Politics and Military

Sgt. John Smith, 1st Rhode Island Regiment, Prepares To Watch an Execution

Sgt. John Smith of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment kept a diary during the American Revolution that explains why the Continental Army had a hard time recruiting soldiers.

After more than a month of marching, sometimes in the rain, sometimes ill and sometimes without finding food, the men were treated to court martials and severe punishments. Some of the troops refused to work because they hadn’t received promised clothing.

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This image illustrates two Continental Army soldiers: A Rhode Island regiment soldier on the far left, a soldier in rifle dress second from right.

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment

James Mitchell Varnum  organized the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. He had served in the Kentish Guards with Nathanael Greene. After Varnum won promotion to brigadier general in 1777, Christopher Greene — Nathanael Greene’s cousin — eventually commanded the unit.

By 1778, Rhode Island had a hard time filling its quota of soldiers. Varnum suggested the colony enlist slaves. They would win their freedom upon their discharge.

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James Mitchell Varnum by Charles Wilson Peale

Several companies of African-American soldiers joined the regiment. The 1st Rhode Island then had a reputation as the ‘Black Regiment.’ Not all soldiers were black, however.

John Smith Writes

John Smith kept his diary from July 18, 1777 to Jan. 9, 1778. He described the meals they had in private homes and taverns, sleeping in barns, washing clothes, taking prisoners, rain, and the rum rations they received.

Once they arrived at camp near Peekskill, N.Y., a series of court martials took place.

On Sept. 9, 1777, Sgt. John Smith expected to see two men executed:

Tusday the 9th — the Several Brigades to Parade on the hill at the Gallows to see the Execution of amos Rose who was Condem’d to Be Shot for Cocking his Gun at a Leiut. who struck him with his Cane & abuse’d him when in Liquor & Lemmuel Arkly who is an Enemy to his Country & took a Commission under General howe to inlist in the Service of the King of Great Brittian is under the sentence of Death to Be Executed at sd. time & Place — the Regmts. Paraded & the sd. Prisoners were Brought up & their sentences were Read — the Minesters Pray’d with them & they for themselves & Kneeld Down by their Graves to Be Shot — then the General sent them a Pardon & they were to be Carried on board of the Ships in the River their to Serve During the Present war — then they was Conducted By the Guards to the Provest Guard again — then we all went to our tents again

This story was updated in 2022.

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