The Evolution of Butts Hill Fort

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Butts Hill Fort (or Windmill Hill Fort) evolved along the way. The British called this area Windmill Hill because it was a traditional site for a windmill. The Americans called this area “Butts Hill” after the John Butts family that held the land when the war began. The outlines you see at the fort date from the improvements made by the French and Americans in 1780 to 1781. It is at this point that the fortifications at Butts Hill became Butts Hill Fort.

1776: The Portsmouth Militia begins to fortify Butts Hill. We know fortifications were there in 1776, but some sources date the defenses there to 1775. The hill had a commanding view of the Bristol Ferry and the Howland Ferry to Tiverton. The oldest section of the fort is the North ramparts.

North Portsmouth Map – Huntington Library

December. 8, 1776: The British land on Aquidneck Island. The British began to make improvements on what they call the Windmill Hill redoubt.

December. 30, 1776: The British begin to build a guard house.
From the diary of British soldier Frederick Mackenzie: ”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…

September 12-16, 1777: Town inhabitants are forced to work on Butts Hill Fort. 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).

September 17- November 12, 1777: British work on barracks for 200 men.

Overlay of redoubt on current terrain

December 30 – 31, 1777: British plans call for a 6-gun battery, redoubt for 100 men and a new barracks for 300 men.

May 1-May 6th, 1778: British 54th Regiment constructs redoubt around barracks.

May 8 – May 9, 1778: Landgrave and Ditfourth posted a fortification with 1000 men.

August 9, 1778: Fearing an attack, British forces abandoned Butts Hill and General Pigot withdrew his forces to Newport as the French were landing on Conanicut. Patriot 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, 1778: Most of the almost 10,000 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 16, 1778: 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 24, 1778: Americans now know that the British fleet is coming and that it would be at least three weeks before the French would arrive. They begin to send their heavy cannon back to northern locations like Butts Hill. From Cutler’s diary – “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.”

August 28, 1778: ”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.” (From Sullivan’s letter to Congress.”

Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

August 29 – August 30, 1778: Sullivan describes his retreat from Butts Hill. “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.”

September 1, 1778: British return to Windmill Hill (Butts Hill).

December 1779 British depart Rhode Island (Aquidneck). Americans regained possession of Butts Hill.

July 11, 1780: The French come to Newport. Some French soldiers garrisoned at Butts Hill.

Summer through Fall 1780: 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 – Library of Congress

December 8, 1780. Rochambeau and Governor William Greene exchange letters. Greene accepts the offer of the French to send 24 men to guard Butts Hill Fort so that Col. Greene’s regiment may join Washington’s army in New York.

September 19, 1782: Rhode Island resolution passed that authorized Col. Archibald Crary to call on the commanding officer at Newport for help in removing the cannon and stores from Butts Hill and move them to Providence.

June 1783, Rhode Island resolution passed to authorize William Anthony, Jr. “to sell at public venue the gates, timber, &c on Butts’s Hill in Portsmouth.” (Bartlett, Records IX, p. 709)

1907 – Dyer family farm and surrounding area is platted for 200 house lots.

1920s: Rev. Roderick Terry conveyed to Newport Historical Society, pieces of the Butts Hill land in 1923, 1924, and 1932. Butts Hill Fort is dedicated to the memory of those who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island.

1968: Butts Hill Land transferred from Newport Historical Society to the State. The state transferred land to the Town of Portsmouth.

1974: Butts Hill Fort, as part of the Battle of Rhode Island site, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

April, 2021. The National Park Service has listed Butts Hill Fort as a location on the Washington – Rochambeau Route National Historic Trail.

Notables at the Battle: Rufus King, Constitution Signer, Senator

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Who fought at the Battle of Rhode Island? Many of those young soldiers went on to brilliant careers. Rufus King was one of them. His contributions to the new nation far outshine his efforts in the battle, but it is important for us to know and recognize those who fought here.

John Trumbull painting of King

It may be easy to find who the generals and commanders were, but I am interested in discovering who else was there. Old books can provide nuggets of information for an historian and I have found interesting accounts in “Our French Allies” by Stone. This blog is actually a continuation of a first hand account of the battle by John Trumbull which was quoted in the French Allies book and featured in my last blog.

“Mr. Rufus King was acting that day as a volunteer aid de camp to General Glover, whose quarters were in a house at the foot and east of Quaker Hill, distant from the contested positions the rear guard a long mile. The general and the officers who composed his family were seated at breakfast, their horses standing saddled at the door. The firing on the height of the hill became heavy and incessant, when the General directed Mr. King to mount, and see what and where the firing was. He quitted the table, Sherburne took his chair, and was hardly seated, when a spent cannon ball from the scene of action, bounded in at the open window, fell upon the floor, rolled to its destination, the ankle of Sherburne, and crushed all the bones of his foot. Surely there is a providence which controls the events of human life, and which withdrew Mr. King from this misfortune.”

King didn’t leave much in the way of an account of his time on Rhode Island (Aquidneck). “I enjoyed fine health upon the Island and the scene was not disagreeable to me…I saw and experienced enough to satisfy my curiosity.”*

King did not have aspirations as a soldier. He came to the battle from a different place than many of the soldiers. He was born in Scarboro, then in Massachusetts – now in Maine, where the King family was accused of Loyalist sympathies. He went to Harvard and studied law and while in Boston he became part of a club that would become the Federalist Society. King considered himself a New Englander and he enlisted in 1778 in defense of New England. At that time Massachusetts mobilized its militia for Major General Sullivan. King volunteered along with others from his Boston Club. King received a commission as a major of infantry and was appointed as an aide to Brigadier General Glover of Marblehead. With Sullivan’s forces gathered at Tiverton, King and Glover’s men crossed to the island to join other militia and continental units to construct redoubts and siege lines. King’s Boston friends, John Hancock and Paul Revere, left the island when it seemed the French fleet would not return. Rufus King remained on duty. When Sullivan had to withdraw, Glover’s brigade covered the withdrawal and King narrowly escaped death.

After the Battle of Rhode Island, King returned to law practice in Massachusetts. He served in the State legislature, and as delegate to the Continental Congress from his state. After the war, when confidence in the Articles of Confederation was low, he joined other delegates as representatives to the Constitutional Convention. He was Instrumental in the call for a Bill of Rights and was one of the signers of the Constitution. In 1789 King moved to New York and a few years later became a senator from that state. He went on to a diplomatic career and in 1796 began his long assignment as ambassador to Great Britain under three presidents.

  • King Correspondence Volume I. Edited by Charles King and quoted in Ernst’s biography of Rufus King.

Notables at the Battle of Rhode Island: John Trumbull, Patriotic Painter

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Who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island? As I research for the upcoming website for the Battle of Rhode Island Association, I keep coming across some interesting individuals who took part in that battle. Many of the soldiers went on to very promising careers, but I did not expect to find a prominent artist among them. I came across an eyewitness account of the battle written by John Trumbull. When I searched for information on him, I found that he was an artist noted for portraits and depictions of leaders and events in the American Revolution. I had read about him in the past, but I did not think he had a local connections.

Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, John Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773. He served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the revolution. Many of the biographical materials I read had him resigning from that regiment and going on to England to study painting. How could he write about the Battle of Rhode Island if he wasn’t there? Further research gave me an answer. In 1778 he became an aide-de-camp to General John Sullivan in Rhode Island.

Portrait of Trumbull by Frothingham in Brown University Collection

This is a portion from “Reminiscences of his own Times” by John Trumbull that describes events on August 29th, 1778. My notes are in bold italics.

“Soon after daybreak the next morning, the rear-guard, commanded by that excellent officer, Colonel Wigglesworth, was attacked on Quaker, otherwise called Windmill Hill {actually it was Butts Hill that was called Windmill Hill} and General Sullivan, wishing to avoid a serious action on that ground, sent me with orders to commanding officer to withdraw the guard. In performing this duty I had to mount the hill {Quaker Hill} by a broad smooth road {East Main}, more than a mile in length from the foot to the summit, which was the scene of conflict, which, though an easy ascent, was yet too steep for a trot or a gallop. It was necessary to ride at a leisurely pace, for I saw before me a hard day’s work for my horse, and was unwilling to fatigue him.

Nothing can be more trying to the nerves, than to advance deliberatively and alone into danger. At first I saw a round shot or two drop near me, and pass bounding on. I met poor Colonel Tousard, who had just lost one arm, blown off by the discharge of a field piece, for the possession of which there was an ardent struggle. He was led off by a small party. Soon after, I saw Captain Walker, of H. Jackson’s regiment, who had received a musket ball through his body, mounted behind a person on horseback. He bid me a melancholy farewell, and died before night. Next, grape shot began to sprinkle around me, and soon after musket balls fell in my path like hailstones. This was not to be borne. I spurred on my horse to the summit of the hill, and found myself in the midst of the melee. ‘Don’t say a word, Trumbull;’ cried the gallant commander, ‘I know your errand, but don’t speak; we will beat them in a moment.’

‘Col. Wigglesworth, do you see those troops crossing obliquely from the west road towards your rear?’

‘Yes, they are Americans, coming to our support.’

‘No sir, those are Germans; mark, their dress is blue and yellow, not buff; they are moving to fell late your rear, and intercept your retreat. Retreat instantly — don’t lose a moment, or you will be cut off.’

The gallant man obeyed, reluctantly, and withdrew the guard in fine style, slowly, but safely.”

Trumbull’s Reminiscences quote in Our French Allies: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en