Black soldiers did not receive any compensation for their service after the war. Some Americans realized the irony of enslaved Blacks fighting under the banner of the Declaration of Independenc] one of those who dare trust in Providence for defense and security of their own liberty while they enslave and wish to continue in slavery thousands who are as well entitled to freedom as themselves."
Although the Revolution did not end slavery, it helped plant the seed of emancipation leading to the American Civil War about 80 years later, thanks to the First Rhode Island Regiment.