The Rhode Island Campaign
The Siege of Newport, 1778
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Gloria H. Schmidt
What is a siege? A military glossary defines it as “a military strategy with the objective of blocking the supply lines and escape routes of a city or encampment in order to force its surrender. A siege usually meant one army trapped in a city, slowly running out of food and fresh water, with the opposing army camped outside.” 1
When the American troops crossed over to Aquidneck Island in August of 1778, they were hoping to trap the British forces that had control of Aquidneck Island for almost two years. The hope for this “The Rhode Island Campaign” effort with our new French ally was to wedge the British garrison in Newport between the French fleet coming from the west and the American soldiers coming from Tiverton in the east to the northern part of the island and then marching south towards Newport. The goal of the Siege of Newport was to force the surrender of the British troops.
Historians differ on when to mark the beginning of the Siege, but we are using August 9th, 1778, as the start of the Siege. This is the date the Americans moved their soldiers by ferry from Tiverton to Aquidneck Island and set up camp in Portsmouth. We tend to focus on the battle, but the siege portion of the Rhode Island Campaign lasts from the dates of August 9th to August 28th when the American leaders decided to execute a planned retreat. This retreat marked the end of the Siege of Newport and the Rhode Island Campaign.
The American side of the siege was documented by Joseph Durfee in a memoir. The date he noted was not precise, but this passage gives a good idea of what the Americans were doing in establishing their lines on Honeyman Hill in Middletown. A few days after the Americans advanced to Aquidneck Island, there was a terrible storm. This storm did much damage to the Americans who had little shelter for protection and to both the fleets.
“Soon after this storm, our troops marched in three divisions towards Newport. One on the East road (East Main), so called one on the West road (West Main), and the Brigade, commanded by General Titcomb moved in the centre, until we came in sight of Newport–when orders were given to halt, erect a marque and pitch our tents. General orders were issued for a detachment from the army of three thousand men – our number being too small to risk a general engagement with the great body of British troops then quartered on the South end of the Island. Early on the next morning a detachment of troops, of which I was one, was ordered to proceed forthwith and take possession of what was called Hunneman’s (Honeyman) Hill. The morning was foggy and enabled us to advance some distance unobserved by the enemy — but the fog clearing away before we reached the hill, we were discovered by the British and Tory troops, who commenced such a heavy cannonade upon us, that it was deemed expedient by the commanding officers, to prevent the destruction of many of our brave troops, that we should fall back and advance under the cover of night. Accordingly when night came, we marched to the hill undiscovered by the enemy. We immediately commenced throwing up a breast work and building a fort. When daylight appeared, we had two cannon mounted–one twenty-four pounder and one eighteen–and with our breast work we had completed a covered way to pass and repass without being seen by the enemy. The British had a small fort or redoubt directly under the muzzles of our cannon, with which we saluted them and poured in the slot so thick upon them that they were compelled to beat up a retreat. But they returned again at night to repair their fort, when they commenced throwing bomb shells into our fort, which however did but little damage. I saw several of them fiying over our (heads and one bursting in the air, a fragment fell upon the shoulder of a soldier and killed him.”2
From Durfee’s account and the diaries of others we learn that:
- The Americans had to work at night to hide their movements from the enemy.
- Although the battle was on August 29th, there were skirmishes between the British and Americans during the siege. Butts Hill Fort was set up as a field hospital to treat the wounded.
- The British had time to fortify in advance, but the Americans had only one week.
Although the Americans had made much progress toward Newport, the decision was made to retreat after it was clear that the French fleet would not return after the storm. This planned retreat was the “Battle of Rhode Island” on August 29th, 1778.In their article on the Siege, Walsh et al. reflect on the question of why the Siege failed. “There are a host of reasons the Siege failed. The lack of deception, bad timing, a rocky collaboration with the French, the unexpected hurricane, the geography, and the available technology, led to a “perfect storm” of events. These, combined with the impending arrival of British reinforcements, made for an insurmountable task and Sullivan knew it. Had some of these circumstances been different, the Americans could have possibly won and ended the Revolutionary War in Newport”3 Major General Charles Grey of the British Army summed it all up perfectly: “The Americans showed us they were soldiers and not just farmers. They built redoubts all around us, except for the side facing the water, dug trenches, drove us out of our camps with their cannon fire and had the will to storm our lines. But, this was the one thing their volunteers wanted to avoid, and just as well, for they would have lost many men without a fleet to support them. Their retreat was well planned and executed orderly.”4
(1) American Battlefield Trust glossary of military terms: https://www.battlefields.org/glossary-revolutionary-war-terms.
(2) Durfee, Joseph. Reminiscences of Col. Joseph Durfee. 1834. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009723583. (Accessed September 24, 2023.
(3) Walsh, Kenneth and Christina Alvernas et al. Siege of British Forces in Newport County by Colonial and French in August 1778. Digital Commons @Salve Regina, 2016. (Page 133)
(4) Walsh, Kenneth and Christina Alvernas et al. Siege of British Forces in Newport County by Colonial and French in August 1778. Digital Commons @Salve Regina, 2016. (Also page 133)
- 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