Lafayette’s stay in Rhode Island during the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island in August of 1778 was just the first time the General came to our state. The second visit was to Newport in 1781 when he came to confer with Rochambeau. In 1784 he came to Rhode Island on a tour after the War for Independence was over. His last visit came during a grand tour of America in 1824. This blog will focus on the first visit.

In the summer of 1778 Lafayette brought a detachment of troops from General Washington to assist General Sullivan in the Rhode Island Campaign, a joint French and American effort to free Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) from the British Occupation.

A letter Washington wrote from White Plains, New York, on July 22, 1778 contained the orders:

“Sir, You are to have the immediate command of that detachment from this army which consists of Glover’s and Varnum’s brigades and the detachment under the command of Colonel Henry Jackson. You are to march them by the best routes to Providence in the State of Rhode Island. When there, you are to subject yourself to the order of Major General Sullivan, who will have command of the expedition against Newport and the British and other troops on the islands adjacent.”

Lafayette reached Providence with 2,000 men on August 3rd or (August 4th according to other accounts). On their way, Lafayette and his men stayed by “Angell’s Tavern” in Scituate. There his men had a chance to wash and refresh themselves with the spring that became known as Lafayette’s Spring. On August 5th, Lafayette was aboard the French flagship Le Languedoc to meet with French commander d’Estaing. The French fleet was waiting off of Point Judith and d’Estaing provided Lafayette with the ship Provence to bring him back to Providence.

There is some documentation for where Lafayette stayed in Rhode Island at that time, and there are other homes that have “Lafayette Stayed Here” legends that have come down through time.

The American forces gathered in Tiverton, close to the Howland Ferry. By August 6, 1778, Lafayette and his troops had moved to Tiverton where he is said to have stayed at the Abraham Brown House on Main Road close to Lafayette Street. He is said to have occupied the northwest chamber on the second floor. This may have been before the move to Aquidneck Island or it may be that he stayed there after the retreat.

"Lafayette House" in Tiverton
“Lafayette House in Tiverton”

With the arrival of the French fleet, operations were set in motion. The British abandoned Butts Hill Fort and other strategic locations in northern Aquidneck Island. On August 10, 1778 Sullivan began crossing to the island and he moved into Butts Hill Fort and made it his headquarters. The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what Lafayette and others were doing on the island before the Battle of Rhode Island. His entry for Sunday, August 16th, gives us one location of Lafayette’s quarters in Portsmouth.

“Went in the afternoon with a number of officers to view a garden near our quarters, belonging to one Mr. Bowler, – the finest by far I ever saw….” Cutler goes on to describe the garden. The last line in the diary entry reads, “The Marquis de la Fayette took quarters at this house.”

Metcalf Bowler House (now torn down)
Metcalf Bowler House (now torn down)

Cutler’s entry for Monday the 17th also refers to the Marquis. The British had been firing since early in the morning and Cutler with General Titcomb had been observing the enemy lines from the top of a house. “stood by the Marquis when a cannon ball just passed us. Was pleased with his firmness.”

Metcalf Bowler’s estate has been torn down, but there are two homes in Portsmouth with “Lafayette” legends. One is the Dennis House on East Main Road and not far from Butts Hill Fort. The southeast room on the second floor has traditionally be associated with Lafayette. Lafayette has traditionally been associated with a house on Bristol Ferry Road (Bayles’ History of Newport County: p.665).

Dennis House, East Main Road, Portsmouth
Dennis House, Portsmouth

Although the American forces had moved onto Rhode Island (Aquidneck), the French forces were unable to move forward with their attack of Newport. Their ships were damaged in a storm and d’Estang decided to head to Boston for repairs on August 21st. The joint French and American plan was about to fail without the French aid. On August 28th, Lafayette made the six and a half hour trip to Boston to talk to d’Estaing. The mission was fruitless and on August 30th Lafayette rode back to Portsmouth in record time. He had missed the battle, but he took command of the rear guard to bring it safely across to Tiverton.

Israel Angell’s Diary notes that on September 1st General Varnum’s brigade in General Lafayette’s detachment passed by boat to Warren. The next day they were in Bristol where Lafayette made the Hope Street home of Joseph Reynolds his headquarters. A plaque on the house reads: This house built about the year 1698 by Joseph Reynolds was occupied by Lafayette as his headquarters September 1778 during the War of American Independence.” Lafayette’s room was the northwest chamber. The southwest room on the first floor was his dining room and office.

Reynold House today.
Reynolds House today

By September 18th Lafayette had moved on to Warren where the brigade encamped on Windmill Hill. Lafayette’s quarters were at Coles Tavern which has since burned down. On September 28th he was in Boston and on his way to Philadelphia on October 1st.

Lafayette would return to Rhode Island under more peaceful circumstances. More on those visits in our next blog.

References: This article was based on Preston’s 1926 article with added information from other sources.

Preston, Howard. “Lafayette’s Visits to Rhode Island.” Rhode Island Historical Society Collections. January 1, 1926.

Cutler’s Diary is found in Edwin Stone’s “Our French Allies.” This is an old book (1884, Providence) but it was a great help. It is available online through Google Books. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

Taylor, Erich A. O’D. Campaign on Rhode Island, 1930?

The Diary of Colonel Israel Angell Commanding Officer, 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, Continental Army
by Edward Field.