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.