Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: America Welcomes the French

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: America Welcomes the French

Rochambeau Memorial, Newport, 2014.
The Rochambeau Memorial at King's Park in Newport commemorates, among other things, the landing of 6,000 French troops in July 1780. (November 15, 2014).

The sighting of the fleur-de-lys.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 137-140, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

The Battle of Rhode Island, fought late in August 1778 on the great island at the lower end of Narragansett Bay, cannot be described as a decisive engagement, although military strategists and historians agree that it had decisive influence upon the final outcome of the Revolutionary War. Abandoned by a much-needed French fleet that was forced to leave Rhode Island waters, General Sullivan's discouraged and suffering troops, following a long delay before the battle, and after a full day of actual combat, completed an orderly retreat from the island over to Tiverton leaving the British still in control of Newport. On the face of it, this seems to offer no cause for paying especial tribute to the men engaged in the affair, or to the officers who directed the final withdrawal of American troops from the scene of action. However, General Sullivan desired to carry the fight to a finish, and it appears now that his army might have over-powered the already outfought and battle-weary Englishmen, but Sullivan's close advisers counseled a wiser, safer move and history reveals that they were right. Keeping a sizable but tired and well-spent British force bottled up at a jumping off place and there threatened with a counter attack at any moment by opponents whose actual strength and fighting power remained an unknown quantity, actually prevented an invasion of New England at a time when such a move on the part of the British would have been disastrous to Washington's plans of action elsewhere in the American theatre of War. Experts say that the Battle of Rhode Island was the turning point in the prolonged struggle between the mother country and her rebellious American Colonies—if they are correct in their observations then the famous expedition on Rhode Island soil can be termed neither unsuccessful nor unfortunate.

General Sullivan remained in command of what was left of the American army until April 1779, when he was relieved by General Gates, and during that winter very little happened in these parts in the way of military activities. The people suffered a great deal though—prices were high, food was scarce, and money was hard to get. Continental paper currency was practically worthless and the treasury was empty. In the face of this depression of 1778 and 1779, one that affected the well-to-do and poor alike, Rhode Island struggled under the added burden of trying to do its share in supporting the war that brought countless demands upon its hopeful, patriotic citizens. Militiamen had to be fed and clothed, families whose fathers and sons were away at the front had to be sheltered and protected, taxes had to be paid to Continental Congress to maintain an efficient army in the field. History shows that honest, resourceful administration of local government together with practically universal devotion to American ideals among Rhode Islanders, withstood complete disaster until there came another turn in events that restored fast-ebbing courage and brightened the hopes for victory.

Early in October 1779 a fleet of British transports arrived off Newport and the rumor quickly spread that Sir Henry Clinton was about to take his troops away from Rhode Island and send them to the South where the greatest military activity was then centered. The immediate transfer of stores from shore to ship, the plundering of private property in Newport, the burning of barracks, and all other "destroy what you cannot take" tactics that go with a general evacuation of troops promptly confirmed the rumor. October 25 was Newport's Evacuation Day and on that day everyone remaining there was warned to stay behind doors on pain of death. By evening the last boat-load had been taken to the waiting transports and one can readily imagine the scenes in the old port when not a redcoat, not a Hessian, nor even a despised Tory could be found anywhere. Picture the hurried searches for long-lost belongings, the excited return of many families to familiar scenes (nearly three quarters of the inhabitants had fled during the prolonged British occupancy); try to imagine the viewing of ruined homes and business places, more than five hundred of which had been destroyed at British hands. For many, many months the invaders had slept in beds owned by Newport families; dishes, furniture, linen, books, jewelry, heirlooms, keepsakes, all had become another's property by right of conquest. Precious belongings, priceless to some through sentiment and personal evaluation, were either destroyed or ruined beyond repair; comfortable, liveable homes had long since become four walls and a roof for plain, rough conquerors who were paid to fight when they were told, and who procured as much of life's common comforts as the immediate surroundings provided, whether it was a humble farmer's home and barn, a house of worship, an abandoned well-stocked tavern, or a princely mansion of a ship-owner. And there wasn't much left in Newport for those who hurriedly returned to rescue what once had been personal property—the British took away all that they could carry including the early town records in manuscript form, but these were recovered some years later.

Nevertheless there was great joy and congratulation among Rhode Islanders when the hated enemy finally departed, and this sentiment prevailed until the winter months of 1779-1780 brought on widespread suffering. That winter was one of great severity, the cold being so intense that all of Narragansett Bay was frozen over for nearly six weeks—provisions and fuel were very scarce and prices for both food and wood were prohibitive. All of Rhode Island suffered, but especially Newport where those who had returned to their ruined community late in the Fall had been unable to reestablish themselves in homes and in employment before the coming of most unusual winter hardships. Again good government and unselfish cooperation in a common cause averted a threatened famine and provided food and warmth for the poor.

We have now arrived at the Spring of 1780 in the narrative of Rhode Island in the Revolution. Washington's army was in a most distressing condition; Charleston had been surrendered; disaffection and despair seemed to reign among the American soldiers at the front. Renewed demands were being made upon the Colonies for men, money, and supplies. In view of what the foregoing description has revealed in respect to Rhode Island's home problems, is it not inspiring even now to learn that the local General Assembly, at the June session, voted to send a regiment of 610 men to help Washington and to provide for the sending of a quantity of supplies?

But, now for facts that are considerably more cheerful. Marie Jean Paul Roch Yves Gilbert Motier Lafayette, native of France, born 1757, and the son of a military hero, offered his help to an infant American republic in 1776. After some delays caused by political misunderstandings, this Marquis de Lafayette, or as we now commonly refer to this distinguished ally, General Lafayette, was attached to General Washington's staff and became a member of his military family. Before the year 1777 had come to an end he had been wounded, and during the following year he was made a General of Division and given the thanks of Congress for his conduct at the Battle of Monmouth. We heard a little about General Lafayette in connection with the Battle of Rhode Island, in which he took a prominent part, and in regard to his efforts to bring the French fleet back to Newport from Boston when a hard battle on the island down the Bay appeared imminent. In 1779, it was necessary for this friendly French leader to return to France since his country had declared war against England, but while he remained in his native land he aroused his people to an enthusiastic support of the American cause. Thus, by the time he left for his second visit to this side of the Atlantic, his King had assured him that troops would be sent from France to take an active part in [the] struggle for American independence. Lafayette returned to America bringing this welcome news.

Fleur-de-lys flag. (Wikipedia).
The fleur-de-lys flag used by Royalist France prior to the French Revolution. (Wikipedia).

And now we are back again to the spring and early summer of 1780. Under the direction of General Lafayette a system of signals was devised to assist an expected French fleet in reaching port safely. If the British held Newport, American flags would be flying on Block Island and at Point Judith and Sakonnet; whereas, if the colonists were in control of Newport, French flags would be displayed at the same places. On July 9, 1780, a long overdue and much battered flotilla emerged from the limitless horizons of the sea and approached that remote speck of sand dunes, cliffs, and pebbly beaches now called No Man's Land, near Martha's Vineyard, and there learned its position from a lone fishing craft. The next evening these ships were in sight of Rhode Island shores. The following day, a typical July fog settled down so that no signal flags could be discerned, in fact, nothing could be seen until late afternoon when the fog suddenly lifted and revealed, flying gaily at a staff head on Point Judith, the fleur-de-lys of France. The Americans held Newport. That night six ships of the line commanded by Admiral Chevalier de Ternay anchored in Newport Harbor, convoying six thousand soldiers in thirty-five transports, the troops commanded by Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeure, Count de Rochambeau, General of France, born in 1725. Lafayette's promise had been kept—General Rochambeau landed ahead of his troops and sought a camping ground while the fleet lay at anchor between Rose Island and Brenton's Point. The next day men and supplies were moved ashore. Since about one third of the Frenchmen were afflicted with scurvy and other ailments, it was necessary to provide immediate hospitalization. Some of the disabled were put under medical care in the old Newport State House and in the Congregational Church, while others were sent to Poppasquash across the harbor from Bristol, and to Providence. General Washington immediately sent a message of congratulation and welcome to the French Commander, and General Rochambeau wrote to the American leader as follows:

We are now, sir, under your command... and I hope that in a month we shall be ready to act under Your Excellency's orders. It is hardly necessary for me to tell Your Excellency that I bring sufficient funds to pay in cash for whatever is needed by the King's army and that we shall maintain as strict discipline as if we were under the walls of Paris.

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John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes
Considering they had just spent nearly three hard years under British occupation, Newporters did not welcome the French as enthusiastically as one might assume. For one thing, the French arrived in Newport seven months after the British had left, so they were hardly seen as liberators. The scarcity of food and fuel in town, exacerbated by an especially harsh 1779-'80 winter and resources further strained by the presence of 1,000 American troops didn't help matters. According to "America the Ungrateful," by Robert A. Selig (American Heritage, February 1997)...

Comte William de Deux-Ponts, of the Royal Deux-Ponts, complained that the French "did not meet with that reception on landing which we expected and which we ought to have had"; the Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur found "the local people little disposed in our favor." They "would have preferred at that moment, I think, to see their enemies arrive rather than their allies."

The article goes on to say that such attitudes were rooted in decades-old prejudices fostered by the British who rarely missed an opportunity to paint their French enemies in the worst possible light. Clermont-Crèvecoeur, for instance, reported that Newporters heard from the British that the French "were dwarfs, pale, ugly, specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails." Worse than these low insults, the British accused the French of cowardice, pointing to the incident two years earlier when a French fleet "ran away" to Boston following an engagement with British warships in the midst of a hurricane. The absence of the French at that critical point was seen by many as the direct cause of an American defeat in the Battle of Rhode Island.

But the truth soon became self-evident. Far from being unpleasant guests, the French demonstrated superior manners, a delicate civility, and a pleasing appearance that endeared them to their American hosts, especially those of the female persuasion. And they paid cold, hard cash for everything they needed. Relations and conditions improved to such an extent that the situation in Newport (and Providence, as well), went from one of privation and misery to one where inhabitants and their visitors spent many a night partying.

There were two congregational churches in Newport at the time of the Revolution, and both were used by the French as barracks or hospitals. The First Congregational Church, built in 1729, was located on Mill Street. The Second Congregational Church, built in 1735, was located on Clarke Street. The two congregations merged in 1833 and the present Newport Congregational Church was built at the corner of Spring and Pelham Street in 1855.

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