A continuation of a tour of Butts Hill Fort : Stop 5: At the parade grounds

In December of 1779 the British finally departed from Aquidneck Island. The Americans regained possession of Butts Hill. The French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780 and the island was again occupied by troops. In October of 1780 one American militiaman would report in a letter:

“…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men, at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state.”

The allied French and American forces felt secure, but they continued to prepare to defend the island. On Butts Hill there were American troops assigned to support the work of the French troops in restoring the fortifications. Through the summer and fall of 1780, Butts Hill was actively being enclosed and made into a fort by the Americans and their French allies. This is the fort shape we recognize today.

Rochambeau Map 1780

We get a glimpse of their work through the Orderly Books of Ebenezer Thayer and John Jacobs. An orderly book is a record of the day to day activities of a unit. Thayer recorded the activities of a troop assigned to support the Expedition Pariculiere, the French Expeditionary Army under the command of Rochambeau. Their service was from August 16th to November 28, 1780. Other orderly books and some letters written from the camp give us an idea of life in the camp. That life was not easy.

The September 9th entry by Thayer shows they were assigned six men to a tent with a cook for each group of six. Later entries show that the kitchens had to be moved higher to prevent the smoke from filling the tents. A later entry tells us that the guard consisted of sixty rank and file soldiers. There were also sentinels around the encampment – 2 in front and one in the rear. This is kept up day and night. This day’s entry also includes concern about the filth around the camp that could be detrimental to the soldiers’ health.

They were not equipped well. An entry expresses concerns that there were not enough axes. One of the “fatigue duties” (labor duties that don’t require arms) was gathering wood. The axes would have been essential to chopping wood. Wood on Aquidneck Island was so scarce they had to go to Freetown, Massachusetts to obtain firewood.

Soldiers were hungry and stole from nearby homes and they were disciplines for that. The officers had a hard time securing enough food to last a day so that they might be fit for duty. In a October 10, 1780 letter to friends in Boston, Major May of the Boston Regiment shares his experience.

“We have but 21 days to tarry here, but famine seems to stare us in the face. I could give you particulars, but I never was fond of telling all. It may suffice to say, that we have one day’s rations of Indian meal on hand, no meat, no wood, no sauce etc. Before I go any further I must tell you I have been, even now, sick with a stupefying cold. ..I hope I may be returned to you all again, in health and safety.”

One group that were assured of good provisions were those actively helping the French masons. “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows (pillars?) of the Fort are completed and two masons detached to assist the French Masons until the works are finished and for their service they shall receive half a pint of rum a day when in the store.” Their provisions are ready for them so that they can complete the Fort works in a timely manner.

Fort building was hard work. One entry records that the American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer. Members of the Black Regiment continued the “works” at Butts Hill Fort once the Massachusetts militias departed.