Camp Butts Hill – October 1780: Americans and French Working Together.

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This is a continuation of information in Thayer’s Orderly Book that covers what was going on at Camp Butts Hill. This is not a transcription, but it is notes on the information provided. This book ends at the end of October when the brigade leaves Camp Butts Hill. The orderly book helps us understand the cooperation between the French masons and engineers who are working on Butts Hill Fort and the Americans who are aiding in this building project.

October 2, 1780: The main guard will consist of one captain, one “subb (Subaltern-like a second lieutenant),” two sergeants, four corporals and 48 privates. There was concern that the “property of the inhabitants be secured” and public property be guarded. Captain Devol wants one boat builder and one caulker to assist him in repairing the public boats from this port.

Rocambeau’s Map

October 3, 1780: The drum major and fife major will practice two hours a day with the drummers and fifers.

October 4, 1780: Commanding officers of each brigade should insure that there are enough provisions on hand “that they may be always fit for duty.” At least one day’s provisions is required to be on hand. In letters from Camp Butts Hill we find that hunger was a real concern. The drum major is to start the beat for reveille at first light for the guard and the drummer should sound the beat through the whole camp. Lieutenant Waterman will receive directions for removing the small barracks which stands at Butts Hill Fort.

October 6, 1780: Cartridge boxes in tents will have names of commanding officers and be taken to the magazine in the fort. Kitchens were built in front of the tents and high so smoke doesn’t get to the tents. There will be a regimental court martial for James Stanford of Captain Hodge’s group of Thayer’s regiment. The charge was insulting language to the Captain. Found guilty, 15 lashes on a naked back will be administered and the guilty party must ask pardon of the Captain in the presence of the commanding officers. “It is Col. Commandant Greene’s pleasure that one Field Officer shall inspect the works at Butts Hill Fort. They will attend the works in rotation.”

October 7, 1780: Lt. Col. Hallet will supervise the “works” – the work being done on Butts Hill Fort.

October 8, 1780: Lt. Col. Clap will inspect the works. Henry Hilman is accused of desertion. He “shall be drummed out of the brigade with his Hatt under his arm.” The Bristol Ferry Commanding Officers will make a report to the officer of the day.

October 12, 1780: There were complaints of too many soldiers in Newport. They will now need a pass. “It is requested by General Rochambeau and Commander Jacobs that every officer not on duty will attend upon the works for the purpose of encouraging the soldiers and completing the fort.”

October 16, 1780: “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows of the Fort are completed and two masons detached to assist the French Masons until the works are finished and for their service they shall receive half a pint of rum a day when in the store.” Their provisions are ready for them so that they can complete the Fort works in a timely manner.

October 17, 1780: The commander has been informed that “the inhabitants have had a large number of fowls taken from them” supposedly by the soldiers. Those caught stealing from the inhabitants will be punished. “The wagon masters of the brigade are directed to attend on the works with their wagons at the time the fatigue party goes on the works and fetch one load of stones each for the purpose of building the pillows of the fort.

October 19, 1780: The French are getting wood at Freetown and are in need of the American flat bottom boats.

October 25, 1780: 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.

October 26, 1780: Jacob’s regiment is leaving and his men are requested to return the tools they have borrowed from the French. They will return them to the engineer. Tents and other equipment are to be returned to the quartermaster.


Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport.
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Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort: Landmarks of the Battle of Rhode Island

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In Newport County we are fortunate to have “history we can see.” Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort are locations where we can imagine events during the War for Independence. As I research Butts Hill Fort and the Battle of Rhode Island, I always find references to what we call Fort Barton today. The Tiverton redoubt (called Tiverton Heights Fort at the time) was the gathering place for the troops who would go to Aquidneck Island in hopes of ending the British Occupation. They traveled across the Howland Ferry area to get to Portsmouth. They returned to this same area in Tiverton during the retreat after the Battle of Rhode Island.

After the British occupied Aquidneck Island in 1776, Tiverton became a base of operations for Colonial forces. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts cooperated in building the fortification. British officer Frederick Mackenzie’s journal describes the construction in a entry in his diary on June 11, 1777:

“The Rebels have been busily employed in making a work on the hill above Howland’s ferry where their guns have been placed all the Winter. It appears to be very extensive, and must cost them a great deal of labour, as there is little or no soil on the hill.” On June 28th 1777, Mackenzie observed the fort as “irregular in its figure, but very extensive. From the situation, it must be strong.”

In July of 1777 William Barton began his journey from this fort to capture British General Richard Prescott at the Overing House on the Portsmouth/Middletown border. Barton’s raid gave the Americans hope during a very discouraging time and so this fort was named in his honor.

On August 9th of 1778, 11,000 Continental troops and militia under the command of General Sullivan ferried across the short passage between Tiverton and Portsmouth known as Howland Ferry. General Sullivan used Butts Hill Fort as his headquarters. American plans were dashed when a storm damaged the French fleet which was to have helped in the battle for Aquidneck. The Continental troops later moved south toward Newport, and they engaged the British forces in what has been called “The Battle of Rhode Island.” The American effort to regain Newport was crushed and Sullivan made plans for a quick and orderly retreat to save his men. Patriot forces retreated from the island overnight on August 30, 1778. They navigated the same Howland ferry passage under the protection of the guns at Fort Barton. From this location the Americans dispersed to other locations within Rhode Island.

We have these historic landscapes today because of the generosity of Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society. To preserve both Butts Hill Fort and Fort Barton, Dr. Terry bought the lands and donated them to the Newport Historical Society. The Newport Historical Society turned Fort Barton over to the town of Tiverton in the 1960s.

Hopefully there will be a park around the Butts Hill earthworks, but today you can hike the trails in the woods behind Fort Barton. The trails are difficult for the beginning hiker, but the landscape is beautiful to see. A tower provides excellent views of North Portsmouth.


D. K. Abbass, Ph.D., “Fort Barton, Tiverton,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 21, 2021, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/52.


Cartographer:Fage, Edward


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. 1

Lafayette in Portsmouth


The Marquis de La Fayette has been held in high esteem by the people of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. When the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker for the Battle of Rhode Island at Butts Hill Fort in 1922, they included a quote from Lafayette saying the battle was the “best fought action in the War of the Revolution.” Colonial era homes like the Dennis House on East Main Road claim that Lafayette stayed there before the Battle of Rhode Island. What do we know about Lafayette’s brief stay in Portsmouth?

The Marquis played a pivotal role in the French and American alliance that was just beginning before the Battle of Rhode Island. He was passionate about the American cause. In a letter dated September 23, 1778 to Henry Laurens, President of Congress “The moment I heard of America I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her, at any time, or in any part of the world, will be the happiest of my life.” With the French alliance came D’Estaing and his fleet. He wanted to battle Howe’s English fleet in New York, but he settled on the goal of capturing the British garrison in Newport. Washington put his army in motion from his New Jersey camp. He detached two brigades of Connecticut and Rhode Island troops under the command of Glover and Varnum, but both under the direction of the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington wanted a mix of the seasoned Continental and State troops with the less experienced militias and ordered General Sullivan to divide all the forces into equal numbers under the commands of General Greene and the Marquis.

With the arrival of the French fleet, operations were set in motion. The British abandoned Butts Hill Fort and other strategic locations in northern Aquidneck Island. On August 10, 1778 Sullivan began crossing to the island and he moved into Butts Hill Fort and made it his headquarters. The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what Lafayette and others were doing on the island before the Battle of Rhode Island. Cutler 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.” His entry for Sunday, August 16th, gives us one location of Lafayette’s quarters in Portsmouth. “Went in the afternoon with a number of officers to view a garden near our quarters, belonging to one Mr. Bowler, – the finest by far I ever saw….” Cutler goes on to describe the garden. The last line in the diary entry reads “The Marquis de la Fayette took quarters at this house.” The gardens of Metcalf Bowler’s estate on Wapping Road were indeed famous. When the British occupied the island Bowler fled to Providence, but he was later found to be a British spy passing information in hopes it would save his precious property. Cutler’s entry for Monday the 17th also refers to the Marquis. The British had been firing since early in the morning and Cutler with General Titcomb had been observing the enemy lines from the top of a house. “stood by the Marquis when a cannon ball just passed us. Was pleased with his firmness.”

Sunday, August 23, Cutler wrote that they were informed that: “the French fleet was so disastered (sic) they could by no means afford us any assistance, but were gone to Boston to refit.” That ended the plans the Americans had. The diary records: “The Generals were called upon to give their opinion whether an immediate retreat was not absolutely necessary. This unexpected desertion of the fleet, which was the main spring of the expedition, cast a universal gloom on the army, and threw us into consternation”.

General Sullivan wrote to General Washington about his disappointment.
“The departure of the Count D’Estaing with his fleet for Boston.. has, as I apprehended, ruined all our operations. It struct such a panic among the militia and volunteers that they began to desert in shoals (sic – perhaps as we would say “droves”). The fleet no sooner set sail than they began to be alarmed for their safety. This misfortune dampened the hopes of our army, and gave new spirits to that of the enemy.” Lafayette did not sign onto the letter, but he had been among those who pleaded with D’Estaing to at least let his soldiers disembark from the ships before the fleet left for Boston.

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.

With the bitterness over the departure of the French fleet, the alliance between the French and Americans was threatened. Lafayette would play a major role in keeping the alliance intact. On the night of August 28th, Lafayette left Portsmouth on a frantic ride to and from Boston. Later General Sullivan would write in a letter to Congress:

“The Marquis de La Fayette, arrived about eleven 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 mortified that he was out of action; and, that he might be out of the way in case of action, he had ridden hence to Boston in seven hours and returned in six and a half- the distance nearly seventy miles. He returned in time enough to bring off the pickets and other parties which covered the retreat of the army, which he did in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article lost.”

One of the pickets was left behind and was later returned in a prison swap. Although the Marquis missed the action, he contributed what he could, even ordering the setting of camp fires to make it look like the army had hunkered down. His efforts in the retreat were memorialized with an engraving on a sword given to Lafayette by Benjamin Franklin in Paris on behalf of the Continental Congress. (Stone- Our French Allies)


As always Christian McBurney’s book, (The Rhode Island Campaign: the first French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War) is a great general resource.

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

Forbes, Allan and Paul Cadman, France and New England Vol. 1. Boston, State Street Trust, 1925.

The French in Rhode Island (An Address Delivered in Newport by John Stevens, 1897) Franklin Printing, 1925.

“The French in Newport” – Journal of the Newport Historical Society Fall 2003-Spring 2004.