Battle of Rhode Island

Jim Garman, Portsmouth (RI) Town Historian - Reprise of 1978 article

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Battle of RI 2003 reenactment
Battle of Rhode Island Reenactment 2003

Background of the Battle

During the time of the Revolutionary War, Newport was a major port, not only in New England, but also in British North America. Realizing the tactical and strategic location of that city, the British decided very early in the war to occupy it as a base of their New
England operations. On December 7, 1776, the British arrived in Newport with an occupation force of approximately 6,000 British troops (including mercenary soldiers from German states often called “Hessians”). They were to occupy that city until October of 1779.

The deployment of the British troops during nearly three years of occupation was for the most part in Newport with a series of outposts on the northern part of Rhode (Aquidneck) Island. Some of the strategic locations that were defended were in Portsmouth: Howland’s Ferry (Stone Bridge), Fogland Ferry (at the end of Glen Street off the East Main Road), and Butts Hill (off Sprague Street) where the British had built a fort.

The British were not the kindest occupation troops. There are many stories of farm animals being seized, frequently without compensations. Virtually all the trees on the island were used for firewood. In some cases, houses were torn down because they might pose some ’’tactical or strategic advantage” to the enemy.

From the American side of the war, the surrender of the British troops under Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, was significant. France, the traditional enemy of the British, decided at that time that the Americans were serious about their independence move and sought to help. Anything to make life difficult for the British would have pleased the French. The British had a strong world-wide position at this time. In February 1778, the French signed a mutual defense alliance with the Americans, and in April a French fleet under the command of the Comte d’Estaing sailed for America with troops embarked to aid the American cause. It was a long, stormy crossing, lasting about 90 days.

The British fleet, meanwhile, under Lord Howe, narrowly avoided being trapped in the Delaware Bay and escaped to New York. The Comte d’Estaing took his fleet to the entrance of New York harbor and waited for Howe to come out and fight. The French ships apparently could not enter the harbor because their ships had deeper drafts than the British ships and the pilots refused to take the French ships across a sand bar. So d’Estaing waited.

Meanwhile General George Washington, in camp near New York City, suggested that a diversionary joint French-American operation be launched against the British at Newport. Washington felt that he could keep Clinton and Howe busy at New York while d’Estaing took his ships and embarked troops, and combined with the Americans, drive the British out of Newport.

The Arrival of d’Estaing off Newport

On July 29th, 1778, d’Estaing arrived off Newport and anchored at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. The British, in Newport under General Pigot, immediately began to strengthen their defenses across the island. General John Sullivan was near Providence with an American army. Washington sent troops under the Marquis de Lafayette to march overland from New York to help. In addition, one half the Rhode Island militia was called up on August 1st for twenty days of service.

The French-American operation was to have the French bombard Newport from the fleet, then have a combined landing of the French troops on the island near Lawton’s Valley (Middletown) and American troops from Tiverton at Howland’s Ferry under Sullivan. This was to be the classic two-pronged attack, a viable plan which would catch the British troops in a pincer and drive them back into Newport, where they would be trapped or forced to evacuate. However, during the first week of August there were several delays in getting this operation launched.

Lafayette arrived in Providence and on the next day he conferred with d’Estaing on his flagship, the Languedoc. Continental troops under General J.M. Varnum and General John Glover arrived. By the 8th, General Sullivan was in Tiverton, along with Lafayette, Varnum, Glover, and General Nathanael Greene. The 10th was set as the date for the combined operation.

Fearing their capture, the British burned several of their ships on the 8th, including the Orpheus and the Lark off the coast of Portsmouth. On that same day the British evacuated their major outpost at Butts Hill and withdrew closer to Newport. This withdrawal was accompanied by a destruction of anything that might be useful to an invading army. Cattle and sheep were seized, roads were blocked with fallen trees, and houses were destroyed.

The British withdrew to a line from Coddington Cove (near the piers at the U.S. Navy Base today) on the west to Easton’s Pond on the east. Meanwhile, Americans under Major Silas Talbot, were at work in Tiverton, building some 86 flat-bottomed boats which would be used to carry troops across from Tiverton.

On August 9th, as the fog lifted, General Sullivan ordered his troops to practice embarking in preparation for the crossing. Reconnoitering troops found that the British had, in fact, evacuated the northern part of the island. He therefore decided to turn the practice landing into the real thing and the American troops crossed over and occupied the abandoned Butts Hill Fort.

The French were insulted when they found that the Americans had landed on the island. It was “typical” of what they expected from the colonials whom according to the French had no discipline.

The Comte d’Estaing had been practicing his own landing, sending his troops on to Conanicut (Jamestown) Island. But as the fog lifted, additional problems appeared. Lord Howe’s fleet of some 26 ships, including about 4,000 troops, was lying off the bay entrance. The French leader recalled his troops and prepared for action. On Monday, August 10th, he notified Sullivan that he was going to put to sea to engage the British fleet. He promised to return later. Thus, the French fleet and troops departed. One-half of the French-American effort had disappeared; the well-planned strategy went by the boards. Sullivan could only hope that it was a temporary setback.

The Storm Hits

On Tuesday, August 11th, the Americans were encamped with their front line just south of Butts Hill Fort, stretching across the island. This was in the area of the tennis courts at the Portsmouth High School today. On that day a storm began which grew in intensity. This was probably a hurricane although that term was not used then. Soldiers were without tents or shelter. Morale was low. Some of the militia simply went home. Finally, on Friday the 14th, the wind shifted and it began to clear.

The army was ordered to march southward at 6 AM on Saturday, the 15th, to meet the British. The American troops formed up on the East and West Roads, led by General Varnum, General Glover, Nathanael Greene, Christopher Greene, and General Lafayette. In command of the second line was General John Hancock, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Army moved south about three miles, stopped, and then moved on. They took up a position about one mile from the British lines. The British were by this time well-entrenched. A siege began with intense action in the valley which runs today from the Aquidneck Shopping Center (Middletown) south to Easton’s Pond. The cannonade continued for several days. Sullivan was fighting a holding action awaiting the French fleet’s return. During this part of the action, Lafayette was quartered at the Metcalf Bowler house on Wapping Road in Portsmouth.

On Friday, the 21st, the Americans were heartened to see as the fog lifted that the French fleet was off Beavertail Point on Conanicut Island. Their elation was short-lived as it soon was discovered that the fleet was in very bad shape due to the storm. The Languedoc, d’Estaing’s flagship, had been dismasted and had lost its rudder. Meanwhile Howe had sought refuge from the storm by returning to New York.

The French leader now sent word to Sullivan that it was necessary for him to take his fleet to Boston for major repairs. Sullivan immediately sent Lafayette to try to convince d’Estaing that he should stay. The effort was fruitless. On Saturday, the 22nd, the French fleet sailed for Boston over Sullivan’s protests. More and more of his troops, their brief enlistments expiring, were going home.

On Sunday, the 23rd, the Americans began sending their baggage back north to the vicinity of Butts Hill Fort. The next several days were spent moving baggage, guns, and finally the troops moved on the 28th back to the northern end of the island. The weather in these days was described by one observer, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, as “extreme hot.”

On Friday, the 28th, Sullivan sent Lafayette overland to Boston to try to get d’Estaing to come back or at least to send his troops overland to help. Lafayette made a hurried trip to Boston. Sullivan was, by this time, down from his original army of nearly 10,000 to about 5,000. As he moved north, Sullivan deployed an advance guard on each of the main roads near Union Street in Portsmouth.

Colonel Laurens, son of the President of the Continental Congress, was in a position near the Redwood House (Redwood Farms) on the West Road. Colonel Henry B. Livingston was deployed with his troops near the intersection of Union Street and the East Road. On the morning of the 29th, Laurens and his troops encountered the advance force of the British left wing, a group of Hessians under General Lossberg. Hearing the firing as he approached Union Street, Colonel Campbell of the 22nd British Regiment divided his force and sent half of them into Union Street, where they were promptly ambushed by Livingston*s men, hiding behind a stone wall. Campbell suffered heavy losses, possibly as many as a quarter of his troops.

A Bloody Confrontation

The Americans withdrew and took up positions further north. The British troops under General Prescott (back in action after having been captured at Prescott Farm in Middletown a year earlier) pursued. Soon, the two armies faced one another across a quiet valley which was to become the scene of a major bloody confrontation. The British line extended across the island including such remaining landmarks today as Quaker Hill, Turkey Hill, and Almy’s Hill. This line went generally from the East Road at the Friends Meeting House down Hedly Street (Meetinghouse Lane) to Turkey Hill and down Cory’s Lane to Almy’s Hill.

The American lines, less than a mile to the north, were centered on Butts Hill and extended to the Bay on the west and the Sakonnet on the east (Today, this valley between the lines is located where Route 24 merges with the West Main Road.). At 9 o’clock on the morning of the 29th, a cannonade began across the valley. At about 10 o’clock, several British ships arrived in the Bay and began to bombard the American right wing.

The British and the Hessians charged down from Almy’s Hill to turn that same right wing. There was a great deal of fighting in this area, much of it hand-to-hand. The British charge failed and they retreated. A second attack met the same fate.

Meanwhile, Colonel Livingston’s troops had been resting on the north slope of Butts Hill. Sullivan sent Livingston and Jackson with their regiments to support Greene on the right wing to repel yet a third British effort to turn that flank. This action included troops of the First Rhode Island Regiment (aka the Black Regiment), which included some 138 formerly enslaved blacks and Native Americans. The action in this area (site of Patriot Park today) was particularly intense and the First Rhode Island Regiment distinguished itself with valor. This was the crisis point of the battle and it raged here for an hour. A small stream in the middle of the battlefield was the center of action. It was soon labeled “Bloody Run Brook” because of the action there. This brook remains there today.

The Battle is Over

By 4 o’clock it was all over. The British dragged themselves back to the top of the hill. There had been, more or less, continuous action from 7 in the morning on. Late in the afternoon and on into the evening the dead and the wounded were retrieved. That night a rain began.

The next morning General Sullivan held a war council. Washington had sent word to expect about 5,000 more British troops. Sullivan decided to evacuate the island. After the supplies were sent over at Howland’s Ferry, the troop withdrawal began. Lafayette, having returned from Boston, supervised the rear-guard withdrawal.

On the 1st of September, Sir Henry Clinton arrived in Newport with 72 ships and 4,500 reinforcements. Sullivan moved on to Providence and the militia was released.

The Battle of Rhode Island was over. This was to be the only large-scale action of the war in Rhode Island. The British forces had numbered about 6,000 including Hessians. The Americans, numbering as many as 10,000 in the days before the battle, had dwindled to about 5,000 for the actual battle. Precise numbers are difficult to determine. As to casualties, there were mixed reports. In killed, wounded and missing, the British losses were something over 1,000, and the American losses were less than 500. These numbers are quite different from other authors.

The battle itself was perhaps of no greater significance to the war effort than that it was the last major action of the war in the New England colonies. Lafayette’s comment of “best fought action of the war” has been repeated many times. But perhaps the greatest significance of the Battle of Rhode Island was that it was fought here. And from various points such as Butts Hill, Turkey Hill, Quaker Hill, and Almy’s Hill, if one lets his or her imagination wander, he or she can re-create in his mind’s eye, the Battle of Rhode Island.

Lafayette’s comment of "best fought action of the war" has been repeated many times. But perhaps the greatest significance of the Battle of Rhode Island was that it was fought here.

Images from 1978

Viewing the battlefield today can be difficult.  Vegetation is overgrown and the views that Sullivan may have had from Butts Hill are not visible.  Jim Garman’s photos from the 1978 reenactment of the Battle can help us imagine the views from 1778.


View from Turkey Hill North

Bloody Brook

Almy’s Hill

View from Butts Hill to Sakonnet
View from Butts Hill across to Tiverton

Jim Garman was named Portsmouth, Rhode Island’s “Town Historian” in 2013.  Jim has supported the study of the history of Portsmouth for over 40 years.   Retired from teaching history at Portsmouth Abbey and from his photography business, he has focused on writing and lecturing.  To support his research, he has amassed a large collection of photographs, documents, clippings and items all related to Portsmouth history.   He has written 6 books on Portsmouth and East Bay history.

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