“We wish to be free of slavery but not just yet” M.W. Siebert, 1864, Library of Congress
Memorial Day honors the service of living veterans and all war dead—
It is well-known that the first entirely segregated African American regiment of the American Revolution originated in Rhode Island, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which bravely defended Portsmouth’s Quaker Hill at the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. Commanded by John Sullivan, the Black Regiment fought valiantly against the Hessians to recapture the island of Rhode Island, what is now called Aquidneck Island.
Patriots Park was designated a National Historic Place and a National Historic Landmark in 1974. It marks the spot where the Battle of Rhode Island was fought and “the first battle where a racially segregated unit of black soldiers fought.”
Rhode Islanders played roles as merchants in the slave trade previous to the Revolutionary War, and in the years that followed the Revolution, Rhode Island controlled up to 90% of the slave trade in the thirteen colonies. The Browns, John and Nicholas, were heavily involved, and indeed, their fortune was founded in slave trade with Africa. Aaron Lopez of Newport in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s was among three Jewish slave traders on the American continent, who dominated Jewish slave trading in what has been referred to as the “Black Holocaust.”
Recruiting white men to serve for Rhode Island was lacking, so slaves were enlisted to fight, along with Native American slaves. Owners were paid market value for the slaves, and the slaves were given freedom. The 1st Rhode Island became known as the “Black Regiment,” although it was integrated with white soldiers as the original black enlistees fell in battle. After 1781, the Regiment became known as the Rhode Island Regiment, when it consolidated with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment.
In America’s Civil War, about 10% of Union troops were African Americans, one-third lost their lives. Blacks were paid $10 a month, and whites, $13. In the Union’s Navy, 16% were African Americans, who were treated better than the Union’s Army blacks, receiving equal pay as whites, but still ranking in entry-level positions. 10% of the Union’s relief forces were African American women who worked for wages or worked for free in the pursuit of freedom’s cause.
The 14th Heavy Artillery was Rhode Island’s Black Civil War regiment. The War Department authorized formation of a company on July 19, 1863, and the number of enlistees was so large that the 14th became a regiment by September. Eighteen-hundred Black soldiers were recruited from Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and other Northern states. Seventy-seven white officers joined the regiment.
The recruits were brought to Providence where they received training on Dexter Field throughout the summer and fall of 1863. In the fall they were assigned to Dutch Island to defend the West Passage in Narragansett Bay, manning eight artillery pieces on the island.
In early 1864 they were sent to the coast of Texas and later in the Winter, assimilated into the 11th U.S. Heavy Artillery regiment, they were posted to the defenses of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The 14th Rhode Island served bravely and had the highest number of deaths of any Black regiment in the Civil War. Over 300 men died from disease and another 100 received medical discharges.
Memorial Day was first known as Decoration Day, where flowers and wreaths were strewn over the graves of Northern soldiers in 1866, Waterloo, New York, and surviving soldiers led the procession through the town to the cemetery to honor the dead. In the South, children sang songs and veterans wore their uniforms and medals and told their war history to the children. It was not until 1971 that Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Richard Nixon, and set aside as a day where all soldiers who had died in all previous wars were honored.
Living Civil War History
Jane E. Schultz “Seldom Thanked, Never Praised, and Scarcely Recognized: Gender and Racism in Civil War Hospitals” Civil War History, Vol. xlviii No. 3 pg. 221
This article is original work of Sharon Watterson, 2010, please do not copy and paste, screen capture, or lift in any manner without permission.
Re-enactors Program of the 14th is sponsored in part by grants made available through the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. You can donate to the program: Checks should be written to Living History, Inc and mailed to Living History, 20 Moore Street, Providence, RI, 02907.
The 14th Rhode Island Re-enactors Program helps Providence high school students recreate the history of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment. By being immersed in the life of the Black soldier of the Civil War, the students learn about the role of African Americans during the war and about the history of the war generally.
The 14th will march in the June 19th Gaspee Day Parade in Pawtuxet, RI. The program is looking for enlistees, women, teens, adult men.
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