The British Occupation
The Occupation of Newport
Prior to the War for Independence, Newport was a large, wealthy trading port. It was the fifth largest city in the colonies with a population of about 9500 and the third busiest port. The town grew and prospered by taking advantage of Rhode (Aquidneck) Island’s singularly most important natural resource, Newport Harbor. The harbor is big, wide, deep, and situated such that a sailing vessel can enter or depart regardless of from which direction the is blowing. In addition, the harbor is not prone to freezing in the winter. British Admiral George Rodney called it “the best and noblest harbor in America capable of holding the whole Navy of Britain, and whence they could in all seasons lie in in perfect security and from whence squadrons in forty-eight hours could blockade the three capitals of America, namely Boston, New York and Philadelphia.” Moreover, it was in a good position to blockade patriot privateers and the fledgling navy, operating out of Providence.
Believing, correctly, that Rhode Island would offer little resistance and as an island would be easily defended, Commodore Sir Peter Parker was ordered to Narragansett Bay to deliver General Sir Henry Clinton and his army of about 7100 British and Hessian soldiers to Rhode Island. On December 7, 1776, he entered Narragansett Bay with his fifteen warships and seventy transports. Alerted by lookouts at Port Judith, Rhode Island residents began evacuating livestock, cannon, and anything else of use to the British, to the mainland. Most anyone who had the wherewithal, wealthy merchants, shipowners, captains, to leave did so. The population of the Town shrank to about 4500.
The British landed the next morning at Weavers Cove in Portsmouth and quickly occupied the entire island. By the time the British left in October 1779, Newport’s population, prosperity, and prominence had evaporated. The need to have some 300 cords of wood per week just for the troops caused the Island to be largely denuded. Within three months of their arrival, British had to regularly send wood-gathering parties to Long Island. Ezra Stiles, Newport minister, intellectual, and avid diarist, estimated that some 300 houses were destroyed for firewood or through the depredations of troops billeted therein. Many wharves were taken up for firewood. In the summer of 1778 when word arrived that the French were sending a fleet to Newport, several hulks were sunk to foul the harbor to prevent its use by the French. Having resettled in Providence, Bristol or other area ports, shipowners and captains were not about to return to Newport. One post-war traveler described Newport as desolate and wrote of grass growing in the streets.
The remaining population, mostly Loyalists and Quakers, had to live under strict martial law. Loyalist merchants were permitted to remain in business, but traffic on and off the Island was severely limited because the British feared spies would provide important information to patriot authorities. Anyone caught leaving or returning to the island without a pass was subject to arrest. The churches suffered. Newport resident Fleet Greene wrote in his diary, “the Keys of the Baptist meeting-houses are taken by the barrack-master in order to quarter soldiers, and the Presbyterian meeting houses are taken up for barracks, all the pews pulled down.” One church was used as a stable for horses. Residents were to be paid for housing soldiers or officers in their homes, but payments often never came.
As the occupation dragged on, the patience of both citizens and occupiers wore thin. Altercations between inhabitants and the soldiers, even with Loyalists took place. One Major Barry was said to abuse the inhabitants “in a most shocking manner, not suffering them to talk in the streets, struck Mr. Fairchild for not taking off his hat to a gentleman, as he styled himself.” The Commanding General, Richard Prescott was “Known to strike Quaker men with his cane for failing to doff their hats in respect to him as he approached.” It was a principle of Quaker men to only remove their hats to God while in the meeting house.
British troops were perpetually on edge, their concerns heightened by sniping and almost nightly shelling from the mainland. Patriot members of the population waited impatiently for the occupation to end and lobbied the Continental Congress for an attack to drive out the occupiers. Meanwhile General Washington and his favored General Nathanael Greene, a native of the colony, wanted to maintain the situation as it was. Their reasoning: seven thousand British and Hessian regulars tied up defending an island in Narragansett Bay are seven thousand fewer that could be brought to bear against the Continental Army.
By 1779 strategic changes led the British to abandon Rhode Island of their own accord. Weary of trying to subdue the New England colonies, the British re-directed their efforts to the southern states where the populous was thought to be overwhelmingly Loyalist. In addition, with France now firmly in the war on the side of the Americans, the British needed more ships and more soldiers in the West Indies to protect their interests in the Sugar Islands from the French. The money brought to the Crown from the islands far exceeded that from their North American colonies.
Stensrud, Rockwell. Newport: A Lively Experiment, 1639-1969. London: D Giles Limited, 2015.
McBurney, Christian M., The Rhode Island Campaign, The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War. Yardley: Westholme Publishing LLC, 2018.
Newport Historical Society, “The British Occupation of Newport,” unpublished walking tour script, used by permission. Newport Historical Society runs an array of walking tours through the colonial section of the city. They are well-researched and provide the opportunity to learn about Newport’s colonial history at the locations where events took place.