Portsmouth men who fought in the War for Independence risked losing their lives and sustaining serious injuries. They also risked imprisonment if they were captured and that is the story of Enoch Butts and his fellow seamen from the Swallow. I came across Enoch’s story in an old Butts family genealogy, but I wanted to know more about what happened to him and those who suffered with him.

Enoch Butts was born in October 17, 1762 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. His father was named Enoch Butts as well and in 1767 served as a Deputy from Portsmouth to the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island. His grandfather, John Butts, was in the shipping business and owned a number of vessels before the war. When Rhode Island went to war, It may have been natural for a teenage Enoch to become a seaman on a Rhode Island privateer. Enoch’s older brother Coggeshall Butts (named after his mother’s side of the family) served in the Rhode Island Navy as well.

In searching for military service records, I found Enoch’s name on a list of “prisoners confined in Forton Prison near Portsmouth in England, belonging to this station November 29, 1778. R.I.” The listing of prisoners goes on to say: “Matthew Cogshall and Enoch Butts had made their escape.” Enoch is listed as being from the American privateer Swallow.

How did Enoch become a prisoner? A description of the Swallow gives us more information. The Swallow was an armed sloop – a Rhode Island privateer sloop. She had 6 cannons. She was commissioned in July of 1777 and John Murphy was listed as Commander. First Lieutenant David Gray was an officer.

“Swallow sailed from Acoaxet (near Dartmouth), Massachusetts, probably in August 1777, bound for Cape François, Saint-Domingue with a cargo of fish, oil and lumber. On 12 September 1777, some twenty-four miles northeast of Turks Island., Swallow was sighted, at 0700, by HM Frigate. Aeolus (Captain Christopher Atkins). A brief chase began, involving much gunfire from Aeolus. Murphy threw his guns overboard to escape, but Swallow surrendered at 1145. Murphy and his crew, totaling twenty-eight men, were taken in to Jamaica. … Murphy and the officers and
most of the crew were sent to England, nineteen being committed to Forton Prison on 23 January
1778.” * The prisoners were charged with treason and did not fall under the usual rules for prisoners of war.

Now Enoch Butts was a prisoner in England. What were the conditions at Forton Prison? There are some records of American concern for the prisoners and Benjamin Franklin sent emissaries to look into their situation. John Thornton visited Forton Gaol between December 28 and 30. In his memorandum to the American Commissioners he stated that on the first day he had “to bribe the Invalid centries to permit [me] to speak to the prisoners”

Thornton writes: “There is not the least distinction made between the Officers and common Sailors, and the Prison having no glazed windows, they can not have any light without having the Northern and Westerly Winds, their provisions are but scanty at best … There are now in the Infirmary 20, and few days ago 27 in the black hole … the 27 were confined on 2d December and till lately were not let out at all … these men have only the half allowance of provisions. **

Lack of clothing was one of the great concerns and most of the prisoners were half naked in the winter’s cold.

There were 119 prisoners at Forton Gaol at the time; he implied that similar conditions existed for the 289 American prisoners at the Mill Gaol. The Reverend Thomas Wren of Portsmouth was a member of the British relief committee. Throughout the Revolution, Wren helped the prisoners and even protected those who escaped.

Franklin tried to get a prisoner exchange, but that didn’t come to pass. The prisoners, Enoch Butts among them, were not about to stay and wait for diplomatic negotiations. Forton was known for its prison breaks. They dug tunnels, bribed guards, pretended to be ill so they could get to the infirmary where there was less security. Once out they had to worry about the Englishmen looking for the five pounds they would get to return a prisoner to jail. If they were lucky enough to get away, a man named Thomas Digges had set up safe houses and provided escaped prisoners with clothing, food and money to make the trip to France and safety.

Besides Enoch Butts, Mathew Cogshall and a number of Rhode Island Swallow crew members are listed at Forton prison: George Smith, Benjamin Hicks, David Gray, James Two, Robert Wilcocks. Philip Corey.

Enoch Butts, Jr. made it back to Rhode Island. Census records list Enoch and his brother Coggeshall in the Bristol Warren area. Enoch died in Warren in 1823,


*https://awiatsea.com American War of Independence – At Sea.