The Battle of Rhode Island

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Significant People

The "Surrender of Cornwallis" by John Trumball, U.S. Capital
The "Surrender of Cornwallis" by John Trumball, U.S. Capital

Painter John Trumbull

Some of those young soldiers who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island or participated in the Siege of Newport went on to brilliant careers.

One soldier became a prominent, nationally recognized artist. There is an eyewitness account of the battle penned by John Trumbull. Trumbull later became an artist noted for portraits and depictions of leaders and events in the American Revolution. Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, John Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773. He served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the revolution. Many of the biographical materials had him resigning from that regiment and going on to England to study painting. How could he write about the Battle of Rhode Island if he wasn’t there? Further research gave the answer. In 1778 he became an aide-de-camp to General John Sullivan in Rhode Island. This is a portion from “Reminiscences of his own Times” by John Trumbull that describes events on August 29th, 1778.

“Soon after daybreak the next morning, the rear-guard, commanded by that excellent officer, Colonel Wigglesworth, was attacked on Quaker, otherwise called Windmill Hill (actually it was Butts Hill that was called Windmill Hill) and General Sullivan, wishing to avoid a serious action on that ground, sent me with orders to commanding officer to withdraw the guard. In performing this duty I had to mount the hill (Quaker Hill) by a broad smooth road (East Main Road), more than a mile in length from the foot to the summit, which was the scene of conflict, which, though an easy ascent, was yet too steep for a trot or a gallop. It was necessary to ride at a leisurely pace, for I saw before me a hard day’s work for my horse, and was unwilling to fatigue him.  Nothing can be more trying to the nerves, than to advance deliberatelydeliberatively and alone into danger. At first I saw a round shot or two drop near me, and pass bounding on. I met poor Colonel Tousard, who had just lost one arm, blown off by the discharge of a field piece, for the possession of which there was an ardent struggle. He was led off by a small party. Soon after, I saw Captain Walker, of H. Jackson’s regiment, who had received a musket ball through his body, mounted behind a person on horseback. He bid me a melancholy farewell, and died before night. Next, grape shot began to sprinkle around me, and soon after musket balls fell in my path like hailstones. This was not to be borne. I spurred on my horse to the summit of the hill, and found myself in the midst of the melee. ‘Don’t say a word, Trumbull;’ cried the gallant commander, ‘I know your errand, but don’t speak; we will beat them in a moment.’

‘Col. Wigglesworth, do you see those troops crossing obliquely from the west road towards your rear?’

‘Yes, they are Americans, coming to our support.’

“No sir, those are Germans; mark, their dress is blue and yellow, not buff; they are moving to fell late your rear, and intercept your retreat. Retreat instantly — don’t lose a moment, or you will be cut off.’ 

The gallant man obeyed, reluctantly, and withdrew the guard in fine style, slowly, but safely.”

Rufus King

“Our French Allies” provides the story of another Battle soldier, Rufus King.

“Mr. Rufus King was acting that day as a volunteer aid de camp to General Glover, whose quarters were in a house at the foot and east of Quaker Hill, distant from the contested positions the rear guard a long mile. The general and the officers who composed his family were seated at breakfast, their horses standing saddled at the door. The firing on the height of the hill became heavy and incessant, when the General directed Mr. King to mount, and see what and where the firing was. He quitted the table, Sherburne took his chair, and was hardly seated, when a spent cannon ball from the scene of action, bounded in at the open window, fell upon the floor, rolled to its destination, the ankle of Sherburne, and crushed all the bones of his foot. Surely there is a providence which controls the events of human life, and which withdrew Mr. King from this misfortune.”

King didn’t leave much in the way of an account of his time on Rhode Island (Aquidneck). “I enjoyed fine health upon the Island and the scene was not disagreeable to me…I saw and experienced enough to satisfy my curiosity.”*King did not have aspirations as a soldier. He came to the battle from a different place than many of the soldiers. He was born in Scarboro, then in Massachusetts – now in Maine, where the King family was accused of Loyalist sympathies. He went to Harvard and studied law and while in Boston he became part of a club that would become the Federalist Society. King considered himself a New Englander and he enlisted in 1778 in defense of New England. At that time Massachusetts mobilized its militia for Major General Sullivan. King volunteered along with others from his Boston Club. King received a commission as a major of infantry and was appointed as an aide to Brigadier General Glover of Marblehead. With Sullivan’s forces gathered at Tiverton, King and Glover’s men crossed to the island to join other militia and continental units to construct redoubts and siege lines. King’s Boston friends, John Hancock and Paul Revere, left the island when it seemed the French fleet would not return. Rufus King remained on duty. When Sullivan had to withdraw, Glover’s brigade covered the withdrawal and King narrowly escaped death.

After the Battle of Rhode Island, King returned to law practice in Massachusetts. He served in the State legislature, and as delegate to the Continental Congress from his state. After the war, when confidence in the Articles of Confederation was low, he joined other delegates as representatives to the Constitutional Convention. He was Instrumental in the call for a Bill of Rights and was one of the signers of the Constitution. In 1789 King moved to New York and a few years later became a senator from that state. He went on to a diplomatic career and in 1796 began his long assignment as ambassador to Great Britain under three presidents.

Did Paul Revere & John Hancock fight in the Battle of Rhode Island?

So many online resources mention them being there. Yes, they came onto Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) with Sullivan’s forces. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere and his son, who was a lieutenant and about 17 years old, were sent to to reinforce General John Sullivan. Among the 10,000 or so of the forces that gathered at Tiverton were John Hancock and his Massachusetts Militiamen including Paul Revere. As a senior major general Hancock took command of 6000 soldiers. Hancock delayed going to camp in Rhode Island, but his role wasn’t working on strategic plans. His presence was more of a symbolic one. When the Americans crossed over to Aquidneck Island, Revere’s regiment was responsible for erecting and maintaining artillery batteries on the island.

The plan was that the American forces and the French Navy would combine to rout the British from their occupation of Newport. Unfortunately the French and British fleets were damaged in a storm. French Admiral d’Estaing decided to head to Boston for repairs. Hancock wrote d’Estaing asking him to reconsider, but the French left at midnight on August 21, 1778. The Americans knew that their mission of freeing Newport was nearly impossible without the help of the French. The militias began to desert. Hancock and his militia, including Paul Revere, headed home to Boston. Hancock asked Lafayette for a letter of introduction to d’Estaing and the Frenchman obliged. John Hancock was home in Boston by August 26th. Sullivan would safely retreat from the island beginning on August 29th. A Tory newspaper in New York would publish a parody of Yankee Doodle and one of the stanzas mentioned Hancock. Revere and Hancock did not fight in the Battle of Rhode Island. They went home to Boston before the battle began.

"In dread array their tatter'd crew, Advanc'd with colors spread Sir, Their fifes play'd Yankee Doodle do, King Hancock at their Head Sir."

Lafayette on the Island

The Marquis de La Fayette has been held in high esteem by the people of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. When the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker for the Battle of Rhode Island at Butts Hill Fort in 1922, they included a quote from Lafayette saying the battle was the “best fought action in the War of the Revolution.” Colonial era homes like the Dennis House on East Main Road claim that Lafayette stayed there before the Battle of Rhode Island. What do we know about Lafayette’s brief stay in Portsmouth?

The Marquis played a pivotal role in the French and American alliance that was just beginning before the Battle of Rhode Island. He was passionate about the American cause. In a letter dated September 23, 1778 to Henry Laurens, President of Congress “The moment I heard of America I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her, at any time, or in any part of the world, will be the happiest of my life.” With this French alliance came D’Estaing and his fleet. He wanted to battle Howe’s English fleet in New York, but he settled on the goal of capturing the British garrison in Newport. Washington put his army in motion from his New Jersey camp. He detached two brigades of Connecticut and Rhode Island troops under the command of Glover and Varnum, but both under the direction of the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington wanted a mix of the seasoned Continental and State troops with the less experienced militias and ordered General Sullivan to divide all the forces into equal numbers under the commands of General Greene and the Marquis.

With the arrival of the French fleet, operations were set in motion.  The British abandoned Butts Hill Fort and other strategic locations in northern Aquidneck Island.  On August 10, 1778 Sullivan began crossing to the island and he moved into Butts Hill Fort and made it his headquarters.  The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what Lafayette and others were doing on the island before the Battle of Rhode Island.  Cutler wrote on August 11th that at 4 o’clock the whole army paraded and passed in review by the general officers.  “The right wing of the army was commanded by General Greene and the left by the Marquis de Lafayette.”  His entry for Sunday, August 16th, gives us one location of Lafayette’s quarters in Portsmouth.  “Went in the afternoon with a number of officers to view a garden near our quarters, belonging to one Mr. Bowler, – the finest by far I ever saw….”  Cutler goes on to describe the garden.  The last line in the diary entry reads “The Marquis de la Fayette took quarters at this house.”  The gardens of Metcalf Bowler’s estate on Wapping Road were indeed famous.  When the British occupied the island Bowler fled to Providence, but he was later found to be a British spy passing information in hopes it would save his precious property.  Cutler’s entry for Monday the 17th also refers to the Marquis.  The British had been firing since early in the morning and Cutler with General Titcomb had been observing the enemy lines from the top of a house. “stood by the Marquis when a cannon ball just passed us.  Was pleased with his firmness.”

Depiction of Lafayette with the Rear Guard By Geroge B Brayton
Depiction of Lafayette with the Rear Guard By Geroge B Brayton

Sunday, August 23, Cutler wrote that they were informed that: “the French fleet was so disastered (sic) they could by no means afford us any assistance, but were gone to Boston to refit.”  That ended the American plans.  The diary records: “The Generals were called upon to give their opinion whether an immediate retreat was not absolutely necessary.  This unexpected desertion of the fleet, which was the main spring of the expedition, cast a universal gloom on the army, and threw us into consternation”.

General Sullivan wrote to General Washington about his disappointment. “The departure of the Count D’Estaing with his fleet for Boston.. has, as I apprehended, ruined all our operations. It struct such a panic among the militia and volunteers that they began to desert in shoals (sic – perhaps as we would say “droves”). The fleet no sooner set sail than they began to be alarmed for their safety. This misfortune dampened the hopes of our army, and gave new spirits to that of the enemy.” Lafayette did not sign onto the letter, but he had been among those who pleaded with D’Estaing to at least let his soldiers disembark from the ships before the fleet left for Boston.

Cutler’s entry on Monday, August 24th “As much of the heavy baggage moved off last night as possible.  A body of men retreated to strengthen the works at Butts’ Hill.  At the lines –heavy fire–army preparing to retreat.”  Cutler’s story ends on August 26th when he, like many in the militias, escaped to Tiverton and away from battle.

With the bitterness over the departure of the French fleet, the alliance between the French and Americans was threatened. Lafayette would play a major role in keeping the alliance intact. On the night of August 28th, Lafayette left Portsmouth on a frantic ride to and back from Boston. Later General Sullivan would write in a letter to Congress:

“The Marquis de La Fayette, arrived about eleven in the evening from Boston, where he had been, by request of the general officers, to solicit the speedy return of the fleet. He was mortified that he was out of action; and, that he might be out of the way in case of action, he had ridden hence to Boston in seven hours and returned in six and a half- the distance nearly seventy miles. He returned in time enough to bring off the pickets and other parties which covered the retreat of the army, which he did in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article lost.”

One of the pickets was left behind and was later returned in a prison swap. Although the Marquis missed the action, he contributed what he could, even ordering the setting of camp fires to make it look like the army had hunkered down. His efforts in the retreat were memorialized with an engraving on a sword given to Lafayette by Benjamin Franklin in Paris on behalf of the Continental Congress.


Fowler, William. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A biography of John Hancock. Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

King Correspondence Volume I. Edited by Charles King and quoted in Ernst’s biography of Rufus King. 1894.

Our French Allies, Stone. 1884. Providence Press.

Trumbull’s Reminiscences quote in Stone, 1884. Our French Allies, Providence Press.

Stone- Our French Allies

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