J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning About The Black Regiment

I’ll wind up this impromptu series of book reviews with a pointer to The Black Regiment of the American Revolution, by author Linda Crotta Brennan and artist Cheryl Kirk Noll. This nonfiction picture book for the middle grades was first published in 2004 and reissued earlier this year by Apprentice Shop Books.

This book was created largely to answer interest from schools in Rhode Island. It provides a simple but thorough history of the Continental Army’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, organized by Col. Christopher Greene in early 1778. In order to fulfill its recruiting quota, the state’s legislature authorized Greene and his officers to sign up slaves who were willing the fight the British, granting them freedom and reimbursing their former owners.

Along with free blacks and Native Americans (there was a lot of overlap between those communities), the newly freed slaves made up a bit more than half of the regiment’s strength. Furthermore, while most of the Continental regiments had their smaller numbers of black soldiers mixed in with the white, the Rhode Islanders were grouped in all-black (or all-men-of-color) companies, making their numbers even more visible. The unit thus became known as “the Black Regiment.”

Apparently some whites objected to being assigned to that regiment. On 29 June 1780, Gen. George Washington wrote to Gen. William Heath, his commander in New England:

I think it will be best to march Colo. [Christopher] Greenes Regt. and the Levies when collected, to the Army [outside New York], and upon their arrival here, so arrange and model them, as to level the Regiments [i.e., to make them even in strength]. The objection to joining Greenes Regiment may be removed by dividing the Blacks in such a manner between the two, as to abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps.
In early 1781, the regiment was merged with the 2nd Rhode Island to create a single regiment.

Brennan describes this history in crisp, clear prose. Unfortunately, she can’t quote first-person accounts from men of this regiment; she has only the names of soldiers to remind us they were individuals with their own stories. As a result, the “Black Regiment” really functions in the narrative as a single collective character.

The dramatic center of the book is the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, when the Continental Army and New England militia units tried and failed to drive the British military out of Newport. The Black Regiment helped hold back a British and Hessian attack, allowing the Americans to retreat off the island. Later the integrated Rhode Island regiment was part of the victorious Continental Army at Yorktown, and some of its black soldiers served through the end of the war in 1783.

Noll provides a series of varied, well researched watercolor illustrations in realistic style. Alongside them are images of period documents and artifacts, helpful maps, timelines, and indexes. (One portrait of a black man reprinted in the book has since been revealed as a modern forgery. That was the topic of the second posting on Boston 1775, back in 2006.)

That amount of material makes for crowded pages, even with small type. The book’s design, and the lack of an individual protagonist to follow, may limit its appeal as entertainment. But for students wanting to learn more about American history, it provides a lot of solid information in an attractive package.

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