by Florence Markoff

The story of his daring plan to capture a British general.

Major William Barton

It was more than two hundred years ago, when the British were quartered in Newport, the evening of July 9, 1777, to be exact, and a young Rhode Island major was about to make history. He was one of those informal warriors who refused to fight by the book and did everything he could to cause the British pain. The Englishman who was in special agony that particular July 9 was General Richard Prescott. Now, before this fateful night, the general had enjoyed Newport. He had settled himself snug and warm and had a good life, and the good life meant definite things to the general. It meant plenty of good whiskey, comfortable quarters, and a charming romance with a young lady who lived about five miles from the city. And it was this last bit of information that led the general down the path of disaster—the disaster handled brilliantly by Rhode Island's own major from Warren, Major William Barton.

The young officer knew that the British army of occupation was in two sections: one covered the City of Newport proper, the other occupied the northern end of Aquidneck Island. The British found Newport a thriving area where the citizens enjoyed prosperity. They made it into a sad, frightened town where nobody even dared laugh out loud. The major realized that if the general was caught as a prisoner, it would help destroy the British army. He studied the general's habits, and learned that on occasion he visited a young lady who lived on the West Road leading to Bristol. It was discovered too, that when the general went romancing, he traveled alone. The major's mind was made up. He presented his daring plan to his superior officer, Colonel Stanton. The colonel knew genius when he saw it, admitted it was a great idea, and gave his permission. The major called his men together and told them his plan. The rest was easy.

The raiding party surrounded the general's lady's house, picketed the road, silenced the sentry, and broke down the door to the house. There they found a shocked, surprised general indeed. The Rhode Island major and his men hustled the general out of the house and rowed their prize to Warwick Neck, where they quartered him at Arnold's Tavern.

The next day the news was all over Rhode Island, and the major was a big hero. Even the British swallowed their royal pride and sadly admitted the major's accomplishment was a neat piece of work. The major was right—the British weren't as strong after the general's capture, and the hearts of Newporters were a little lighter and they learned to laugh again. But the biggest laugh of them all came from the man who captured the general—Major William Barton—a Rhode Island Portrait in Sound.

Providence resident Florence Markoff (1927-2017) was a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality.

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This article last edited January 23, 2003

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