A View of the Battle: Butts Hill as Sullivan’s Headquarters

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Part 4 in brainstorming a tour of Butts Hill Fort: Focus on the Battle of Rhode Island. At the SW corner of the Fort.

We pick up our timeline:

August 28th: (From Sullivan’s letter to Congress after the battle):

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.”

“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.”

August 29th, 1778: What was going on around Portsmouth during the day of the battle? These engagements are detailed for us by Seth Chiaro. They are culled from The Rhode Island Campaign written by Christian McBurney.

West Main Rd and Union Street Engagement: During the early hours on August 29th around 7:00 AM, Hessian Chasseurs made contact with American forces near the intersection of West Main Rd and Union Street. A small engagement took place from that area and would eventually lead towards the Lawton Valley. The Hessians would eventually break the American line with Artillery. 

East Main Rd and Union Street Engagement: By 8:00 AM the British 54th, 22nd, 43rd, and the 38th Regiments of Foot are ambushed by Col. Nathaniel Wade’s American picket line. The Americans fired two volleys into the British column. The picket line retreated towards Quaker Hill. The 43rd RoF took pursuit down Middle Road while the 54th, 38th, and 43rd  RoF continued down East Main Rd. 

Turkey Hill Engagement: German Captain Von Malburg pursued Col. Laurens Regiment to Turkey Hill. Laurens men took up a strong defensive position on top of Turkey Hill. Col. Laurens sent a request for reinforcements 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. 

Quaker Hill Engagement: The British units that had engaged with American Forces were now engaged on Quaker Hill. The British forces formed a line that extended from East Main Rd to about where Sea Meadow Drive is located. Americans were also formed between the Quaker Meeting House and Hedly St. General Sullivan sent reinforcements to Quaker Hill, giving the Americans the upper hand, but only for a short time. Both sides engaged on the hillside over a poorly defended artillery position. American forces were able to secure the position. The British attacked and poured effective volleys of musket balls into the Americans causing them to retreat. Sullivan ordered the units fighting on Quaker Hill to retreat back to the mainline around Butts Hill Fort. The engagement on Quaker Hill lasted a full hour. The British attempted to attack Butts Hill Fort but the 18 pound cannons from Butts Hill Fort kept the British from advancing. 

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. German 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 participated. 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. 

Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

August 30, 1778

From Sullivan’s letter: “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, informing 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 in Sullivan’s words:

“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.


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

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

The Role of Butts Hill in the Siege of Newport

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This blog is part three of information that might be provided on a tour of Butts Hill Fort today. We are at the southern fortifications.

The narrative of our tour of Butts Hill Fort has taken us through the British improvements to the fortifications. This part of the story takes us to the three weeks in August of 1778 when the Americans held this high position during the Siege of Newport.

Drone images from Butts Hill illustrate what a commanding view was possible from this location. The British were concerned with the view of possible American invasions from the North from Bristol and Tiverton. For the Americans, however, the view south was essential.

With the French sailing to Newport to help the American forces, Butts Hill became a strategic site.

July 29th: d’Estaing met with American Commanders when he arrived at Point Judith. Plans called for Sullivan’s American forces to cross from Tiverton to Aquidneck Island and advance to the British fortifications at Butts Hill. The French would land on Conanicut Island (Jamestown) before arriving in Newport to cut off the British forces.

August 9th: Fearing an attack, British forces abandoned Butts Hill and General Pigot withdrew his forces to Newport as the French were landing on Conanicut. Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned Butts Hill, so he crossed over to Aquidneck and occupied the high fortifications. He called for the heavy cannon at Fox Point to be moved to Portsmouth. Sullivan was supposed to wait until August 10.

August 11: Most of the American troops were camped about Butts Hill. The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for American General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what was going on around Butts Hill. He 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.”

August 12-13: A hurricane hit that destroyed men, horses, camps and supplies on both the British and American sides. Rhode Island’s governor (William Greene) replaced the ruined powder on the American side.

August 16: As the Americans built earthworks and dug trenches toward Newport, American reserves and the sick who were healthy enough to do garrison work remained at Butts Hill which served as Sullivan’s headquarters.

August 17: Sullivan calls a council of War. All officers recommend holding positions until they could be reinforced.

August 26: Americans now know that the British fleet is coming and that it would be at least three weeks before French would arrive. They begin to send their heavy cannon back to northern locations like Butts Hill. The Council of War again determines to hold American positions until they could be reinforced. General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. 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.

This was not a hasty retreat. Sullivan ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill and fortifications 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. In his letter to Congress after the retreat, he makes it clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

Initial positions of Americans


Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″.

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

Image of Quaker Hill: Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 7) (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1912)

A map of part of Rhode Island shewing the positions of the American and British armies at the Siege of Newport, and the subsequent action on the 29th of August 1778. [1807]. Original in Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center.

When Did “Butts Hill” Become a Fort?

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As I try to imagine giving a tour of the Butts Hill Fort, I am coming across military terms that I need to understand. Thankfully, there are others in the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee that are willing to share their knowledge with me. I find that I have been using the term “fort” rather loosely.

Stephen Luce reminded me: “The fortifications there were called ‘works’ from 1775/6 to 1780. There was never a ‘Windmill Hill Fort’ because the Fort did not exist until the French combined the separate works in 1780/81 and by that time the hill was called Butts Hill.”

Going back to the revolutionary terminology guides (American Battlefield Trust Glossary) clarified things for me.

Fort: A fully enclosed earthwork; a fortified building, enclosure, or strategic position.
Fortification: Something that makes a defensive position stronger, like high mounds of earth to protect cannon or spiky breastworks to slow an enemy charge. Fortifications may be man-made structures or a part of the natural terrain.  Man-made fortifications could be permanent (mortar or stone) or temporary (wood and soil).  Natural fortifications could include waterways, forests, hills and mountains, swamps and marshes.

The British works at “Windmill Hill” were fortifications. When they arrived on the island they took over an American militia made natural (hill top) defensive position that was a temporary construction of wood and soil. The British sought to make it a more permanent fortification with the building of barracks and a guard house.

Plan of a barrack for 300 men, and officers, erected at Windmill Hill with an abbatis, December 1777 :

Note there is an “Abbatis” around the barracks. Abatis: A line of trees, chopped down and placed with their branches facing the enemy, used to strengthen fortifications.

As we look at the military maps of the time, it is clear that the British fortification at Windmill Hill was not enclosed as a fort would be. It was a more permanent fortification because they had built structures such as a guard house and a barracks. It was carefully planned and as Frederick Mackenzie’s diary proves, it was worked on over time to improve the position. The Edward Fage map shows a second redoubt – the Southern Redoubt – was added to the fortifications. This was the condition of the fortifications when the Americans returned to Aquidneck Island in August of 1778.


“Plan of a barrack for 300 men, and officers, erected at Windmill Hill with an abbatis, December 1777 : Plan nr 18..” https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-6053/wcl006127. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed: December 19, 2021.

Planning, Preservation and Management Plan for Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, RI. A Project of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.

American Battlefield Trust website.

Fage, Edward, 1777-1779: Manuscript chart of Aquidneck Island and environs. Original in the Clinton Collection, Clements Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Plan of the adjacent coast to the northern part of Rhode Island, to express the route of a body of troops under the command of Lieut Colonel Campbell of the 22d: Regiment to destroy the enemies batteaux, vessels, galley &c &c &c which was accomplished May 25th 1778 / laid down and drawn by Edwd Fage, lieutt. of artillery.

What was the Fort like before the Battle of Rhode Island?

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Part 2: Brainstorming for a Guided Tour: at the North/East rampart and moat.

If what we see today at Butts Hill Fort is the outline of the modifications made by the French and Americans, what was the fort like just before the Battle of Rhode Island?

If we start the tour with the oldest section – the North ramparts, we could begin to discuss the British improvements to the small fort left behind by the Americans. The diaries of Frederick Mackenzie and blueprints of proposed fort construction can give us a good idea of the fort at what the British called “Windmill Hill.”

North Rampart and Moat

December 8, 1776: as Mackenzie was arriving on the island as part of the British forces, he wrote: “The Rebels abandoned a well situated fort at the N. End of the Island yesterday, without attempting to defend it. It in some measure commands the passage to Bristol by the ferry.”

Vintage view of Howland Ferry area from Butts Hill Fort

My guess is that this is a reference to the Butts Hill (or Windmill Hill location as the British called it). The location does overlook the Bristol Ferry landing. One of the reasons this location was so valuable is that it had a commanding view of both the Bristol Ferry and Howland Ferry to Tiverton. While they occupied Aquidneck Island, the British would have expected an American attack to come Bristol or Tiverton.

Dec. 30, 1776: “The redoubt constructed by the Rebels above Bristol Ferry, and abandoned by them, is ordered to be repaired and a guard house to be erected therein for the accommodation of the advanced post. It is a much better situation for the advanced guard than that they are now in, and the troops on duty will not be liable to accidents from the wanton firing of the Rebels on the opposite side.” (From Mackenzie diary).

This again I believe to be a reference to the Butts Hill Fort in the area “above Bristol Ferry.” The Rebels had fortifications across in Bristol and they would often direct fire at the troops stationed by the Aquidneck side of the Bristol Ferry crossing. The order here is to repair the redoubt and build a guard house. The British are beginning construction to enlarge the American fortifications.

Sept 12, 1777: “As the works intended to be made for the defense of the North Part of the Island, require a good many workmen to complete them, and the duty of the Soldiers is rather severe, General Pigot sent a summons this day to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth to assemble on the 15th instant at Windmill Hill in order to assist in carrying them on. They are required to work three days in the week.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Sept 15, 1777: “In consequence of the General’s summons to the Inhabitants of the township of Portsmouth, to assemble in order to be employed to work on the Redouts, 17 only appeared this morning at the place appointed. The Majority of the Inhabitants being Quakers, they informed the General that it was contrary to their principles to assist, in any manner in matters of War, and that therefor they could not appear. They even refuse to be employed in constructing Barracks for the accommodations of the troops.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Portsmouth residents are used as forced labor to construct fortifications for the British.

Sept. 17, 1777: “We are at present very busy in fortifying different posts on the Island; and there are already more works planned and traced out, than can possibly be finished by the end of December. …… A fortified Barrick on Windmill hill for 200 men.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Blueprints of the British fort plans and an overlay done by Dr. Abbass in her plans for Butts Hill Fort help us to visualize what the fort looked like just before the Battle of Rhode Island. Some of the fortifications were in what is a residential area. We need to know two more terms to understand the visuals. (Definitions culled from American Battlefield Trust)

Palisade: Typically, a fence or defensive wall made with wooden stakes or tree trunks, and used as a defensive structure or enclosure. Palisades form the walls of a stockade.

Redoubt: (pronounced rih-dowt) An enclosed field work which had several sides and was used to protect a garrison from attacks from several directions. A redoubt could also extend from a permanent fortress.

The Northeastern part of the fort with its moat, glacis and ramparts remind us of the British fortifications that General Sullivan and the American troops would move into just before the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island.


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, Volume I & II

Revolutionary War Plans in collection of the William Clements Library: University of Michigan.

Diagram from Planning, Preservation and Management Plan for Butts Hill Fort, Portsmouth, RI
A Project of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.

Butts Hill Fort: Making Sense of What You See

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It is difficult to understand what you can see today at Butts Hill Fort. The landscape doesn’t quite make sense, but if you are fortunate to have a knowledgeable guide with you, you can imagine the fort as it used to be. Fortunately for me, the first time I saw the fort I was guided by Dr. Kathy Abbass and she understood the fort. At that time (2008 or 2009) Dr. Abbass was advocating for a restoration of the fort and I was the board member of the Portsmouth Historical Society assigned to see how we could work with her. I was overwhelmed with the moats and sloping hills (glacis), and it seemed incredible that the fort could be in Portsmouth and I hadn’t known about it. I did some research on the Battle of Rhode Island, but Abbass’ proposal seemed to go nowhere. I picked up my research again as the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee developed last year.

One goal I have is to help Portsmouth residents (and others) to understand what they see when they come to the fort. There is nothing better than a “field trip” – actually being at an historic site. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee is working towards a time when there are marked trails, observation posts, signage and QR codes. Right now those things are admirable goals (that take planning and money). What I am trying to work out is how I could give a knowledgeable tour to a group coming in May or June of 2022. These next blogs are part of my brainstorming of materials I would need to write a tour script.

One thing I know from my research is that the Butts Hill Fort (or Windmill Hill Fort) evolved along the way. The outlines we are seeing date from the improvements made by the French (with the help of Americans) in 1780-1781.

Parts of the Fort:

Before I even begin I need to get my terms straight. My knowledge of military terminology is limited, but I am learning. The definitions I am using are adapted from the American Battlefield Trust and other military websites.

Battery: A fortified emplacement for heavy guns or artillery pieces; companies of artillery usually had six to ten guns used together or dispersed based on the situation.

Rampart: A large earthen mound used to shield the inside of a fortified position from artillery fire and infantry assault.

Glacis: A defensive feature which is simply a natural or artificial slope incorporated into the defenses of a fortification. The slopes were initially designed to deter attack on foot with steep man-made slopes

Moat: A depression surrounding the fort. Often the moat was created as a natural result of early methods of fortification by earthworks, for the ditch produced by the removal of earth to form a rampart made a valuable part of the defense system.

Parade Ground: Place where soldiers practice or have parades.

Dr. Abbass’ plan contains some helpful maps that help us understand the fort as we view it now. I tried to simplify a map that is an overlay of the fort outline on current terrain.

North battery ramparts: The oldest portion of the fort. It is intact except for its south wall which opens to the parade.

North Battery

South battery ramparts: The north, south and east faces of this battery’s ramparts are basically intact. The West ramparts were removed during the expansion of the fort when the French and Americans modified it (1780-1781).

Volunteers clearing South Battery Ramparts 9/2021

North and east ditch and glacis: At the base of the ramparts the moat is still recognizable, with the glacis descending to the north.

North and East Ditch and Glacis

Parade ground: In the center of the fort. This parade ground is maintained and mowed on a regular basis, and has been used for events and re-enactments.


Preserving the Glen Farm Ice House

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Are you old enough to remember when an “icebox” was used instead of a refrigerator? Ice houses were an important tool in keeping that ice cold to meet refrigeration needs over the summer.

A hundred years ago this week, January 1922, the Newport Mercury reported that ice was being harvested from St. Mary’s “Lake.”

“The severe cold on Monday did not stop the preparations made for harvesting ice at St. Mary’s Lake. Ice about nine inches thick was cut and the ice houses at Oakland Farm have Benn filled. Those at Glen Farm are being filled and the men at Sandy Point Farm were to start on Thursday morning.” (Npt. Mercury 1/7/1922)

In the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society is an ice saw with one handle that was actually used to cut ice at St. Mary’s Pond.

Part of that ice was going into a little ice house at Glen Farm. As part of the Glen Farm complex, an ice house was extremely important to farmers like H.A.C. Taylor who owned a dairy. The Newport Mercury in June of 1896 reports that H.A.C. Taylor was having an ice house built by Edward Coggeshall. It measured 24 feet by 16 feet and had a gambrel roof. The house would have very thick insulation to keep the ice cold through the warmer seasons.

Portsmouth is blessed with many historical buildings and it is always good news when efforts are made to preserve these properties. On December 13, 2021, the Portsmouth Town Council voted to use some modest funds to repair and stabilize the Glen Farm Ice House. These funds go a long way to making the ice house a useful town owned building. Portsmouth’s history in many ways revolves around its agricultural heritage and “gentlemen farms” like Glen Farm are part of that history we should celebrate.

From Newport Mercury 1920