The French Arrive: 1780

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July 11, 1780 a squadron of French warships approached Newport. Their journey was started on February 2, 1780, when King Louis XVI approved a plan, code-named the expédition particulière (special exhibition). On May 2, a fleet with crews totaling about 7,000 sailors, commanded by Admiral de Ternay set sail from France for Rhode Island. This was not the first French fleet that had arrived at Newport waters as part of a French and American alliance. The fleet commanded by General d’Estaing in 1778 was part of a Rhode Island Campaign to free Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) from the grip of British occupation. That fleet quickly retreated following damage from a storm and the campaign ended with the retreat of the Americans at the Battle of Rhode Island. This 1780 arrival would prove to be a key moment in the French and American alliance. This landing was the beginning of cooperation between the forces that would ultimately lead to victory at Yorktown.

When the French arrived they found a Newport that was diminished by three years of British occupation. The people couldn’t feed themselves or gather enough wood to keep warm. Livestock had been taken, anything wood had been burned, farm fencing had been destroyed and almost all the trees had been chopped down. After years of occupation Newporters were not enthusiastic about having to support another army.

The French had their own concerns. One-third of the French troops were weakened during the long voyage by scurvy. Forty-seven men died during the first seven weeks on Rhode Island. General Washington sent Dr. James Craick, the assistant director of hospital for the Continental Army, to set up hospitals. With a good diet of fruit and vegetables, the men recovered.

At first the French troops were camped throughout Newport. A camp ran east from Easton’s Beach to the west by Thames Street. Lauzon’s Legion camped at Castle Hill. When the winter came it was important to find housing for the troops. General Rochambeau was in charge and he began to repair the houses that the British had left in ruins.

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. [1780] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/gm71002156/.

Rochambeau was skillful in managing his troops. Conduct and discipline were important. Where the British had taken from the inhabitants, the French were careful to bring supplies in from France and they paid for what they needed. Newport merchants began to resume trade. Townspeople were able to work again. The French Commissary department employed sailors, drivers, cooks, butchers, carpenters, wheelwrights and countless other tradesmen.

The French brought engineers and soon after they landed they began to repair the defenses that the British had destroyed before they left. These fortifications were remodeled and guns were mounted. In a letter to a friend, Militiaman Dr. John Goddard commented: “…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men (militia), at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state….Notwithstanding the Superiority of the English Fleet the French appear to feel very secure. Their Fleet consisting of seven sail of the Line & three Frigates are drawn up in line of Battle from Tomany Hill across the Chanel to Conanicut. The Town of Newport is surrounded with Forts which are well filled with Cannon, on the whole I believe there is no Reason to fear an Attack from the Enemy this season.”

With the arrival of the French in 1780, Rhode Islanders felt more secure.


The letter was included in: Recent Acquisitions in Americana – William Reese Company – https://www.williamreesecompany.com

France and Rhode Island, 1636-1800. Mary Ellen Loughrey, New York King’s Crown Press 1944.

https://w3r-us.org/french-encampment-newport-11-july-1-november-1780/. French Encampment in Newport (11July-1 November 1780 National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association, Inc.

https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/01/why-newport-rhode-island-scorned-the-french/. Why Newport, Rhode Island, scorned the French by Norman Desmarais. Journal of the American Revolution January 2, 2020

German Families at Home on Butts Hill

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I knew that families came with the British and German soldiers who occupied Aquidneck Island. What I didn’t realize was that there would be families living at the Butts Hill fortifications. Walter Schroder’s book “The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island 1776-1779” provides an interesting glimpse of this family life. Most of the German troops were Protestants and they brought their chaplains with the army. Schroder cites records of the Rev. G.C. Coster who was chaplain of two Hessian regiments. Coster lists several births, baptisms and infant deaths recorded at the Windmill Hill encampment (Butts Hill). That is proof that the families of the soldiers came and stayed with them even on their field assignments to North Portsmouth.

Schiffer, J. C. Plan von Rhode Island, und deren dem comando des Herrn General Majors Presgott inf dies-malig befundlichen campements. [1777] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/75690704/.

Schroder, Walter. The Hessian Occupation of Newport and Rhode Island 1776-1779. Westminster, Maryland, Heritage Books, 2005.

Coster, G.C. Hessian Soldiers in the American Revolution: Records of their marriages and baptisms of their children in American, performed by the Rev. G.C. Coster, 1776-1783, Chaplain of two Hessian Regiments. Edited and translated by Marie Dicktore. Cincinnati: C.J. Krehbiel Co. 1959.

Aftermath of the Battle of Rhode Island

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French Map 1778 (Library of Congress) Shows the Retreat Route via Howland’s Ferry area.

A diary entry by Israel Angell gives us a glimpse of the aftermath of the Battle of Rhode Island:

August 30th. “A Cloudy morning and the wind very high it rained a Considerable in the night the Enemy Remained on their Ground this morning two English friggats Came up yesterday to prevent our retreat but could do but little they Still Remained here. I was Relieved this morning and got Some provisions and being much worn out for the want of sleep went to a hous and took a good knap there was a Cannonade kept up to day and Some small arms from the Sentries at night we Recd orders to Retreat off the Island which we did without the loss of anything, this Retreat was in Consequence of an Express from Genl Washington informing Gen Sullivan that the Brittish Ships of war and transports had sailed from New York Some days before.”

The diary entry tells us 

  • That the troops were worn out.  
  • They had had little to eat and had not slept.  
  • The enemy remained in its position overnight and two English frigates stayed in position.
  • On the day after the battle a cannonade was kept up and there was occasional gunfire at sentry positions.
  • The Americans received orders to retreat because the British ships were on the way.

August 30th was also a day to tend to the dead and wounded.

  • Sullivan listed the American casualties as 30 killed, 138 wounded, and 44 missing.
  • Pigot reported that British forces sustained 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing.   
  • American General Sullivan ordered a hundred men to bury the American dead.  
  • The wounded were transported to mainland hospitals in Providence, Bristol and elsewhere.  

A diary entry by Israel Angell:

August 31st, 1778.  “Our retreat off the Island was completed by three o’clock this morning it is Supos’d that the Enemy attempted a Retreat last Evening but after finding that we Had Retreated they Returned to their ground as it was late in the morning before they took possession of the forts we left …………..After we had Crost at howlands ferry we Encampt about a mile from Sd. ferry where we tarried this day at Night……”

On the night of August 30/31, American forces departed Aquidneck Island and moved to new positions at Tiverton and Bristol.


Diary of Colonel Israel Angell: Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment During the American Revolution, 1778-1781.

Christian McBurney’s book on the Rhode Island Campaign.  

Paul Dearden’s book The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778.  

Day of Battle: British Naval Operations

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There was a significant naval component to the Battle of Rhode Island. Maps from the time period may show three or four British vessels firing on the west side of Portsmouth, but scholars such as Dr. D.K. Abbass believe there were five vessels. The ships were under the command of Captain Alexander Graeme.

Sphynx: 20-gun frigate (Graeme’s ship)
Vigilant: 20-gun armed ship
Spitfire: 10-gun row galley. This was a former Rhode Island row galley (used oars)
A loyalist brig
Another unidentified vessel

The main goal of this little British fleet was to destroy the American battery at Bristol Ferry (on the Bristol side) and block the Americans from retreating to Bristol.

The captain’s log of the Vigilant recorded that at 7:30 a.m. he “received orders to Weigh & try to cut off the Retreat of the Rebels at Bristol Ferry.”

While “working up” toward the ferry, (this would be Bristol Ferry) at 10 a.m. he “Observed the British and Hessian Troops engaged with the Rebels who had posted themselves on Quaker and Windmill hills,”

At 11:30 a.m.the ship “Stood close in & fired Several Shot to facilitate the operations of the Hessians who were by this time driveing the Rebels out of the Wood.”

Observing the Americans “turning a Work up” at Portsmouth Point (maybe Arnold’s Point), he “Stood close in and fired Several Guns with Round & Grape among those people which only disturbed them for the time.”

At 1 p.m. “Stood up as far towards Bristol Ferry as the Pilot would take Charge of the Ship the Rebels kept a Constant fire … from a Battery above the Ferry most of which Shot fell close on board and the rest passed over between the Mast Hd and kept fireing.”

The shallowness of the water in the area around Bristol Ferry may have been the factor that made the vessels turn around and pass by Portsmouth’s Narragansett Bay shores again.

“Shot at the Rebels posted on Wind Mill and Quaker hills.”

At 2 p.m. the ship again “Stood Close in” to support the Hessians, “but … the Rebels began a Cannonade from three 24 pounders the three first Shot hulled the Ship and the others fell all round her, received orders … to move.”

Thereafter the ship was “employed Standing off and on frequently exchangeing Shot with the Enemy. … “

At 6 p.m. the Cannonade on shore began to abate D[itt]o received orders … to Anchor on the Flank of the British Army during the Night with the Reprisal Brig and the Sphynx with the other two Armed Vessels stood over and Anchored under the No. end of Prudence Island”

There is another account from the diary of British officer Frederick Mackenzie, who was very critical of the Vigilant’s failure to continue its bombardment.

“As soon as the Troops marched out in pursuit of the Rebels, The Sphynx, and Vigilant, with the Spitfire Galley and the Privateer Brig, got under way with the wind at N.E. and worked up the passage between Rhode-Island and Prudence, in order to annoy the Enemy’s right if there should be an opportunity. The Vigilant got up in time to have some shots at the right of the Rebels when drawn up in front of the Artillery Redoubt, but they turning some 18 prs [18-pounder cannons] against her from thence and from Arnold’s point, she dropt lower down, and anchored with the other vessels opposite Slocum’s. We were of opinion that had the Vigilant continued in the position she had gained, and persisted in cannonading the Enemy’s right with her 24 prs she would have galled them exceedingly, and possibly have enabled us to turn that flank. ‘Tis certain there was no necessity for her moving back so soon as she did.”

British ships firing on American positions – Map 1778 Rhode Island Archives


Abbass, D.K. The Forgotten Ships of the Battle of Rhode Island: Some Unpublished Documents. Rhode Island History Magazine, Winter/Spring 2009.

Diary of Frederick Mackenzie: Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775- 1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1930), 383.

Log entries from Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0462.

Battle of Rhode Island Timeline

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Action in the Battle of Rhode Island took place along East and West Roads. Sometimes there were two or more actions going on at approximately the same time. This brief timeline is an approximation.

For clarification the British and Hessian leaders are noted with a (B) and the American leaders are noted with an (A).

August 29, 1778

*Captain Mackenzie (B) saw empty American works. He travels to Pigot’s (B) headquarters to inform him of withdrawal. Pigot decides to hamper the retreat.

6:30 AM:
*General Prescott (B) moved out with the 38th and 54th Regiments to occupy fortifications at Honeyman’s Hill in Middletown.
*Brigadier General Smith (B) marched toward Quaker Hill by East Road with 22nd and 33rd Regiments with the flank companies of the 38th and 54th.
*On West Road Captain von Malsburg (B) and Captain Noltenius (B) with Hessian Chasseurs advanced toward Laurens (A). Behind them came Major General von Lossberg (B) leading two Anspach battalions.

7 AM:
*Von Malsburg (B) spotted Laurens (A) and Talbot (A) with their Light Corps behind stone walls to the south of Redwood House. Americans were driven back up West Road.
*Livingston’s men (A) attacked Smith’s men (B) from behind stone walls on East Road.
Commander Pigot ordered von Huyne’s Regiment (B) and Fanning’s Regiment (B) to support von Lossberg (B) on West Road.
*Pigot (B) orders Prescott (B) to send 54th Regiment and Brown’s Regiment to reinforce Smith (B) on East Road.

8 AM:
*Von Lossberg (B) sent troops toward Lauren’s positions on three sides.
*Coore’s and Campbell’s troops (B) ran into group fo Wade’s (A) pickets by the intersection of East Road and Union Street.
*British moved down Middle Road and East Road toward Quaker Hill.

8:30 AM:
*Von Lossberg (B) came to aid of Hessian Chasseurs.
*Laurens (A) and his Light Corps was forced to retreat across Lawton’s Valley to the works on a small height in front of Turkey Hill.
*Lauren retreats to Turkey Hill. Laurens was told to retire to main army as soon as possible.
Hessian (B) attackers arrived on top of Turkey Hill.

9 AM:
*Wigglesworth’s Regiment (A), Livingston’s Advanced Guard (A) and Wade’s pickets (A) waited for British at intersection of East Road, Middle Road and Hedley Street.
*Quaker Hill was the scene of intense fighting.
*Americans retreated toward Butts Hill and Glover’s (A) lines.

9:30 AM:
*From top of Quaker Hill, Smith (B) could see strength of Glover’s position.
*Smith was under orders not to begin a general engagement, so he decided against a frontal assault. *Smith withdrew forces to top of Quaker Hill.

*10 AM:
*Von Lossberg’s (B) troops arrived at Turkey Hill.
*Americans had positions on Durfee’s Hill and Butts Hill.
*Samuel Ward (A) and the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (Black Regiment (A)) held an Artillery Redoubt. *His men repulsed von der Malsberg’s (B) men.

11:30 AM:
*Von Lossberg (B) ordered von der Malsburg’s men (B) to try to attack Ward’s (A) First Rhode Island Regiment position again.
*British ships Sphynx, Spitfire, and Vigilant shelled the American positions from the West shore, but they did little damage.
*The Americans held their position.

*British ships planned to attack American positions.
*General Greene’s (A) men dragged cannon down to beach and forced the British ships to retreat.

2 PM:
*Pigot B) reached Quaker Hill to observe the action.
*Pigot ordered Landgrave (B) and Ditfurth Regiment (B) to march to von Lossberg’s (B) troops.

*General Glover (A) saw movement in British lines and ordered Tyler’s Connecticut militia (A) and Titcomb’s (A) Brigade of Massachusetts militia to positions behind stone walls (maybe Freeborn Street), but the British did not engage.

*Landgrave (B) and Ditfurth (B) Regiments arrived at von Lossberg’s lines.

7PM (August 29) to 3AM (August 30) :
*There was sporadic artillery fire and light skirmishing. Musket and cannon shots were heard for seven hours.
*The Battle of Rhode Island was basically over.
*The Americans and British forces retired to their lines.

Dr. Abbass’ map

The timeline was culled from McBurney’s Rhode Island Campaign and Dearden’s The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778. Map from Dr. Abbass’ proposal to restore Butts Hill Fort.

An Occupied Island

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A general Introduction:

The British had ample reason to invade and occupy Aquidneck Island (called Rhode Island at that time). Newport had a fine harbor from which the British fleet could raid up and down the coast. It would enable them to blockade ships carrying supplies from abroad that were needed by the Americans. On December 8, 1776, British General Prescott landed at Weaver’s Cove. The American militiamen were unable to mount a defense and they escaped by using the ferries to Bristol and Tiverton.

Des Barres Map 1776. Note Weaver’s Cove landing site top left.

The British Occupation of Rhode Island would last until October of 1779. Life for the residents deteriorated throughout that time. There were different experiences for those who lived in Newport and those who lived in the farmlands of Middletown and Portsmouth. Newport had more British sympathizers and life for them was good at first. The well to do and British enjoyed concerts, dances, card parties, and Christmas concerts after the British first arrived in 1776. In 1777 daily routines continued. The occupiers took over houses, shops, wharves, and farms. The British and Hessians came with wives and children and all needed food, supplies, housing and heat. The residents competed with the British for scare items. The British took hay and confiscated cattle and livestock. Residents could hunt birds, catch fish and collect shellfish. The British collected boats and guns. The longer the Occupation lasted, the harder it was on those in the maritime trades such as coopers, sailors, rope makers, etc. Wharves were pulled up for fire wood. Merchants had no supplies coming in so they had little to sell.

Local citizens couldn’t count on growing food for their families. Gardens were raided, fruit was plucked from trees and potatoes were dug up by British soldiers. There was no freedom of movement. Women could travel a little more freely at first, but later they needed passes to leave town. The border of Newport and the rest of the island was gated and locked There was no free press or local government. Births, deaths, marriages were not recorded and Newport lost its property records when the British shipped them to New York and they were ruined by water.

Destruction was even more disastrous when the French fleet was arriving in August of 1778. In creating defensive works. the British demolished homes, chopped down orchards and trees for abatis (a defensive obstacle formed by felled trees with sharpened branches facing the enemy.). Conditions worsened after the Battle of Rhode Island and through to October of 1779 when the British left the island.


A chart of the harbour of Rhode Island and Narraganset Bay surveyed in pursuance of directions from the Lords of Trade to His Majesty’s surveyor general for the northern district of North America : published at the request of the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Howe / by J.F.W. Des Barres, Esqr., 20th July 1776.

The Banisters of Rhode Island in the American Revolution: Liberty and the Costs of Loyalties
by Marian Mathison Desrosiers, Dec 14, 2020. The Bannisters lived through Occupation in Newport and this book provides insights.