Revolutionary Rhode Island
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Militia Fortifications on Rhode Island
At the beginning of the War for Independence, Rhode Island’s active military force consisted of companies of “Train Bands” and independent militias. According to Edward Field in his book “Revolutionary Defenses in Rhode Island”, they were well equipped and well disciplined. The members elected their own officers and these were approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly. Training days were more like a holiday. Rhode Island Colony law in 1774 stated that each enlisted soldier was required to furnish his own gun and bayonet. After Lexington and Concord the General Assembly ordered an “Army of Observation” of fifteen hundred men to be raised and they were to drill a half day once every two weeks. This was the beginning of Rhode Island’s forces in the Continental Army.
The response of the Portsmouth Militia provides an example of how the militias went into action at the start of the war. From its start Portsmouth and other communities traditionally had a militia. As war threatened in 1774, the General Assembly ordered monthly drills of all militia companies with full preparations for war. Portsmouth Militia man David Gifford was a local ferry man and tavern owner. Since 1772 David Gifford had already been transporting town records and other items to and from Providence with his ferry boat. As the threat of war increased, the town records show that on August 29, 1775 the town voted “that David Gifford Draw the sum of Eighteen shillings out of this Town Treasury . . . for bringing . . . this Town’s Proportion of Powder & Balls from Providence.”
In the opening stages of war in 1775, Portsmouth raised a company of around sixty men to march to the support of Boston with a regiment raised in Newport County. A group of militia remained on guard at the town while the others were gone. Portsmouth created the fourteen-member volunteer “Artillery Company” and provided it with 115 pounds of powder, 184 pounds of lead and 739 flints (for flintlock muskets). These local minutemen were to “March out to Action” when needed. When they became part of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in 1776, the Colony of Rhode Island provided cannons on carriages. In August of 1775, the leaders were Captain John Earl, Lieutenant James Peckham, and Ensign Cook Wilcox. Later artillery company leaders were David Gifford and Burrington Anthony. By the end of the Revolution almost all Portsmouth men from ages sixteen to sixty except the Quakers had served in the military.
The assembly in Providence called for additional troops and David Gifford was appointed to dole out the bounty of forty shillings to be paid to those who enlisted. Portsmouth was receptive to the calls for additional troops. Town records show that on September 17, 1776 the freemen voted that “seventeen able bodyed men be Enlisted into the servis of this State being the Town’s proportion, and that forty shillings Lawful Money be paid for every such person so Inlisted if they provide themselves with Arms &; Accoutrements and that Capt. David Gifford provide the Money for said use that he be Repayed out of this Town’s Treasury as soon as possible.”
By February 1776 the town meeting ordered their town council to draw up a list of people in town who could not provide their own firearms. The freemen voted 75 pounds lawful money to purchase firearms. A committee of four men was assigned to get the money and purchase twenty small arms. David Gifford, one of the committee, was selected to receive the weapons.
When the British arrived in December of 1776, there were citizens who fled to Tiverton or Bristol. It is likely that David Gifford and his ferry boat left the island. In December of 1776 Rhode Island Records state “It is voted and resolved that Capt. David Gifford be permitted to proceed with a flag of truce to Rhode Island, under the direction of His Honor the Governor, upon his procuring three prisoners of war to exchange for three soldiers lately belonging to his company, and now detained as prisoners on said island.” It would be interesting to know which three of his Portsmouth militia company were part of the exchange.
As early as 1700 there was a fort located at Goat Island. Royal officials deemed Newport an important port to defend. The Goat Island fort was originally named “Fort Anne.” It would later be called “Fort George,” “Fort Liberty” and then “Fort Washington.” In his “Revolutionary Defenses in Rhode Island,” Edward Field states that it was the only fort in the colony at the start of the War for Independence. Men were not permanently stationed there, but it was well supplied and had fifty guns mounted. Those guns were shifted to Providence, but in 1776 it was furnished with twenty-five guns, 18 and 24 pounders and fifty men manned it.
On April 29, 1776 a town meeting was held in Newport “to enter, at once into the defense of the town.” A large group of Newport citizens erected fortifications at Brenton Point where Fort Adams is today. Townspeople were ordered to work on the defenses and were fined if they did not. Newport citizens also worked on the “North Battery” on Washington Street. When the British occupied Aquidneck Island in December of 1776, it appears that they used the defenses at Brenton Point and Goat Island. British soldier Frederick Mackenzie wrote in his diary on May 19, 1778:
“As there appears a great probability of the Rebels receiving assistance from the French, and affairs may have undergone a great change since the date of our last accounts from England, I think it would be prudent to mount some heavy Cannon in the Battery at Brenton’s point, and on Goat Island. The entrance of the harbour is at present totally undefended, and a few guns at those places may be of great service.”
Battery Park in Newport is a lovely place to sit and view the harbor. From its name you can imagine that it was the site of a battery (a cluster of cannons, or a place from which they can fire) during the American War for Independence. The British called it North Battery and it was an important element in the defenses of Newport. Frederick Mackenzie writes in his diary in September of 1777 that they were doing the principal work “enclosing the town of Newport from Easton’s beach, round the three windmills, to the North Battery” an extent of 3000 yards. The Battery began as an earthen work begun by American forces. The British re-enforced this so it could be manned by seven soldiers. In preparation for the arrival of the French fleet in 1778, the British thickened the walls and installed guns. The battery was part of the defenses to protect Newport from a sea attack and was armed with two 24-pounder and three 12-pounder cannons.
When the British abandoned Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) in December of 1779, they leveled the fortifications at North Battery. The Americans tried to reconstruct the battery when they returned to the island. The North Battery was re-named Fort Greene in 1798 in honor of Rhode Island’s General Nathanael Greene.
Maps provide a prime source of information on the British fortifications on Aquidneck Island, and the North Portsmouth map from the Huntington Digital Library provides some interesting information. From the notes we get a glimpse of what the American fortifications were before the British Occupation. In some cases the British enlarged what had already existed. In other cases they constructed fortifications to secure their own needs.
Looking at a modern map the location of the Bristol Ferry redoubt seems be where the Bristol Landing Condos are today. The note says “Left by the Rebels ___1775 nearly finished.” The diagram in the Henry Clinton Collection of the William Clements Library gives us more details. The redoubt (a fully enclosed fighting position) by the Lawton house was labeled “made a Redoubt July 1776 now demolished”. That would have been an American fortification. Looking at a map today, it seems to be in the Anthony Road/Boyd’s Lane area to the south of Town Pond. In the direction of Common Fence Point the map shows a line of “abbatis” which are obstacles made by cutting down trees, interlacing them and having the sharp points face the enemy. What we call Anthony Road was labeled Common Fence Road on the map.
The map labels a “Common Fence Redoubt” but the modern location is actually closer to East Main Road. There were fortifications toward Howland Ferry. We don’t think of a bridge being along Park Avenue, but early maps show a bridge there. The Bridge Redoubt is listed as September of 1776 which would have made it an American fortification originally.
The Conanicut Battery is a Revolutionary Era fortification that can be seen today on the West side of Beavertail on Jamestown. In preparation of war, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered the building of the Conanicut Battery in 1776. Originally a crescent-shaped earthwork, it was designed for six to eight heavy cannon and soldiers. When the British invaded Aquidneck Island they also captured Jamestown (Conanicut Island) and held it from December 1776 to October 1779.
In his diary entry for December 7, 1776, Frederick Mackenzie writes: “…at 12 made the Light House on the S. point of Connonicut Island at the entrance of Rhode Island harbour….and about 1 o’clock that ship [The Experiment with Capt. Wallace] took the lead, and stood up the Western Channel between Connonicut, and the Main(land)… About 2 miles from the Light House, Rebels had a Battery or Redoubt with 4 Embrazures [openings in a wall or fortification through which cannon fire] towards the Channel, But it appeared to be abandoned.” The British remade the fortification into the shape you can see today with ditches surrounding on all sides. The fort held heavy cannon to defend the West Passage. French forces coming to the aid of the Patriots manned the Conanicut Battery in 1780 and 1781.
Maps show a battery located close to the Dumplings Rock formation. High on cliffs, 50-70 feet in height, this battery would have guarded Newport Harbor. It was abandoned when the British fleet entered Newport Harbor December 8, 1776. During the British Occupation (1776-1779) both British and German soldiers occupied and enlarged the earthworks. Hessian troops abandoned the site on July 29th, 1778 when Admiral d’Estaing’s French fleet came into the harbor to aid the Americans. When the British fleet appeared, the French withdrew their troops.
Kathy Abbass’ Rhode Tour: https://rhodetour.org/items/show/54
On the Dumplings: https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=189618
Rhode Tour on Conanicut Battery: https://rhodetour.org/items/show/51
Field, Edward. 1896. Revolutionary Defenses in Rhode Island. Salve Regina University, Digital Commons.
Fage, Edward. 1777. Clinton Collection, Clement Library, University of Michigan.
History of Fort Adams: https://fortadams.org/discover-the-fortress/fort-adams-history/full-history.
Frederick Mackenzie Diary
- The Battle of Rhode Island: Skirmish Timelines and Map
- Skirmish at West Main Road and Union Street
- Skirmish at East Main Road and Union Street
- Turkey Hill
- Quaker Hill
- Lehigh Hill
- The Gaspee Affair: A Rhode Island Perspective on Its 250th Anniversary
- The Conspiracy to Destroy the Gaspee
- Patriot’s Retreat to Tiverton
- Significant People
- Eyewitness Accounts
- The Aftermath of the Battle