The 54th Massachusetts is justly famed for the heroism of its black troops during the Civil War. Blacks have fought in all of America’s wars, going back to before the Revolution. In the Revolution blacks fought in many regiments, but the greatest number of blacks in any one regiment was in the 1rst Rhode Island.
In 1778 Rhode Island was having difficulties meeting the troop quotas assigned to the state by the Continental Congress. The Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of black troops, and that every slave enlisted was to be immediately freed. A total of 140 blacks enlisted in the 1rst Rhode Island, 88 of them being slaves. Whites filled out the rest of the 225 man regiment. The regiment was commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of General Nathaniel Greene.
The regiment saw service at the battle of Rhode Island where it performed well. Colonel Greene and some of his men were killed in a skirmish with Tories in 1781. Colonel Greene’s body was mutilated, presumably because he was leading black troops. The regiment, after being consolidated with the 2nd Rhode Island, served in the Yorktown campaign. The troops were mustered out of service in 1783 at the conclusion of the war.