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.