The Rhode Island Campaign
The Rhode Island Campaign: An Introduction
Benjamin Franklin’s efforts at the Court of Versailles were rewarded on February 6, 1778, with the signing of a treaty of alliance between France and the United States.
A year earlier, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d’Estaing was made Vice Admiral of the Navy of Asia and North America, and with the signing of the Treaty, was given orders to attack the British in North America. His priority was to attack Philadelphia where most of both the British North American fleet and army were at the time headquartered. He set sail on April 13, 1778.
After a circuitous trip of 87 days, d’Estaing’s fleet of eleven ships of the line, one 50-gun ship and four frigates carried a landing force of French marines and soldiers, arrived on July 8 off the mouth of the Delaware River. Unfortunately, by this time the British had abandoned Philadelphia and returned to New York City.
After exchanging letters with General Washington, Admiral d’Estaing departed for New York in response to Washington’s request that they conduct a combined attack on the British on Manhattan. Luck continued to be against the allies. The French ships proved too heavy and drew too much water to cross the sandbar at Sandy Hook. During the nine days trying to find a solution to this problem, d’Estaing suggested an attack on the British forces occupying Rhode Island and Washington developed what would be called the Rhode Island Campaign. The Continental Congress approved the plan on July 11.
The plan was simple in concept, but the execution was fraught. The Americans would assemble an army of militia to cross from the mainland to the north end of Rhode (Aquidneck) Island and attack south to assault the British, headquartered in Newport at the south end of the island. D’Estaing would attack Newport from Narragansett Bay to the west.
Washington ordered General John Sullivan to raise a militia army of 5,000 from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Washington would later send about 2,500 Continental Army troops under General Nathanael Greene and Marquis Lafayette to augment and stiffen the militia army. The British forces on Rhode Island amounted to about 6,700 British and Hessian soldiers. Among the Americans there were other notables including John Hancock, Paul Revere, John Varnum, and John Trumbull.
The Campaign can be divided in to four phases:
- The assembly of the land and sea forces
- The American attack from Tiverton to Rhode Island subsequent move south
- The Siege of Newport and departure of the French fleet
- The Battle of rhode Island and the American withdrawal
The Campaign is important for several reasons:
- It was the first attempt at a combined American-French operation
- The diminished militia forces conducted a well-excuted withdrawal while in combat
- The British lost more ships in this campaign than in any other action of the War
- Probably the most important result was the lessons learned by both Americans and the French. By the time General Rochambeau arrived two years later, these lessons led to improved cooperation and coordination and were reflected in the successful actions resulting in victory at Yorktown.
Timeline of the Campaign
McBurney, Christian M. The Rhode Island Campaign; The First French and American Operation of the Revolutionary War. Yardley, PA : Westholme Publishing LLC, 2018
Schachtman, Tom. How the French Save America : Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of the Revolution. New York : Saint Martin’s Press.2017