Accounts of Free Black soldiers during the American Revolution are uncommon; even rarer are accounts of siblings. While we have numerous records and stories of white American families divided along the lines of patriot and loyalist, the story of the Frank brothers may be unique in documented history. Teenagers William and Benjamin Frank joined the Second Rhode Island regiment of the Continental Army in the spring of 1777. They followed the tradition of military service established by their father, a veteran of the French and Indian War.
The brothers became part of a cohort of Black soldiers who were free before their enlistment. The Second Rhode Island saw action along the Delaware River in the defense of Fort Mercer and the Battle of Red Bank. After those fights, the unit fell back with the rest of the Continental Army to Valley Forge. While there, the Rhode Island regiments were realigned to incorporate the addition of new recruits—formerly enslaved men who were to receive their freedom in exchange for their service. Rhode Island general James Varnum recommended the use of enslaved men to address manpower shortages, and it was reluctantly endorsed by the commander-in-chief George Washington.
Following the brutal winter of 1777–1778 and the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the Frank brothers and other veteran soldiers of color from the Second Rhode Island were transferred to the First Rhode Island, joining the formerly enslaved recruits. This “Black Regiment” returned to its state, where it fought the Battle of Rhode Island in August, and remained there to defend against further British incursions. While encamped near Providence in February 1780, Ben Frank deserted and ended up in British service. His brother William remained with his unit and served during the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia. He was honorably discharged and returned to Rhode Island, while Ben eventually relocated to Nova Scotia with other loyalists.
In Revolutionary Blacks: Discovering the Frank Brothers, Freeborn Men of Color, Soldiers of Independence historian Shirley L. Green takes the reader on a journey based on her family’s history, rooted in its oral tradition. Putting together the pieces of this puzzle through archival research, interviews, and DNA evidence, the author authenticates and expands the family’s oral history. In addition to providing context and substance to the Black experience during the war years, the author underscores the important distinction between the Frank brothers and other free Blacks in military service and those who had been enslaved.
For free Blacks, like many of their white counterparts, military service was a way to assert their manhood and gain standing in their communities. Ben’s desertion and postwar life show his determination to achieve those goals, but through association with the British cause. Ben’s decision to leave and William’s decision to stay show how young soldiers growing into adulthood responded in different ways to the harsh realities of both racism and military service during wartime.
An original and important contribution to American history, Revolutionary Blacks presents a complex account of Black life during the Revolutionary Era and demonstrates that free men of color shared with white soldiers the desire to improve their condition in life and to maintain their families in postcolonial North America.
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