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A View of the Battle: Butts Hill as Sullivan’s Headquarters

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Part 4 in brainstorming a tour of Butts Hill Fort: Focus on the Battle of Rhode Island. At the SW corner of the Fort.

We pick up our timeline:

August 28th: (From Sullivan’s letter to Congress after the battle):

Sullivan details the positions of his forces on the evening of August 28, 1778.

“One regiment was posted in a redoubt advanced to the right of the __ line. Colonel Henry B. Livingston with a light corp, consisting of Colonel Jackson’s detachment, and a detachment from the army was stationed in the east road: Another light corp, under command of Colonel Laurens, Col. Fleury, and Major Talbot, was posted on the west road. These corps were posted near three miles in front; in the rear of these was the picquet of the army, commanded by Col. Wade.”

“On the evening of the 28th we moved with our stores and baggage, which had not been previously sent forward, and about two in the morning encamped on Butts’s Hill, with our right extending to the west road, and left to the east road; the flanking and covering parties ____further towards the west road on the right and left.”

August 29th, 1778: What was going on around Portsmouth during the day of the battle? These engagements are detailed for us by Seth Chiaro. They are culled from The Rhode Island Campaign written by Christian McBurney.

West Main Rd and Union Street Engagement: During the early hours on August 29th around 7:00 AM, Hessian Chasseurs made contact with American forces near the intersection of West Main Rd and Union Street. A small engagement took place from that area and would eventually lead towards the Lawton Valley. The Hessians would eventually break the American line with Artillery. 

East Main Rd and Union Street Engagement: By 8:00 AM the British 54th, 22nd, 43rd, and the 38th Regiments of Foot are ambushed by Col. Nathaniel Wade’s American picket line. The Americans fired two volleys into the British column. The picket line retreated towards Quaker Hill. The 43rd RoF took pursuit down Middle Road while the 54th, 38th, and 43rd  RoF continued down East Main Rd. 

Turkey Hill Engagement: German Captain Von Malburg pursued Col. Laurens Regiment to Turkey Hill. Laurens men took up a strong defensive position on top of Turkey Hill. Col. Laurens sent a request for reinforcements to General Sullivan. Sullivan responded with orders to ‘”fall back to the main line.” General Sullivan sent Webb’s Connecticut Regiment to support Laurens’ retreat. Ameican and Hessian units engaged on Turkey Hill before the Americans fell back. Laurens’ Regiments fell back to General Nathanael Green’s position to the right of Butts Hill. By 8:30 AM the Hessians had secured Turkey Hill. 

Quaker Hill Engagement: The British units that had engaged with American Forces were now engaged on Quaker Hill. The British forces formed a line that extended from East Main Rd to about where Sea Meadow Drive is located. Americans were also formed between the Quaker Meeting House and Hedly St. General Sullivan sent reinforcements to Quaker Hill, giving the Americans the upper hand, but only for a short time. Both sides engaged on the hillside over a poorly defended artillery position. American forces were able to secure the position. The British attacked and poured effective volleys of musket balls into the Americans causing them to retreat. Sullivan ordered the units fighting on Quaker Hill to retreat back to the mainline around Butts Hill Fort. The engagement on Quaker Hill lasted a full hour. The British attempted to attack Butts Hill Fort but the 18 pound cannons from Butts Hill Fort kept the British from advancing. 

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill):  General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army, along the right-wing stood a small artillery redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (Black Regiment)  was under the direct command of Major Samiel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of Nathanael Greene. German Captain Malsburg was ordered to attack the hardened position. The first attack failed. The 1st RI Regiment held its ground. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. The Hessians tried to flank the position, this also failed. On the third attempt, the 2nd RI Regiment supported the 1st RI Regiment. As the 2nd RI Reg. approached the redoubt the Hessians were attempting to climb the walls. All together Greene had about 1,600 soldiers fighting on the Lehigh Hill. Units included 1st RI Regiment, 2nd RI Regiment, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, and Webbs Regiments. More than 800 Continentals including Laurens advance guard and Jacksons’ Detachment participated. The American line veered SW at a 45-degree angle from Butts Hill to Durfee’s Hill making the American fire even more effective. Col. Henry Jackson’s men fixed bayonets and charged into the Hessian Line, turning the tide of the battle. The Battle was over at 4 pm. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night. Cannon fire was also exchanged between Turkey Hill and the Butts Hill Fort. 

Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

August 30, 1778

From Sullivan’s letter: “The morning of the 30th I received a letter from his Excellency General Washington, giving me notice that Lord Howe had again sailed with the fleet, and receiving intelligence at the same time that a fleet was off Block Island and also a letter from Boston, informing me that the Count D’Estaing could not come round so soon as I expected, a council was called, and as we could have no prospect of operating against Newport with success, without the attendance of a fleet, it was unanimously agreed to quit the island until the return of the French squadron.”

The retreat plan in Sullivan’s words:

“To make a retreat in the face of an enemy, equal, if not superior in number, and cross a river without loss, I knew was an arduous task, and seldom accomplished, if attempted. As our sentries were within 200 yards of other, I knew it would require the greatest care and attention. To cover my design from the enemy, I ordered a number of tents to be brought forward and pitched in sight of the enemy, and almost the whole army employed themselves in fortifying the camp. The heavy baggage and stores were falling back and crossing through the day; at dark, the tents were struck, the light baggage and troops passed dawn, and before twelve o’clock the main army had crossed with the stores and baggage.

Resources:

Plan of the Battle of Rhode Island from a Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

Sullivan’s letter to the Continental Congress which was published in the Providence Gazette, September 26, 1778.

The Role of Butts Hill in the Siege of Newport

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This blog is part three of information that might be provided on a tour of Butts Hill Fort today. We are at the southern fortifications.

The narrative of our tour of Butts Hill Fort has taken us through the British improvements to the fortifications. This part of the story takes us to the three weeks in August of 1778 when the Americans held this high position during the Siege of Newport.

Drone images from Butts Hill illustrate what a commanding view was possible from this location. The British were concerned with the view of possible American invasions from the North from Bristol and Tiverton. For the Americans, however, the view south was essential.

With the French sailing to Newport to help the American forces, Butts Hill became a strategic site.

July 29th: d’Estaing met with American Commanders when he arrived at Point Judith. Plans called for Sullivan’s American forces to cross from Tiverton to Aquidneck Island and advance to the British fortifications at Butts Hill. The French would land on Conanicut Island (Jamestown) before arriving in Newport to cut off the British forces.

August 9th: Fearing an attack, British forces abandoned Butts Hill and General Pigot withdrew his forces to Newport as the French were landing on Conanicut. Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned Butts Hill, so he crossed over to Aquidneck and occupied the high fortifications. He called for the heavy cannon at Fox Point to be moved to Portsmouth. Sullivan was supposed to wait until August 10.

August 11: Most of the American troops were camped about Butts Hill. The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for American General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what was going on around Butts Hill. He wrote on August 11th that at 4 o’clock the whole army paraded and passed in review by the general officers. “The right wing of the army was commanded by General Greene and the left by the Marquis de Lafayette.”

August 12-13: A hurricane hit that destroyed men, horses, camps and supplies on both the British and American sides. Rhode Island’s governor (William Greene) replaced the ruined powder on the American side.

August 16: As the Americans built earthworks and dug trenches toward Newport, American reserves and the sick who were healthy enough to do garrison work remained at Butts Hill which served as Sullivan’s headquarters.

August 17: Sullivan calls a council of War. All officers recommend holding positions until they could be reinforced.

August 26: Americans now know that the British fleet is coming and that it would be at least three weeks before French would arrive. They begin to send their heavy cannon back to northern locations like Butts Hill. The Council of War again determines to hold American positions until they could be reinforced. General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. Cutler’s entry on Monday, August 24th “As much of the heavy baggage moved off last night as possible. A body of men retreated to strengthen the works at Butts’ Hill. At the lines – heavy fire – army preparing to retreat.” Cutler’s story ends on August 26th when he, like many in the militias, escaped to Tiverton and away from battle.

This was not a hasty retreat. Sullivan ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill and fortifications guarding the Bristol Ferry and the ferry to Tiverton). He wanted to get all his weaponry out so it would not fall into enemy hands to use against them another day. In his letter to Congress after the retreat, he makes it clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

Initial positions of Americans

Resources

Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″.

Cutler’s Diary is found in Edwin Stone’s “Our French Allies.” This is an old book (1884, Providence) but it was a great help. It is available online through Google Books. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

Image of Quaker Hill: Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 7) (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1912)

A map of part of Rhode Island shewing the positions of the American and British armies at the Siege of Newport, and the subsequent action on the 29th of August 1778. [1807]. Original in Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center.

When Did “Butts Hill” Become a Fort?

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As I try to imagine giving a tour of the Butts Hill Fort, I am coming across military terms that I need to understand. Thankfully, there are others in the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee that are willing to share their knowledge with me. I find that I have been using the term “fort” rather loosely.

Stephen Luce reminded me: “The fortifications there were called ‘works’ from 1775/6 to 1780. There was never a ‘Windmill Hill Fort’ because the Fort did not exist until the French combined the separate works in 1780/81 and by that time the hill was called Butts Hill.”

Going back to the revolutionary terminology guides (American Battlefield Trust Glossary) clarified things for me.

Fort: A fully enclosed earthwork; a fortified building, enclosure, or strategic position.
Fortification: Something that makes a defensive position stronger, like high mounds of earth to protect cannon or spiky breastworks to slow an enemy charge. Fortifications may be man-made structures or a part of the natural terrain.  Man-made fortifications could be permanent (mortar or stone) or temporary (wood and soil).  Natural fortifications could include waterways, forests, hills and mountains, swamps and marshes.

The British works at “Windmill Hill” were fortifications. When they arrived on the island they took over an American militia made natural (hill top) defensive position that was a temporary construction of wood and soil. The British sought to make it a more permanent fortification with the building of barracks and a guard house.

Plan of a barrack for 300 men, and officers, erected at Windmill Hill with an abbatis, December 1777 :

Note there is an “Abbatis” around the barracks. Abatis: A line of trees, chopped down and placed with their branches facing the enemy, used to strengthen fortifications.

As we look at the military maps of the time, it is clear that the British fortification at Windmill Hill was not enclosed as a fort would be. It was a more permanent fortification because they had built structures such as a guard house and a barracks. It was carefully planned and as Frederick Mackenzie’s diary proves, it was worked on over time to improve the position. The Edward Fage map shows a second redoubt – the Southern Redoubt – was added to the fortifications. This was the condition of the fortifications when the Americans returned to Aquidneck Island in August of 1778.

Resources:

“Plan of a barrack for 300 men, and officers, erected at Windmill Hill with an abbatis, December 1777 : Plan nr 18..” https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-6053/wcl006127. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed: December 19, 2021.

Planning, Preservation and Management Plan for Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, RI. A Project of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.

American Battlefield Trust website.

Fage, Edward, 1777-1779: Manuscript chart of Aquidneck Island and environs. Original in the Clinton Collection, Clements Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Plan of the adjacent coast to the northern part of Rhode Island, to express the route of a body of troops under the command of Lieut Colonel Campbell of the 22d: Regiment to destroy the enemies batteaux, vessels, galley &c &c &c which was accomplished May 25th 1778 / laid down and drawn by Edwd Fage, lieutt. of artillery.

What was the Fort like before the Battle of Rhode Island?

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Part 2: Brainstorming for a Guided Tour: at the North/East rampart and moat.

If what we see today at Butts Hill Fort is the outline of the modifications made by the French and Americans, what was the fort like just before the Battle of Rhode Island?

If we start the tour with the oldest section – the North ramparts, we could begin to discuss the British improvements to the small fort left behind by the Americans. The diaries of Frederick Mackenzie and blueprints of proposed fort construction can give us a good idea of the fort at what the British called “Windmill Hill.”

North Rampart and Moat

December 8, 1776: as Mackenzie was arriving on the island as part of the British forces, he wrote: “The Rebels abandoned a well situated fort at the N. End of the Island yesterday, without attempting to defend it. It in some measure commands the passage to Bristol by the ferry.”

Vintage view of Howland Ferry area from Butts Hill Fort

My guess is that this is a reference to the Butts Hill (or Windmill Hill location as the British called it). The location does overlook the Bristol Ferry landing. One of the reasons this location was so valuable is that it had a commanding view of both the Bristol Ferry and Howland Ferry to Tiverton. While they occupied Aquidneck Island, the British would have expected an American attack to come Bristol or Tiverton.

Dec. 30, 1776: “The redoubt constructed by the Rebels above Bristol Ferry, and abandoned by them, is ordered to be repaired and a guard house to be erected therein for the accommodation of the advanced post. It is a much better situation for the advanced guard than that they are now in, and the troops on duty will not be liable to accidents from the wanton firing of the Rebels on the opposite side.” (From Mackenzie diary).

This again I believe to be a reference to the Butts Hill Fort in the area “above Bristol Ferry.” The Rebels had fortifications across in Bristol and they would often direct fire at the troops stationed by the Aquidneck side of the Bristol Ferry crossing. The order here is to repair the redoubt and build a guard house. The British are beginning construction to enlarge the American fortifications.

Sept 12, 1777: “As the works intended to be made for the defense of the North Part of the Island, require a good many workmen to complete them, and the duty of the Soldiers is rather severe, General Pigot sent a summons this day to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth to assemble on the 15th instant at Windmill Hill in order to assist in carrying them on. They are required to work three days in the week.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Sept 15, 1777: “In consequence of the General’s summons to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth, to assemble in order to be employed to work on the Redouts, 17 only appeared this morning at the place appointed. The Majority of the Inhabitants being Quakers, they informed the General that it was contrary to their principles to assist, in any manner in matters of War, and that therefor they could not appear. They even refuse to be employed in constructing Barracks for the accommodations of the troops.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Portsmouth residents are used as forced labor to construct fortifications for the British.

Sept. 17, 1777: “We are at present very busy in fortifying different posts on the Island; and there are already more works planned and traced out, than can possibly be finished by the end of December. …… A fortified Barrick on Windmill hill for 200 men.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Blueprints of the British fort plans and an overlay done by Dr. Abbass in her plans for Butts Hill Fort help us to visualize what the fort looked like just before the Battle of Rhode Island. Some of the fortifications were in what is a residential area. We need to know two more terms to understand the visuals. (Definitions culled from American Battlefield Trust)

Palisade: Typically, a fence or defensive wall made with wooden stakes or tree trunks, and used as a defensive structure or enclosure. Palisades form the walls of a stockade.

Redoubt: (pronounced rih-dowt) An enclosed field work which had several sides and was used to protect a garrison from attacks from several directions. A redoubt could also extend from a permanent fortress.

The Northeastern part of the fort with its moat, glacis and ramparts remind us of the British fortifications that General Sullivan and the American troops would move into just before the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island.

Resources:

Diary of Frederick Mackenzie: Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775-1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, Volume I & II

Revolutionary War Plans in collection of the William Clements Library: University of Michigan.

Diagram from Planning, Preservation and Management Plan for Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, RI
A Project of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.

Butts Hill Fort: Making Sense of What You See

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It is difficult to understand what you can see today at Butts Hill Fort. The landscape doesn’t quite make sense, but if you are fortunate to have a knowledgeable guide with you, you can imagine the fort as it used to be. Fortunately for me, the first time I saw the fort I was guided by Dr. Kathy Abbass and she understood the fort. At that time (2008 or 2009) Dr. Abbass was advocating for a restoration of the fort and I was the board member of the Portsmouth Historical Society assigned to see how we could work with her. I was overwhelmed with the moats and sloping hills (glacis), and it seemed incredible that the fort could be in Portsmouth and I hadn’t known about it. I did some research on the Battle of Rhode Island, but Abbass’ proposal seemed to go nowhere. I picked up my research again as the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee developed last year.

One goal I have is to help Portsmouth residents (and others) to understand what they see when they come to the fort. There is nothing better than a “field trip” – actually being at an historic site. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee is working towards a time when there are marked trails, observation posts, signage and QR codes. Right now those things are admirable goals (that take planning and money). What I am trying to work out is how I could give a knowledgeable tour to a group coming in May or June of 2022. These next blogs are part of my brainstorming of materials I would need to write a tour script.

One thing I know from my research is that the Butts Hill Fort (or Windmill Hill Fort) evolved along the way. The outlines we are seeing date from the improvements made by the French (with the help of Americans) in 1780-1781.

Parts of the Fort:

Before I even begin I need to get my terms straight. My knowledge of military terminology is limited, but I am learning. The definitions I am using are adapted from the American Battlefield Trust and other military websites.

Battery: A fortified emplacement for heavy guns or artillery pieces; companies of artillery usually had six to ten guns used together or dispersed based on the situation.

Rampart: A large earthen mound used to shield the inside of a fortified position from artillery fire and infantry assault.

Glacis: A defensive feature which is simply a natural or artificial slope incorporated into the defenses of a fortification. The slopes were initially designed to deter attack on foot with steep man-made slopes

Moat: A depression surrounding the fort. Often the moat was created as a natural result of early methods of fortification by earthworks, for the ditch produced by the removal of earth to form a rampart made a valuable part of the defense system.

Parade Ground: Place where soldiers practice or have parades.

Dr. Abbass’ plan contains some helpful maps that help us understand the fort as we view it now. I tried to simplify a map that is an overlay of the fort outline on current terrain.

North battery ramparts: The oldest portion of the fort. It is intact except for its south wall which opens to the parade.

North Battery


South battery ramparts: The north, south and east faces of this battery’s ramparts are basically intact. The West ramparts were removed during the expansion of the fort when the French and Americans modified it (1780-1781).

Volunteers clearing South Battery Ramparts 9/2021


North and east ditch and glacis: At the base of the ramparts the moat is still recognizable, with the glacis descending to the north.

North and East Ditch and Glacis


Parade ground: In the center of the fort. This parade ground is maintained and mowed on a regular basis, and has been used for events and re-enactments.

Parade.

Preserving the Glen Farm Ice House

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Are you old enough to remember when an “icebox” was used instead of a refrigerator? Ice houses were an important tool in keeping that ice cold to meet refrigeration needs over the summer.

A hundred years ago this week, January 1922, the Newport Mercury reported that ice was being harvested from St. Mary’s “Lake.”

“The severe cold on Monday did not stop the preparations made for harvesting ice at St. Mary’s Lake. Ice about nine inches thick was cut and the ice houses at Oakland Farm have Benn filled. Those at Glen Farm are being filled and the men at Sandy Point Farm were to start on Thursday morning.” (Npt. Mercury 1/7/1922)

In the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is an ice saw with one handle that was actually used to cut ice at St. Mary’s Pond.

Part of that ice was going into a little ice house at Glen Farm. As part of the Glen Farm complex, an ice house was extremely important to farmers like H.A.C. Taylor who owned a dairy. The Newport Mercury in June of 1896 reports that H.A.C. Taylor was having an ice house built by Edward Coggeshall. It measured 24 feet by 16 feet and had a gambrel roof. The house would have very thick insulation to keep the ice cold through the warmer seasons.

Portsmouth is blessed with many historical buildings and it is always good news when efforts are made to preserve these properties. On December 13, 2021, the Portsmouth Town Council voted to use some modest funds to repair and stabilize the Glen Farm Ice House. These funds go a long way to making the ice house a useful town owned building. Portsmouth’s history in many ways revolves around its agricultural heritage and “gentlemen farms” like Glen Farm are part of that history we should celebrate.

From Newport Mercury 1920

Sullivan’s Letter – Continued

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A continuation of Sullivan’s letter to the Continental Congress which was published in the Providence Gazette, September 26, 1778.

The stage was set for the Battle of Rhode Island. Sullivan goes on to describe what happened.

August 29, 1778

“The enemy having received intelligence of our movement, came out early in the morning with nearly their whole force, in two columns, advanced in the two roads (East Main and West Main) and attacked our light corps; they made a brave resistance, and were supported for some time by the piquet. I ordered a regiment to support Col. Livingston, another to Col. Laurens, and at the same time sent them orders to retire to the main army in the best order they could; They kept up a retreating fire upon the enemy and retired in excellent order to the main army. The enemy advanced on our left very rear, but were repulsed by General Glover; They then retired to Quaker Hill. The Hessian columns formed a on chain of hills running northward from Quaker Hill. Our army was drawn up, the first line in front of the works, on Butts’s Hill, and the second in rear of the hill and the reserve near a creek, and near half a mile off the hill line. The distance between these is about one mile. The ground between the hills is meadow land, with tree and of wood. The enemy began a cannonade upon us about nine in the morning, which was returned with double force. Skirmishing continued between the advanced parties til near ten o’clock, when the enemy’s two ships of war and __armed vessels having gained our right flank and began a fire, the enemy bent their whole force that way, and endeavored to turn our fight under cover of ship’s fire, and to rake the advanced redoubt on the right: They were twice driven back in great confusion; but a third trial was made with greater numbers and with more resolution which, had it not been for the timely aid sent forward would have succeeded. A sharp conflict of near an hour ensued, in which the cannon from both armies placed on the hills, played briskly in __ part of their own party. The enemy were at length routed, and fled in great confusion to the hill where they first formed, where they had artillery and some works to cover them, leaving their dead and wounded in considerable numbers behind them. It was impossible to be certain of the number of dead on the field, as it could not be approached by either party without being exposed to the cannon of the other army. Our party recovered about twenty of their wounded, and took near sixty prisoners, according to the best accounts I have been able to collect; amongst the prisoners is a Lieutenant of grenadiers. The number of their dead I have not been able to ascertain, but I know them to be very considerable. An officer informs me that in one place he counted sixty of their dead. Col. Campbell came out the next day to gain permission to view the field of action, to search for his nephew, who was killed by his side, whose body he could not get off, as they were closely pursued. The firing of artillery continued through the day, and the _ with intermission six hours. The heat of the action continued near an hour, which must have ended in the ruin of the British army, had not their redoubts on the hill covered them from further pursuit. We were about to attack them in their lines, but the men’s having had no rest the night before, and another to eat either that night or the day of the action, and having been in constant action through most of the day, it was not thought advisable, especially as their position was exceedingly strong, and their numbers fully equal, if not superior to ours.”

Sullivan writes about how well his troops functioned, even though they had little experience.

“Not more than fifteen hundred of my troops had ever been in action before. I should before have taken possession of the hill they occupied, and fortified it, but it is in no defense against an enemy coming from the south part of the island, though exceedingly good against an enemy advancing from the north and towards the town, and had been fortified by the enemy for that purpose.

I have the pleasure to inform Congress, that no troops could possibly show more spirit than these of ours which were engaged. Col. Livingston, and all the officers of the light troops, behaved with remarkable spirit; Colonel Laurens, Fleury, and Major Talbot, with the officers of their corps, behaved with great gallantry. The brigades of the first line, Varnum’s Glover’s Cornell’s and Greene’s behave with great firmness. Major-General Greene, who commanded in attack on the right, did himself the highest honor, by the judgment and bravery exhibited in the action. One brigade only of the second line was brought into action, commanded by Brigadier-General Lovell; he, and his brigade of militia, behaved with great resolution. Col. Crane and the officers of the artillery deserve the highest praise.”

Sullivan writes about the casualties:

“I enclose Congress a return of the killed, wounded and missing on our side, and beg leave to assure them, that, from my own observation, the enemy’s loss must be much greater. Our army retired to camp after the action; the enemy employed themselves in fortifying their camp at night. “

Sullivan justifies the retreat: Lord Howe and his fleet were approaching.

In the morning of the 30th I received a letter from his Excellency General Washington, giving me notice that Lord Howe had again sailed with the fleet, and receiving intelligence at the same time that a fleet was off Block Island and also a letter from Boston, information me that the Count D’Estaing could not come round so soon as I expected, a council was called, and as we could have no prospect of operating against Newport with success, without the attendance of a fleet, it was unanimously agreed to quit the island until the return of the French squadron.

The retreat plan is shared with Congress

To make a retreat in the face of an enemy, equal, if not superior in number, and cross a river without loss, I knew was an arduous task, and seldom accomplished, if attempted. As our sentries were within 200 yards of other, I knew it would require the greatest care and attention. To cover my design from the enemy, I ordered a number of tents to be brought forward and pitched in sight of the enemy, and almost the whole army employed themselves in fortifying the camp. The heavy baggage and stores were falling back and crossing through the day; at dark, the tents were struck, the light baggage and troops passed dawn, and before twelve o’clock the main army had crossed with the stores and baggage. The Marquis de la Fayette arrived about 11 in the evening from Boston, where he had been by request of the general officers, to solicit the speedy return of the fleet. He was sensibly mortified that he was out of action; and that he might not be out of the way in case of action, he had rode from hence to Boston in seven hours , and returned in six and a half, the distance near seventy miles — he returned time enough to bring off the pickets, and other parties, which converted the retreat of the army, which he di in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article left. I hope my conduct through this expedition may merit the approbation of Congress. Major Morris, on of my aids will have the honor of delivering this to your Excellency; I must beg leave to recommend him to Congress as an officer who is in the last, as well as several other actions, has behaved with great spirit and good conduct, and doubt not Congress will take such notice of him, as his long service and spirited conduct deserves. I have the honor to be, dear Sir, with must___
Your very humble servant – John Sullivan.

Plan of the Battle of Rhode Island from a Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

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Battle of Rhode Island Historic District

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Did you know that we have an important battlefield in Portsmouth? Most Rhode Islanders aren’t aware that within Portsmouth is an area of 365 acres that has been designated an historic district on the National Register of Historical Places. We can view this battlefield from Heritage Park off of Hedley Street and from a site on the top of Lehigh Hill that has signage to help you understand the action of the battle. The monument to the Black Regiment between West Main Road and Route 24 and Butts Hill Fort are part of this battlefield as well. There are new efforts to preserve and restore Butts Hill Fort which would give us the view of the battlefield from the position of Patriot headquarters.

Battle of Rhode Island Historic Landmark District.

What is the National Register and what special significance is this area of Portsmouth?

According to their website: “The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

What is special about this 365 acres of our town? This parcel of land is an important Revolutionary War battlefield. The Battle of Rhode Island was fought in Portsmouth in a valley between three hills. Lehigh Hill is to the North and Turkey and Almy Hills are to the south. This battlefield area along with the 34 acres of Butts Hill Fort are included in this historic district. The outline of the battlefield is approximately:

Western boundary: Parallel to West Main Road. Southern boundary: Cory Lane, West Main Road and a short stretch of Hedley Street. Eastern boundary runs to the east of Turkey Hill and then northward around Barker’s Brook. The boundary crosses Freeborn and Dexter to the southern rise of Lehigh Hill. Butts Hill Fort is to the northeast of the battlefield and is included in the battlefield.

Historians who prepared the application for this designation as an historic district cited a number of reasons why the Battle of Rhode Island was of significance and why the battlefield should be preserved.

  1. The Battle of RI (BRI) was the last major battle fought in the North during the Revolution.
  2. This was the only major battle fought in Rhode Island, so it is important to Rhode Island military history.
  3. The battle was the only occasion in which the Black Regiment served as a segregated unit. They served admirably in repulsing three successive enemy assaults. Due to losses of men in combat and with the repeal of the law allowing blacks to enlist, by 1780 this unit was combined with other units under Christopher Greene.
  4. The battle shows the growing professionalism of the American army.
  5. Although the French were not able to stay and participate in the battle, the overall plan was the first joint effort of the French and American alliance.
  6. The British realized their position in Newport was vulnerable. The Indecisive conclusion of the battle was indirectly responsible for the British evacuation of Newport in October of 1779.

What action occurred on this battlefield during the Battle of Rhode Island? The following descriptions are culled from Christian McBurney’s book, The Rhode Island Campaign by Battle of Rhode Island Committee member Seth Chiaro.

Turkey Hill Engagement: Hessian troops under Captain Von Malburg pursued American Col. Laurens Regiment to Turkey Hill. Laurens men took up a strong defensive position on top of Turkey Hill. Col. Lauren sent a request for reinforcement to General Sullivan. Sullivan responded with orders to ‘fall back to the main line’. General Sullivan sent Webb’s Connecticut Regiment to support Laurens retreat. Ameican and Hessian units engaged on Turkey Hill before the Americans fell back. Laurens Regiments fell back to General Nathanael Green’s position to the right of Butts Hill. By 8:30 am the Hessians had secured Turkey Hill. 

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill):  General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army, along the right-wing stood a small Artillery Redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (Black Regiment)  was under the direct command of Major Samiel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of Nathanael Greene. Captain Malsburg was ordered to attack the hardened position. The first attack failed. The 1st RI Regiment held its ground. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. The Hessians tried to flank the position, this also failed. On the third attempt, the 2nd RI Regiment supported the 1st RI Regiment. As the 2nd RI Reg. approached the redoubt the Hessians were attempting to climb the walls. All together Greene had about 1,600 soldiers fighting on the Lehigh Hill. Units included 1st RI Regiment, 2nd RI Regiment, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, and Webbs Regiments. More than 800 Continentals including Laurens advance guard and Jacksons’ Detachment. The American line veered SW at a 45-degree angle from Butts Hill to Durfee’s Hill making the American fire even more effective. Col. Henry Jackson’s men fixed bayonets and charged into the Hessian Line, turning the tide of the battle. The Battle was over at 4 pm. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night. Cannon fire was also exchanged between Turkey Hill and the Butts Hill Fort. 

General Sullivan’s Account of the Battle of Rhode Island – Part 1

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After the Battle of Rhode Island, John Sullivan had to explain his retreat from Aquidneck Island. We have a record of that explanation in a letter published in the Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″. I was able to find that article and transcribe it. This is quite a lengthy letter, so In the next few blogs I will take you through Sullivan’s explanations in stages. In reading through this letter, we need to remember that Sullivan had been part of retreats before and the Congress had questioned his actions. I am not a military historian and I am only now beginning to study the Battle of Rhode Island, but this is a primary source to be respected as a first hand account of the man in charge of the American troops in the battle.

For some background I searched for some basic information about John Sullivan. He was born in New Hampshire in 1740, the son of Irish immigrants. His original training was as a lawyer.
In 1772 New Hampshire’s Royal governor appointed him as major in the New Hampshire militia. As the break with Britain was unfolding, he began to favor the rebel cause. Sullivan was sent as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774. In 1775 Sullivan was sent to the Second Continental Congress. Congress appointed George Washington Commander in Chief and John Sullivan as brigadier general. Sullivan joined the army at the siege of Boston. Later he took command of a force in Quebec in a failed invasion. Sullivan had to withdraw the survivors. He was captured in defeat at the Battle of Long Island. British General Howe released him on parole to deliver a message to Congress. He was later released in a prisoner exchange for captured British general Prescott. He had some success in battle but had continued difficulties as well. In Early 1778 he was transferred to the post of Rhode Island where he led the continental troops and militia. John Sullivan fought bravely, but his command decisions were questioned on a number of occasions. He had to defend himself, but he was often judged not at fault. Sullivan needs to explain his decisions.

The first part of the letter deals with the prelude of the battle. The French fleet under Count De’Estaing had gone to Boston to make repairs and Sullivan expressed belief that they would come back soon. He decided to carry on with the planned invasion of Aquidneck Island.

“I thought it best to carry on my approaches with as much vigor as possible against Newport, that as time might be lost in making the attack upon the return of the fleet, or any part of it, to cooperate with us. I had sent expresses to the Count to hasten his return which I had no doubt would at least bring part of his fleet to us in a few days.”

Initially he had good success and the enemy abandoned positions. “…on the 27th we found they had removed their cannons on all the outworks except one.” He details the British positions at Newport and described them as two basic lines. He expresses regrets that he had not stormed some of these defenses when the cannons had been withdrawn, but he began to lose manpower. “

He writes he found: ” ..to my great surprise, that the volunteers which completed the great part of my army, had returned [left for home], and reduced my numbers to little more than that of the enemy; between two and three thousand returned in the course of twenty-four hours, and others were______ going off, upon a supposition that nothing could be done before the return of the French fleet.”

Sullivan’s troops were a combination of Continental soldiers and militia. Many militia units came from nearby Massachusetts and in discouragement that the mission could not be accomplished without the French fleet, many units headed home. General Sullivan was in a difficult position.

“Under these circumstances, and the apprehension of the arrival of an English fleet with a reinforcement to relieve the garrison, I sent away all the heavy articles that could be spared from the army to the main; also a large party was detached to get the works in repair on the north end of the island to throw up some additional ones, and put in good repair the batteries at Tiverton and Bristol, to receive a retreat in case of necessity.”

General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. This was not a hasty retreat. He ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill Fort and forts guarding the Bristol Ferry and the ferry to Tiverton). He wanted to get all his weaponry out so it would not fall into enemy hands to use against them another day. His letter makes clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

“On the 28th a council was called, in which it was unanimously decided to remove to the north end of the island, fortify our camp, ______ (secure?) our communication with the main, and hold our ground on the island til we could know whether the French fleet would _____ return to our alliance.  On the evening of the 28th we moved with our stores and baggage, which had not been previously sent forward, and about two in the morning encamped on Butts’s Hill, with our right extending to the west road, and left to the east road; the flanking and covering parties ____further towards the west road on the right and left.”

Sullivan details the positions of his forces on the evening of August 28, 1778.

“One regiment was posted in a redoubt advanced to the right of the __ line. Colonel Henry B. Livingston with a light corp, consisting of Colonel Jackson’s detachment, and a detachment from the army was stationed in the east road: Another light corp, under command of Colonel Laurens, Col. Fleury, and Major Talbot, was posted on the west road. These corps were posted near three miles in front; in the rear of these was the picquet of the army, commanded by Col. Wade.”

The stage is set for battle. 

Map: http://library.providence.edu/encompass/rhode-island-in-the-american-revolution/primary-sources/map-of-the-siege-of-newport/

Butts Hill Timeline

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This is a work in progress as I uncover more dates of importance in the land history of the Butts Hill – (Windmill Hill – Briggs Hill) area. Working with the early dates is difficult.

Until 1638: The land on Aquidneck Island was a summer hunting ground for Wampanoags and later the Narragansetts.

1638 – Portsmouth town land.

1665 – Land owned by Caleb Briggs.

1666 – Windmill erected on Briggs Hill or Windmill Hill (from Preservation book).

1668 – Windmill completed by William Earle and William Cory.

1682 (Feb 24, 1682) – William Cory (carpenter and miller) in his will gave windmill to his wife Mary.
Mary traded land back to the town.

1688 William Earle (Wm Cory’s brother in law) built windmill on Briggs Hill (I doubt this date unless this is a second windmill on the spot).

1721 – Caleb Bennett inherits windmill from father Robert Bennett. Robert had married Anne Cory – daughter of William and Mary Earle.

1725 (January) – John Butts bought from Caleb Bennett the windmill and about one rod of land (maybe a quarter of an acre) on Windmill Hill.

Before 1729 : Town gave a land grant to Thomas Durfee. West land-grant map shows windmill already on site. My suspicion is that town had held the larger parcels of land until this time. Windmill area small piece of that whole.

1729 (February): Town records show “a parcel called the Wind Mill Hill land” given to son Gideon Durfee. I suspect that there were several parcels of land on Windmill Hill. The West land-grant maps show that.

1776 – Americans built small battery at Butts Hill.

1776 to 1779 – British occupation of Island and fort.

1778 – July 29 to August 15 – Siege of Newport: British bring troops down to Newport. August 11: American troops at Butts Hill.

1778 – August 29-30 Battle of Rhode Island. Gen. Sullivan uses Butts Hill Fort as headquarters.

1778 – September 1, British return to Ft. Butts (known as Windmill Hill to them).

1779 – December – Butts Hill Fort returned to American control.

1780-1781 Camp Butts Hill housed French and American troops.

1782 Butts Hill Fort was abandoned by the end of the war (1782).
1900 House lots for sale – Benjamin Hall Jr.
1907 – Dyer family farm. Fort and surrounding platted for 200 house lots.
1908 – Benjamin Hall selling house lots

1920s -1930s. – Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the land in 1923, 1924, and 1932.
1968 state transfers land to Town of Portsmouth.

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