At the Battle: New Hampshire Men – a Declaration signer, a future Congressman and a slave

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The action on Quaker Hill on the morning of August 29th, 1778 was hot and heavy. General John Glover and his New Hampshire officers were having breakfast at a house on Quaker Hill. Their horses were saddled by the door. General Smith’s Redcoats were firing furiously. Glover ordered Rufus King, an aide de camp, to investigate the action. As he left the table, Major John Sherburne took his place. The enemy fired a field piece from a range of three-quarters of a mile. A cannon ball tore through one of the horses outside (it may have been Glover’s) and smashed Sherburne’s foot. Sherburne’s leg had to be amputated, but the circumstances of the wounds bothered him. “The loss of a leg might be borne, but to be condemned all future life to say I lost my leg under the breakfast table is too bad.” Sherburne’s injury did not hinder him from progressing in a law career. He served as a US Attorney for the District of New Hampshire from 1789 to 1793 and from 1801 to 1804; he also served in the US House of Representatives from 1793 to 1797. He went on to serve as a federal judge for the District of New Hampshire from 1804 until his death in 1830.

Sherburne was in Rhode Island under the command of General William Whipple. Whipple was a signer of the Declaration of Independence from the State of New Hampshire. As New England militias and Continentals were gathering for General John Sullivan’s Rhode Island Expedition in 1778, Whipple followed his New Hampshire General. The Expedition was based on the aid of the French, but the French navy sailed off to Boston to repair their ships that had been damaged in a storm. By August 26, 1778 it was clear that the French were not coming back. To Whipple’s dismay, 1,100 of the New Hampshire volunteers left.

John Trumbull’s Portrait of Whipple – National Portrait Gallery

Whipple stayed through the battle and a group of his men stayed in service until September 5, 1778. Records list a “Prince Whipple” as a servant of Whipple. Whipple was a merchant and ship owner and he engaged in the slave trade. He personally owned slaves and Prince was one of them. There is a story that in preparing to go off to the battlefield, Whipple said: “Hurry up Prince, we’ve got to go and fight for our freedom.” Prince responded “But I have no freedom to fight for.” Supposedly Whipple answered, “From this moment on you are a free man, Prince. Hurry up now and we will fight for our freedom together.” Prince was loyally at Whipple’s side throughout the war. After the war Whipple officially gave Prince his freedom. As a reward for his service, Prince was granted a plot of land that he eventually used for a school for African children.


“General Glover’s Role in the Battle of Rhode Island,” by George Billias. Rhode Island History, April 1959.

Fold3 Military records for William Whipple, Prince Whipple and J. Samuel Sherburne.

Day of Battle: Skirmishes by Lehigh Hill

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The skirmishes around Lehigh Hill have taken on importance because of the presence of the Black Regiment. We call the area Lehigh Hill, but the British called it Burrington’s Hill and it was known as Durfee Hill by the Americans. The British had constructed a redoubt (temporary fortification) right by the West Road.

This redoubt became a focal spot for American defenses and British attacks. During the Battle of Rhode Island this thick walled redoubt became the strong position of the Rhode Island First Regiment, the Black Regiment. Normally led by Christopher Greene, it was led at this time by Major Samuel Ward. Around 10 AM the British, led by von der Malsburg, charged this position. Malsburg would write: “We found obstinate resistance, and bodies of troops behind the work (redoubt) at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirtsleeves, and among them many negroes.” Malsburg pulled back, but General von Lossberg ordered another attack around 11:30 AM. British vessels (the Sphynz, Spitfire and Vigilant) had put themselves in good position to be shelling the Americans from Narragansett Bay. This attack was repulsed on land and the naval attack was ineffective. General von Lossburg personally directed a third more powerful assault. American General Nathanael Greene ordered Colonel Israel Angell’s 2nd Rhode Island Regiment to support Ward’s First Rhode Island Regiment. They were able to reach the redoubt before the British forces.

We have some first hand accounts from the leaders of both American regiments.

From the diary of Samuel Ward (First Rhode Island Regiment):

Early yesterday morning, the enemy moved out after us, expecting that we were leaving the island, and took possession of the Heights in our front. They sent out parties in their front, and we made detachments to drive them back again. After a skirmish of three or four hours, with various success, in which each party gave way three or four times, and were reinforced, we drove them quite back to the ground they first took in the morning, and have continued there ever since. Two ships and a couple of small vessels beat up opposite our lines, and fired several shots, but being pretty briskly fired upon from our heavy pieces, they fell down, and now lay opposite the enemy’s lines. Our loss was not very great, it has not been ascertained yet; and I can hardly make a tolerable conjecture. Several officers fell, and several are badly wounded. I am so happy to have only one captain slightly wounded in the hand. I believe that a couple of the blacks were killed and four or five wounded, but none badly. Previous to this, I should have told you our picquets and light corps engaged their advance, and found them with bravery.”

From the diary of Israel Angell (Second Rhode Island Regiment):
August 29th, 1778. A Clear morning and Very Cool the ( ) Recd orders last evening to Strike their tents and march to the north end of the island; the advanced piquet was to come off at 12 oclock the enemy finding that we had left our ground pursued with all possible speed. Come up with our piquet about sunrise and a smart firing begun, the piquet repulsed the Brittish troops 2 or 3 times but was finally obliged to retreat as the Enemy brought a number of field pieces against them. The Enemy was soon check’t by our Cannon in coming up to our main body and they formed on Quaker Hill and we took possession of Buttses Hill the left wing of the British army was Compossed of the hessians who Attackt our right wing and a Sevear engagement Ensued in which the hessians was put to flight and beat of the ground with a Considerable loss. Our loss was not very great but I cannot assertain the number. I was ordered with my Regt to a Redoubt on a Small hill which the Enemy was a trying for and it was with Difficulty that we got there before the Enemy. I had 3 or 4 men kill’d and wounded today at night I was ordered with my Reg to lie on the lines. I had not Slept then in two nights more than two or three hours. The Regt had eat nothing during the whole Day. This was our sittuation to goe on guard, but we marched off Chearfully and took our post.

At this point the Americans were being flushed out of the area in the valley north of Turkey Hill and some of the British soldiers had moved beyond the redoubt. Nathanael Greene in command of the American troops saw an opening to attack a vulnerable spot in the Hessian lines. He sent in Sherburne’s and Jackson’s Continentals. The American line included 1600 soldiers (Varnum’s Brigade of 2nd RI, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, Webbs) as well as 1st RI, Lauren’s Guard and Jackson’s men. A bayonet charge by Jackson’s troops helped turn the tide. Greene sent in Lovell’s brigade with John Trumbull in charge to attack the Hessians. The British forces began to retreat to Turkey Hill. By 3:30 PM the fighting on the west side had ended.

In his August 31st letter to Congress, General Sullivan would write”

“The firing of artillery continued through the day, and the _ with intermission six hours. The heat of the action continued near an hour, which must have ended in the ruin of the British army, had not their redoubts on the hill covered them from further pursuit. We were about to attack them in their lines, but the men’s having had no rest the night before, and another to eat either that night or the day of the action, and having been in constant action through most of the day, it was not thought advisable, especially as their position was exceedingly strong, and their numbers fully equal, if not superior to ours.”

Plan of the Battle of Rhode Island from a Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

Resources: As always, an excellent description of the Battle is in Christian McBurney’s Rhode Island Campaign.

Other sources include Paul Dearden’s The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778 (1980)

Anthony Walker’s So Few the Brave, 1981.

Geake, Robert. From Slaves to Soliders. Yardley, Pennsylvania, Westholme Publishing, 2016.

Angell, Israel. Diary of Colonel Israel Angell Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment during the American Revolution 1778-1781. Edited by Edward Field. Providence; Preston and Rounds, 1899.

A Memoir of Lieut – Colonel Samuel Ward, First Rhode Island Regiment, Army of the American Revolution; John Ward, New York, 1875. (available on Kindle)

Day of Battle: Skirmishes at Quaker Hill

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Before 9 AM, August 29, 1778

After a skirmish with American Wade’s forces, British General Smith and the 43rd Regiment pushed up Middle Road while the 22nd Regiment proceeded up East Main Road. The diversity of the troop coats created confusion during the fight. British soldiers mistook Continentals with blue coats for Germans with blue coats, so American soldiers got within easy firing range of the Red Coats.

American units (Wiggleworth’s Regiment, Livingston’s advanced guard and Wade’s pickets) were waiting at the junction of Middle Road, East Road and Hedley Street near where the Quaker Meeting House is. American General Sullivan saw his troops retreating, so he sent in Shepard’s Regiment of Massachusetts Continentals. General Sullivan’s “Life Guards” were sent in as well. For a while the Americans had an advantage.

A private from Jackson’s attachment described the action:

“We began to attack. The action began to be warm when we were reinforced by Col. Shepard’s Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Sprout. The action then commenced hot. We plied them so briskly that they began to give way. Our troops seeing this, gave three cheers and advanced. The enemy then gave way and left one piece of cannon but poorly supported. A party of our men then advanced, drove the artillerymen and took possession of the cannon. The enemy then rallied and being reinforced, advanced and gave our men so heavy a fire that they obliged them to quit their prize, the cannon.”

Diary of a soldier in the RI Expedition (Massachusetts Historical Society. Quoted in McBurney.

Sullivan sent an aide, John Trumbull, to order Wigglesworth to retreat.

“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. …..

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.”

The heavy action lasted for almost a hour. Some American writers called it an orderly retreat, but British writers recorded that the Americans retreated at a run. As the British came within range of the six 18 pounders fired from Butts Hill, the British regrouped. From Quaker Hill British General Smith could see the strength of Sullivan’s lines. By 9:30 AM Smith decided against an assault and he withdrew back to the top of Quaker Hill. Almost half the casualties of the battle came from the skirmishes on East Main Road.


McBurney’s The Rhode Island Campaign provides an excellent narrative.

Anthony Walker, So Few the Brave. 1981, R.I. Sons of the American Revolution.

“Reminiscences of his own Times” by John Trumbull is quoted in Stone’s Our French Allies.

Day of Battle: Turkey Hill Skirmishes

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At 8AM the British forces under the command of Von Der Malsburg are chasing Col. John Laurens and his American troops. There are skirmishes up West Road as the two sides make contact. Malsburg troops charge the Americans who are positioned behind stone walls. Sometimes the Americans could hold their ground. Laurens is outnumbered so his advanced guard withdrew with Malsburg’s Hessians (Germans) in pursuit. A group of Americans hid in tall stalks of Indian corn and fired at the Hessians. A German officer, Noltenius, was wounded by a musket ball to the abdomen. Malsburg came to his friend’s assistance and that gave the Americans a chance to make an escape. Local civilians were casualties of the combat. There were reports of German Ansbach troops killing an elderly Quaker man in the back.

Lauren was fighting just below Turkey Hill. Captain Malsburg’s hand was wounded in the fighting. Laurens men took a strong defensive position on Turkey Hill. He asked for reinforcements, but Sullivan ordered Laurens to fall back to the main lines. To protect Lauren’s troops, Sullivan sent Webb’s Regiment of Connecticut Continentals under Major Huntington and forty soldiers from Jackson’s detachment.

By 8:30AM the Hessians were stationed on the top of Turkey Hill. Von der Malsburg led his soldiers down into the valley between Turkey Hill and Durfee’s Hill. Out of ammunition, Malsburg had his troops take cover behind stone walls to wait for more supplies. American artillery on Butts Hill kept Von der Malsburg’s troop pinned down. He sent his own artillery back to the top of Turkey Hill to pound the American right wing.

Heritage Park is at the top of Turkey Hill today. Good signage at the park gives narrates the story of the Battle of Rhode Island. The natural environment gives us a chance to imagine the skirmish there.


Christian McBurney’s The Rhode Island Campaign 2011 was the basis for this narrative.

Day of Battle: Skirmish at East Road and Union Street

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Early the morning of August, 29, 1778, British General Pigot sent General Smith up the East Road toward Quaker Hill.  He had General Prescott send the 45th Regiment and the Prince of Wales Regiment up the East Road as reinforcements, but he held back some troops in case the Rebels were planning on doubling back to Newport.  This gave Smith over 1800 troops. Smith’s men moved toward American Col. Livingston’s advanced guard and Wade’s pickets.  In the lead for Smith’s forces were Captain Thomas Coore’s elite flank companies of the 38th and 54th Regiments, followed by the 22nd Regiment of John Campbell.  

At 8 AM Coore’s and Campbell’s troops encountered Wade’s pickets who were behind stone walls on the western side of the East Road at Union Street.  

American General John Sullivan  had placed an advanced unit commanded by Livingston and the New York 4th as well as Henry Jackson’s soldiers. This gave the Rebels around 950 men.   A short way up Union Street was the beginning of Middle Road which runs parallel to East Main Road. Colonel Nathaniel Wade’s Rebel troops were hidden in the fields between East Road and Middle Road. Wade instructed his men not to fire until he gave the order. Then they were to reload, fire again, and retreat. Half of the British 22nd Regiment headed up Union Street to cross to Middle Road. At Wade’s signal his men rose up from their hiding spots and fired the two volleys at the British Troops. There were heavy losses for the Red Coats. As Lieutenant Colonel Campbell’s 22nd Regiment came up to help, it too began to take casualties. Musket balls tore through Campbell’s coat without harming him. The 22nd Regiment suffered many casualties that day, most of them from this ambush. Livingstone did not linger. Like Laurens he pulled back to safer ground. The picket line retreated towards Quaker Hill. The 43rd Regiment of Foot (RoF) took pursuit down Middle Road while the 54th, 38th, and 43rd RoF continued up East Main Rd. 


Christian McBurney’s book, The Rhode Island Campaign, has the best description of this skirmish. His map is the clearest illustration of the fighting.

Day of Battle: First Skirmish at West Road and Union Street

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The first skirmish in the Battle of Rhode Island was around 7AM on the morning of August, 29, 1778. A document in the collection of the Newport Historical Society records the general order for the whole army of the Americans to retreat. The order instructs the army to retreat beginning on East Main on the left flank and West Main on the right flank. The first action was near the intersection of Union Street and West Main Road. American General John Sullivan had stationed an elite unit of Continentals and Rhode Island state regiments. The troops were under the leadership of John Laurens who was assisted by Silas Talbot and Lt. Colonel Fleury from Lafayette’s staff. Laurens forces were from independent town companies and Boston and they totaled less than 250 men. British forces were under Von Lossberg. Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg led 1,000 men up West Road.

A letter from Major-General Pigot to General Sir Henry Clinton dated Newport, Rhode Island, August 31, 1778 provides a British view of the early stage of the battle.

“Major-General Lossberg marching by the West Road, with the Hessian Chasseurs and the Anspach Regiments of Voit and Seaboth, in order, if possible, to annoy them in their Retreat……On hearing a smart Fire from the Chasseurs engaged on the West Road, I dispatched Colonel Fannings Corp of Provincials to join General Lossberg…”

The German (Hessian) Chasseurs (sharpshooters) made contact with American forces near the Redwood home. A small engagement took place from that area and would eventually lead towards the Lawton Valley. The Hessians would eventually break the American line with Artillery (large caliber guns).  In withdrawing the American Light Infantry fought masterfully as they hid behind stone walls. Captain von der Malsburg ordered his Chasseurs forward in a series of bayonet charges which drove the American pickets (small defensive units) back from two different positions. They retreated to Laurens’ main body of troops some three miles south of Turkey Hill. With the Hessian vanguard (leading soldiers) engaged in the fight, Pigot pushed in reinforcements; the von Huyn Regiment and Colonel Fanning’s King’s American Regiment which give the attackers 1,800 men compared to Laurens’ 300.

Laurens retreated skillfully. He was in constant jeopardy of having his flanks (sides that could be weaker) attacked yet he held firm against the 1st and 2nd Ansbach Regiments. The Hessian Chasseurs continued in the thick of the fighting. Captain Von der Malsburg was wounded in the hand and shot through his hat but still maintained pressure on the retiring Americans.


The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. John Hattendorf. 2021. Sons of the Revolution.

The Rhode Island Campaign. Christian McBurney, 2011. Westholme.

The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778. Paul F. Dearden. 1987. Rhode Island Publications.

The Battle of Rhode Island August 29, 1778. Patrick T. Conley. 2005.

Denison Map of Battle of Rhode Island. Massachusetts Historical Society

A retreat order written for the Continental Army during the Battle of Rhode Island, August 28, 1778. Signed by Adjutant General William Pecke. Remains of a red seal are located at left edge of paper.”Col. Laurens” is written on reverse (Colonel John Laurens). A notation by William Ellery is also written on reverse. Collection of the Newport Historical Society.

Day of Battle: The British take the Offensive

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Frederick Mackenzie’s diary entry for August 29, 1778 gives us a picture of the British moves toward the battle. At daybreak Mackenzie could see that the Americans were folding their tents to travel. He found a higher viewpoint and saw that Rebels were not in the trenches.

” I rode as fast as possible to General Pigot’s quarters in Newport and informed him of it, and returned to the Camp with his orders for all the troops to get under arms with the utmost expedition. The General came to Irishes Redoubt by the time the Troops were assembled, and being satisfied that the Rebels had quitted their position, he gave orders for a part of the Army to march out, in three Columns, to pursue them, but to advance with caution, and not bring on an Action with a part of our force.”

The right column included the 38th and the 54th Regiments under the Command of Major General Prescott. He was directed to take the Rebel works at Honeyman’s Hill and wait for orders.

“The Center Column was composed of the Flank Companies of the 38th & 54th, and the 22d, & 43rd Regiments, under the Command of Brigadier General Smith. This Column marched out at Irishes Redoubt, and proceeded on the East road towards Quaker hill.

The left Column was composed of the Hessian Chasseurs, and the two Anspach Battalions, under the Command of Major Genl Lossberg; this Column marched out at Irishes Redoubt, & proceeded by the West road towards General Smith’s late quarters on that road.

The troops began to march about half past 6 o’Clock.”


Diary of Frederick Mackenzie, Vol. 2: August 29, 1778.

Fage Map, 1778. Clinton Collection, University of Michigan

Day of Battle: American Positions

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August 29, 1778

General Sullivans main aim at this stage of the RI campaign was to protect the retreat route to Howland Ferry. Sullivan was positioned at Butts Hill were he occupied fortifications left by the British that could accommodate his officers and staff. It commanded a view of Howland Ferry and Bristol Ferry to the north and East and West Roads to the south.

Beginning positions: Primary Line

Somewhat south of Butts Hill, Sullivan deployed his army of five to six thousand men along a fortified line almost two miles long which stretched across Aquidneck Island from the East Passage (Sakonnet River) on the east to Narragansett Bay on the west.

Gen. John Glover’s brigade (4 Massachusetts Regiments of Continentals), was stationed on the left, near East Road and facing Quaker Hill.

Glover’s left flank was protected by Gen. John Tyler’s Connecticut militia.

To Glover’s right, in the center, was a brigade temporarily under Col. Christopher Greene (who had been shifted from his usual command of the Black Regiment). Col. Greene commanded a state regiment from Massachusetts and a state regiment from New Hampshire and two Providence County militia Regiments. Butts Hill stood to their rear.

To Col. Greene’s right, the line was extended to West Road by Col. Ezekiel Cornell’s R.I. Brigade.

Across West Road from Cornell, facing Turkey Hill to the south, was Gen. James M. Varnum’s Brigade of four Continental regiments.

Flanked on the far right of Varnum was Col. Henry Brockholst Livingstone’s 1st Canadien regiment. They extended down a hill toward the Bay.

Holding a redoubt on the far right (Burrington’s) was Christopher Greene’s Black Regiment, under command of Maj. Samuel Ward, Jr.

Nathaniel Greene was in command of the entire right wing.

Advanced Guards:

Sullivan posted the light infantry unit of Col. John Laurens on West Road.

Col. Henry Beekman Livingstone was posted on East Road.

Secondary Line:

2000 Massachusetts Militiamen, (Titcomb’s Brigade to the east and Lovell’s Brigade to the west ) were situated to the north of Butts Hill.

Further to the north were the reserves, General William West’s 800 Rhode Island militiamen. They were newly drafted and the least experienced.


Denison, J. Map of Newport, Rhode Island, and vicinity showing the disposition of American and British forces in August 1778 [map]. No Scale Provided. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://geodata.lib.utexas.edu/catalog/princeton-s7526f86c

McBurney, Christian. The Rhode Island Campaign. Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania, 2011.