Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: The Battle of Rhode Island

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: The Battle of Rhode Island

Revolutionary re-enactor at Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, 2004.
A Revolutionary re-enactor stands guard upon the earthen wall of Butts Hill Fort in Portsmouth. (April 24, 2004).

Lively skirmishes and surprise sallies.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 132-134, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

By degrees, the State of Rhode Island is taking on the appearance of an ancient European capital, where history has been made, and where succeeding generations have enshrined historic sites with descriptive tablets and other forms of memorial markers. Visitors to foreign lands may walk in the shadow of the Caesars; climb the steps once trod by raiding Goths; and stand upon spots hallowed by the feet of Saints; and, in such places, measure the passing of time in long spans stretching back to faraway periods in the story of mankind, whereas, time here extends not much beyond the three century limit. But, those three centuries have been crowded with action, action that moulded a nation out of a wilderness in comparatively short order. It is probably safe to say that as much actual history has been made in Rhode Island since the beginning as in any comparable area across the sea during the same space of time, but it hasn't taken us so long to realize the importance of marking points and places of historic interest, in order that present and future generations may associate names and events of the past with sites that are familiar today. That is why it may be observed that Rhode Island is gradually taking on the appearance of a well-labeled European place of antiquity, thanks to various groups, and individuals, whose efforts are being devoted to the preservation of that which is worthy of enshrining.

Many local monuments and memorial tablets have to do with persons and events associated with the War for Independence, and one who is not thoroughly familiar with what actually happened during that lively conflict may become confused by the numerous Revolutionary War markers that can be found most anywhere in Rhode Island, but especially in Providence and down the east side of the Bay as far as Newport. Therefore, these accounts may help many to place important Revolutionary events in proper chronological order, and make the viewing of historic shrines and properly-marked sites in Rhode island more instructive and vastly more interesting.

Here is the story of the so-called Battle of Rhode Island, prepared in such a way that this masterly stroke of military strategy can be easily and clearly understood. On April 22, 1778, a day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in Rhode Island for public recognition of the welcome news that France had agreed to join the American cause, and would furnish fighting assistance on land and sea.

The battle plan for the Battle of Rhode Island.
The battle plan for the Battle of Rhode Island. (The Book of Rhode Island, Rhode Island State Bureau of Information, 1930).

Early in the summer, Count d'Estaing, commanding a French fleet of twelve battleships and three frigates, arrived in Delaware Bay after a stormy ninety-day ocean crossing. Shortly before these long-awaited allies put in appearance, the British fleet had moved north to New York and the French commander lost no time in moving his ships there, anchoring in the Narrows while Admiral Howe's fleet remained above on the Hudson River. For reasons best known to them, General Clinton commanding the British troops at New York and Howe commanding the enemy fleet anchored nearby, decided to make Rhode Island the theatre of war by concentrating their forces at Newport for either attack or defense. Forthwith, 7,000 British and Hessians were transported to the large island down the Bay and there they encamped in July 1778.

With that imposing array of enemy forces just a few miles from Providence, one can imagine what went through the minds of local residents—unquestionably they expected an attack most any day, but the expected failed to materialize. Naturally, General Washington's attention was then turned to little Rhode Island, and his first move was to send a brilliant military leader, Major General John Sullivan, to command the militia of the East and to direct the defence of Rhode Island. General Sullivan arrived in Tiverton some time in July, and shortly after his arrival reported to his superior that he had not more than 1,600 men prepared for fighting service. In the meantime, about one half of the available military strength of Rhode Island was called to serve for twenty days from August first, and the remainder was ordered to be ready on call. It is rather difficult for us to imagine the local scene while all this was going on—mobilization of troops for certain battle on Rhode Island seems almost an imaginary situation but it did happen here once, and it must have been an exciting experience.

Near the end of July, the French fleet left New York waters and came up the Sound, blockading the enemy in Narragansett Bay after the ships arrived off Newport. Within ten days after the arrival of the Frenchmen, the British troops stationed on Conanicut Island withdrew to Newport and the British vessels in the harbor, in the Bay, and in the Sakonnet River, were either blown up or burned. As a pitched battle seemed more and more imminent, the American forces grew in strength. Generals Greene, Lafayette, and other military experts came to the assistance of Sullivan, while volunteers poured in from all parts of New England and New York. By August 9, 1778, Sullivan's forces had increased to about 10,000 men, and on that day he broke camp at Tiverton and crossed over to the Portsmouth end of the Island while the French fleet occupied the harbor and Bay. While this transfer of troops was going on, the ever-present British fleet put in an appearance, foreshadowing a naval engagement. Eager to win a decisive victory over Admiral Howe, the French commander took his 4,000 men from Conanicut Island and put to sea hoping to engage the Britishers in battle. This was a commendable move for D'Estaing, but it seriously interfered with what later transpired on the land. For, a storm not only prevented a naval battle that would probably have been won by the French, but it also scattered the two fleets and disabled several of the French warships. Besides this storm played havoc with the American forces established on the island in flimsy tents and poorly protected.

General Pigot, with about 4,000 British and Hessians lined up for battle just a little north of Newport, awaited an attack from Sullivan who proceeded to march down the island opposite the enemy lines, where he halted his men anxiously expecting the French admiral to return with ships and troops. The French ships failed to appear so a heavy cannonade was ordered all along the line and this kept up for five days. It may be interesting to learn that the right wing of the American army was under the command of General Nathanael Greene and the left was under the illustrious General Lafayette. John Hancock, late President of Congress, commanded the second line of Massachusetts militia.

In regard to the vanished and much needed French fleet, records show that it returned to New York for shelter and rest for the men exhausted by a series of rough sea experiences. Admiral d'Estaing then decided to proceed from New York to Boston, where he might have his ships repaired and his provisions replenished. Hearing of this decision, Generals Greene and Lafayette were dispatched to Boston by Sullivan to urge the French to return back to Newport, but their entreaties were without success. Sullivan was left to his fate and his troubles were many, as we shall see.

An early twentieth-century postcard view looking northeast from Butt's Hill Fort.
An early twentieth-century postcard view looking northeast from Butt's Hill Fort.

Shortage of food and supplies, the failure of the French fleet to return, and the long delay created a general dissatisfaction in the American ranks. Desertions were made wholesale; the New Hampshire troops left in a body; many short-service volunteers from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut returned to their homes; and, by the end of August, Sullivan's army was reduced from 10,000 men to about 5,000. The outlook appeared decidedly discouraging for the American side. On the morning of August 29, Sullivan moved the remnants of his army back to the fortifications in Portsmouth, at the point called Butt's Hill, and there awaited developments. The British, elated at the sudden change in conditions, decided to take the offensive and promptly moved out of Newport taking the two main roads that are familiar to those who ride in that direction today. Lively skirmishes took place between the pickets and outposts of the two armies and several surprise sallies caused losses on either side. The right wing of the British attempted to advance, but was repulsed and forced to retreat to Quaker Hill. Between the two armies lay a section of low marshy land intersected by a road and stone walls with wooded sections on the flanks.

Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, looking toward Tiverton heights, circa 1902.
"A corner of Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, looking toward Tiverton heights." (The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History, edited by Edward Field, 1902).

This valley amphitheatre was the real battlefield, and across this valley cannonading continued all day. Charges and countercharges left rows of dead and dying between the lines and many heroic acts featured [in] the bloody conflict. At the end of the day, the British at last gave way and retreated to the fortifications on Quaker Hill. General Sullivan ordered a surprise attack, but the exhausted condition of his men and advice of his associate generals led him to abandon this plan. The Americans lost in killed, wounded, and missing 657, and the British, 1,023. That night, Sullivan's troops with all baggage, artillery, and stores quietly crossed the ferry to Tiverton, completing a piece of strategy that has been termed a masterly stroke of military wisdom. Naturally the Americans were disappointed, although time proved that Sullivan was well-advised in not provoking further fighting. For another year the principal island of Narragansett Bay was to remain in the hands of the British and it was a year of great annoyance and suffering, but the Battle of Rhode Island prevented an invasion of New England and probably turned the fortunes of war in the direction of the American Colonies. Perhaps, now, the many tablets and memorials to be seen at Butt's Hill in Portsmouth and elsewhere on the island will be more interesting and intelligible.

 Commemorative tablet placed by the Newport Historical Society at Butts Hill Fort in 1923, photographed 2004.
Commemorative tablet placed by the Newport Historical Society at Butts Hill Fort in 1923. (April 24, 2004).

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

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.

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