As we look to restoring Butts Hill Fort, one question that comes up is how the fort developed in the first place. The Diary of Frederick Mackenzie * in combination with the Revolutionary Era maps of the area give us an idea of how Butts Hill Fort (Windmill Hill Fort) developed over time. Military historians will have a better handle on construction methods, but the diary, maps and blueprints can help us to understand what we see at Butts Hill today.

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.” 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.

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. 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.

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.  

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.  

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. Those intended are a redoubt for 30 men and 2 cannon opposite Howland’s bridge. A fortified Barrick on Windmill hill for 200 men. A Redoubt on Barrington’s Hill for 80 men and 2 cannon. A redoubt at Fogland Ferry for the like numbers. A redoubt on Quaker Hill and a Barrack there for 200 men. A redoubt and Barrack for 60 men on Turkey Hill.

From these passages it appears the barracks at Windmill Hill were constructed beginning in September of 1777 with forced labor from the Portsmouth townspeople. Windmill Hill and Butts Hill are different names for the same area.

Nov. 11, 1777: The Barracks at Windmill-Hill go on so slowly for want of materials, that there is a prospect of the troops remaining in camp for three weeks to come.

Obviously the barracks were sorely needed but the construction was slow. Historian Walter Schroder in his book about the Hessian troops says that by the end of 1777 there was a battery with six guns at Windmill Hill as well as a redoubt for 100 men. A separate barracks for 300 men and officers had been constructed close to the other barracks. He writes: “The entire area encompassed earthworks some 700 feet long by 200-300 feet in width. Abbatis – an entanglement of cut tree limbs serving a role similar to barbed wire in modern times –had been placed outside the entrenchments and earthworks to slow down and harass advancing enemy foot soldiers. **

April 18th, 1778: As we have at present no camp equipage (except some old tents for about 500 men) I think we should immediately erect a respectable work on Windmill Hill, capable of containing a Regiment, and not to be taken without breaking ground against it.  The enemy should by every means in our power be prevented from establishing themselves unmolested on Windmill Hill, or any part of the Northern extremity of the Island, for if they should we shall find it extremely difficult to dispossess them…

..A trifling temporary work should by no means be constructed on Windmill Hill; to as it is the best spot on the Island for a work of consequence, and such a work will at one time or other be found necessary there, the erection of a trifling work would be throwing away so much time and money.  

It is clear that Mackenzie considered Windmill Hill (Butts Hill) and important location and thought it should be well developed as a defensive fort.

May 1, 1778: The 54th regiment are to construct a Redoubt round the Barrack at Windmill Hill, for the present security of that post.

May 5, 1778: The 54th Regiment is employed at Windmill Hill in throwing up a work round the large Barrack there.

Here it seems like there is a defensive perimeter built around the Barracks and guard House. This gives it the outline that we can even see today.

May 8th 1778: The regiments of Landgrave and Ditfourth to be posed at Windmill Hill; under the Command of Major General Losbert.  They consist of near 1,000 men, their field pieces would be of great service there, they may be depended upon for the defense of the works. And Major General Losbert is the Second in Command on the Island.

It is hard to imagine a thousand soldiers at the fort. Some would be in the barracks and some would be encamped around it.

1780, July: The French arrived on Aquidneck Island. Before they had settled, there was news the British were planning to attack. Washington authorized Rochambeau “to call up the militia of Boston and Rhode Island to aid his army build the works for the defense of the island.”

The Black Regiment was split between guarding munitions in Providence and guard duty on Aquidneck Island. Sixty-four members of the regiment were sent to Newport and were incorporated into the “Rhode Island Six Months Battalion.” The Black Regiment veterans were among the 600 men encamped in Portsmouth guarding Butts Hill Fort, Howland Ferry and Bristol Ferry. One white recruit, Peter Crandall, wrote: “We landed on the north end of the island near Butts Hill Fort and pitched our tents on a height of land near Butts Hill Fort …. our duty was to go through the manual exercise, keep up quarter guard, and work on the fort.” This remnant of the Black Regiment and The Six Month Battalion were there until Nov. 1780. They remained at Butts Hill to work on the fort after the remainder of the Continental Battalion joined French troops in marching to join Washington’s army. *** In the summer of 1780 they connected the redoubt and the former British barracks into one structure.


*Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard Press, 1930.

**Schroder, Walter. The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island 1776-1779. Westminster, Maryland, Heritage Books, 2005. pg. 102.

***Kopek, Daniel M. They “fought bravely, but were unfortunate:” The True Story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment.

Abbass, D. K. Rhode Tour: Butts Hill Fort:

Maps and Blueprints

Edward Fage – Plan of the Works at Windmill Hill, Dec. 31, 1777 (facsimile in PHS collection)

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. Library of Congress Collection.

Plan de Rhode Islande, les differentes operations de la flotte françoise et des trouppes Américaines commandeés par le major général Sullivan contre les forces de terre et de mer des Anglois depuis le 9 Aout jusqu’a la nuit du 30 au 31 du même mois que les Américains ont fait leur retraite 1778