Hidden History: Soldiers gave their lives for chance at freedom


PORTSMOUTH, R.I. (WPRI) — The toughest fighters in the world charged down Quaker Hill in Portsmouth along with British militia, toward local soldiers who dug in for the impact.

To say the 225 troops from Rhode Island’s 1st Regiment were underdogs in this 240-year-old battle would be an understatement.

Former Newport teacher and Mayor Paul Gaines is one of the leaders who propelled the process of marking the battleground with what is known as Patriots Park.

“The Hessians, who were supposed to be the fiercest soldiers of all, could not get through,” Gaines said. “They couldn’t get through the Rhode Island Regiment. Three times they repulsed them.”

In the months before what became known as the Battle of Rhode Island, the 1st Regiment was unable to keep up with Colonial Army demands for troop recruitment. That prompted Rhode Island to ask General George Washington to allow enlisting Narragansett Indians and slaves, who were promised their freedom for fighting.

Records show Indians and black men made up 140 of the colonial soldiers on Quaker Hill on August 29, 1778. They became known at the Black Regiment as they fought in the Portsmouth battle and other Revolutionary War skirmishes.

“You realize these are human beings, these are people,” Gaines said, referencing the names now carved in stone at Patriots Park. “These are really people who were battling for freedom of their country when they didn’t have any freedom at all.”

But Gaines, who was the state’s first black mayor, and Portsmouth Town Historian Jim Garman would both like more Rhode Islanders to know the details of what was the final great Revolutionary War battle in New England.

“American history has been pretty lily-white for a long time,” Garman said. “I think it’s a little bit of a balancing act on a better perspective on it.”

Garman, who’s a former history teacher, and Gaines would love to see Rhode Island school curriculum include lessons about the Battle of Rhode Island.

“School kids should be coming out there,” Gaines said. “Teachers should be using that as a teaching tool, to come out, bring the kids out there, and sit there and have a lunch and talk about what these soldiers did. Just stop there and sit in and go up and look at it.”

Garman said the Battle of Rhode Island is credited with saving thousands of other colonial soldiers who were behind the line the Black Regiment held three times that day.

According to Gaines, the promise to free the slaves who served was not kept, with their children freed instead of them.

Garman said slaves were freed for serving but when the state passed an emancipation act in 1784, the impact was gradual.

The children of the slaves who were born after March 1, 1784 were considered free citizens, but all those in slavery before that would remain slaves unless their masters freed them, according to Garman.

It would take almost 200 years before the battleground was preserved and finally marked, but with only one lone boulder.

“Just a rock. Just a rock,” Gaines said. “And we thought, wow, this is beautiful. “

Ten years later, there was a second boulder. But the dream of an actual memorial with the names of the men who fought and died there didn’t pick up steam again until the 90’s.

“Ten years straight we worked on that,” Gaines said. “Ten years straight.”

Finally, there was a ribbon-cutting in 2008 for what is now Patriots Park, more than two centuries after the musket fire.

“It should not have taken that long,” Gaines said. “But we did it, standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who worked on the project before us. Look at the names [of the soldiers]. You get the feeling that, wow! This is where it all started, and it’s a great feeling.”

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with you story ideas and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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