Enslaved to enlisted: Warren men who became soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

Last Thursday, I spoke at the unveiling of the revised Warren Veterans Honor Roll which now includes the names of an additional 55 men and women. Some were not included in the original Honor Roll installed 20 years ago while many others became veterans since the original unveiling. I will post a picture of the new additions as soon as I get a chance to do so. Here is the transcript of my speech:

Good morning.  We come here today to honor Warren’s Veterans. It is a solemn occasion but it is also an important one for the families and friends of those honored for the first time this year.  Unique among those names, unique among all the veterans here are six men who were soldiers in the Revolutionary War who entered service after enduring many years of enslavement.  Sarah and I found their military records at the State Archives and we are joyful to have them recognized here for their service.  Their names are Ceasar Cole, Hampton Barton, Prince Childs, Warren Mason, Bristol Miller and Bristol Luther.  Their stories span the war years 1776 to 1781. Between them they struggled at the Battle of Red Bank, wintered at Valley Forge, fought at the Battles of Monmyth and Rhode Island eventually beating the British at Yorktown. In the end, only two of the six survived and returned to Warren.

Why did so many of them die when the original honor roll of nearly 200 men listed only a single death, that of Luther Cole? The likely reason is that all but one of them served in the Continental Army for at least three years rather than state or local militias where men were home part time, sleeping in their own beds, eating at the family table.   We all understand that longer service means more chances to be injured, wounded or killed, more exposure to deprivation and disease. And since they these men were barred from promotion above the rank of private, regardless of seniority, we can assume they were given the most grueling of tasks.      

Ceasar Cole, enslaved on the farm of Benjamin Cole, escaped at the age of 20, emerging as a Private in the Continental Army six years later in 1776.  He was reenslaved when his owner found out Private Cole was stationed on a ship in the Warren River and demanded his return.    

But then the State offered a bounty of 42 pounds for new enlistments and so  Benjamin Cole turned around and reenlisted Ceasar.  Richard Barton, a landowner in Touisset, followed suit, enlisting 27-year-old Hampton, who had been enslaved on that farm since birth.  A third man named Prince, owned by one of the Childs, a major shipbuilding family, was also enlisted  And so in the summer of 1777 Privates Cole, Barton and Childs were the only Black men in Arnold’s Company of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

After basic training and the smallpox vaccination Washington required, Rhode Island’s two regiments marched south to Forts Mercer and Mifflin in New Jersey, building fortifications and preparing for a fight.  They won the first and lost the second, encamping at Valley Forge in December.  The scarcity of food and clothing, squalid living conditions and close quarters led disease to spread quickly; 2000 died.  Private Ceasar Cole was one of them, dying on the night of January 24th 1778.

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Assembly was desperate to meet Washington’s new recruitment quotas, and so they passed the Slave Enlistment Act that allowed  enslaved Black, Indian or mixed race men to enlist and become free, while their owners were paid as much as 120 pounds.  At this point, the decision was made to segregate the troops.  All men of color became part of the 1st Regiment—which became known as the Black Regiment–though all the officers were white.    

Back at Valley Forge, Privates Barton and Childs of the 1st Regiment saw all their white compatriots moved to the 2nd Regiment replaced by 50 men of color. That must have been quite an upheaval.  In June, both regiments fought at the Battle of Monmyth in New Jersey.  They did not win but they showed they were an effective fighting force and soon headed north.  Back in Rhode Island, Barton and Childs might well have met a new recruit from Warren who was enlisted by his owner John Mason, a prosperous farm owner in Touisset, for the 120 pound signing bonus  Sadly, just four months later, Private Mason fell ill and died on August 28, the eve of the Battle of Rhode Island.

It is for this battle in 1778 that the Black Regiment is usually remembered.  It was here that the seasoned veterans who had fought at Red Bank, survived Valley Forge and proved their metal at Monmyth would stand their ground and repel three waves of Hessians.  Privates Barton and Childs were a part of that fight; they both survived.  That winter they quartered in warehouses along the Warren waterfront.

By spring the war had moved south. The 1st Regiment, greatly reduced, returned to East Greenwich to patrol the shore and fabricate battle materials.  In the spring of 1780, after 3 years of service, Private Barton was honorably discharged.  He came back to Warren homeless and likely penniless.  Two months later, he signed up for six more months—maybe he figured he would at least be fed and clothed.  He joined Bristol Miller, a 21-year-old man, born in Africa, who was enslaved by Captain Nathan Miller, Brigadier General for the Rhode Island militias.  Private Miller had served once before and not been freed so he agreed to service only after his owner put the promise of freedom in writing.  The Battalion was dissolved 5 months later and Privates Barton and Miller returned to Warren as free men.  

With Barton and Miller honorably discharged, Cole and Mason dead, the only man left standing was  Prince Childs.  He was part of a guard detail with Colonel Christopher Greene at a river crossing in upstate New York called Pines Bridge.  In a Loyalist ambush ten men were slaughtered.  Private Childs died from his wounds on May 18, 1781 exactly four years after he enlisted. 

The last enslaved man from Warren to serve was Private Bristol Luther who had been owned by shipbuilder Martin Luther.  Enlisted in May of 1781, he joined the now integrated Rhode Island Regiment, which was chosen by Washington as the lead Regiment at the Battle of Yorktown.  After the British surrender, Private Luther took ill and died on December 30, 1781. But he might well have left behind a son, because just a few months later a Black baby boy was born in Martin Luther’s house…and he carried the name Bristol Luther.

And so at the end of the war, only two of these six soldiers are alive: Hampton Barton, possibly disabled mentally and physically from enslavement and war, struggled.  At the age of 45, he became a ward of the town and disappeared from local records.  Bristol Miller, a younger man, married a woman named Peg and had a son Ceasar.  They owned a farm in Touisset.  Miller lived to be at least 70.  

Six men of Warren.  Six patriots of the American Revolution.  Thank you for listening to their stories. 

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