Sullivan’s Letter – Continued

Leave a comment

A continuation of Sullivan’s letter to the Continental Congress which was published in the Providence Gazette, September 26, 1778.

The stage was set for the Battle of Rhode Island. Sullivan goes on to describe what happened.

August 29, 1778

“The enemy having received intelligence of our movement, came out early in the morning with nearly their whole force, in two columns, advanced in the two roads (East Main and West Main) and attacked our light corps; they made a brave resistance, and were supported for some time by the piquet. I ordered a regiment to support Col. Livingston, another to Col. Laurens, and at the same time sent them orders to retire to the main army in the best order they could; They kept up a retreating fire upon the enemy and retired in excellent order to the main army. The enemy advanced on our left very rear, but were repulsed by General Glover; They then retired to Quaker Hill. The Hessian columns formed a on chain of hills running northward from Quaker Hill. Our army was drawn up, the first line in front of the works, on Butts’s Hill, and the second in rear of the hill and the reserve near a creek, and near half a mile off the hill line. The distance between these is about one mile. The ground between the hills is meadow land, with tree and of wood. The enemy began a cannonade upon us about nine in the morning, which was returned with double force. Skirmishing continued between the advanced parties til near ten o’clock, when the enemy’s two ships of war and __armed vessels having gained our right flank and began a fire, the enemy bent their whole force that way, and endeavored to turn our fight under cover of ship’s fire, and to rake the advanced redoubt on the right: They were twice driven back in great confusion; but a third trial was made with greater numbers and with more resolution which, had it not been for the timely aid sent forward would have succeeded. A sharp conflict of near an hour ensued, in which the cannon from both armies placed on the hills, played briskly in __ part of their own party. The enemy were at length routed, and fled in great confusion to the hill where they first formed, where they had artillery and some works to cover them, leaving their dead and wounded in considerable numbers behind them. It was impossible to be certain of the number of dead on the field, as it could not be approached by either party without being exposed to the cannon of the other army. Our party recovered about twenty of their wounded, and took near sixty prisoners, according to the best accounts I have been able to collect; amongst the prisoners is a Lieutenant of grenadiers. The number of their dead I have not been able to ascertain, but I know them to be very considerable. An officer informs me that in one place he counted sixty of their dead. Col. Campbell came out the next day to gain permission to view the field of action, to search for his nephew, who was killed by his side, whose body he could not get off, as they were closely pursued. The firing of artillery continued through the day, and the _ with intermission six hours. The heat of the action continued near an hour, which must have ended in the ruin of the British army, had not their redoubts on the hill covered them from further pursuit. We were about to attack them in their lines, but the men’s having had no rest the night before, and another to eat either that night or the day of the action, and having been in constant action through most of the day, it was not thought advisable, especially as their position was exceedingly strong, and their numbers fully equal, if not superior to ours.”

Sullivan writes about how well his troops functioned, even though they had little experience.

“Not more than fifteen hundred of my troops had ever been in action before. I should before have taken possession of the hill they occupied, and fortified it, but it is in no defense against an enemy coming from the south part of the island, though exceedingly good against an enemy advancing from the north and towards the town, and had been fortified by the enemy for that purpose.

I have the pleasure to inform Congress, that no troops could possibly show more spirit than these of ours which were engaged. Col. Livingston, and all the officers of the light troops, behaved with remarkable spirit; Colonel Laurens, Fleury, and Major Talbot, with the officers of their corps, behaved with great gallantry. The brigades of the first line, Varnum’s Glover’s Cornell’s and Greene’s behave with great firmness. Major-General Greene, who commanded in attack on the right, did himself the highest honor, by the judgment and bravery exhibited in the action. One brigade only of the second line was brought into action, commanded by Brigadier-General Lovell; he, and his brigade of militia, behaved with great resolution. Col. Crane and the officers of the artillery deserve the highest praise.”

Sullivan writes about the casualties:

“I enclose Congress a return of the killed, wounded and missing on our side, and beg leave to assure them, that, from my own observation, the enemy’s loss must be much greater. Our army retired to camp after the action; the enemy employed themselves in fortifying their camp at night. “

Sullivan justifies the retreat: Lord Howe and his fleet were approaching.

In the morning of the 30th I received a letter from his Excellency General Washington, giving me notice that Lord Howe had again sailed with the fleet, and receiving intelligence at the same time that a fleet was off Block Island and also a letter from Boston, information me that the Count D’Estaing could not come round so soon as I expected, a council was called, and as we could have no prospect of operating against Newport with success, without the attendance of a fleet, it was unanimously agreed to quit the island until the return of the French squadron.

The retreat plan is shared with Congress

To make a retreat in the face of an enemy, equal, if not superior in number, and cross a river without loss, I knew was an arduous task, and seldom accomplished, if attempted. As our sentries were within 200 yards of other, I knew it would require the greatest care and attention. To cover my design from the enemy, I ordered a number of tents to be brought forward and pitched in sight of the enemy, and almost the whole army employed themselves in fortifying the camp. The heavy baggage and stores were falling back and crossing through the day; at dark, the tents were struck, the light baggage and troops passed dawn, and before twelve o’clock the main army had crossed with the stores and baggage. The Marquis de la Fayette arrived about 11 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 sensibly mortified that he was out of action; and that he might not be out of the way in case of action, he had rode from hence to Boston in seven hours , and returned in six and a half, the distance near seventy miles — he returned time enough to bring off the pickets, and other parties, which converted the retreat of the army, which he di in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article left. I hope my conduct through this expedition may merit the approbation of Congress. Major Morris, on of my aids will have the honor of delivering this to your Excellency; I must beg leave to recommend him to Congress as an officer who is in the last, as well as several other actions, has behaved with great spirit and good conduct, and doubt not Congress will take such notice of him, as his long service and spirited conduct deserves. I have the honor to be, dear Sir, with must___
Your very humble servant – John Sullivan.

Plan of the Battle of Rhode Island from a Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926


Battle of Rhode Island Historic District

Leave a comment

Did you know that we have an important battlefield in Portsmouth? Most Rhode Islanders aren’t aware that within Portsmouth is an area of 365 acres that has been designated an historic district on the National Register of Historical Places. We can view this battlefield from Heritage Park off of Hedley Street and from a site on the top of Lehigh Hill that has signage to help you understand the action of the battle. The monument to the Black Regiment between West Main Road and Route 24 and Butts Hill Fort are part of this battlefield as well. There are new efforts to preserve and restore Butts Hill Fort which would give us the view of the battlefield from the position of Patriot headquarters.

Battle of Rhode Island Historic Landmark District.

What is the National Register and what special significance is this area of Portsmouth?

According to their website: “The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

What is special about this 365 acres of our town? This parcel of land is an important Revolutionary War battlefield. The Battle of Rhode Island was fought in Portsmouth in a valley between three hills. Lehigh Hill is to the North and Turkey and Almy Hills are to the south. This battlefield area along with the 34 acres of Butts Hill Fort are included in this historic district. The outline of the battlefield is approximately:

Western boundary: Parallel to West Main Road. Southern boundary: Cory Lane, West Main Road and a short stretch of Hedley Street. Eastern boundary runs to the east of Turkey Hill and then northward around Barker’s Brook. The boundary crosses Freeborn and Dexter to the southern rise of Lehigh Hill. Butts Hill Fort is to the northeast of the battlefield and is included in the battlefield.

Historians who prepared the application for this designation as an historic district cited a number of reasons why the Battle of Rhode Island was of significance and why the battlefield should be preserved.

  1. The Battle of RI (BRI) was the last major battle fought in the North during the Revolution.
  2. This was the only major battle fought in Rhode Island, so it is important to Rhode Island military history.
  3. The battle was the only occasion in which the Black Regiment served as a segregated unit. They served admirably in repulsing three successive enemy assaults. Due to losses of men in combat and with the repeal of the law allowing blacks to enlist, by 1780 this unit was combined with other units under Christopher Greene.
  4. The battle shows the growing professionalism of the American army.
  5. Although the French were not able to stay and participate in the battle, the overall plan was the first joint effort of the French and American alliance.
  6. The British realized their position in Newport was vulnerable. The Indecisive conclusion of the battle was indirectly responsible for the British evacuation of Newport in October of 1779.

What action occurred on this battlefield during the Battle of Rhode Island? The following descriptions are culled from Christian McBurney’s book, The Rhode Island Campaign by Battle of Rhode Island Committee member Seth Chiaro.

Turkey Hill Engagement: Hessian troops under Captain Von Malburg pursued American Col. Laurens Regiment to Turkey Hill. Laurens men took up a strong defensive position on top of Turkey Hill. Col. Lauren sent a request for reinforcement to General Sullivan. Sullivan responded with orders to ‘fall back to the main line’. General Sullivan sent Webb’s Connecticut Regiment to support Laurens retreat. Ameican and Hessian units engaged on Turkey Hill before the Americans fell back. Laurens Regiments fell back to General Nathanael Green’s position to the right of Butts Hill. By 8:30 am the Hessians had secured Turkey Hill. 

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill):  General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army, along the right-wing stood a small Artillery Redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (Black Regiment)  was under the direct command of Major Samiel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of Nathanael Greene. Captain Malsburg was ordered to attack the hardened position. The first attack failed. The 1st RI Regiment held its ground. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. The Hessians tried to flank the position, this also failed. On the third attempt, the 2nd RI Regiment supported the 1st RI Regiment. As the 2nd RI Reg. approached the redoubt the Hessians were attempting to climb the walls. All together Greene had about 1,600 soldiers fighting on the Lehigh Hill. Units included 1st RI Regiment, 2nd RI Regiment, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, and Webbs Regiments. More than 800 Continentals including Laurens advance guard and Jacksons’ Detachment. The American line veered SW at a 45-degree angle from Butts Hill to Durfee’s Hill making the American fire even more effective. Col. Henry Jackson’s men fixed bayonets and charged into the Hessian Line, turning the tide of the battle. The Battle was over at 4 pm. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night. Cannon fire was also exchanged between Turkey Hill and the Butts Hill Fort.