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History is Our Story: Heritage Park – Imagining a Battle

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The Revolutionary War is part of our story here in Portsmouth. I have been learning about that time in our history as part of an effort to restore Butts Hill Fort. Heritage Park is another place where you can quietly imagine the Battle of Rhode Island and the fighting that took place on Turkey Hill. If you are a “Hamilton” fan you may remember the character of John Laurens, a good friend of Alexander Hamilton. Laurens was a central figure in the fight.

Seth Chiaro of the Butts Hill/Battle of RI Association penned this description of the action based on Christian McBurney’s masterful book “The Rhode Island Campaign.” As you wander around the hillside at the park, imagine this:

“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.”

Turkey Hill was lost and the Americans had to retreat off the island, but the Americans fought well and the retreat was successful in preserving men and weapons for another fight.

Heritage Park is located off of Hedley Street/High Point on the hill behind the Transfer Station. Walk up the hill and you will find Nathan Minese’s excellent display on the Battle of Rhode Island.

Butts Hill – Before and After 3 CleanUps

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A fort is emerging:

2022
2020 stonewall by entrance

Portsmouth Women: Julia Ward Howe, Mother’s Day and other Causes

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Mother’s Day had its roots in Portsmouth’s own Julia Ward Howe.

portsmouthhistorynotes

Julia in her Oak Glen Parlor

Did you know that Julia Ward Howe was the first to propose a Mother’s Day? She envisioned it as a Day of Peace in protest to war?

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears!… We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”~Julia Ward Howe, 1870
From her Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace
She wrote in Reminiscences in 1914:  “I had desired to institute a festival which should be observed as Mother’s Day, and which should be devoted to the advocates of peace doctrines. I…

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A Walk Around Butts Hill Fort

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Stop 1: At Stone Wall: An Introduction:

We welcome you to Butts Hill Fort. It may be difficult to understand what you can see today at the fort. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee as part of the Battle of Rhode Island Association is working towards a time when there are marked trails, observation posts of three battle vistas, signage and QR codes to scan for more information. Meanwhile, we hope this tour helps to explain what you see at the fort.

Butts Hill Fort (or Windmill Hill Fort) evolved along the way. The British called this area Windmill Hill because it was a traditional site for a windmill. The Americans called this area “Butts Hill” after the John Butts family that held the land when the war began. The outlines we are seeing date from the improvements made by the French (with the help of Americans) in 1780-1781. If you look at a LIDAR image of what the fort looks like under the vegetation, you would see the outlines clearly.

We can see ramparts – large earthen mounds used to shield the inside of a fortified position from artillery fire and infantry assault. The ramparts protect a battery which is a cluster of cannons in action as a group.

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

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).

Parade Ground: Place where soldiers practice or have parades.

At the Stop 2 at the North/East rampart and moat. Butts Hill in British Hands

Here we see the North ramparts with moat or ditch and glacis. At the base of the ramparts is the moat (depression surrounding a fortification). The moat was 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 with the glacis (an embankment sloping gradually up to a fortification, so as to expose attackers to defending gunfire) descending to the north.

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?

We start the tour with the oldest section – the North ramparts.
The Rebels had fortifications across in Bristol and they would often direct fire at the troops stationed by the Aquidneck Island side of the Bristol Ferry crossing. The British are beginning construction to enlarge the American fortifications.

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 now a residential area. We need to know other terms to understand the visuals.

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.

Stop 3: South Ramparts: Role of Butts Hill in the Siege of Newport and Battle of Rhode Island: Butts Hill in American hands.

We are at the southern 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 and Battle of Rhode Island.

South ramparts

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 the east from Tiverton. For the Americans, however, the view south was essential.

July 29th: d’Estaing met with American Commanders when he arrived at Point Judith.


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 (Jamestown). Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned Butts Hill, so he and his troops crossed over to Aquidneck and occupied the high fortifications. He called for the heavy cannon at Fox Point to be moved to Portsmouth.

August 12-13: A hurricane hit that destroyed men, horses, camps and supplies on both the British and American sides. The storm caused the French Navy to abandon attack in Newport.

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 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. General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. This was not a hasty retreat.

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.

“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?

West Main Road and Union Street Engagement:

During the early hours on August 29th around 7:00 AM, Hessian Chasseurs [rapid movement soldiers] 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 Road 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 43rd took pursuit down Middle Road while the 54th, 38th, and 43rd continued down East Main Road.

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’ 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 were now engaged on Quaker Hill. The British forces formed a line that extended from East Main Road to about where Sea Meadow Drive is now located. Americans were also formed between the Quaker Meeting House; and Hedly Street. 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 the Fort kept the British from advancing.

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill)

General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army and along the right-wing stood a small artillery redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (The Black Regiment) was under the direct command of Major Samuel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. 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. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night.

The retreat plan in Sullivan’s words: “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.”

Stop 4: At the parade grounds

Parade Grounds

In December of 1779 the British finally departed from Aquidneck Island. The Americans regained possession of Butts Hill. The French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780 and the island was again occupied by troops. In October of 1780 one American militiaman would report in a letter:

“…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men, at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state.”

The allied French and American forces felt secure, but they continued to prepare to defend the island. On Butts Hill there were American troops assigned to support the work of the French troops in restoring the fortifications. Through the summer and fall of 1780, Butts Hill was actively being enclosed and made into a fort by the Americans and their French allies. This is the fort shape we recognize today

Fort building was hard work. One entry records that the American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer. Members of the Black Regiment continued the “works” at Butts Hill Fort once the Massachusetts militias departed.

When Did Butts Hill become a Fort?

Rochambeau map shows outline of completed fort.

“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: fully enclosed earthwork; a fortified building, enclosure, or strategic position.

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.

Fage Map 1778

The Edward Fage map (1778) 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.

We think of the Black Regiment’s valor during the Battle of Rhode Island, but I am discovering more ties between the First Rhode Island Regiment (commanded by Col. Christopher Greene) and the construction of the fort at Butts Hill. According to pension petitions, they helped the French soldiers and masons complete the job of re-enforcing the fortifications at Butts Hill. Fifty of their soldiers were detached to help the French move their artillery. After two calls back to Aquidneck Island, they would later join the American Army on the march south and participated in the final battle at Yorktown.

Stop 5: At the memorial

“Butts Hill Fort. These fortifications erected by the British 1777 were occupied by the Americans 1778 becoming the island base of the Continental Army under General Sullivan in the Battle of Rhode Island. They are consecrated to the immortal memory of those brave men who upon August 29, 1778 withstood the assaults of the more numerous highly trained British Army under General Pigot. Dedicated to posterity by the Newport Historical Society, August 29, 1923.”

1923 Memorial Stone

This memorial stone was dedicated with some fanfare. There were speeches and battle reenactments, marching bands and the blast of cannons. This sacred piece of land was saved from being a housing development by the then President of the Newport Historical Society, Rev. Roderick Terry. He personally bought the property (and Fort Barton as well) and gave them to the Society. This gift came with some restrictions:

*The Newport Historical Society and its successors were to forever “preserve, keep and maintain” the property as a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War.
*That the property will always keep the name “Butts Hill Fort.”
*That the property should never be used for monetary gain.

The Newport Historical Society could not maintain the fort. In 1968 the land was transferred to the State and on to the Town of Portsmouth. Terry’s restrictions on the property remain today as the responsibility of the town of Portsmouth.

The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee aims to fulfill Rev. Terry’s mandate to preserve, keep and maintain the property as a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War. The Committee is working on a land management plan to restore the fort and create an open space area of walking trails and informational signage. The three acres of land with the fort provide ample space for major re-enactments.

As the anniversaries of the American Revolution (2026) and Battle of Rhode Island (2028) draw near, the task of “preserving” the fort and ensuring that it is a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War becomes even more vital.

The Evolution of Butts Hill Fort

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Butts Hill Fort (or Windmill Hill Fort) evolved along the way. The British called this area Windmill Hill because it was a traditional site for a windmill. The Americans called this area “Butts Hill” after the John Butts family that held the land when the war began. The outlines you see at the fort date from the improvements made by the French and Americans in 1780 to 1781. It is at this point that the fortifications at Butts Hill became Butts Hill Fort.

1776: The Portsmouth Militia begins to fortify Butts Hill. We know fortifications were there in 1776, but some sources date the defenses there to 1775. The hill had a commanding view of the Bristol Ferry and the Howland Ferry to Tiverton. The oldest section of the fort is the North ramparts.

North Portsmouth Map – Huntington Library

December. 8, 1776: The British land on Aquidneck Island. The British began to make improvements on what they call the Windmill Hill redoubt.

December. 30, 1776: The British begin to build a guard house.
From the diary of British soldier Frederick Mackenzie: ”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…

September 12-16, 1777: Town inhabitants are forced to work on Butts Hill Fort. 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).

September 17- November 12, 1777: British work on barracks for 200 men.

Overlay of redoubt on current terrain

December 30 – 31, 1777: British plans call for a 6-gun battery, redoubt for 100 men and a new barracks for 300 men.

May 1-May 6th, 1778: British 54th Regiment constructs redoubt around barracks.

May 8 – May 9, 1778: Landgrave and Ditfourth posted a fortification with 1000 men.

August 9, 1778: Fearing an attack, British forces abandoned Butts Hill and General Pigot withdrew his forces to Newport as the French were landing on Conanicut. Patriot 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, 1778: Most of the almost 10,000 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 16, 1778: 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 24, 1778: Americans now know that the British fleet is coming and that it would be at least three weeks before the French would arrive. They begin to send their heavy cannon back to northern locations like Butts Hill. From Cutler’s diary – “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.”

August 28, 1778: ”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.” (From Sullivan’s letter to Congress.”

Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

August 29 – August 30, 1778: Sullivan describes his retreat from Butts Hill. “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.”

September 1, 1778: British return to Windmill Hill (Butts Hill).

December 1779 British depart Rhode Island (Aquidneck). Americans regained possession of Butts Hill.

July 11, 1780: The French come to Newport. Some French soldiers garrisoned at Butts Hill.

Summer through Fall 1780: The allied French and American forces felt secure, but they continued to prepare to defend the island. On Butts Hill there were American troops assigned to support the work of the French troops in restoring the fortifications. Through the summer and fall of 1780, Butts Hill was actively being enclosed and made into a fort by the Americans and their French allies. This is the fort shape we recognize today.

Rochambeau map – Library of Congress

December 8, 1780. Rochambeau and Governor William Greene exchange letters. Greene accepts the offer of the French to send 24 men to guard Butts Hill Fort so that Col. Greene’s regiment may join Washington’s army in New York.

September 19, 1782: Rhode Island resolution passed that authorized Col. Archibald Crary to call on the commanding officer at Newport for help in removing the cannon and stores from Butts Hill and move them to Providence.

June 1783, Rhode Island resolution passed to authorize William Anthony, Jr. “to sell at public venue the gates, timber, &c on Butts’s Hill in Portsmouth.” (Bartlett, Records IX, p. 709)

1907 – Dyer family farm and surrounding area is platted for 200 house lots.

1920s: Rev. Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the Butts Hill land in 1923, 1924, and 1932. Butts Hill Fort is dedicated to the memory of those who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island.

1968: Butts Hill Land transferred from Newport Historical Society to the State. The state transferred land to the Town of Portsmouth.

1974: Butts Hill Fort, as part of the Battle of Rhode Island site, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

April, 2021. The National Park Service has listed Butts Hill Fort as a location on the Washington – Rochambeau Route National Historic Trail.

Notables at the Battle: Rufus King, Constitution Signer, Senator

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Who fought at the Battle of Rhode Island? Many of those young soldiers went on to brilliant careers. Rufus King was one of them. His contributions to the new nation far outshine his efforts in the battle, but it is important for us to know and recognize those who fought here.

John Trumbull painting of King

It may be easy to find who the generals and commanders were, but I am interested in discovering who else was there. Old books can provide nuggets of information for an historian and I have found interesting accounts in “Our French Allies” by Stone. This blog is actually a continuation of a first hand account of the battle by John Trumbull which was quoted in the French Allies book and featured in my last blog.

“Mr. Rufus King was acting that day as a volunteer aid de camp to General Glover, whose quarters were in a house at the foot and east of Quaker Hill, distant from the contested positions the rear guard a long mile. The general and the officers who composed his family were seated at breakfast, their horses standing saddled at the door. The firing on the height of the hill became heavy and incessant, when the General directed Mr. King to mount, and see what and where the firing was. He quitted the table, Sherburne took his chair, and was hardly seated, when a spent cannon ball from the scene of action, bounded in at the open window, fell upon the floor, rolled to its destination, the ankle of Sherburne, and crushed all the bones of his foot. Surely there is a providence which controls the events of human life, and which withdrew Mr. King from this misfortune.”

King didn’t leave much in the way of an account of his time on Rhode Island (Aquidneck). “I enjoyed fine health upon the Island and the scene was not disagreeable to me…I saw and experienced enough to satisfy my curiosity.”*

King did not have aspirations as a soldier. He came to the battle from a different place than many of the soldiers. He was born in Scarboro, then in Massachusetts – now in Maine, where the King family was accused of Loyalist sympathies. He went to Harvard and studied law and while in Boston he became part of a club that would become the Federalist Society. King considered himself a New Englander and he enlisted in 1778 in defense of New England. At that time Massachusetts mobilized its militia for Major General Sullivan. King volunteered along with others from his Boston Club. King received a commission as a major of infantry and was appointed as an aide to Brigadier General Glover of Marblehead. With Sullivan’s forces gathered at Tiverton, King and Glover’s men crossed to the island to join other militia and continental units to construct redoubts and siege lines. King’s Boston friends, John Hancock and Paul Revere, left the island when it seemed the French fleet would not return. Rufus King remained on duty. When Sullivan had to withdraw, Glover’s brigade covered the withdrawal and King narrowly escaped death.

After the Battle of Rhode Island, King returned to law practice in Massachusetts. He served in the State legislature, and as delegate to the Continental Congress from his state. After the war, when confidence in the Articles of Confederation was low, he joined other delegates as representatives to the Constitutional Convention. He was Instrumental in the call for a Bill of Rights and was one of the signers of the Constitution. In 1789 King moved to New York and a few years later became a senator from that state. He went on to a diplomatic career and in 1796 began his long assignment as ambassador to Great Britain under three presidents.

  • King Correspondence Volume I. Edited by Charles King and quoted in Ernst’s biography of Rufus King.

Notables at the Battle of Rhode Island: John Trumbull, Patriotic Painter

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Who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island? As I research for the upcoming website for the Battle of Rhode Island Association, I keep coming across some interesting individuals who took part in that battle. Many of the soldiers went on to very promising careers, but I did not expect to find a prominent artist among them. I came across an eyewitness account of the battle written by John Trumbull. When I searched for information on him, I found that he was an artist noted for portraits and depictions of leaders and events in the American Revolution. I had read about him in the past, but I did not think he had a local connections.

Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, John Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773. He served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the revolution. Many of the biographical materials I read had him resigning from that regiment and going on to England to study painting. How could he write about the Battle of Rhode Island if he wasn’t there? Further research gave me an answer. In 1778 he became an aide-de-camp to General John Sullivan in Rhode Island.

Portrait of Trumbull by Frothingham in Brown University Collection

This is a portion from “Reminiscences of his own Times” by John Trumbull that describes events on August 29th, 1778. My notes are in bold italics.

“Soon after daybreak the next morning, the rear-guard, commanded by that excellent officer, Colonel Wigglesworth, was attacked on Quaker, otherwise called Windmill Hill {actually it was Butts Hill that was called Windmill Hill} and General Sullivan, wishing to avoid a serious action on that ground, sent me with orders to commanding officer to withdraw the guard. In performing this duty I had to mount the hill {Quaker Hill} by a broad smooth road {East Main}, more than a mile in length from the foot to the summit, which was the scene of conflict, which, though an easy ascent, was yet too steep for a trot or a gallop. It was necessary to ride at a leisurely pace, for I saw before me a hard day’s work for my horse, and was unwilling to fatigue him.

Nothing can be more trying to the nerves, than to advance deliberatively and alone into danger. At first I saw a round shot or two drop near me, and pass bounding on. I met poor Colonel Tousard, who had just lost one arm, blown off by the discharge of a field piece, for the possession of which there was an ardent struggle. He was led off by a small party. Soon after, I saw Captain Walker, of H. Jackson’s regiment, who had received a musket ball through his body, mounted behind a person on horseback. He bid me a melancholy farewell, and died before night. Next, grape shot began to sprinkle around me, and soon after musket balls fell in my path like hailstones. This was not to be borne. I spurred on my horse to the summit of the hill, and found myself in the midst of the melee. ‘Don’t say a word, Trumbull;’ cried the gallant commander, ‘I know your errand, but don’t speak; we will beat them in a moment.’

‘Col. Wigglesworth, do you see those troops crossing obliquely from the west road towards your rear?’

‘Yes, they are Americans, coming to our support.’

‘No sir, those are Germans; mark, their dress is blue and yellow, not buff; they are moving to fell late your rear, and intercept your retreat. Retreat instantly — don’t lose a moment, or you will be cut off.’

The gallant man obeyed, reluctantly, and withdrew the guard in fine style, slowly, but safely.”

Trumbull’s Reminiscences quote in Our French Allies: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en

Portsmouth Women: Enduring a “Distressed Situation”

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As the memorial stone at Butts Hill Fort reads, it is important for us to honor the “memory of those brave men who” fought in the Battle of Rhode Island”. It is also important for us to remember the Portsmouth women and their families who endured almost three years of British Occupation from December of 1776 to October of 1779. When the Portsmouth Town Council was able to meet again in 1779, the members pleaded with the state to have pity on us because the town was in a “Distressed Situation.” As I research this Revolutionary Era in Portsmouth history, the plight of Portsmouth women and their families was indeed disstressed.

What was Portsmouth like when the British came? The diary of British soldier Frederick Mackenzie provides a rosy picture. “There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island called Quaker Hill, from there being a Quaker meeting-house on it, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms, and cultivated lands intermixed with woods, together with the many views of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this, even at this bleak season of the year, the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America.” This fine prospect did not last long under British military control. Much has been written about Occupied Newport, but the situation in Portsmouth had its own set of troubles. At times citizens were allowed to leave the island, but if you were a Portsmouth farm family you stayed to work and protect your farm. There were many Loyalists in the commercial port of Newport, but the majority of families in Portsmouth leaned towards the Rebel side. Only about ten percent of Portsmouth citizens left the island.

What happened to Portsmouth women and their families when the British arrived? British maps from the Revolutionary Era give us some idea.

  1. Some families lost their homes. For example, the British fortified Bristol Ferry and they tore down homes that blocked their vision of the ferry landing. Some houses were taken over as barracks for troops or as housing for officers and generals.
  2. Almost all families lost their trees and orchards. As time went by just about every tree on the island was cut down for firewood. The families were left in the cold while the British warmed their troops.
  3. Farm families lost their livestock. There were many soldiers to be fed. Mackenzie’s diary says the British left families with a means of feeding themselves. They could keep one gun to hunt birds and they could keep a boat for fishing.
  4. The British took just about every wagon and wooden farm tool. Wooden vehicles were used by the British for carrying loads, and almost anything wooden was burned for fuel.
  5. Women assumed greater responsibility to care for their families. With the exception of Quaker families, almost all Portsmouth men served some time in the American cause. Even those who were on the island during the Occupation were impressed into service by the British to work on fortifications on Butts Hill and elsewhere.
  6. When the British left the island they filled in just about every well – the source of water for families.

At the withdrawal of British troops in 1779, Portsmouth farm families had a difficult time getting their farms back into operation. Families listed their losses in hopes of getting some reparations. One of these lists is in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society. It gives us an idea of how devastating the household losses were. This list shows the losses of Edward Binney and Elizabeth Heffernan – in-laws who lived in a joint household just north of the Friends Meeting House on Quaker Hill.

Among the losses:

Livestock: 2 cows, one calf, 5 hogs, 12 goats, 1 jackass

5 acres of orchards, a cider press and mill, 4 acres of corn, 12 loads of hay,

Farm tools: An ox-cart, 3 hoes, forks, 2 spades

Household goods: desks, beds, drawers, wood cards, kettles, pots, gowns, tablecloths, etc.

It is clear that we should honor the brave Portsmouth women who cared for their families under such difficult circumstances.

Fortified Jamestown: Conanicut Battery and Dumplings

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Conanicut Battery

The Conanicut Battery is a Revolutionary Era fortification that can be seen today on the West side of Beavertail on Jamestown. In preparation of war, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered the building of the Conanicut Battery in 1776. Originally a crescent-shaped earthwork, it was designed for six to eight heavy cannon and soldiers. When the British invaded Aquidneck Island they also captured Jamestown (Conanicut Island) and held it (basically) from December 1776 to October 1779.

Image by Seth Chiaro

In his diary entry for December 7, 1776, Frederick Mackenzie writes: “…at 12 made the Light House on the S. point of Connonicut Island at the entrance of Rhode Island harbour….and about 1 o’clock that ship (The Experiment with Capt. Wallace) took the lead, and stood up the Western Channel between Connonicut, and the Main(land)… About 2 miles from the Light House, Rebels had a Battery or Redoubt with 4 Embrazures towards the Channel, But it appeared to be abandoned.”

The British remade the fortification into the shape you can see today with ditches surrounding on all sides. The fort held heavy cannon to defend the West Passage. French forces coming to the aid of the Patriots manned the Conanicut Battery in 1780 and 1781.

The Dumplings

Maps show a battery located close to the Dumplings Rock formation. High on cliffs 50-70 feet in height, this battery would have guarded Newport Harbor. It was abandoned when the British fleet entered Newport Harbor December 8, 1776. During the British Occupation (1776-1779) both British and German/Hessian soldiers occupied and enlarged the earthworks. Hessian troops abandoned the site on July 29th, 1778 when d’Estaing’s French fleet came into the harbor to aid the Americans. When the British fleet appeared, the French withdrew their troops.

References:

On the Dumplings: https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=189618

Rhode Tour on Conanicut Battery: https://rhodetour.org/items/show/51


Cook Wilcox: The Glen, Coal Mines and Revolutionary War

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Cook Wilcox (1752-1830) is a name I have come across many times in the 30 years I have been researching Portsmouth history. I first came across his name when I was doing research on the Leonard Brown House. The Seveney Athletic fields are what we see today as we walk down Linden Lane were once the farm of Cook Wilcox, a descendent of Thomas Cook.  The Cook (Cooke) family were among Portsmouth’s earliest families and their land grants ranged from East Main Road to the Sakonnet and from Glen Road to Sandy Point, an area that has been traditionally called “The Glen.” The men of the Cook family migrated to their holdings in Tiverton, so the women of the family brought the Glen area property into their families as they married. Cook Wilcox was named after his mother’s side of the family. When Cook Wilcox died in 1830, the farm was left for his wife Mary (Perry) use until her death. The land was passed down to Cook and Mary’s daughter, Sarah, who married farmer Leonard Brown. The widow Mary must have lived with Sarah and Leonard and by 1850 the Wilcox home was removed from its location on East Main Road. Leonard and Sarah built their home further up what we call Linden Lane.

The next time I came across the name of “Cook Wilcox’ (or Cooke Wilcocks as it is sometimes found), I was working on a project with Revolutionary Era documents for the Portsmouth Historical Society. In 1774 Rhode Islanders were among those objecting to British taxes and they often avoided following British laws. During the summer of 1774 the British blocked Narragansett Bay. Two hundred and fifty British troops attacked Prudence Island and drove off the local soldiers. The Rhode Island General Assembly set amounts for what each community should supply to defend against the British. In the beginning stages of the Revolutionary War, the assembly organized branches of “minutemen” or citizen soldiers for the towns. In August of 1775 the leaders of the Portsmouth defenders were John Earl (captain), James Peckham (lieutenant) and Cook Wilcox (ensign). The Citizen soldiers would be provided by the colony with heavy guns on carriages.  Documents from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society show that in 1776 the General Assembly ordered Portsmouth and other towns to raise a fourteen member “artillery company” which will “March out to Action” when needed.

A few years ago I was doing research on the Coal Mines area of Portsmouth for a play I was writing for the Portsmouth Community Theater. I came across the name of Cook Wilcox again. Coal was discovered on his land in 1808. This parcel of land was on the West side of Portsmouth off of Bristol Ferry Road and would have been close to the Wilcox family lands.

As I recently analyzed the North Portsmouth map from the Huntington Library, (a British map from 1778 describing action in the Battle of Rhode Island), the Wilcox name came up again. The Wilcox “house burnt by some fire from the Lark Frigate when she blew up August 1778.” As the French fleet was arriving in late July of 1778, the British ordered that their ships would be destroyed rather than be taken by the enemy. The frigates Lark, Cerberus, Orpheus and the Juno were no match for the French ships coming in. The Lark’s Captain Smith ran his ship aground and set her on fire. The Lark’s 76 barrels of gunpowder exploded and ignited the Wilcox home (probably belonging to Cook’s father, John Wilcox). Flaming debris landed as far away as three miles.

Cook Wilcox and his family (ancestors and descendants) are part of the fabric of Portsmouth History.

Wilcox grave at Union Cemetery

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