The Battle of Red Bank saw four hundred Americans defend Fort Mercer, New Jersey, against 2,000 Hessians resulting in the second most costly defeat for the British forces after the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was an incredible feat of gallantry and determination by Rhode Island ‘rebels’ who doggedly faced the Hessian attackers’ promise that every defender would be put to the sword. And of those men who stood before the onslaught and devastated the Hessian ranks, this writer believes that as many as one in every five was a black freeman or run-away-slave!
How many of the four hundred defenders of Fort Mercer were African Americans? There is no historical account of an exact number. Some sources on the internet state that the defenders were mainly black however, the battle was fought four months before the 1st Rhode Island became a segregated black regiment. This writer believes the answer to be as many as 80 African Americans or one in every five of the fort’s defenders. Clues to this estimate can be found by a brief examination of the American troops who encamped at Valley Forge the winter after the Battle of Red Bank.
There were approximately 12,000 Americans who encamped at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78. Research has set the number of African Americans at Valley Forge at 755 men. This would put the percentage of blacks at about 6.3 % The total number of troops were dispersed into 41 regiments averaging 292 men per regiment. Though a regiment would normally have ten companies of an average of 75 rank and file per company, by the time the Continental Army moved into Valley Forge, the numbers had thinned to the point that many regiments had 250 or fewer men listed on their rosters.
By 1778, only three colonies had actively recruited African Americans; Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and therefore had the majority number of blacks within their ranks. Rhode Island had the largest per capita of blacks to whites in New England; ranking number one in the number of slave merchants and slavers of all the colonies. They recruited far more African Americans than the other two colonies. Of the 41 regiments, 18 were from Mass., Conn., and Rhode Island. Checking rosters for these three colonies, and the total approximately 4,800 men in all, it is safe to say that approximately 650 African Americans were dispersed among these 4,800 men at a percentage of 13.5%. Since Rhode Island had a larger percentage that the other two colonies and the two regiments had approximately 200 rank and file per regiment, the percentage of black troops for the two Rhode Island would be closer to 20%. Therefore, of the 400 defenders at Red Bank, the total number of African Americas would be nearly one in every five or anywhere from 75 to 80 African Americans.
Colonel Varnum, Rhode Islander who commanded the brigade that included the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island regiments who fought at Red Bank, was so impressed by the performance of the large number of African American defenders at Red Bank, that he sought approval to return to Rhode Island and recruit an all-black regiment. He petitioned the Rhode Island legislature to form an all-black regiment and in February, 1778, the legislature passed the bill that authorized the recruitment of slaves that became the 1st Rhode Island.
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