Saturday, December 3, 2011

Illustration Friday #7: BRIGADE, and What I Learned While Researching the Black Regiment

Brigade: A military unit consisting of a variable number of combat battalions or regiments
Battle of Rhode Island, Revolutionary War,  © Cheryl Kirk Noll

Since I had the good fortune to work with RI author Linda Crotta Brennan on a book called The Black Regiment of the American Revolution a few years ago, I'm using one of the images from the book for the prompt "brigade." These paintings were done using traditional watercolor techniques.

I also decided to post about a few things I learned while researching this fascinating subject.

Linda Crotta Brennan gathering information at the reenactment of the Battle of RI.

The book is about a RI Revolutionary War regiment that was comprised of men of color. In 1778, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law that created what was later to be called the Black regiment. "Every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian man-slave" could enlist. The state would pay owners for their slaves and those who  enlisted would be given the same "bounty and wages" as White soldiers. If they survived the war, they would earn their freedom. Close to 200 men signed up. Most of them served until the war ended.

Here are some of the things I learned. 

1. RI had slaves. 

From "The Black Regiment of the American Revolution," ©Cheryl Kirk Noll
Newport was major port, and a hot spot in the slave trade. 

Rhode Island did not abolish slavery until 1784, a year after the Revolution ended. However, they didn't actually free those who were currently slaves. They freed children who were born after that date, but not until they turned a certain age; 21 for males, 18 for females. 

The last slave in Rhode Island died in 1859, just four years before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. 

Some of the men who fought in the Black Regiment:Primus Brown, Cuff Greene, Jacob Hazard, Ebenezer Mumford, Prince Vaughn. From the muster rolls at the RI Historical Society 

2. Reenactors are knowledgeable and generous folk. 

I was incredibly lucky while researching this book to have the Battle of RI (featured in the book) reenacted in Portsmouth, RI. Over 1,000 men, women and children appeared in authentic costume, set up camp and reenacted the battle.

I talked to many of the participants, and was impressed with the amount of research they had done to be historically accurate. 

My illustrations were also reviewed by RI reenactors, who pointed out fine points, like the difference between tricorns and bicorns, and the importance of having straps strong enough to support heavy ammunition bags. 

Many, many thanks go to them.

Comments on my sketches from RI reenactors.

 3. History is subjective.
Linda and I came across a quote about a skirmish in New York state with a group of loyalists called Delancey's Tories, where Colonel Christopher Greene was killed. It said: "the sabers of the enemy only reached him through the bodies of his faithful guard of Blacks, who hovered over him to protect him and every one of whom was killed." That quote was in dozens of books. 

I wanted to find out what the place looked like for my illustrations, so I went to the Yorktown Museum in Yorktown Heights, NY, where they had some primary source documents about the skirmish. These  included a loyalist newspaper account, and a document  by a woman who was a child living in the house at the time of the attack, written when she was an old woman. The accounts were different, and neither mentioned the "faithful guard...every one of whom was killed." 

It was an "aha" moment for me. We don't really know exactly what happened, and we never will.

The unit that Greene was commanding was definitely integrated. There is evidence that some black soldiers were captured and sold back into slavery. Maybe the author of the statement had additional information available, but the statement seems woven with a bit of supposition. It really made me think.

4. People of color have been full and active participants in the United States from the get-go. 

This is a ridiculously simple-minded conclusion. Of course, Native Americans were here before Europeans. Long before! But did you know that by many accounts, 1 of 6 men who served in the Revolution were men of color? That Americans enslaved Native Americans in states such as RI? That there were Blacks in Jamestown in 1690? That initially slaves/servants were able to earn their way out of slavery and purchase property, but one by one, laws were passed to revoke these rights for Blacks. Eventually, laws were passed in some places to prevent owners from freeing their own slaves without getting permission from the state.
I discovered so many things that no one taught me in school. I felt amazed, a little embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, and a little angry with simplistic, white-washed educational texts.

5. Rhode Island is a spectacularly beautiful state. 

Of course, I live here, but I really began to appreciate it when I went looking for battlefields, historic societies and armories.

"The Black Regiment of the American Revolution" is still in publication.  It is geared for readers between 8-12. It can be purchased at Apprenticeshop Books, Ltd. Click Here
"The Black Regiment of the American Revolution," by Linda Crotta Brennan, illustrations by Cheryl Kirk Noll 

The story of the men who fought for freedom, both their country's and their own, makes for fascinating reading.


  1. Nice post all the way around. I especially like the top illustration.

  2. Fascinating information and a great illustration. What a level of detail you had to be aware of to depict the scenes accurately!

  3. Nice images. Interesting post.