In January 1778, what would be immortalized as the rag-tag Continental Army was at its raggiest and taggiest. The brutal winter at Valley Forge scared off many of the soldiers it hadn’t killed or broken.
Mocked as “the Ragged Lousey Naked Regiment,” the 1st Rhode Island Regiment wasn’t recruiting many new troops. Because desperation often spawns disruption, the Rhode Island Assembly on Feb. 14, 1778, welcomed “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave in this state to enlist”—offering freedom to those still enslaved. One hundred black soldiers enlisted before June, when slaveowners helped repeal the law.
Yes, there was slavery in Rhode Island, which was a center of American slave-trading. With large farms conducive to the plantation system, Rhode Island had the highest percentage of slaves—and blacks—in the post-Declaration of Independence North. That presence—which hovered between 6 and 11 percent of the total population—led to the opportunities and backlash of 1778.