The Battle of Rhode Island

Eyewitness Accounts

Samuel Ward Jr.

We are fortunate to have eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Rhode Island.  One of those accounts is by Lieut.-Colonel Samuel Ward, Junior. He was born in Westerly on November 17, 1756. Ward was the son of Rhode Island Governor Samuel Ward who had served in the Continental Congress. Samuel, Jr. was part of one of the first classes of Brown University and graduated in 1771. Samuel Ward, Jr. was a seasoned soldier before the Battle of Rhode Island. Ward received his commission as Captain on May 8th, 1775. He was only nineteen when he came along with Christopher Greene from Varnum’s Unit to lead a musket company. On December 31, 1775 Ward fought in the Siege of Quebec. This was one of the first great losses for the Americans and Ward was among the 400 (along with Christopher Greene) who became prisoners of war. He remained a prisoner for almost a year and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Ward was promoted to major of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (also known as the Black Regiment) on January 12, 1777 and became a lieutenant colonel on May, 5, 1779 (with date of rank retroactive to May 26, 1778). In October of 1777 Ward saw action in the Battle of Red Bank in New Jersey.   In August of 1778, when the First Regiment arrived on Aquidneck Island, there were changes in leadership.  Major Samuel Ward was given command of the Regiment.  The regiment was assigned to guard the abandoned British redoubt that was part of the American line.  This location was to the southwest of Butt’s Hill.  Ward and the Black Regiment are credited with driving back three waves of Hessian troops.

Ward’s published diary is more of an account of his military career with just a few quotations with his actual words.  Fortunately, the description of the Battle of Rhode Island is among the quotations:

The August 30, 1778 diary entry provides an eyewitness account

“The army retreated the evening of the 28th. Early yesterday morning, the enemy moved out after us, expecting that we were leaving the island, and took possession of the Heights in our front. They sent out parties in their front, and we made detachments to drive them back again. After a skirmish of three or four hours, with various success, in which each party gave way three or four times, and were reinforced, we drove them quite back to the ground they first took in the morning, and have continued there ever since. Two ships and a couple of small vessels beat up opposite our lines, and fired several shots, but being pretty briskly fired upon from our heavy pieces, they fell down, and now lay opposite the enemy’s lines. Our loss was not very great, it has not been ascertained yet; and I can hardly make a tolerable conjecture. Several officers fell, and several are badly wounded. I am so happy to have only one captain slightly wounded in the hand. I believe that a couple of the blacks were killed and four or five wounded, but none badly. Previous to this, I should have told you our picquets (group of soldiers on a duty) and light corps engaged their advance, and found them with bravery.”

After the Battle of Rhode Island

In January of 1781 the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was joined with the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment to make the Rhode Island Regiment. At this point Ward resigned from the Continental Army. After the War for Independence he became a merchant and traveled extensively to Asia and Europe. During the War of 1812 one of his ships, the Jay, was captured by the British. Samuel was involved in Federalist politics because he was unhappy with the administration of James Madison He soon abandoned politics and led the comfortable life of a a wealthy merchant in New York City, until his death on August 6, 1832. He was the grandfather of Portsmouth’s own Julia Ward Howe.

Israel Angell

Israel Angell’s diary provides one of the best first hand accounts of the Battle of Rhode Island. What do we know about him? Israel Angell was a 5th generation descendant of Thomas Angell, who came to Providence with Roger Williams in 1736.. He was born in North Providence on August 24, 1740. Angell joined the rebel cause from the beginning. When an army was formed by the General Assembly of Rhode Island in 1775, he was commissioned as a Major under the leadership of Col. Daniel Hitchcock of the Continental Infantry. He served at the Siege of Boston in 1776. With the formation of the Second Rhode Island Regiment, Israel Angell was elected Lieutenant-Colonel. The regiment went to join the army under Washington. Command of the regiment was given to Angell, on Jan. 13, 1777 when Col. Hitchcock died. Angell served at Brandywine (near Philadelphia) and Red Bank (N.J). During the winter of 1777 to 1778 he was with George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. In August of 1780 his regiment was detached from the main army and sent to Rhode Island to fight with General Sullivan in the operations against the enemy on Aquidneck Island. Angell came with around 500 men.

Israel Angel had been a farmer before the war, but he had some education because his mother had been a teacher. The diary entries below may be a bit difficult to follow because they are written with Angell’s grammar and spelling. The passages give us a sense of troop movements, the casualties of the battle and the retreat operation.

“August 29th, 1778.  A Clear morning and Very Cool the ( ) Recd orders last evening to Strike their tents and march to the north end of the island; the advanced piquet was to come off at 12 oclock the enemy finding that we had left our ground pursued with all possible speed Come up with our piquet about sunrise and a smart firing begun, the piquet repulsed the Brittish troops 2 or 3 times but was finily obliged to retreat as the Enemy brought a number of field pieces against them the Enemy was soon check’t by our Cannon in coming up to our main body and they formed on Quaker Hill and we took possession of Buttses Hill the left wing of the brittish army was Compossed of the hessians who Attackt our right wing and a Sevear engagement Ensued in which the hessians was put to flight and beat of the ground with a Considerable loss our loss was not very great but I cannot assertain the number. I was ordered with my Regt to a Redoubt on a Small hill which the Enemy was a trying for and it was with Difficulty that we got there before the Enemy. I had 3 or 4 men kill’d and wounded to day at night I was ordered with my Reg to lie on the lines I had not Slept then in two nights more than two or three hours the Regt had eat nothing during the whole Day this was our sittuation to goe on guard, but we marched off Chearfully and took our post.”

A map from the diary of Israel Angell
A map from the diary of Israel Angell

“August 30th. A Cloudy morning and the wind very high it rained a Considerable in the night the Enemy Remained on their Ground this morning two English friggats Came up yesterday to prevent our retreat but could do but little they Still Remained here. I was Relieved this morning and got Some provisions and being much worn out for the want of sleep went to a hous and took a good knap there was a Cannonade kept up to day and Some small arms from the Sentries at night we Recd orders to Retreat off the Island which we did without the loss of anything, this Retreat was in Consequence of an Express from Genl Washington informing Gen Sullivan that the Brittish Ships of war and transports had sailed from New York Some days before.”

“August 31st, 1778.  Our retreat off the Island was completed by three o’clock this morning it is Supos’d that the Enemy attempted a Retreat last Evening but after finding that we Had Retreated they Returned to their ground as it was late in the morning before they took possession of the forts we left …………..After we had Crost at howlands ferry we Encampt about a mile from Sd. ferry where we tarried this day at Night……”

Mary Almy

Mary Almy’s Diary gives us a different view.  Mary was a Loyalist living in Newport while her husband was a Rebel and active in the fight.

"Some of my good friends in the front of battle here and heaven only knew how many of the other Side. Instead of inquiring news or asking after a soul, a stupidity took hold of me at last. I shut myself from my family to implore heaven to protect you and keep you from imprisonment and death..."

“Sent a light horse man to call the 38th Regiment of Foot back. By this time all was horror and confusion. The Hessians overtook a Party in the West Road near Mr. Redwood’s farm. They pursued with violence. The other retreated with prudence leaving the roads strewn with dead bodies. The East Road was a scene of blood and slaughter from Cousin Almy’s down the foot of Quaker Hill. All the crossroads filled with them and they kept up a smart fire up until 2 o’clock. Then they began to bury the dead and bring in the wounded. Oh how many wretched families were made that day! It would have softened the most callous heart to see cartloads of wretched men brought in. Their wives screaming at the foot of the cart in consort with their groans. Fine youths with their arms taken off in a moment. In short it is too far beyond my description. The horrors of that day will never be quite out of the remembrance. I quitted company and hid myself to mourn in silence for the wickedness of my Country. Never was a heart more differently agitated than mine. Some of my good friends in the front of battle here and heaven only knew how many of the other Side. Instead of inquiring news or asking after a soul, a stupidity took hold of me at last. I shut myself from my family to implore heaven to protect you and keep you from imprisonment and death. Every dejected look and every melancholy countenance trembled for fear they would say – “your husband lies among the slain” or that he is wounded and a prisoner. Think you what a life I live owing to your violence of temper – which I knew would lead you to all things dangerous.”

Portrait of Mary Almy, Rienzi Collection, Houston
Portrait of Mary Almy, Rienzi Collection, Houston


Mary Gould Almy’s Journal 1778.  John Hattendorf. 2018.  RISociety Sons of the Revolution.

Diary of Col. Israel Angell.  Edward Field.  1899. Massachusetts Historical Society.

A Memoir of Lieut – Colonel Samuel Ward, First Rhode Island Regiment, Army of the American Revolution; John Ward, New York, 1875. (available on Kindle)

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