General Sullivan’s Account of the Battle of Rhode Island – Part 1

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After the Battle of Rhode Island, John Sullivan had to explain his retreat from Aquidneck Island. We have a record of that explanation in a letter published in the Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″. I was able to find that article and transcribe it. This is quite a lengthy letter, so In the next few blogs I will take you through Sullivan’s explanations in stages. In reading through this letter, we need to remember that Sullivan had been part of retreats before and the Congress had questioned his actions. I am not a military historian and I am only now beginning to study the Battle of Rhode Island, but this is a primary source to be respected as a first hand account of the man in charge of the American troops in the battle.

For some background I searched for some basic information about John Sullivan. He was born in New Hampshire in 1740, the son of Irish immigrants. His original training was as a lawyer.
In 1772 New Hampshire’s Royal governor appointed him as major in the New Hampshire militia. As the break with Britain was unfolding, he began to favor the rebel cause. Sullivan was sent as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774. In 1775 Sullivan was sent to the Second Continental Congress. Congress appointed George Washington Commander in Chief and John Sullivan as brigadier general. Sullivan joined the army at the siege of Boston. Later he took command of a force in Quebec in a failed invasion. Sullivan had to withdraw the survivors. He was captured in defeat at the Battle of Long Island. British General Howe released him on parole to deliver a message to Congress. He was later released in a prisoner exchange for captured British general Prescott. He had some success in battle but had continued difficulties as well. In Early 1778 he was transferred to the post of Rhode Island where he led the continental troops and militia. John Sullivan fought bravely, but his command decisions were questioned on a number of occasions. He had to defend himself, but he was often judged not at fault. Sullivan needs to explain his decisions.

The first part of the letter deals with the prelude of the battle. The French fleet under Count De’Estaing had gone to Boston to make repairs and Sullivan expressed belief that they would come back soon. He decided to carry on with the planned invasion of Aquidneck Island.

“I thought it best to carry on my approaches with as much vigor as possible against Newport, that as time might be lost in making the attack upon the return of the fleet, or any part of it, to cooperate with us. I had sent expresses to the Count to hasten his return which I had no doubt would at least bring part of his fleet to us in a few days.”

Initially he had good success and the enemy abandoned positions. “…on the 27th we found they had removed their cannons on all the outworks except one.” He details the British positions at Newport and described them as two basic lines. He expresses regrets that he had not stormed some of these defenses when the cannons had been withdrawn, but he began to lose manpower. “

He writes he found: ” ..to my great surprise, that the volunteers which completed the great part of my army, had returned [left for home], and reduced my numbers to little more than that of the enemy; between two and three thousand returned in the course of twenty-four hours, and others were______ going off, upon a supposition that nothing could be done before the return of the French fleet.”

Sullivan’s troops were a combination of Continental soldiers and militia. Many militia units came from nearby Massachusetts and in discouragement that the mission could not be accomplished without the French fleet, many units headed home. General Sullivan was in a difficult position.

“Under these circumstances, and the apprehension of the arrival of an English fleet with a reinforcement to relieve the garrison, I sent away all the heavy articles that could be spared from the army to the main; also a large party was detached to get the works in repair on the north end of the island to throw up some additional ones, and put in good repair the batteries at Tiverton and Bristol, to receive a retreat in case of necessity.”

General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. This was not a hasty retreat. He ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill Fort and forts guarding the Bristol Ferry and the ferry to Tiverton). He wanted to get all his weaponry out so it would not fall into enemy hands to use against them another day. His letter makes clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

“On the 28th a council was called, in which it was unanimously decided to remove to the north end of the island, fortify our camp, ______ (secure?) our communication with the main, and hold our ground on the island til we could know whether the French fleet would _____ return to our alliance.  On the evening of the 28th we moved with our stores and baggage, which had not been previously sent forward, and about two in the morning encamped on Butts’s Hill, with our right extending to the west road, and left to the east road; the flanking and covering parties ____further towards the west road on the right and left.”

Sullivan details the positions of his forces on the evening of August 28, 1778.

“One regiment was posted in a redoubt advanced to the right of the __ line. Colonel Henry B. Livingston with a light corp, consisting of Colonel Jackson’s detachment, and a detachment from the army was stationed in the east road: Another light corp, under command of Colonel Laurens, Col. Fleury, and Major Talbot, was posted on the west road. These corps were posted near three miles in front; in the rear of these was the picquet of the army, commanded by Col. Wade.”

The stage is set for battle. 

Map: http://library.providence.edu/encompass/rhode-island-in-the-american-revolution/primary-sources/map-of-the-siege-of-newport/

Butts Hill Timeline

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This is a work in progress as I uncover more dates of importance in the land history of the Butts Hill – (Windmill Hill – Briggs Hill) area. Working with the early dates is difficult.

Until 1638: The land on Aquidneck Island was a summer hunting ground for Wampanoags and later the Narragansetts.

1638 – Portsmouth town land.

1665 – Land owned by Caleb Briggs.

1666 – Windmill erected on Briggs Hill or Windmill Hill (from Preservation book).

1668 – Windmill completed by William Earle and William Cory.

1682 (Feb 24, 1682) – William Cory (carpenter and miller) in his will gave windmill to his wife Mary.
Mary traded land back to the town.

1688 William Earle (Wm Cory’s brother in law) built windmill on Briggs Hill (I doubt this date unless this is a second windmill on the spot).

1721 – Caleb Bennett inherits windmill from father Robert Bennett. Robert had married Anne Cory – daughter of William and Mary Earle.

1725 (January) – John Butts bought from Caleb Bennett the windmill and about one rod of land (maybe a quarter of an acre) on Windmill Hill.

Before 1729 : Town gave a land grant to Thomas Durfee. West land-grant map shows windmill already on site. My suspicion is that town had held the larger parcels of land until this time. Windmill area small piece of that whole.

1729 (February): Town records show “a parcel called the Wind Mill Hill land” given to son Gideon Durfee. I suspect that there were several parcels of land on Windmill Hill. The West land-grant maps show that.

1776 – Americans built small battery at Butts Hill.

1776 to 1779 – British occupation of Island and fort.

1778 – July 29 to August 15 – Siege of Newport: British bring troops down to Newport. August 11: American troops at Butts Hill.

1778 – August 29-30 Battle of Rhode Island. Gen. Sullivan uses Butts Hill Fort as headquarters.

1778 – September 1, British return to Ft. Butts (known as Windmill Hill to them).

1779 – December – Butts Hill Fort returned to American control.

1780-1781 Camp Butts Hill housed French and American troops.

1782 Butts Hill Fort was abandoned by the end of the war (1782).
1900 House lots for sale – Benjamin Hall Jr.
1907 – Dyer family farm. Fort and surrounding platted for 200 house lots.
1908 – Benjamin Hall selling house lots

1920s -1930s. – Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the land in 1923, 1924, and 1932.
1968 state transfers land to Town of Portsmouth.

The British Scuttle Their Ships

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Recorded in the London Gazette is a letter from Major General Pigot to General Clinton – dated August 31st, 1778. From this letter we learn of the preparations the British made with the threat of French ships approaching. With the appearance of the French, Pigot began to gather provisions, ammunitions and stores of goods in order to prepare a fortified camp.

With the French in the Sakonnet, Pigot ordered the Kingfisher and two Galleys (Alarm and Spitfire) to be set on fire; and afterwards … the four advanced Frigates (Juno, Orpheus, Cerberus, Lark). These ships were destroyed to keep them from being captured.

According to the annotations by John Hattendorf:

  1. Kingfisher was a sloop. She was deliberately set on fire, broke from anchorage and blew up off High Hill Point in Tiverton
  2. Alarm was a galley. She was set on fire and exploded south of McCorrie Point.
  3. Spitfire was a galley. She also was set on fire off High Hill Point in Tiverton.
  4. Juno was sunk in Coddington Cove.
  5. Orpheus was sunk off Melville.
  6. Cerberus was sunk about 400 feet off Carr Point.
  7. Lark was sunk on the south side of Arnold’s Point in Portsmouth.

A few years ago I had come across a newspaper clipping dealing with these scuttled British ships. I’m not sure where the clippings came from, but Barre Press 1966 was sited in the article. Note that Flora, Pigot and Falcon are also listed as burned or sunk. Red circles show the locations of the downed ships.

The ship locations also appear on an early map 1778- Attacks upon Rhode Island that is in the collection of the Library of Congress.


John Hattendorf – The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778: the Official British View as Reported in the London Gazette.2021 Stone Tower Press, Middletown, Rhode Island

Family Cemeteries Map

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News of a new family cemetery find near the Water Works by Stephen Luce brought to mind a working map from the 1970s that is in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society. I believe it was the part of a notebook kept by Herbert Hall III when he and others were surveying the historical cemeteries in town. When families come to town to research their ancestors, this is one map I try to share.

The Battle of Rhode Island from the British View

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A new book with material presented by John Hattendorf gives us a glimpse of the British view of the battle. ( “The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. The Official British View as Reported in The London Gazette. Middletown, RI, Stone Town Press, 2021). This slim volume offers an annotated transcript of the battle as it appeared in the British government’s official publication. Hattendorf’s explanations and copious notes are valuable as we research what happened during the battle. I will be examining the reports gradually in this blog. I appreciated Hattendorf’s introductions, but it is the primary sources – such as the letters printed in The London Gazette – that often give us insights.

A segment from a letter from Sir Henry Clinton dated New York, September 15, 1778:

“In the State Things were, when Lord Howe sailed for Rhode Island; and it was my intention to proceed up the Sound, with the Troops above mentioned, (4,000), that they might be within his Lordship’s Reach, in case we should see an Opportunity for landing them to act with Advantage; but on the 27th of last Month (August), at the Instant they were embarked, I received a Letter from Lord Howe, inclosing one from Major-General Pigot, by which I was informed, that the French Fleet had quitted Rhode Island; but that the Rebels were still in great Force.

I thought it advisable to sail immediately for the Relief of that Place, but contrary Winds detained us till the 31st; and, on our Arrival, we found that the Enemy had evacuated the Island……..I was not without Hopes, that I should have been able to effect a Landing, in such Manner as to have made the Retreat of the Rebels from Rhode Island very precarious; or that an Opening would have offered for attacking Providence with Advantage: Being thwarted in both these Views by the Retreat of the Rebels, as the Wind was fair I proceeded towards New London……”

This letter from Clinton helps me to understand how critical and precarious the “Retreat of the Rebels” was. Clinton was bringing 4,000 troops to Newport, but he had missed the French fleet. After damage in a storm, d’Estaing and the French were heading to Boston for repairs. He was alarmed that “the Rebels were still in great Force.” He proceeded on to Newport, and his hope was to 1) have the Retreat of the Rebels “very precarious” and 2) that they could attack Providence. Winds detained him.

The Americans were indeed in a precarious situation. The winds of a storm foiled the plans of the Americans and French, but the “wind coming unfavorable” made Clinton’s troops unable to foil Sullivan’s retreat.


Attacks upon Rhode Island, Augt. 1778.
Created / Published
[1778] – Collection of Library of Congress.