George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Rhode Island Council of War, 19 January 1778

From the Rhode Island Council of War

State of Rhode Island &c.
Providence January 19th 1778.


Since we had the Honor of addressing your Excellency by Mr Thompson,1 we received your favor of the 2d instant enclosing a proposition of Genl Varnum’s for raising a Battalion of Negroes. We in our Letter of the 15th current, of wh. we send a Duplicate, have fully represented our present circumstances and the many difficulties we Labor under in respect to our filling up the Continental Battalions. In addition thereto will observe that we have now in the States service within this Government, Two Battalions of Infantry and a Regiment of Artillery who are enlisted to serve until the 16th March next; And the Genl Assembly have ordered 2 Battn of Infantry & a Regiment of Artillery to be immediately raised to serve until the 16th Day of March 1779 so that we have raised and kept in the Field more than the proportion of Men Assigned us by Congress.2 The Genl Assembly of this State are to convene themselves on the 2d Monday of February next when your Letters will be Laid before them.

And their determination respecting the same will be immediately transmitted to your Excellency.3 I am Sir in behalf of the Council Your Excellency’s most Obed. Sert

Nichs Cooke

LS, DLC:GW. Robert Hanson Harrison docketed the letter “no Answer necessary.”

1Cooke may be referring to Ebenezer Thompson (1735–1805) of Providence, R.I., who had served as a major of the 1st Regiment of Rhode Island militia in 1776, an assistant to the state assembly and member of the council of war in 1777, and a delegate to the assembly in 1784.

2The Rhode Island assembly voted on 19 Dec. 1777 to raise these troops (Bartlett, R.I. Records description begins John Russell Bartlett, ed. Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England. 10 vols. Providence, 1856–65. description ends , 8:345–47; for the creation of two infantry battalions and one artillery regiment on 10 Dec. 1776, see ibid., 58–59, 61–63).

3After reading James Mitchell Varnum’s proposal as enclosed in GW’s letter to Nicholas Cooke of 2 Jan., the Rhode Island assembly voted to enlist slaves, but not without provoking a formal protest from some delegates (ibid., 358–61). Cooke wrote GW on 23 Feb. informing him of the assembly’s decision.

GW’s aide John Laurens had plans of his own to raise a Continental regiment from slaves in South Carolina. His scheme, he told his father Henry Laurens in a letter of 2 Feb., had GW’s sympathy: “You ask what is the General’s opinion upon this subject—he is convinced that the numerous tribes of blacks in the Southern parts of the Continent offer a resource to us that should not be neglected—with respect to my particular Plan, he only objects to it with the arguments of Pity, for a man who would be less rich than he might be” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 12:392).

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