The British Scuttle Their Ships

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Recorded in the London Gazette is a letter from Major General Pigot to General Clinton – dated August 31st, 1778. From this letter we learn of the preparations the British made with the threat of French ships approaching. With the appearance of the French, Pigot began to gather provisions, ammunitions and stores of goods in order to prepare a fortified camp.

With the French in the Sakonnet, Pigot ordered the Kingfisher and two Galleys (Alarm and Spitfire) to be set on fire; and afterwards … the four advanced Frigates (Juno, Orpheus, Cerberus, Lark). These ships were destroyed to keep them from being captured.

According to the annotations by John Hattendorf:

  1. Kingfisher was a sloop. She was deliberately set on fire, broke from anchorage and blew up off High Hill Point in Tiverton
  2. Alarm was a galley. She was set on fire and exploded south of McCorrie Point.
  3. Spitfire was a galley. She also was set on fire off High Hill Point in Tiverton.
  4. Juno was sunk in Coddington Cove.
  5. Orpheus was sunk off Melville.
  6. Cerberus was sunk about 400 feet off Carr Point.
  7. Lark was sunk on the south side of Arnold’s Point in Portsmouth.

A few years ago I had come across a newspaper clipping dealing with these scuttled British ships. I’m not sure where the clippings came from, but Barre Press 1966 was sited in the article. Note that Flora, Pigot and Falcon are also listed as burned or sunk. Red circles show the locations of the downed ships.

The ship locations also appear on an early map 1778- Attacks upon Rhode Island that is in the collection of the Library of Congress.


John Hattendorf – The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778: the Official British View as Reported in the London Gazette.2021 Stone Tower Press, Middletown, Rhode Island

Family Cemeteries Map

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News of a new family cemetery find near the Water Works by Stephen Luce brought to mind a working map from the 1970s that is in the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society. I believe it was the part of a notebook kept by Herbert Hall III when he and others were surveying the historical cemeteries in town. When families come to town to research their ancestors, this is one map I try to share.

The Battle of Rhode Island from the British View

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A new book with material presented by John Hattendorf gives us a glimpse of the British view of the battle. ( “The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. The Official British View as Reported in The London Gazette. Middletown, RI, Stone Town Press, 2021). This slim volume offers an annotated transcript of the battle as it appeared in the British government’s official publication. Hattendorf’s explanations and copious notes are valuable as we research what happened during the battle. I will be examining the reports gradually in this blog. I appreciated Hattendorf’s introductions, but it is the primary sources – such as the letters printed in The London Gazette – that often give us insights.

A segment from a letter from Sir Henry Clinton dated New York, September 15, 1778:

“In the State Things were, when Lord Howe sailed for Rhode Island; and it was my intention to proceed up the Sound, with the Troops above mentioned, (4,000), that they might be within his Lordship’s Reach, in case we should see an Opportunity for landing them to act with Advantage; but on the 27th of last Month (August), at the Instant they were embarked, I received a Letter from Lord Howe, inclosing one from Major-General Pigot, by which I was informed, that the French Fleet had quitted Rhode Island; but that the Rebels were still in great Force.

I thought it advisable to sail immediately for the Relief of that Place, but contrary Winds detained us till the 31st; and, on our Arrival, we found that the Enemy had evacuated the Island……..I was not without Hopes, that I should have been able to effect a Landing, in such Manner as to have made the Retreat of the Rebels from Rhode Island very precarious; or that an Opening would have offered for attacking Providence with Advantage: Being thwarted in both these Views by the Retreat of the Rebels, as the Wind was fair I proceeded towards New London……”

This letter from Clinton helps me to understand how critical and precarious the “Retreat of the Rebels” was. Clinton was bringing 4,000 troops to Newport, but he had missed the French fleet. After damage in a storm, d’Estaing and the French were heading to Boston for repairs. He was alarmed that “the Rebels were still in great Force.” He proceeded on to Newport, and his hope was to 1) have the Retreat of the Rebels “very precarious” and 2) that they could attack Providence. Winds detained him.

The Americans were indeed in a precarious situation. The winds of a storm foiled the plans of the Americans and French, but the “wind coming unfavorable” made Clinton’s troops unable to foil Sullivan’s retreat.


Attacks upon Rhode Island, Augt. 1778.
Created / Published
[1778] – Collection of Library of Congress.

Images of Butts Hill Fort – From the days when you could get a clearer view.

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We would love to have more images to add to our collection. They are primary sources that give us the Fort in a moment in time.

Butts Hill Fort on the Map


We are collecting maps and blueprints that give us an image of Butts Hill Fort. If you have one to add to our collection, let me know, we would be happy to have it. Maps and diagrams are such an important primary source and we can learn from them.

1849 Hammett Map
Plan von Rhode Island, und deren dem comando des Herrn General Majors Presgott inf dies-malig befundlichen campements.

Schiffer, J. C. 1777
Created / Published
Subject Headings
Rhode Island (R.I. : Island)–Defenses–Maps, Manuscript–Early works to 1800
[Plan de la ville, du port, et de la rade de New-port et Rhode Island. Debarquement en 1780.

Stories from the Graveyard: Tragedy for the Slocums

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Graveyards don’t scare me. As an historian I sometimes feel like I know some of the people whose graves I pass. A few years ago my husband and I volunteered to survey the little graveyard by the barns at Glen Farm as part of a state-wide effort to monitor the historic cemeteries. The sturdy stonewalls protect it from the bustle of equestrians who come to ride or take care of their horses. Once you step inside that tree shaded historical cemetery you may notice that the gravestones tell the story of two families, the Cundalls and the Slocums. The Cundall burials range from 1810 to 1820 and they are on the westside of the plot and the head of the stones face west.

The headstones for the Slocum family are of an earlier time – 1703 to 1722. They lie in the northeast corner of the plot and the engravings face south. According to the database of historic cemeteries, the grave of at least one young Slocum lies here unmarked by a stone. Two of Giles Slocum’s sons died together in 1712. Their names were Matthew and Giles. How did two of the Slocum children die together? It was murder so evil that even Boston newspapers (Boston News Letter-June 27th, 1712) carried the account.

“An Indian servant man belonging to Mr. Giles Slocum of Portsmouth carried out to sea in a canoe two of his Master’s sons, one of them ten, the other nine years old. …Being examined before authority he confessed that he knocked the eldest child in the head with a paddle. Seeing the youngest crying, he overset the canoe by design and swam to shore by himself.”

Later reports tell us that the servant’s name was Job. A fitting name for one who would find himself “now in irons in prison till he is tried for murder.” I would assume it would be the same jail our friend Thomas Cornell was locked in forty years before. Why did Job commit the crime? Was he angry at the boy? Was he drunk? – a common problem in those days. We can only wonder. We will never know his motive, but we do know his end. He was hung in chains (gibbeted) at Miantomi Hill. That’s the same place Thomas Cornell met his end. Whereas Thomas was duly buried, Job was not. Criminals suffered the gibbet if their crimes were particularly heinous. The body is left suspended and decaying for all to see. He was left to rot on the gallows for two years or as an early historian would note, “until his bones fell apart from decay of the flesh and ligaments.”

Battle of Rhode Island Myths and Legends: The Hessian’s Hole and Bloody Brook


It seems appropriate during Halloween week to write about a graveyard and a brook that runs red with blood. Portsmouth has many legendary places and Hessian’s Hole and Bloody Brook are among them..

Hessian’s Hole is among the historical graveyards listed in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. This gravesite has its origin in the Battle of Rhode Island. Among the English troops that occupied Aquidneck Island were German soldiers, Hessians, who came primarily from the Hesse-Cassel region. During the Battle, Hessian and British troops chased the Americans who were trying to retreat from the island after the French fleet abandoned the campaign for Newport to repair their ships. Around Turkey Hill on the West Main Road, the Hessians rushed the hill to take an American redoubt.

From Captain Malsburg’s journals: “Here they experienced a more obstinate resistance than they expected. They found large bodies of troops behind the work and at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirt sleeves, and among them many negroes.”

The Hessians had encountered the Rhode Island First Regiment – known as the Black Regiment. The Hessians were repulsed at least three times and according to General Sullivan’s account, 60 Hessians were left dead.

“Hessian’s Hole” was the name commonly used for the burial ground of these German soldiers. You can find it on modern online maps, but there are debates about just where it is located. One possible location is on the grounds of Portsmouth Abbey. Other sources claim it is by the top of Lehigh Hill on route 114 where there is a look-out. According to the state database of historical cemeteries, “This cemetery is just south of one of the holes on the golf course on the edge of the woods. It is on land of Portsmouth Abbey – must get permission to visit. These are the graves of Hessian soldiers who died during the Revolutionary War.”

Do the ghosts of the Hessian soldiers make an appearance now and then? A Daily News account in May of 1960 included a comment that the Hessian soldiers march on foggy nights around the Hessian’s Hole.

“Bloody Brook” is a nickname for Barker’s Brook because it was said to run red with the blood of the soldiers that died in that skirmish. Route 24 has interfered with the natural course of the brook, but you might still see portions of it.


Rhode Island Historical Tracts #6. Copyright by Sidney Rider 1878

Battle of Rhode Island Myths and Legends: Paul Revere and John Hancock

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Did Paul Revere and John Hancock actually fight in the Battle of Rhode Island? So many online resources mention them being there.

Howland Ferry Crossing Site from Tiverton to Aquidneck. (Fage Map 1778)

Yes, they came on Aquidneck Island with Sullivan’s forces. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere and his son, who was a lieutenant and about 17 years old, were sent to to reinforce General John Sullivan. Among the 10,000 or so of the forces that gathered at Tiverton were John Hancock and his Massachusetts Militiamen including Paul Revere. As a senior major general Hancock took command of 6000 soldiers. Hancock delayed going to camp in Rhode Island, but his role wasn’t working on strategic plans. His presence was more of a symbolic one. When the Americans crossed over to Aquidneck Island, Revere’s regiment was responsible for erecting and maintaining artillery batteries on the island.

The plan was that the American forces and the French Navy would combine to rout the British from their occupation of Newport. Unfortunately the French ships were damaged in a storm. French Admiral d’Estaing decided to head to Boston for repairs. Hancock wrote d’Estaing asking him to reconsider, but the French left at midnight on August 21, 1778. The Americans knew that their mission of freeing Newport was nearly impossible without the help of the French. The militias began to desert. Hancock and his militia, including Paul Revere, headed home to Boston. Hancock asked Lafayette for a letter of introduction to d’Estaing and the Frenchman obliged. John Hancock was home in Boston by August 26th. Sullivan would safely retreat from the island beginning on August 29th. A Tory newspaper in New York would publish a parody of Yankee Doodle and one of the stanzas mentioned Hancock.

“In dread array their tatter’d crew, Advanc’d with colors spread Sir, Their fifes play’d Yankee Doodle do, King Hancock at their Head Sir.”

No, Revere and Hancock did not fight in the Battle of Rhode Island. They went home to Boston before the battle began.


Fowler, William. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A biography of John Hancock. Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Washington – Rochambeau Trail: The French at Butts Hill Fort

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Newport celebrates the French troops coming to the island, but the French were at Butts Hill Fort in Portsmouth as well. American troops, including members of the Black Regiment, lived at “Camp Butts Hill” and worked together on reconstructing the Butts Hill Fort in 1780-1781. Ultimately the French and Americans joined forces and headed south towards ultimate victory at Yorktown.

As background it is good to remember that the French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780. There were American troops assigned to the fort to support the work of the French troops in restoring the fortifications at Butts Hill. We get a glimpse of their work through the Orderly Book of Ebenezer Thayer, Jr. The orderly book is a record of the day to day activities of the Massachusetts militia commanded by Thayer and assigned to support the Expedition Pariculiere, the French Expeditionary Army under the command of Rochambeau. They were on Aquidneck Island and stationed at “Camp Butts Hill” from August 16th to November 28, 1780.

From the Orderly Book:

October 12, 1780: “It is requested by General Rochambeau and Commander Jacobs that every officer not on duty will attend upon the works for the purpose of encouraging the soldiers and completing the fort.”

October 16, 1780: “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows of the Fort are completed and two masons detached to assist the French Masons until the works are finished and for their service they shall receive half a pint of rum a day when in the store.” Their provisions are ready for them so that they can complete the Fort works in a timely manner.

There are other connections between the French and American forces.

In April, the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee was notified that the National Parks Service has made Butts Hill Fort a location on the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail. The Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail (WARO) identifies the land and water routes that General Washington and the Continental Army, and General Rochambeau and French forces, followed in 1781 during their 14-week march from Newport, Rhode Island to the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia.

On March 6, 1781, three months before the French army departed from Newport, General Washington visited Count de Rochambeau to consult with him concerning the operation of the troops under his command. Washington was hoping to encourage Rochambeau to send out his fleet. During the visit, Washington informed Samuel Huntington, the President of the Congress, that “In consequence of previous arrangements between the Count de Rochambeau and myself I found between eleven and twelve hundred of the French Grenadiers and Infantry already embarked and the Fleet nearly ready to sail. They however did not put to sea until the evening of the 8th.” On March 13, 1781, Washington left Newport and journeyed overland to Providence. On his departure he was saluted by the French with thirteen guns and again the troops were drawn up in line in his honor. Count de Rochambeau escorted Washington for some distance out of town, and Count Dumas with several other officers of the French army accompanied him to Providence. We know that General George Washington travelled by Butts Hill Fort on the old West Main Road on his way to the Bristol Ferry because the West Road was the customary route from Newport to the ferry. Washington’s aide, Tench Tilghman, recorded the fee for the Bristol Ferry on the expense book.

Just like the American and French forces were working on repairing and improving the fort, the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee is working on rehabilitating the area as a park where visitors can learn about the battles and the brave patriots who fought there. Hopefully by 2026 Butts Hill Fort will be a center for celebrations of the 250th Anniversary of the War for Independence.


Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, February 1913. Visit of General Washington to Newport in 1781, Mrs. French E. Chadwick. Memoranda of Col. Tench Tilghman, one of Washington’s Aides.

Rochambeau map collection: Library of Congress

Quahog. org: Washington’s Third Visit to Rhode Island

Orderly Book of Ebenezer Thayer: Huntington Library

Good Uses for an Old Fort

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On Sunday, October 17, 2021, old Butts Hill Fort was lively once more. Re-enactors in Revolutionary era uniforms demonstrated the same military drills used in the War for Independence. It was a perfect example of what Dr. Roderick Terry had in mind when he donated the land around Butts Hill Fort to the Newport Historical Society in the 1920s. He envisioned a “place where the public may enter, view and study the battle field on which our soldiers fought, be enlightened in the battles thereon fought, and in American history.” Through the years the land passed into the hands of the Town of Portsmouth, but the town still has Terry’s mandate to use Butts Hill Fort as a public space where citizen can learn about the Battle of Rhode Island and our history. The Living History Day is a perfect example of how we can use the fort in the spirit it was given to us. Another mandate given was that the fort should be maintained. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee (an outgrowth of the Portsmouth Historical Society) has been working towards a goal of clearing the vegetation that threatens the earthen fortifications. The committee has already begun to bring the fort out of the trees and bushes. There is much to do, but their goal is to preserve this historic battlefield, create a park with walking trails around it and prepare it for Revolutionary War celebrations around 2026. Visiting an historic site is certainly a valuable way to learn our history and the committee is doing the research to create informative signage and educational stations. How can we use this historical gem in our community? A gathering spot for community celebrations, for scout activities, staging area for re-enactments, and opportunities for heritage tourism are just some ideas that come to mind.

Are you interested in volunteering for some cleanup or other activities?  Email Seth Chiaro at seth.chiaro@gmail.com.

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