Bullets and Bulletins: African American Activism in Civil War Era Rhode Island


The documents in this online exhibition tell two important stories about activism in Rhode Island in the 1850s-1880s. One is the story of the black Americans, from Rhode Island and throughout the Union, who came forward to serve in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored). The other is the story of these same Americans’ struggles on the home front – for equal access to education, for the right to marry someone of another race, and for the end of all discrimination “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

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.

Below you can view poignant letters from men seeking to enlist and serve in the 6th Rhode Island Regiment, one of the first proposed “colored” regiments in the Union Army. You can also view petitions and letters that activists in Rhode Island wrote to their General Assembly, fighting for equal rights.

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

War Department order for 1st Battalion, 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) to proceed from Dutch Island, Rhode Island to New Orleans and report to Department of the Gulf, November 19, 1863.

Letter of Private John Pool, Battery C requesting past due bounty payment to aid his dependent mother, Fort Jefferson, Tortugas, FL, December 23, 1864.

William Stanton, Secretary of War July 17, 1863 telegram approving drafted colored men be assigned to colored company of heavy artillery.

Captain George T. Downing of Newport to Governor James Y. Smith, September 17, 1863 Requesting his commission have the word colored removed from the designation of the Fourteenth Heavy Artillery.