I have been researching the histories of some of the military units in the state today. In reading a history of the militias in Rhode Island, I found that it was little Portsmouth that started it all. This militia system would be an important force in the War for Independence and the Battle of Rhode Island.

At the first meeting of settlers at Portsmouth in 1638, it was ordered that every inhabitant of the town be equipped with certain arms and prepared to perform certain military duties. At a subsequent meeting a military company or “Train Band” was organized and William Baulston and Edward Hutchinson named as officers, the very first officers of Rhode Island’s military forces. In August 1638 a general muster of all male inhabitants capable of bearing arms was called. This was Rhode Island’s first militia mobilization. In 1639 a “Traine Band” formed in Providence and general training day was designated. In 1640 the Portsmouth Militia law was amended. The number of drills was fixed at eight per year with two Muster Days – one in Portsmouth and one at Newport.

By 1647, Newport, Portsmouth and Providence had militias. Various towns were authorized to organize militia companies, select officers, assemble for drill the first Monday of each month except May, August, January and Feb. They set aside public lands for an “Artillery Garden” or drill ground. This law was the basis for the militia system of Rhode Island. These “Trained Bands” were maybe a dozen men strong, poorly armed and poorly equipped. The Newport Trained Band divided into two in 1673.

A 1680 board of trade statement described the Colonial forces “ten companies of foote, being Trained Bands under one General Commander (John Albro), their arms are flintlocks.”
John Coggeshall was the major of Island troops and John Greene commanded those of the mainland.

By the 1690s there were trained bands in all towns, including Jamestown, Block Island and Kingstown.
In 1741 a charter was granted to the Artillery Company in the Town of Newport, Jaheel Brenton Commander. In 1757, Metcalf Bowler was an officer of the Newport Artillery. Much later Bowler was proved to be a British spy.

Newport Artillery drawing by Jay Killian

A major change was made in 1774. Provision was made in the militia law by which Rhode Island’s troops were empowered to march to the assistance of any of the other colonies ”when invaded or attacked.”
But with the fighting at Lexington, this was changed. The militias were recalled by the Colonial Assembly as they reached the Massachusetts border. On April 22, 1775, following the shots at Lexington, Massachusetts, the Rhode Island General Assembly created a 1,500 man “Army of Observation” under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene. Greene and others from the Kentish Guards were sent to Boston to serve in the new Continental Army under General George Washington. The Rhode Island force at Boston was around 1700 men. Augustus Mumford, a member of the Kentish Guards, was struck by a shot from a British cannon during the siege. He was the first Rhode Islander to be killed in the war.

During 1775 the Assembly granted charters to a number of units include the Kingstown Reds. In 1776 an additional militia regiment was organized in Newport with Col. George Irish as the commanding officer. Rhode Island militia now consisted of ten regiments of infantry and twelve chartered companies.

On December 2, 1776, the British occupied Newport. About six hundred local militiamen stationed on the island retreated to Portsmouth and crossed to the mainland without loss. The entire state militia force was mobilized. Militia units were assigned all along the shore from Point Judith to Providence. Fortifications were constantly occupied by a strong militia force during the period the British remained in Newport. The 2nd Newport Regiment under Col. John Cook occupied Tiverton, while General West, with a strong force, was at Bristol. The militia regiments and the chartered commands were constantly on duty along the shores of Narragansett Bay.

On October 25th 1779, the British evacuated Newport. The next day Gen. Stark crossed from Tiverton and occupied Newport. The militia that had patrolled the coast was dismissed after three years of service. Another militia regiment of 630 men was ordered on duty for three months. The French arrived in 1780 and with the departure of the French in 1781, twelve hundred militia men were ordered to serve one month.

During the War for Independence the militias served continually. Often there was a merging of the organizations, so it is difficult to say which units were fighting. They blended into a force under different commands and titles. The Rhode Island militias contributed greatly to the fight for Independence.


Much of this article is based on:

Rhode Island’s Early Defenders and their Successors – Brig. Gen. J.J. Richards, 1937, E.Greenwich, Rhode Island Pendulum, 1937 (Published by the Provisional Regiment of Chartered Commands Rhode Island Militia.