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.