The Battle of Rhode Island
The skirmishes around Lehigh Hill have taken on importance because of the presence of the Black Regiment. Today the area is called Lehigh Hill, but the British called it Burrington’s Hill and it was known as Durfee Hill by the Americans during Revolutionary times.
The British had constructed a redoubt (temporary fortification) right by the West (Main) Road.
This redoubt became a focal spot for American defenses and British attacks. During the Battle of Rhode Island this thick walled redoubt became the strong position of the Rhode Island First Regiment,( aka.the Black Regiment). Normally led by Christopher Greene, it was led at this time by Major Samuel Ward. Around 10 AM the British allied forces, led by von der Malsburg, charged this position.
Malsburg wrote: “We found obstinate resistance, and bodies of troops behind the work (redoubt) at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirtsleeves, and among them many negroes.” Malsburg pulled back, but General von Lossberg ordered another attack around 11:30 AM. British vessels (the Sphynz, Spitfire and Vigilant) had put themselves in good position to be shelling the Americans from Narragansett Bay. This attack was repulsed on land and the naval attack was ineffective. General von Lossburg personally directed a third more powerful assault. American General Nathanael Greene ordered Colonel Israel Angell’s 2nd Rhode Island Regiment to support Ward’s First Rhode Island Regiment. They were able to reach the redoubt before the British forces arrived at the position.
There are some first-hand accounts from the leaders of both American regiments.
From the Diary of Samuel Ward (First Rhode Island Regiment)
“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 and light corps engaged their advance, and found them with bravery.”
From the Diary of Israel Angell (Second Rhode Island Regiment)
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 finally 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 British 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 today 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.”
At this point the Americans were being flushed out of the area in the valley north of Turkey Hill and some of the British soldiers had moved beyond the redoubt. General Nathanael Greene in command of the American troops saw an opening to attack a vulnerable spot in the Hessian lines. He sent in Sherburne’s and Jackson’s Continentals. The American line included 1600 soldiers (Varnum’s Brigade of 2nd RI, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, and Webbs) as well as 1st RI, Lauren’s Guard and Jackson’s men. A bayonet charge by Jackson’s troops helped turn the tide. Greene sent in Lovell’s brigade with John Trumbull in charge to attack the Hessians. The British forces began to retreat to Turkey Hill. By 3:30 PM the fighting on the west side had ended.
In his August 31st letter to Congress, General Sullivan would write”
“The firing of artillery continued through the day, and the _ with intermission six hours. The heat of the action continued near an hour, which must have ended in the ruin of the British army, had not their redoubts on the hill covered them from further pursuit. We were about to attack them in their lines, but the men’s having had no rest the night before, and another to eat either that night or the day of the action, and having been in constant action through most of the day, it was not thought advisable, especially as their position was exceedingly strong, and their numbers fully equal, if not superior to ours.”
As always, an excellent description of the Battle is in Christian McBurney’s Rhode Island Campaign.
Other sources include Paul Dearden’s The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778 (1980)
Anthony Walker’s So Few the Brave, 1981.
Geake, Robert. From Slaves to Soldiers. Yardley, Pennsylvania, Westholme Publishing, 2016.
Angell, Israel. Diary of Colonel Israel Angell Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment during the American Revolution 1778-1781. Edited by Edward Field. Providence; Preston and Rounds, 1899.
A Memoir of Lieut Colonel Samuel Ward, First Rhode Island Regiment, Army of the American Revolution; John Ward, New York, 1875. (available on Kindle)