Letters from Camp Butts Hill: Pvt. Phelix Cuff, Slave or Free?

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We know about the Black Regiment’s presence at Butts Hill Fort in 1780, but a letter from Camp Butts Hill in August of that year makes us aware of another black soldier in camp – Phelix Cuff. Whether Cuff was free or a slave is up for debate. Cuff enlisted on August 7, 1780 as a private in Captain Zaccheus Wright’s Company. By that time in the War for Independence, there was a lack of able-bodied white men and it became acceptable to accept black slaves and free blacks into the Massachusetts militia. Just a few days after Cuff enlisted, a Waltham resident named Edward Gearfield claimed that he owned Cuff.

In letter dated August 26th, 1780 from Camp Butts Hill, Colonel John Jacobs writes to Major General Heath:

“In obedience to your Honor’s order of the twenty-third of this instant, respecting the Black man by the Name of Philicks Cuf in Col. Hows Regiment Agreable to the above order of the twenty third I have Inquired into the mater and have heard all the evidence that Can be produced on both Sides and it appears that Philiks Cuff is the property of Edward Garfield and find that he was taken by point of the Bayonet and Brought by Lt. Hastings by order of the Commitee and Select men of the town of waltham into Camp and with your Honors permission I shall discharge the above Sd. Philicks Cuff and Deliver him to his master.” *

What is the story? Another letter, this one from Abraham Peirce and others from Waltham, Massachusetts, was dated August 17th, 1780. The men express their “duty to inform your Honor the Truth of Phelix Cuff being engaged for this town in the Militia for three Months…” The men write that had ‘Your Honor” (Heath) been rightly informed he would not have permitted Edward Gearfield to take Phlix Cuff and his arms and Accoutrements. They refute the idea that Phelix was “clandestinely” taken. Edward Gearfield was at home when Phelix signed up for the militia. From 1778 Massachusetts did have all black regiments, but Cuff was part of an integrated regiment. Slaves might expect that they would receive freedom for their service. The Waltham men wrote: “we are persuaded that he (Gearfield) has no Demand on Justice on the said Phelix as a Slave whatever he may pretend by any pretended Bill of Sale.” **

In the letter the Waltham men pointed out that Cuff’s arms belonged to the town and his uniform was purchased by Cuff with the money Cuff received from the town when he enlisted. Gearfield has refused to give back the Arms and uniform. Cuff “is desirous of returning with Lieut. Hastings.” When Cuff was discharged he had served just twenty-four days.

Cuff would not return to Gearfield and with three other “slaves” he went into hiding. Hastings learned where Cuff was hiding and gathered a small group to capture him, but he didn’t succeed. Cuff filed charges against Hasting and his men accusing them of “incitement to riot.” In September of 1781 Hasting requested that Waltham pay the expenses of his defense but the selectmen denied the request. Cuff went on to collect wages for his service in the war. Massachusetts paid Cuff “1,500 pounds in currency and 60 bushels of corn” for his service” ***


*Letter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26, August 1970. https://www.masshist.org/database/704?mode=transcript

** Letter from Abraham Peirce regarding Phelix Cuff’s service in the militia. http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=703&img_step=1&mode=dualLetter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26 August 1780. https://www.masshist.org/database/704

Massachusetts, U.S., Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War

Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution: African American Men in the Revolution (massar.org)

***. Kenneth W. Porter, “Three Fighters for Freedom, Maroons in Massachusetts: Felix Cuff and His Friends, 1780.” The Journal of Negro History, 28:1 (January 1943), 51. This reference was listed in the Mass. Society Sons of the American Revolution blog. I was not able to find the original article.

Slave and soldier, he fought for freedom on two fronts: Stephanie Siek http://archive.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/04/20/slave_and_soldier_he_fought_for_freedom_on_two_fronts/

Letters from Camp Butts Hill: A “Sham Battle”

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In my last blog entry I relayed some notes from Col. Thayer’s Orderly Books from Camp Butts Hill in 1780. One of the last entries I shared was about a court martial for Thaddeus Fuller who was accused of abuse to Dr. John Goddard. I was able to find a letter Goddard wrote from Camp Butts Hill. This letter reported a “sham battle” training exercise which involved Col. Greene’s Black Regiment. The letter is dated October 16, 1780 and was sent to Dr. Clement Storer. The general aim of the letter was to request a surgeon for a voyage. I found parts of the letter published online, and my interest was peaked by the description of the troops on Aquidneck Island and the description of the training exercise. This letter reminded me that there were German troops fighting with the French forces.

“…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, stationed at Stoddard’s Farm 3 miles from Newport Northwest. Notwithstanding the Superiority of the English Fleet the French appear to feel very secure their Fleet consisting of seven sail of the Line & three Frigates are drawn up in line of Battle from Tomany Hill across the Chanel to Conanicut. The Town of Newport is surrounded with Forts which are well filled with Cannon, on the whole I believe there is no Reason to fear an Attack from the Enemy this season.

I had like to have forgot to mention a famous Sham Battle on the 2d Inst between a party of the French Troops on one part representing the English & the Continental Regt reinforced by a party of the French and the German Line representing the allied Armies, the particulars I have not time to give you in full shall only mention a few of the principals, Maj. Gen’l Vianumino (Charles Joseph Hyacinthe du Houx de Viomenil) second in Command in the French Army (under Rochambeau) commanded the English who landed at Stoddard’s Farm & marched up & attained Col. Greene’s Reg’t. The line began with skirmishing between the Flank Guards light horse &cc. soon after a heavy cannonade on the part of the British obliged Col. Greene to retreat & form his Reg. behind a Wall where the resistance was obstinate & a constant fire kept uphill. Col. Greene was reinforced with about 2000 French & Germans commanded by his Excellency Count de Rochambeau with 12 pieces of Cannon, a severe conflict ensued in which the British gave way were finally surrounded & all made prisoners, the Action lasted about two hours during which a constant heavy fire was kept up – if I have any just Idea of a real Action this very nearly resembles it.”

I wonder how the “inhabitants” of Portsmouth reacted to such a vivid battle in their midst. Stoddard’s Farm would be just over the Middletown line off of West Main Road and the “battle” seemed to move through the west side of Portsmouth and uphill towards Turkey Hill and Butts Hill.

The letter was included in: Recent Acquisitions in Americana – William Reese Company – https://www.williamreesecompany.com

Life at Camp Butts Hill – September 1780

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As I was trying to trace the land history of Butts Hill Fort, I found there was little information on what happened to the fort once the French and Americans came to occupy it after the British withdrawal in October of 1779. Quite by chance I came upon two primary sources that give me a glimpse of what life was like in “Camp Butts Hill.” They are hand written “Orderly Books” which were a document of the day-to-day life in the military during the Revolutionary War. They record such things as who was in command on a particular day, the duties of certain units, court-martials and accounts of daily life in camp.

One of these sources is in the collection of the John Hay Library of Brown University. It details a few months around August to October of 1780. We are not sure who was writing that Orderly Book, but within the book is the comment “Samuel Reed: his book”.

The other orderly book is more lengthy. We know the author was Ebenezer Thayer Jr and it covers some of the same time period – August 16 to November 28, 1780. It is available through the Huntington Digital Library. Thayer’s book was easier to transcribe and covered a greater period of time, so it was easier for me to draw material from it. Thayer, a Harvard educated minister, was in charge of a three-month regiment of a Massachusetts militia raised to support the Expédition particulière, the French expeditionary army under the command of Rochambeau. The regiment was placed under the command of William Heath and stationed in Rhode Island at Butts Hill. I will focus this blog on Thayer’s Orderly book.

As background it is good to remember that the French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780. These American troops were to support the French troops. Thayer’s Orderly book has this entry:

September 3, 1780. Col. Thayer’s Regiment is to march next Wednesday 8 o’clock to Butts Hill where they are to be employed on the works until further ordered.

The Orderly book provides some information on how the troops were organized and what life was like in Camp Butts Hill.

  1. The September 9th entry shows they were assigned six men to a tent with a cook for each group of six. Later entries show that the kitchens had to be moved higher to prevent the smoke from filling the tents.
  2. The September 14th entry details that the guard consisted of sixty rank and file soldiers. There were also sentinels around the encampment – 2 in front and one in the rear. This is kept up day and night. This day’s entry also includes concern about the filth around the camp that could be detrimental to the soldiers’ health.
  3. On September 15th the entry talks about concerns that there were not enough axes. One of the “fatigue duties” (labor duties that don’t require arms) was gathering wood. The axes would have been essential to chopping wood.
  4. September 17th’s entry shows concern about the soldiers getting enough time for military exercises and an hour a day was allotted.
  5. September 19th records the regiment dealing with a complaint from an “inhabitant” named Mathew Slocum. Overnight soldiers took a quantity of beets, potatoes and heads of cabbage. The Commanding Officer would investigate and those found guilty would have to “make satisfaction to the owner” and be disciplined per regulations. Later there are complaints about stolen fowl and wood. The officers are clear that the soldiers should be protecting the property of the inhabitants and that punishment will be doled out to those being found guilty. Hunger is a real problem. The officers try to ensure that there are provisions on hand for at least the next day.
  6. September 20th entry mentions that the men who went with the boats to bring Col. Green’s Regiment to Greenwich need to come back with the boats as soon as possible and make a report on any damage done to the boats.
  7. September 24th entry relates a court martial at the camp for Thaddeus Fuller in Captain Bacon’s Company in Col. Thayer’s Regiment. He is accused of “abuse to Dr. John Goddard.” Fuller was found guilty and as punishment he received 15 lashes (stripes) on his naked back. He must make an apology to Dr. Goddard. Henry Hilman was found guilty of being absent without leave and was sentenced to 39 lashes on his bare back.

Some of those fulfilling the role of commanding officer or were mentioned in roles of officers were: Col. Mitchell, Col. Thayer, Col. Glover, Col. Bancroft, Col. Richardson, Col. Hallet, Major Stowe, Captain Wilder, Captain Bacon.

These notes on the Orderly Books will continue in future blogs.

Butts Hill area from French map

History you can see: Bristol Ferry Common

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There are places in Portsmouth where the past meets the present. Bristol Ferry Common is one of those places. To find it you must go to the end of Bristol Ferry Road where it intersects Bayview Avenue. The Bristol Ferry Town Common was established on March 12, 1714 by the Portsmouth Town Committee to be used by farmers and others to keep their livestock and other goods while waiting for the ferry to Bristol. Over the years the Town of Portsmouth has had to struggle to maintain its hold on this land as abutters have tried to absorb it. The Bristol Ferry Town Common Committee works to preserve it today. There is a lovely bench in the area of the Common where you can sit and contemplate its past as the transportation hub of the island. Ferries, trains, trolleys, schooners all met here at the end of Bristol Ferry Road.