Revolutionary Rhode Island

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Blog Post by Gloria Schmidt

A descendent of a Revolutionary War soldier came across an entry for his ancestor in Massachusetts Solders and Sailors.

“Briggs, Jesse, Attleborough. Private, Capt. Stephen Richardson’s co., George Williams’ reg.; marched from Attleborough September 25, 1777 on a secret expedition; discharged Oct. 29, 1777; service 1 mo. 6 days.”

The question for us (Battle of Rhode Island Association) was did we know what that “secret expedition” might have been.  The timeframe matches that of Spencer’s Expedition. You may be familiar with the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island, but there were other attempts to free Aquidneck Island (Rhode Island) from the British.  In April of 1777 the Continental Congress recommended that the General Assembly of Rhode Island, with the assistance of Massachusetts and Connecticut, should attempt to rid the island of British troops. This idea was accepted and preparations began.  

Washington sent sixty-three year old General Joseph Spencer to take command of the Rhode Island theater.  He and his Connecticut troops had conducted himself bravely at the Battle of Bunker Hill.  

The planners believed that this expedition must be kept secret and they took great pains to make it a “secret expedition”.  Soldiers were called up on September 22, 1777.  The ten thousand member expedition was made up of half the Rhode Island militia and members of both the Massachusetts and Connecticut militias.  The men were camped in Tiverton by Stone Bridge and the plan was to attack Aquidneck Island by boat. The forces were supposed to rendezvous at Tiverton on October 1 and attack immediately.  Troops, however, took their time in gathering.  

The troops all gradually arrived by October 15th.  There were delays in making boat assignments.  Col. Ebenezer Thayer’s troops got lost and arrived at Tiverton Four Corners instead of Howland Ferry.  

On the night the expedition was to cross from Tiverton to Aquidneck Island, a fleet of boats was ready to transport them.  They were to surprise the enemy in the middle of the night.  October 17th heavy gales of wind prevented the attack.  They postponed the start of the action and switched their landing spot to the Fogland Ferry area.  A local American named Goodman who was spying for the British learned of the invasion plans while in Providence.  He escaped and told British General Pigot about the American forces.  By now the element of surprise was gone and their boats were fired upon.  About half of the men departed and the expedition was over.  There was one last attempt on October 25th, but the weather did them in again.  The men did not even have tents to protect them from the weather.  

 There were lengthy delays and the men blamed that on Spencer. They taunted the general with a verse displayed publicly:  

“Israel wanted bread, The Lord sent them manna:Rhode Island wants a head, And Congress sends-a granny!”

Spencer was exonerated from fault in a later court of inquiry.  Blame was placed on the bad weather. 

Relief of Joseph Spencer
Relief of Joseph Spencer

Some historians believed that the main purpose of the expedition was to keep the British troops in Newport so they could not help British forces under General Burgoyne.  By assembling an army in Tiverton, the Americans forced the British to keep their army on the island to counter the attack.  Lessons were learned through the experience.  Newport minister Ezra Stiles wrote:  “This unhappy event teaches two lessons, that generals commanding American militia must watch the critical moment when the patience and spirit of their men is exhausted; second, it will teach militia not to be so infinitely impatient for running home when enlistments are out.  Had they tarried one week longer, they would have succeeded, taken Rhode Island, and returned with honors.”  (Stiles diary entry October 30 quoted in McBurney). 

In a letter to George Washington from Jonathan Trumbull  (dated December 2, 1777 ) comments that the failed expedition did prevent an attack on New Bedford.  “The expedition to Newport hath unhappily failed.  An inquiry hath been made into the reasons.  General Spencer was exculpated.  A Brigadier Palmer failed in his duty.  The enemy was meditating an attack on Bedfort, and had actually embarked troops, which are prevented by this.”

Jonathan Trumbull, in a letter dated December 2, 1777, to General Washington, wrote the following relative to the affair: ” The expedition to Newport hath unhappily failed. An Inquiry hath been made Into the reasons. General Spencer was exculpated. A Brigadier Palmer failed in his duty. The enemy was meditating an attack on Bedford, and had actually embarked troops, which were prevented by this.”  (Quoted

Jesse Briggs’ dates of service match those of others who participated in Spencer’s Expedition.  


McBurney, Christian.  The Rhode Island Campaign.  Westholme, 2011.

Spencer’s Expedition:  Failure in Newport.

Cowell, Benjamin.  Spirit of 76 in Rhode Island, A.J. Wright printer, 1850 

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