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.

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.