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