Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: At the Point of the Candlestick

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: At the Point of the Candlestick

Illustration of a frightened drummer boy, menaced by townswomen.
(Illustration from "King Philip and Other Stories").

Small victory.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. II, pages 99-100, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1931. It was also included in an undated pamphlet titled "King Philip and Other Stories," published by the same institution. Transcribed by Christopher Martin.

It was May [1778] in Rhode Island, the first spring after the dreadful winter of ice and snow and suffering at Valley Forge.

Three long years had the men of Warren, Rhode Island, watched and planned against and fought the foe, and three long years had the Warren women knitted and sewed and deprived themselves that the hardships of the Continental soldiers might be lessened.

A month before, the French alliance had been signed, and many believed that, because of this, the war would be over, but the wiser ones knew that the end was still far off.

In 1776, there were only 1,005 inhabitants, including slaves, in the town of Warren, and with the departure of volunteers to join Washington's army, but a very small fighting force remained. However, the few men that were still available planned an expedition against the British forces in Rhode Island. They had built seventy whale-boats, and these, together with the reconditioned row-galley Washington, lay in the Kickemuit River in readiness for the attack upon the British stronghold. In addition to the boats, a great supply of tar, pitch and powder was available for use in the bold exploit.

They believed that the expedition would succeed, for the utmost secrecy had been preserved. True, everyone in Warren knew of the idea—even Mr. Holland, the Englishman. But everyone in town was known to be loyal. And Mr. Holland was loyal—he was the schoolmaster and a trusted personage.

But someone transmitted the secret to General Pigot, the commander of the British forces in Rhode Island. There was a "Watch House" on a high bank of the Kickemuit River, yet for once it must have lacked a watchman, for on the 25th of May a body of troops which Pigot had despatched from Newport to Bristol marched on to Warren and took the town completely by surprise.

There were British soldiers and their cohorts, the Hessian mercenaries, five hundred strong in all. Under Lieutenant-Colonel [James] Campbell they at once began a systematic tour of destruction and pillage. The majority hurried to the Kickemuit River, where the patriots' boats lay in readiness for the planned attack upon the British. These they burned, together with the Washington. Continuing their riotous invasion, they also burned the Baptist Church, the Baptist parsonage, and other buildings. And to make a good job of it, they blew up the powder house and burned all the stores of pitch and tar. Who could have betrayed the plans of the patriots? No one knows.

While the soldiers were preparing to burn the grist-mill, the miller cried, "Spare the mill, brothers!"

"Brothers?" repeated one of the soldiers. "Do you call us that? If we are your brothers, we shall do you a favor and take you out of this nest of rebels." Accordingly he signaled to his comrades and the miller was taken away as a prisoner. Perhaps the miller was the traitor.

However, it is more than likely that Mr. Holland was not as loyal as his fellow townsmen had believed. When the British soldiers were leaving the town, they stopped and cheered loudly when they reached his house. He immediately came out and joined them, and with them disappeared from Warren forever.

The British retreat was a brilliant one. Colonel Campbell feared that other counties might come to Warren's aid, yet he wanted to leave a last touch of British pomp with the despoiled patriots. Heading the line were the prisoners with their guards. Behind them marched the Hessians, wearing great boots and huge fur caps, the boots filled with plunder of every description. Following were the British in their scarlet coats, their gold lace, their three-cornered hats, and their small-clothes and buckled shoes. Last of all marched Colonel Campbell. Drums were beating, flags were flying, and it was a very gay affair.

But the Colonel was not last, for far behind straggled a diminutive drummer. His drum was very large, he was very tired, and he was very full, not of the clear water from the spring of Massasoit, but of good West India rum. As he passed in front of the hotel with faltering steps, a group of women, among them a young girl named Nellie Easterbrooks, noticed him. These women were excited and worked up to the last pitch of anger because of the brutal treatment they had been forced to undergo from the insolent invaders. All sorts of outrages had been committed by the Hessians and British while they were accumulating plunder, including one instance where a group of bullies forced a woman to hand over all her best china while they deliberately broke it piece by piece. Nellie Easterbrooks had been listening to the stories told by these women. She was a small girl, but she had a fierce impetuosity backed up by daring.

The drummer might have gotten by safely had Nellie not seen him. She sprang up, stirring the group of women to action. "Let's take that man!" she cried. Running inside the hotel, she seized a tall brass candlestick and rushed with it into the street. In a wild burst of anger, the other women followed her.

She pointed the candlestick, glistening in the sun, full at the drummer and commanded him to halt. White with fear, the man threw up his hands, crying, "Don't fire, ladies, I surrender!"

Women wore aprons in those days, and everyone of those present tore hers to strips and bound him with them. Then they dragged their bewildered captive into the hotel and locked him into a closet there.

It is said that he was very glad to be captured, for his drum was getting extremely heavy and he was having great difficulty in maintaining a soldierly bearing. One story has it that he was later exchanged for an American prisoner, while another has it that he remained in Warren and married one of the women there. If he did marry a Warren girl, it was surely not Nellie Easterbrooks. She married one Nathaniel Hicks West of Bristol, who was a true patriot and not a subject of King George.

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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
Small-clothes: A euphemism for knee breeches, or pants.

The "spring of Massasoit" was located at what is now the end of Baker Street in Warren. The spring has been dry since 1900 or so, but a stone with a plaque still marks the spot around which the Wampanoag village of Sowams once stood.

Massasoit Spring, 2015
(Photographed June 9, 2015).

Nellie Easterbrooks West's patriotism was commemorated when a Warren chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was organized in her name in 1920.

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