Bullets & Bulletins: Black Activism in Civil War Era Rhode Island

By Rhode Island State Archives

The documents in this online exhibition tell important stories about activism in Rhode Island in the 1850s-1880s.

In the video below, Secretary Nellie M. Gorbea gives an overview of this exhibition which was on display in the State Archives from February-April 2017.

One story is of the Black Americans, from Rhode island and throughout the Union, who came forward to serve in the 14th Heavy Artillery (Colored).

Though the War Department initially didn’t authorize the formation of a Black Regiment in 1862, in 1863 it did authorize the 14th Rhode Island Volunteers, also known as the 14th Heavy Artillery (Colored).

...your request of Artillery being raised in your state known as the "14th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery" is approved...
-War Department Order Approving Request of Rhode Island to Raise a Colored Regiment of Artillery, September 11, 1863

War Department order for 1st Battalion (November 19, 1863) by United States. War DepartmentRhode Island State Archives

General Order No. 5

War Department Order approving the request from Rhode Island to raise a colored regiment of artillery to be designated the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery,  September 11, 1863.

By taking up arms and taking individual action, the African American community in Rhode Island actively shaped the fight for freedom and equality in Civil War era Rhode Island. Below are two of the letters in the Rhode Island State Archives from men seeking to enlist and serve in the 6th Rhode Island Regiment, one of the first proposed “colored” regiments in the Union Army. To view additional letters visit the Rhode Island Digital Archives.

...I am a Colored man and would like to enlist in the Colored regiment of your state...
-Letter from Lemuel Freeman to Governor William Sprague, August 11, 1862

Letter from Lemuel Freeman to Governor William Sprague, Freeman, Lemuel, August 11, 1862, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Letter from John H. Williams to Governor Williams Sprague, Williams, John H., August 7, 1862, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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The 14th began as one company of men but grew to a full regiment of almost 2,000 soldiers. The regiment served two years in the Louisiana bayou and had the highest casualty rate of any Rhode Island unit during the Civil War.

Letter from John Norris to Governor Sprague, Norris, John, 1862, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Letter from C.F. Daniel to Governor William Sprague, Daniel, C.F., August 23, 1862, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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While the 14th Regiment supported the Union thousands of miles away, in Rhode Island community leaders were waging a war for equal rights for the state’s African American citizens. Unlike members of the 14th Heavy Artillery, however, the activists waged a war of words by writing numerous editorials, and submitting petitions and letters to the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Petition concerning discrimination on account of race or color in certain cases Petition concerning discrimination on account of race or color in certain cases (January 1870) by VariousRhode Island State Archives

Petition concerning discrimination on account of race, 1870

"The undersigned, citizens of Rhode Island, respectfully ask your Hon. body to pass a law making it a penal offence for individuals or corporations to make any distinction or discrimination on account of color or race of persons..."

Petition for school equal rights Petition for school equal rights, Various, 1864, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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Petition regarding the law forbidding inter-marriage of whites with Negroes, Indians, and Mulattoes Petition regarding the law forbidding inter-marriage of whites with Negroes, Indians, and Mulattoes, page 1., Various, March 1876, From the collection of: Rhode Island State Archives
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One of the most influential leaders was George T. Downing, a Newport entrepreneur and owner of the popular Sea Girt Hotel. In addition to his tireless advocacy, Downing also encouraged Reverend Mahlon Van Horne, Pastor of the Union Congregational Church, to run for public office. Van Horne was elected to the Newport School Committee in 1872, and went on to become the first African American member of the General Assembly where he represented Newport for three terms, from 1885-1890.

Many of the Friend of the Civil Rights bill...are very anxious to have said bill become a Law...
-Mahlon Van Horne letter to State Senator Baker Jr. requesting his vote to pass the Civil Rights bill, April 7, 1885

Mahlon Van Horne letter to State Senator Baker Jr. requesting his vote to pass the Civil Rights bill (April 7, 1885) by Van Horne, MahlonRhode Island State Archives

Mahlon Van Horne letter

Mahlon Van Horne letter to State Senator Baker Jr. requesting his vote to pass the Civil Rights bill, April 7, 1885.

By taking up arms and taking to the streets, the African American community in Rhode Island actively shaped the fight for freedom and equality in Civil War era Rhode Island.

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View more from this exhibit at the Rhode Island Digital Archives.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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