Rhode Island Civil War History

American Civil War Homepage

Rhode Island in the American Civil War

Rhode Island Civil War History


Rhode Island was the first of the Thirteen Colonies to declare independence from British rule on May 4, 1776, and, on May 29, 1790, it was the last of the Thirteen Colonies to ratify the United States Constitution. With ratification of the Constitution, Rhode Island entered the Union as the thirteenth U.S. state. Rhode Island covers 1,214 square miles, slightly less than Long Island (1,401 square miles), and is the smallest state in the Union.

Rhode Island, officially the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is a state in the New England region of the United States. Rhode Island is bordered by Connecticut to the west and Massachusetts to the north and east, and it shares a water boundary with New York's Long Island to the southwest. "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" is the longest official name of any state in the Union. Despite its name, most of Rhode Island is on the mainland United States. The official name of the state, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, derives from the merger of two colonies. Rhode Island colony was founded near present-day Newport, on what is now commonly called Aquidneck Island, the largest of several islands in Narragansett Bay. Providence Plantations was the name of the colony founded by English settler, Roger Williams, in the area now known as the City of Providence.

While Providence Plantation was an American colony of English settlers founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, the second of the plantation colonies on the mainland was Samuel Gorton’s Shawomet Purchase of 1642 from the Narragansetts, an Algonquian tribe. In 1644 the area witnessed "the Incorporation of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay," and was thereby chartered as an English colony.

Rhode Island Civil War Map
Rhode Island Civil War Map.gif
Rhode Island, Slavery, and Civil War History

Native American inhabitants, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Niantic tribes, occupied most of the area now known as Rhode Island. Most of the Native Americans were killed by diseases contracted through contact with French settlers and explorers, and through warfare with the Europeans. The relationship between the New Englanders and the Native Americans was at first strained, but did not result in much bloodshed. The dominant, largest tribes that lived near Rhode Island were the Wampanoag, Pequots, Narragansett, and Nipmuck. Eventually, the remaining Native Americans were forced to assimilate and adopt European culture and Christianity, while others were coerced to vacate the region and the remnant was bequeathed small tracts of land that many referred to as reservations.

Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade during the post-revolution era. In 1774, the slave population of Rhode Island was 6.3%, nearly twice as high as any other New England colony. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60% and 90% of the American trade in African slaves. In addition to the slave trade, Rhode Island was also heavily involved in the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution began in America in 1787 when Thomas Somers reproduced textile machine plans he imported from England. He helped to produce the Beverly Cotton Manufactory, which Moses Brown of Providence took an interest. Partnering with Samuel Slater, Moses Brown helped to create the second cotton mill in America, a water-powered textile mill. As the Industrial Revolution moved large numbers of workers into the cities, a permanently landless, and therefore voteless, class developed. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white males were ineligible to vote. After several unsuccessful attempts to address this problem, a new state constitution was passed in 1843 allowing landless white men to vote if they could pay a $1 poll tax. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Rhode Island applied its industrial capacity to supply the Union Army with the materials it needed to win the war.


Prior to industrialization, Rhode Island was heavily involved in the slave trade during the post-Revolution era. Slavery was extant in Rhode Island as early as the 17th century. In 1652, Rhode Island passed the first abolition law in the thirteen colonies, banning African slavery. The law, however, was not enforced by the end of the century. By 1774, the slave population of the state was 6.3%, nearly twice as high as any other New England colony. In the late 18th century, several Rhode Island merchant families (most notably the Browns, for whom Brown University is named) began actively engaging in the triangle slave trade. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves. The 18th century Rhode Island economy depended largely upon the triangle trade, where Rhode Islanders distilled rum from molasses, sent the rum to Africa to trade for slaves, and then traded the slaves in the West Indies for more molasses.

While serving in the Rhode Island Assembly in 1774, Stephen Hopkins introduced a bill that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony. This became one of the first anti-slavery laws in the new United States. In February 1784 the Rhode Island Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation of slaves within the state. All children of slaves born after March 1 were to be "apprentices," the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. By 1840, the census reported only five African Americans enslaved in Rhode Island.

Despite the antislavery laws of 1774, 1784, and 1787, an active international slave trade continued. In 1789 an Abolition Society was organized to secure enforcement of existing laws against the trade. Leading merchants, especially John Brown and George DeWolf continued to engage in the trade even after it became illegal. After 1770 slaving was never more than a minor aspect of Rhode Island's overall maritime trade. Using Southern cotton cultivated with slave labor, Rhode Island manufactured numerous textiles throughout the early 19th century. By the mid-19th century, many Rhode Islanders were active in the abolitionist movement, particularly Quakers in Newport and Providence such as Moses Brown.

Rhode Island's white, working middle class, though perhaps not liking Southern slavery, feared the competition that freeing masses of slaves in the South would precipitate. In 1861, however, when Fort Sumter was fired upon by the Confederacy, Rhode Island's citizenry rallied to the defense of the Union when Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion.

Rhode Island and the Civil War Map
Rhode Island and Secession Map.gif
Rhode Island and Secession Map

Civil War

According to the 1860 U.S. census, Rhode Island had a population of 174,620, making it one of the least populated states in the nation.

During the American Civil War, Rhode Island furnished 25,236 fighting men to the Union military and it suffered 1,685 deaths. The state attempted to raise 12 infantry regiments, but was reduced to 8 because the 6th and 8th failed to complete organization, while the 3rd Infantry, within three months, was re-designated the 3rd Heavy Artillery Regiment, and the 5th infantry, mustering as a battalion in Dec. '61 and gaining regiment status in Dec. '62, was designated the 5th H.A. in July 1863. Rhode Island also sent into action 3 cavalry regiments, 3 heavy artillery regiments (3rd, 5th, and 14th colored), 1 light artillery regiment, some independent artillery batteries and miscellaneous units. The state recruited the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored), and it was the only black unit raised in the state. Although Rhode Island was not host to any Civil War battles, Rhode Islanders, many attached to the Army of the Potomac, fought in numerous major battles and campaigns, including Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Rhode Island units were present when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, and, as a result of the war, sixteen Rhode Islanders received the Medal of Honor.

On the home front, Rhode Island, with the other Northern states, applied its industrial capacity to supply the Union Army with the materials it needed to win the war. Rhode Island's continued growth and modernization led to the creation of an urban mass transit system, and improved health and sanitation programs. During the war, Fort Adams near Newport was used temporarily as the United States Naval Academy. In May 1861, the Academy was moved to Newport from Annapolis, Maryland, due to concerns about the political sympathies of the Marylanders, many of which were suspected of being supporters of the breakaway Confederate States of America. In September, the Academy moved to the Atlantic House hotel in Newport and remained there for the rest of the war. In 1862, Fort Adams became the headquarters and recruit depot for the 15th Infantry Regiment. This regiment, along with several others, was organized into a regiment of three eight-company battalions, with the 3rd Battalion formed at Fort Adams in March 1864.

Namesake, the USS Rhode Island, built in New York, was a side-wheel steamer commissioned in 1861 for the Union Navy. It served to intercept blockade runners in the West Indies and was later a part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

In October 1861, Isaac P. Rodman became colonel of the 4th Rhode Island. Early the following year the regiment participated in Burnside’s expedition to North Carolina. At the New Bern battle, on March 14, 1862, Rodman offered to assault the center of the enemy line, perceiving an opening where the railroad crossed the Confederate entrenchments. He had barely received permission when he led the 4th Rhode Island on an impetuous charge, breaking the Rebel line and capturing nine pieces of artillery. “Rodman’s soldierly movement was the culminating point of the day,” an officer later wrote, and the historian of the 9th Corps commented, “Colonel Rodman, with a fine soldierly instinct, perceived that the enemy’s line could be there successfully pierced, and his prompt and daring spirit suggested that, without losing time in waiting for orders, he should take advantage of the opportunity so fortunately offered.” Later in the North Carolina coastal campaign, Rodman was stricken with typhoid fever and returned to his South Kingstown home to recuperate. Isaac P. Rodman commanded the 3rd Division of the IX Corps during the Maryland Campaign. He led the efforts to take Turner's Gap during the Battle of South Mountain in September 1862. A few days later, he was mortally wounded at the Antietam defending against a counterattack by Confederates under A.P. Hill.

Rhode Island Civil War Battles & Battlefields Map
High Resolution Map of Rhode Island.jpg
High Resolution Map of Rhode Island

Notable Rhode Islanders included U.S. Senator Henry B. Anthony, a former governor born in Coventry, who was a powerful newspaper owner and staunch advocate of the policies of President Lincoln during the Civil War. The other Senator from Rhode Island, Samuel G. Arnold of Providence, was also a Republican; he served in the Union Army until 1862 when he was elected to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James F. Simmons.

Rhode Island's early war governor, William Sprague, accompanied a detachment of state troops in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. He declined a commission as a brigadier general and remained in office. In 1862, he attended the Loyal War Governors' Conference in Altoona, Pennsylvania, which ultimately supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the Union war effort. After failing to be re-elected as governor, he was elected as a U.S. Senator to replace Arnold, taking office in 1863 and serving into Reconstruction. During the war, Sprague married Kate Chase, daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. In March 1863, Sprague was replaced as governor by prominent businessman William C. Cozzens, but he did not fulfill his term, leaving office that May. James Y. Smith then led Rhode Island during the last two years of the war.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, an antebellum arms manufacturer, politician, and general in the Rhode Island state militia, was perhaps the most influential Rhode Island army officer. He rose to command of the Army of the Potomac before his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. He later commanded the Department of the Ohio as well as the IX Corps. His star-crossed field duty ended during the Siege of Petersburg with another fiasco for which he took the blame, the Battle of the Crater.

Maj. Gen. Silas Casey of East Greenwich led a division in the Army of the Potomac during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign that suffered heavy losses at Battle of Seven Pines facing George Pickett’s brigade. He wrote the three-volume System of Infantry Tactics, including Infantry Tactics volumes I and II, published in August 1862 and Infantry Tactics for Colored Troops, published in March 1863. The manuals were used by both sides during the Civil War.

William Rogers Taylor was Fleet Captain of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863. He participated in attacks on the Confederate fortifications protecting Charleston, South Carolina. He then commanded the steam sloop Juniata during 1864-65 and took part in the operations that led to the capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina.

Brig. Gen. Richard Arnold, the son of Rhode Island governor and United States congressman Lemuel Arnold, was the Chief of Artillery for the Department of the Gulf. His guns helped force the surrender of two important Confederate towns—Mobile, Alabama, and Port Hudson, Louisiana.

Zenas Bliss of Johnston led an infantry brigade in the IX Corps during the Siege of Petersburg. After the war, he was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for gallantry at Fredericksburg. Another officer who made a significant contribution was George S. Greene of Apponaug, who spearheaded the defense of the Union right flank at Culp's Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. At the very end of the war, Greene was in command of the 3rd Brigade in Absalom Baird's 3rd Division, XIV Corps, and participated in the capture of Raleigh and the pursuit of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army until its surrender.

Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sherman of Newport commanded the defenses of New Orleans before taking command of a division in Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks's army, which he led into action at the Siege of Port Hudson, where he was severely wounded, leading to the amputation of his leg and consignment to desk duty for the rest of the war. Frank Wheaton of Providence led first a brigade and then a division in the Army of the Potomac, seeing action in a number of major actions, including the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. His men were hurried by train to Washington, D.C., in time to help repel Jubal Early's raid on the capital in the summer of 1864.

Rhode Island Cavalry

During the Battle of Middleton, Virginia, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign, Company L, First Rhode Island Cavalry had its guidon captured by the Fifth North Carolina Cavalry on June 17, 1863.

Rhode Island Civil War Flag
Rhode Island Civil War Flag.jpg
Civil War flag of Company L, First Rhode Island Cavalry

Company L, First Rhode Island Cavalry suffered devastating losses during the Battle of Middleburg. On June 17, Union Col. Alfred N. Duffié, commanding, led nearly 300 men into Middleburg at approximately 4 p.m. After hearing of their arrival, Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart ordered Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson to advance the Fifth North Carolina Cavalry and to "engage the enemy," and at 7 p.m. the North Carolina regiment surrounded and attacked the Rhode Islanders. According to the Union Army, Duffié suffered 32 in killed, more than 200 in captured (many being wounded), and the remnant fled the town and fought a retreating battle through the night. During the battle, the Fifth North Carolina captured Company L’s guidon. The First Rhode Island arrived near Centreville, VA. (original spelling was "Centerville"), at 1:30 p.m. on the 18th with only 4 officers and 27 troopers, and the unit has the distinction of suffering the greatest loss of any Rhode Island unit during the conflict.

The North Carolina Museum of History returns the flag of Company L, First Rhode Island Cavalry to its home state. The V-shaped flag, called a guidon, was captured by the 63rd North Carolina Troops, aka Fifth North Carolina Cavalry Regiment (not to be confused with the Fifth North Carolina Cavalry Battalion which later in the war consolidated with the Sixth North Carolina Cavalry Battalion, thus becoming the 65th North Carolina State Troops) on June 17, 1863, during the Battle of Middleburg, Virginia. The battle was part of the Gettysburg campaign, a series of battles in June and July during Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s movement through Virginia toward Pennsylvania. The silk, striped guidon of Company L, with stars and letters on a field of blue, was donated to the Museum of History in the early 1900s. The gold-fringed banner has been fully restored by the museum and has appeared in previous exhibits.

In a gesture of goodwill, the Museum of History initiated the offer to return the flag to the State of Rhode Island. In 2008 the Rhode Island National Guard accepted the gift from North Carolina. “The Rhode Island National Guard is thankful to the North Carolina Museum of History staff for graciously returning a Rhode Island Civil War guidon,” says Maj. Gen. Robert T. Bray, Adjutant General and Commanding General of the Rhode Island National Guard. “We are delighted to display the banner, especially given its pristine condition as a result of the careful preservation provided by the museum, among the many historical artifacts at the Varnum Armory in East Greenwich.” The Museum of History hopes the State of Rhode Island will return a North Carolina flag captured by Rhode Island soldiers at New Bern on March 14, 1862. “We would like this Confederate flag, along with ones held by other states, to eventually be returned to North Carolina,” says Tom Belton, Curator of Military History, N.C. Museum of History.


Foreign immigrants provided labor for Rhode Island's manufacturing sector after the conflict, and agriculture began to decline in importance.

As a result of the Civil War, Rhode Island suffered 1,685 killed and thousands more wounded. Rhode Island was the second state to ratify the 13th Amendment on February 2, 1865, and a year later, in 1866, the state voted to end segregation in its public schools. The increased economic stimulus generated by the demands of the Civil War helped catapult Rhode Island's manufacturing abilities-prompting local government to modernize economic statutes and physical infrastructures to meet new demands. 

After the war, in 1866, Rhode Island abolished racial segregation throughout the state. Post-war immigration increased the population. From the 1860s to the 1880s, most of the immigrants were from England, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and Quebec. Towards the end of the century however, most immigrants were from South and Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean. At the beginning of the 20th century, Rhode Island had a booming economy, which fed the demand for immigration. In the years that lead up to World War I, Rhode Island's constitution remained reactionary, in contrast to the more progressive reforms that were occurring in the rest of the country. During World War I, Rhode Island furnished 28,817 troops, of whom 612 died. After the war, the state was hit hard by the Spanish Influenza.

See also

Sources: Library of Congress; National Park Service; National Archives; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; US Census Bureau; The Union Army (1908); Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889); Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908); Phisterer, Frederick. Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States (1883); Hardesty, Jesse. Killed and died of wounds in the Union army during the Civil War (1915): Wright-Eley Co.; North Carolina Museum of History; Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission; Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of Rebellion: Compiled and Arranged From Official Records of the Federal and Confederate Armies, Reports of the Adjutant Generals of the Several States, The Army Registers and Other Reliable Documents and Sources, Des Moines, Iowa: Dyer Publishing, 1908 (reprinted by Morningside Books, 1978), ISBN 978-0-89029-046-0; Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3; Motts, Wayne E., "To Gain a Second Star: The Forgotten George S. Greene", Gettysburg Magazine, July 1990, pp. 63–75; Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, 1964, ISBN 0-8071-0822-7; Aubin, Albert K. The French in Rhode Island (Rhode Island Heritage Commission, 1988); Coleman, Peter J. The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790-1860 (1963); Conley, Patrick T. The Irish in Rhode Island (Rhode Island Heritage Commission, 1988); Coughtry, Jay A. The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (1981); Dennison, George M. The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861 (1976); Field, Edward. State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (3 vols. 1902); Hall, Donald, foreword, Feintuch, Burt and Watters, David H., editors, Encyclopedia of New England (2005), comprehensive coverage by scholars* James, Sidney V. Colonial Rhode Island: A History (1975); Levine, Erwin L. Theodore Francis Green, The Rhode Island Years (Brown University Press, 1963); Lovejoy, David. Rhode Island Politics and the American Revolution, 1760-1776 (1958); McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A History (States and the Nation) (1976); Mayer, Kurt B. Economic Development and Population Growth in Rhode Island (1953); Moakley, Maureen, and Elmer Cornwell. Rhode Island Politics and Government (2001); Morse, J. (1797). "Rhode Island". The American Gazetteer. Boston, Massachusetts: At the presses of S. Hall, and Thomas & Andrews;  Polishook, Irwin. Rhode Island and the Union (1969).


Return to American Civil War Homepage

Return to top