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Portsmouth People: Louis Escobar

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I wrote this a few years back. Louis will always be remembered as a leading citizen of Portsmouth and a fine example of Portsmouth’s farm heritage.

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Escobar’s Highland Farm

Portsmouth dairy farmer Louis Escobar rushed into action when he saw smoke coming from his barn. He and his grandson ran into the old barn to try to rescue some of the young cows close to the door. Then he heard the roof start to crumble. It was too dangerous to stay inside. When the firefighters arrived they could see the flames leaping along the roof. Firefighters from Portsmouth, Middletown, Tiverton and the Navy base endured heat and thick smoke to battle the flames to protect the animals. They cooled the cows by watering them down with their fire hoses. A back hoe pushed in the side of the burning barn so that the livestock would have a path out of danger. The animals were so fearful that at first they wouldn’t move at all. When they began to move, they charged out of the barn. Crowds…

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Rhode Island Military Units: Kingston Reds

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Like many of the ancient military units, the Kingston Reds were founded just before the start of the American Revolution. They were created by an act of the Rhode Island Assembly in October 1775. Kingston was a wealthy port town at the time and the Kingston Reds were outfitted with uniforms of red coats, white shirts, white waistcoats, white breeches, long stockings, tricorn hats and dark buckled shoes.

They were part of the 3rd Kings County Regiment of Militia during the War for Independence. With other coastal militia groups, they shared the task of guarding Rhode Island’s long coast. They were active in battle at Little Rest Hill and the Battle of Rhode Island.

Their charter had been vacated due to dwindling numbers, but the charter of the Kingston Reds was re-instated on February 19, 2019. Today the Kingston Reds serve as a unit of the Rhode Island Charter of Historic Militia. It operates out of the Nathanael Greene Homestead with the newly constructed Barn/Education Center as the armory. Today the purpose of the group is:

“To portray a historically accurate picture of the 18th century militia which military unit (Kingston Reds) was formed originally in 1775 to serve and protect our state during the Revolutionary War.

To keep alive the historic traditions and preserve the records of their military achievements.

To maintain and promote by example, respect for the flag, and constitutions both Federal and State.

To educate the public about the 18th century New England history.”

Members march in parades and serve as guards on ceremonial occasions.

The Kingston Reds support the Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead for all events on site, participate in parades and ceremonies, educational programs and living history events.

Greene Homestead

Sources:

https://www.ricentral.com/coventry_courier/news/local_news/historic-militia-groups-celebrate-july-fourth-at-greene-homestead/article_ab344f80-e325-11eb-8408-335aff251192.html

Kingston Reds Facebook page.

Rhode Island Militias began in Portsmouth

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I have been researching the histories of some of the military units in the state today. In reading a history of the militias in Rhode Island, I found that it was little Portsmouth that started it all. This militia system would be an important force in the War for Independence and the Battle of Rhode Island.

At the first meeting of settlers at Portsmouth in 1638, it was ordered that every inhabitant of the town be equipped with certain arms and prepared to perform certain military duties. At a subsequent meeting a military company or “Train Band” was organized and William Baulston and Edward Hutchinson named as officers, the very first officers of Rhode Island’s military forces. In August 1638 a general muster of all male inhabitants capable of bearing arms was called. This was Rhode Island’s first militia mobilization. In 1639 a “Traine Band” formed in Providence and general training day was designated. In 1640 the Portsmouth Militia law was amended. The number of drills was fixed at eight per year with two Muster Days – one in Portsmouth and one at Newport.

By 1647, Newport, Portsmouth and Providence had militias. Various towns were authorized to organize militia companies, select officers, assemble for drill the first Monday of each month except May, August, January and Feb. They set aside public lands for an “Artillery Garden” or drill ground. This law was the basis for the militia system of Rhode Island. These “Trained Bands” were maybe a dozen men strong, poorly armed and poorly equipped. The Newport Trained Band divided into two in 1673.

A 1680 board of trade statement described the Colonial forces “ten companies of foote, being Trained Bands under one General Commander (John Albro), their arms are flintlocks.”
John Coggeshall was the major of Island troops and John Greene commanded those of the mainland.

By the 1690s there were trained bands in all towns, including Jamestown, Block Island and Kingstown.
In 1741 a charter was granted to the Artillery Company in the Town of Newport, Jaheel Brenton Commander. In 1757, Metcalf Bowler was an officer of the Newport Artillery. Much later Bowler was proved to be a British spy.

Newport Artillery drawing by Jay Killian

A major change was made in 1774. Provision was made in the militia law by which Rhode Island’s troops were empowered to march to the assistance of any of the other colonies ”when invaded or attacked.”
But with the fighting at Lexington, this was changed. The militias were recalled by the Colonial Assembly as they reached the Massachusetts border. On April 22, 1775, following the shots at Lexington, Massachusetts, the Rhode Island General Assembly created a 1,500 man “Army of Observation” under the command of Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene. Greene and others from the Kentish Guards were sent to Boston to serve in the new Continental Army under General George Washington. The Rhode Island force at Boston was around 1700 men. Augustus Mumford, a member of the Kentish Guards, was struck by a shot from a British cannon during the siege. He was the first Rhode Islander to be killed in the war.

During 1775 the Assembly granted charters to a number of units include the Kingstown Reds. In 1776 an additional militia regiment was organized in Newport with Col. George Irish as the commanding officer. Rhode Island militia now consisted of ten regiments of infantry and twelve chartered companies.


On December 2, 1776, the British occupied Newport. About six hundred local militiamen stationed on the island retreated to Portsmouth and crossed to the mainland without loss. The entire state militia force was mobilized. Militia units were assigned all along the shore from Point Judith to Providence. Fortifications were constantly occupied by a strong militia force during the period the British remained in Newport. The 2nd Newport Regiment under Col. John Cook occupied Tiverton, while General West, with a strong force, was at Bristol. The militia regiments and the chartered commands were constantly on duty along the shores of Narragansett Bay.


On October 25th 1779, the British evacuated Newport. The next day Gen. Stark crossed from Tiverton and occupied Newport. The militia that had patrolled the coast was dismissed after three years of service. Another militia regiment of 630 men was ordered on duty for three months. The French arrived in 1780 and with the departure of the French in 1781, twelve hundred militia men were ordered to serve one month.


During the War for Independence the militias served continually. Often there was a merging of the organizations, so it is difficult to say which units were fighting. They blended into a force under different commands and titles. The Rhode Island militias contributed greatly to the fight for Independence.

References:

Much of this article is based on:

Rhode Island’s Early Defenders and their Successors – Brig. Gen. J.J. Richards, 1937, E.Greenwich, Rhode Island Pendulum, 1937 (Published by the Provisional Regiment of Chartered Commands Rhode Island Militia.

Rhode Island Military Units: Pawtuxet Rangers

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The Pawtuxet Rangers (Second Independent Company for the County of Kent) were chartered by the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations on October 29, 1774. There were two types of military units during the Revolutionary War – independent chartered commands (like the Rangers) and Continental Regulars. In the years before the beginning of the War for Independence, busy seaports like Pawtuxet were at the heart of the economy. Rhode Islanders began to resent British actions such as the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townsend Acts (1767). These acts stifled the maritime trade of towns like Pawtuxet. Some Rhode Islanders reacted with acts of defiance like the burning of the Gaspee in Pawtuxet in 1772. The Rangers first duties were to defend the bustling town of Pawtuxet, but they were expanded to include the construction and manning of a fort and the protection of 400 miles of the Rhode Island coastline from the Royal Navy.

With the British Occupation of Aquidneck Island (Rhode Island), the Rangers were kept busy. Besides guarding Pawtuxet, they were on duty on Prudence Island, Newport, East Greenwich, Bristol and Warwick Neck.

One pension request from a veteran Ranger states: “It was the duty of said company always to be in readings to march to whatever station it was commanded either by the Governor or the General of the Army having the command in Rhode Island. It also had the principal charge of a fort built in said village of Pawtuxet to repel incursions of the enemy which were very frequent during the time the British were in possession of Newport. While Rhode Island was in the theater of War, frequent & daring incursions were made all along the shores of Narragansett Bay by the enemy for the purpose of plunder and this Corps never failed to be among the foremost to repel them.”

Members of the Rangers served in the Battle of Rhode Island, the Battle of Saratoga and the Siege of Boston.

During the War of 1812 the fort at Pawtuxet Neck was re-established and the Rangers were on duty again. Around this time the Company asked for a name change to the Pawtuxet Artillery Company. In 1841-42, the Pawtuxet Artillery was ordered to vigilantly guard the community during the Dorr Rebellion. They contended with incidents such as a barn being set on fire and the theft of muskets. The state appropriated money for an armory because there was an attempt to steal the cannons. The armory was built in 1843.

The unit was reactivated in 1972 when the Gaspee Days Committee wanted a local fife and drum corp to be hosts for celebrations. The Pawtuxet Rangers militia company was formed in 1974 and the charter was transferred to it. Today they still operate under the original charter of 1774. Even though It is now under the direct command of the Rhode Island National Guard, the Pawtuxet Rangers still retain their independent charter while they voluntarily assist State functions when requested.

The primary mission of the company today is to perpetuate history by participating in school programs, parades, battle reenactments, encampments, ceremonial programs and more.

References:

The website of the Rangers has a thorough history https://www.pawtuxetrangers.com/history-genesis/

The history was compiled with the help of local historian Henry A.L. Brown.

Rhode Island Military Units: The Bristol Train of Artillery

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The Bristol Train of Artillery was organized in 1776. The organization historian wrote in 1916:

Bristol Train of Artillery image by Jay Killian

“The Train of Artillery, in the town and county of Bristol, known as the Bristol Train of Artillery, was instituted on February 12, 1776, at a town meeting of the Town of Bristol, called ‘In consequence of an Act or order of the General Assembly made and passed at Providence on the 13th day of January 1776 for raising an Artillery Company in this town.” The company chose officers, but those officers were replaced by the General Assembly. .'”

It was the early days of the War for Independence and coastal Bristol was vulnerable to attack by the British. Bristol was continually harassed by the British troops and ships so the company was kept “fully occupied during the years of the Revolutionary War.” With the British Occupation of Newport, the Bristol Train of Artillery found itself actively taking part in battles and skirmishes around Bristol and Newport. Some say that the company took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In 1793 the General Assembly passed a new militia law. In June 1794 the Bristol Train of Artillery was chartered by the Assembly. In 1797 two brass field pieces were presented to the company by the General Assembly.

Members took part in the war of 1812 and some of them were taken prisoner and confined to Dartmoor prison in Devon, England. On June 24, 1842 a full company of 200 members reported to the Governor and served in the “Dorr Rebellion.” On June 5, 1861, the company was mustered into the 2nd Regiment of Rhode Island Volunteers. Over 300 members of the company served in different regiments during the Civil War. Several members of the company served in the Spanish American War. Forty-six members went to France to fight in World War I.

References:

“An Ancient Organization”, Bristol Phoenix, May 2, 1916.

Rhode Island Military Units: Newport Artillery Company

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The Newport Artillery Company is the oldest military unit in the United States that still operates under its original charter. Chartered in 1741 by the Rhode Island General Assembly, it was the first chartered independent unit in the Rhode Island Militia. Unlike other militia units, the artillery was granted the right to elect its own officers. It was subject only to the orders of the governor rather than the appointed colonial militia officers. The officers that were elected by the militia included the elite of Newport colonial society.

Newport Artillery image by Jay Killian

About a quarter of the members of the Artillery Company (11 members) served in the French and Indian War, but the Company became divided after that war. The Newport Artillery Company, like the town of Newport, became divided over British attempts to assess taxes and garrison men in the colonies. Prominent landowners like the Brentons remained loyal to the King. Merchants and small farmers were in opposition to those British moves. The Company was caught in the middle of the conflict. In 1775 it dismissed its clerk and discontinued meeting.

Although some say the Newport Artillery Company escorted George Washington in his 1790 visit to Newport, the next recorded meeting of the Company was in 1792. To resolve issues of their charter, they asked the State Legislature to ratify their old charter.

During the War of 1812 members of the Company volunteered to contribute to Oliver Hazard Perry’s expedition to gain control of Lake Erie. In 1842 the Company was called into action when the incumbent Governor called up the militia to respond to Dorr’s Rebellion. During the Civil War they became part of the First Rhode Island Regiment commanded by Ambrose Burnside. The Company was mobilized and sent to Fort Adams at the time of the Spanish American War. The Spanish Fleet, however, never arrived. Members of the Company joined the services during World War I, but after the war the Newport Artillery Company was not included in the National Guard.

The Company is active with ceremonial activities, and it operates a military museum in its Armory, located at 23 Clarke Street Newport, R.I. The Museum houses one of the country’s most extensive collections of military uniforms and memorabilia.

References:

White, Ensign Donald G. “THE NEWPORT ARTILLERY COMPANY.” Naval War College Review 22, no. 9 (1970): 71–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44639578.

https://www.newportartillery.org/our-company – Website of the Newport Artillery.e

Rhode Island Military Units: The Varnum Continentals

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The Varnum Continentals is a non-profit historic and patriotic organization that owns Varnum House Museum and the Varnum Armory and Military Museum. They are named in honor of James Varnum who served as Brigadier General in the Continental Army.

Varnum Continentals Image by Jay Killian

Varnum’s military career began with the Kentish Guards who were chartered as a militia by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1774 as a unit of the Rhode Island Militia. Varnum was one of the founders of the Kentish Guards and he was elected their first commanding officer.

With the outbreak of the War for Independence, Varnum was commissioned by the RI Assembly as a Colonel of the First Regiment of Infantry. He served in the Continental Army as a Brigadier General from 1777-1779. He served in the siege of Boston, the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Red Bank (New Jersey), at Valley Forge and the Battle of Rhode Island. During the Battle of Rhode Island, Varnum’s Brigade – stretched across West Main Road and faced Turkey Hill. It was comprised of four continental regiments – 2nd Rhode Island, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s and Webb’s. In all, Varnum commanded 800 Continentals in the Battle of Rhode Island.

Varnum was an advocate for the establishment of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (known as the Black Regiment). This is his letter to Washington proposing the unit.

From Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum
Camp [Valley Forge] Janry 2d 177[8]

Sir—
The two Battalions from the State of Rhode Island being small, & there being a Necessity of the State’s furnishing an additional Number to make up their Proportion in the continental Army; The Field Officers have represented to me the Propriety of making one temporary Battalion from the two, so that one intire Core of Officers may repair to Rhode Island, in order to receive & prepare the Recruits for the Field. It is imagined that a Battalion of Negroes can be easily raised there. Should that Measure be adopted, or recruits obtained upon any other Principle, the Service will be advanced. The Field Officers who go upon this Command are Colo. Greene, Lt Colo. Olney and Major Ward: Seven Captains, Twelve Lieuts., six Ensigns, one Pay Master, one Surgeon & Mate, One Adjutant & one Chaplin. I am your Excellency’s most obdt Servt
J. M. Varnum

In 1907 a group of local men -(many had formerly been members of the Kentish Guard) – chartered the Varnum Continentals “to perpetuate the customs, uniform and traditions of the period [of the American Revolution], and thereby, and in other ways, to encourage patriotism in the people.” On December 31, 1992, Bruce Sundlun (Governor and Captain General of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) formally reactivated Varnum’s Regiment of May 4, 1775, as a unit of the Rhode Island Militia.

References:

https://varnumcontinentals.org

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

Rhode Island Military Units: Kentish Guards

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On September 24, 1774 the Kentish Guards were formed to protect the Town of East Greenwich from British attack.

Jay Killian Image

They were then charted by the RI Assembly in October 1774 to be an “elite” militia which took care of its own training and equipment. The Kent County Court House became the armory and they built Fort Daniel at the entrance of Greenwich Cove and equipped it with nine cannons.

The Guards took part in the Siege of Boston and 35 of its officers ultimately became officers in the Continental Army – including Nathanael Greene.

When the British invaded Newport, the Guards went on continuous duty until 1781. They protected Warwick Neck, Prudence Island, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton, and Aquidneck Island.

As American forces congregated at Tiverton under General Sullivan, Kentish Guard commander Col. Richard Fry led a regiment of Independent Militia Companies at the Battle of Rhode Island.

During the summer of 1779, twenty-six of the Kentish Guard attacked Conanicut Island (Jamestown) and destroyed a British battery. The Guard moved on to Aquidneck Island when the British evacuated Newport and they guarded Sachets (Second Beach).

They were posted at Newport again in 1780 and 1781 to reinforce the French.

After the war the Guard continued to provide defense to the East Greenwich area.

References:

http://www.kentishguards.com/brief-history.htm – The website for the Kentish Guards.

Colonial Beacon Poles of Rhode Island

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What “early warning” system did the Rhode Island colonists have? How did they communicate danger throughout the state? They had no cellphones or internet, yet they still could issue warnings through a widespread system of beacons located on Rhode Island hills.

From Edward Field’s Rhode Island Defenses.

As early as 1667, when the British were at war with France and Holland, the General Assembly issued an order that a beacon signal be placed at Tonomy Hill on Aquidneck Island. It would signal with a fire at night or a smoke pot by day to warn of an invasion from the ocean. This beacon alerted all the other beacons across the colony.

Later, the Assembly ordered more beacons to be erected. They were probably at McSparren Hill in South Kingston, Mill Hill (Quaker) in Portsmouth and Prospect Hill in Providence. The Beacons were employed during the French and Indian Wars. In 1740 when England went to war with Spain, the Assembly ordered more beacons to be erected. They were placed at Block Island, Point Judith, Beaver Tail on Jamestown, and two more at Newport and Portsmouth. Butts Hill may have been a logical site for the second beacon in Portsmouth.

With the threat of war in 1775, the beacon system was re-established. In June of 1775 a post was established on Tower Hill in South Kingstown. Solomon Drowne, who taught at Brown, described the Providence pole to his brother in a letter dated August 12, 1775. “The Beacon Pole Mast is raised on the hill, ..nearly opposite the Church (likely First Baptist). I have heard said, is 80 feet higher than the top of the new meeting house steeple which is upward of 180 feet from the ground….”

A handbill was distributed that described the building of this tower. It was very simple in its design. There was a wooden shaft or mast, about 85 feet in height. It was braced at the foundation and had wooden pegs or steps, at regular intervals, coming from either side to enable a person to climb to the top. At the end of this shaft there was an iron crane. Hanging from the crane there was an iron basket that was filled with inflammable material. A house was built at the base to store the combustibles so they would be ready immediately.

Edward Field’s book on Rhode Island defenses quotes the handbill:

“……besides a strong battery and intrenchments on the river, there has been lately erected on the greatest eminence in this town, A BEACON for the purpose of alarming the country whenever it shall be-
come necessary in our defence, and as we doubt not of the readiness of our friends and brethren, both within and without this government, to give us every assistance in their power on such an occasion if timely apprized thereof. This is, therefore, to inform you that it is our urgent request that you all hold yourselves in readiness, and whenever you see said BEACON on fire you immediately and without delay, with the best accoutrements, warlike weapons, and stores you have by you, repair to the town of Providence, there to receive from the military officers present such orders as may be given by the authority of this jurisdiction for our common safety and defence. In case of an alarm we intend to fire the BEACON, and also discharge cannon to notify all to look out for the BEACON. Be it observed
and carefully remembered that the discharge of cannon Alone is not an alarm, but the firing of the BEACON itself, even without cannon, will be an alarm in all cases, excepting on Thursday, the 17th inst, at sunset, when the BEACON will be fired not as alarm, but that all may ascertain its bearings and fix such ranges as may secure them from a false alarm, and that they may know where to look for it hereafter. Whenever, you hear cannon look out for the BEACON.”

The Providence Beacon was tested on August 17, 1776. The light was seen in Newport, New London, Norwich and Pomfret, Connecticut.

In 1776 there was a pole erected on Beacon Pole Hill in Cumberland and on Chopmist Hill in Scituate. A fourth beacon was erected at Tomony Hill in Newport. This beacon was test fired on June 20th, 1776 and could be seen in Providence.

The beacons didn’t seem to provide a warning when the British invaded Aquidneck Island.

By Vincent Dexter

Resources:


Edward Field. Revolutionary Defences In Rhode Island, 1896.

“Beacon Pole Lights.” by Vincent H. Dexter. The Observer (Blackstone Valley), May 27, 1976.

Picturing Butts Hill Fort

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It is hard for us to imagine what Butts Hill Fort looked like. In the 1970s four Portsmouth High School Students tried to create a model of the fort. It was part of a project for an applied math class. One of the students was David Boscarino whose father was spearheading an effort to save the fort. The others were Robert Keshura, Ron Linhares and Brian Martineau. The model shows the abatis or tree branches arranged about the mote, the barracks and the cannon positions. Images of the model appeared in the July 15, 1976 issue of the Sakonnet Times.

Does anyone know what happened to the model?

My thanks goes to town historian Jim Garman for keeping such a great collection of Battle of Rhode Island material.

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