Connecticut Militia Orderly Book
In tribute of today’s #MuseumWeek theme, #souvenirsMW, I thought I'd share with you one of the many special moments I have had working in the Benson Ford Research Center. You see, today’s theme encourages you to “share your souvenirs and memories of visits: photos, mugs, books, postcards, encounters and special moments” that you have had at a museum. In a broader sense, this theme focuses on the memories you’ve created and how you have documented those memories. It’s in this broader theme of memory, that I would like to point out the significance that museums and archives have in not only creating memories for you, but also preserving the memories of the past.
My special moment begins with me looking through a collection in our archives. I happened upon a paper book whose memory had been forgotten. Immediately drawn to it, I set about to see if I could discover its story. I began with the date and location on the first page. Not knowing the fragility of the rest of document, I did not want to open it up. The top of the book read “H.Q. Rhode Island, August 7-9, 1778. I recognized the “H.Q.” as an abbreviation for “Head Quarters” and that gave me a clue that this document was military related. The date and location helped paint a clearer picture by letting me know that this document was also most likely created during the Revolutionary War. Further research helped me identify this type of document as a military orderly book. A book kept by each Revolutionary War regiment that documented troop movements, military orders, troop pay, conflicts, and the day to day happenings of that regiment.
After establishing the type of document, the next research goal was to assign ownership. Which regiment did this orderly book belong to? By reading the first page, I had found two names of high importance: Colonel Christopher Greene and General James Varnum. In the beginning of 1778, Rhode Island was struggling to fill troop quotas set by the Continental Congress. General Varnum approached the Rhode Island Assembly with an idea, “In order to supply General Washington with troops, why don’t we allow the enlistment of slaves?”. The Rhode Island Assembly approved of this idea in February 1778 and stipulated that they would compensate the owners of every “black, mixed, or Indian slave” who wished to enlist. In return, these former slaves would be “absolutely-free” and able to join the Continental Army. In June 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly retracted its previous allowance of letting slaves enlist. By that time however, Colonel Christopher Greene had compiled a group of 225 men to make up the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, with around 140 of those being African-American. His regiment would come to be referred to as the “Black Regiment”.
By August 1778, the British had occupied Rhode Island for several years. The Continental Army, with the help of French forces, decided that they would attempt to take the city of Newport, Rhode Island back from the British, as it was an important port city. While American forces laid siege to the city from land, they expected the French forces to aid from the sea.
Unfortunately, inclement weather never allowed the French forces to arrive and the American forces made the decision to tactically retreat. Recognizing that the Americans were retreating, British forces launched an attack. In the midst of the chaos, it was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment that successfully defended off three waves of attacks from the British, allowing the American forces to successfully retreat. This battle would become known as the “Battle of Rhode Island” and the 1st Rhode Island were highly lauded for their protection of their soldiers.
You can imagine my excitement when I began thinking that this orderly book might document the 1st Rhode Island Regiment’s first battle in the Revolutionary War. The dates, locations, and names all matched up. With this information, I decided that I needed to open the book and confirm whether my assumptions were true. While I struggled with the 18th century handwriting at first, I eventually made my way through the book and found three pages that contained lists of names for payroll. I ran these names through the “Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783” available on Ancestry.com and was able to successfully identify the regiment to which this orderly book belonged.
As you can see from these pictures, this orderly book belongs to Colonel Samuel Chapman’s Connecticut Militia Regiment. The last date recorded in the orderly book is from mid-September of 1778. This means that from August to September 1778, this regiment was stationed in Rhode Island and would have fought along Colonel Christopher Greene’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the Battle of Rhode Island. More importantly, this orderly book documents the memories from this pivotal story in American history. It’s a reminder that from the very beginning, this nation’s independence was established by a diverse group of people.
Ryan Jelso is Research Support Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Connecticut, 18th century, by Ryan Jelso, archives, African American history