The Battle of Rhode Island

Skirmish at West Main Road & Union Street

CW peale portrait of Laurens
Portrait of Laurens By C.W. Peale

The first skirmish in the Battle of Rhode Island was around 7AM on August, 29, 1778. A document in the collection of the Newport Historical Society records the general order for the whole army of the Americans to retreat. The order instructs the army to retreat beginning on East Main on the left flank and West Main on the right flank. The first action was near the intersection of Union Street and West Main Road. American General John Sullivan had stationed an elite unit of Continentals and Rhode Island state regiments. The troops were under the leadership of John Laurens who was assisted by Silas Talbot and Lt. Colonel Fleury from Lafayette’s staff. Laurens’ forces were from independent town companies and Boston and they totaled less than 250 men. British forces were under Von Lossberg. Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg led 1,000 men up West Road.

A letter from Major-General Pigot to General Sir Henry Clinton dated Newport, Rhode Island, August 31, 1778 provides a British view of the early stage of the battle.

“Major-General Lossberg marching by the West Road, with the Hessian Chasseurs and the Anspach Regiments of Voit and Seaboth, in order, if possible, to annoy them in their Retreat……On hearing a smart Fire from the Chasseurs engaged on the West Road, I dispatched Colonel Fannings Corp of Provincials to join General Lossberg…”

The German (Hessian) Chasseurs (sharpshooters) made contact with American forces near the Redwood home north of West Main Road and Union Street. A small engagement took place from that area and would lead towards the Lawton Valley. The Hessians would eventually break the American line with artillery (large caliber guns). In withdrawing, the American Light Infantry fought masterfully as they hid behind stone walls. Captain von der Malsburg ordered his Chasseurs forward in a series of bayonet charges which drove the American pickets (small defensive units) back from two different positions. 

They retreated to Laurens’ main body of troops just south of Turkey Hill. With the Hessian vanguard (leading soldiers) engaged in the fight, Pigot pushed in reinforcements; the von Huyn Regiment and Colonel Fanning’s King’s American Regiment which give the attackers 1,800 men compared to Laurens’ 300.

Denison Map of First Skirmish
Denison Map of first Skirmish, shows first engagement of the Battle of Rhode Island


The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. John Hattendorf. 2021. Sons of the Revolution.

The Rhode Island Campaign. Christian McBurney, 2011. Westholme.

The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778. Paul F. Dearden. 1987. Rhode Island Publications.

The Battle of Rhode Island August 29, 1778. Patrick T. Conley. 2005.

Denison Map of Battle of Rhode Island. Massachusetts Historical Society

A retreat order written for the Continental Army during the Battle of Rhode Island, August 28, 1778. Signed by Adjutant General William Pecke. Remains of a red seal are located at left edge of paper.”Col. Laurens” is written on reverse (Colonel John Laurens). A notation by William Ellery is also written on reverse. Collection of the Newport Historical Society.

Related Posts