In Service to Their Country

1st regiment
Member of the 1st RI Regiment c.1780
14th Regiment
Member of the RI 14th Heavy Artillery c.1864

Dating back to the American Revolution, men and women of African heritage have served their country in a number of capacities. There has been no war fought by or within the United States in which African heritage Americans did not participate. During the Revolutionary War, thousands of persons of color would fight both on the British and American side, with the Rhode Island 1st Regiment in 1778 becoming the first organized regiment largely comprised of enslaved and free, African heritage soldiers.

Reproduction Image from RI Black Heritage Society

One of the surest paths to freedom and prosperity would lead to the sea. Enslaved and free Africans would serve as privateers and sailors during the American Revolution and War of 1812. In fact, seafaring was one of the most significant occupations among African heritage men throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Rhode Island African men like John Quamino who would interrupt his studies at the College of New Jersey to sign on as a Privateer during the American Revolution and Hannibal Collins a veteran of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment would later serve as a ship mate with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812.

Later “Sable Soldiers” would participate in the Mexican American War, Civil War, Indian War, and Spanish American War. By the time of WWI, over 350,000 African heritage men would serve in practically every branch of military service.

Battle of the Argonne Forrest

It would be at the final Allied offensive of the war, the Battle of the Argonne Forrest in 1918, that would bring respect and honor to the African American troops. On September 26th regiments of the 93rd American Division were ordered to attack from a position a few miles west of the Argonne Forest. On the 28th of September the 371st and the 372nd Infantry entered the lines as part of the French 157th Red Hand Division and attacked at once, advancing through murderous gunfire and gas. On October 1st the 372nd relieved the 371st and advanced to a point near the Monthois Township where it was subjected to raking gunfire. It held this position until the night of the 6th. A few days later all of the regiments, having won the praise of the French officers for their conduct in the attack, joined other French divisions for the push through the Vosges region of Eastern France to the very doorstep to Germany.


Newport WWI Draftees
WWI Draftees, Newport, RI City Hall (Image courtesy of Newport Historical Society)

African American Chief Petty Officer Carpenters Unit at Naval Training Station Newport c. 1917
African American Chief Petty Officer Carpenters Unit at Naval Training Station Newport  c. 1917