In researching Revolutionary Rhode Island, I came across a book by Judge Benjamin Cowell. Cowell was born in 1781, so he wasn’t a Revolutionary War veteran, but he made it his aim in life to help Rhode Island veterans get their pensions. He began recording the stories these old soldiers had to tell to justify their service. Cowell began to gather eyewitness accounts, speeches, letters, rosters, and every piece of information he could find on Rhode Island’s role in the War for Independence. In 1850 he gathered all this material into a book Spirit of ’76 in Rhode Island. I found a Portsmouth story to share.
Cowell introduces the story (he refers to himself as “the writer”):
“In the summer of 1849, the writer reconnoitered the battle ground on Rhode Island to ascertain any interesting facts which might be within the recollection of any of the old inhabitants in the neighborhood; and in his researches, he called at the house of Mr. Seth Anthony, an aged “Friend” who now lives on the farm where the battle took place, and always lived in the neighborhood. From him he gathered no little information, and from questions which the writer put to him he received a few days afterwards the following reply, which deserves a place in these sketches. ‘Portsmouth, Oct 13, 1849. To Benjamin Cowell, Providence, Respected Friend, —In answer to thy questions I have to say, that I was about twelve years of age at the time of Sullivan’s expedition against the British, and lived with my father on the west road on the Island, about two and a half miles from Bristol Ferry, lived there all the time the British were in possession of the Island, and I have now, although eighty-two years of age, a distinct recollection of most of the events that took place, at least in our neighborhood. The battle on the 29th of August, 1778, took place on the farm on which I now live, which is a little to the westward of the house where my father lived; there had been skirmishing all day, but the principal fight was a little northward of ‘Anthony’s Hill.’ (Note that we call it Almy’s Hill) Before the American troops came on the island, the British had fortified Butt’s Hill, one of their Generals (Smith) quartered at my father’s house, the Hessians quartered in the Friends’ Meeting House on Quaker Hill. After General Sullivan came on, the enemy retreated towards Newport, and I recollect General Greene took up his quarters at my father’s house.”
When the enemy came back on the 29th, while Gen. Greene was eating his breakfast, our housemaid said to him, the British would have him; he observed very cooly ‘he would eat his breakfast first’; after he had done he went to his troops. During the day some Hessians entered our house, and plundered every thing they could,— they took my father’s silver knee-buckles; I saw one of them take hold of my father and demand his money and threatened his life, but he did not get it; my father had about two thousand dollars in gold and silver, but he had taken the precaution to bury it under an old stone wall. The Hessians also searched my mother’s pocket, turned it inside out, but there was no money in it. My father and mother were “Friends,” and we kept silence as to our political opinions. I remember Gen. Green once observed that his mother was a Friend, and was opposed to his going into the army, but she said ‘if he would go, to be faithful.’ There appeared to be fighting all day, sometimes one side would drive the other and then be obliged to retreat. But as far as I could judge, the main armies did not fight. It appears to me the events of that day will always be fresh in my recollection.
About the Author
Gloria Schmidt is the Historical Research Advisor for BoRIA. Thanks to Jim Garman, Portsmouth’s Town Historian, for the photograph.