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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.

References:

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.

The Butts Family of Butts Hill

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Everyone asks how Butts Hill got its name. I am not a genealogist, but I tried to research the Butts family and their role the community. Like many of the Portsmouth families, the genealogy includes connections with founding families – Coggeshall, Wordell, Cook, Potter, Briggs, Cornell – to name just a few.

Thomas Butts seemed have originated the family in America. He joined the Plymouth Colony in 1660 but he quickly settled in Rhode Island. His wife was Elizabeth Lake, the eldest daughter of Alice Lake who was hung for witchcraft in Dorchester in 1651. Alice had just lost a baby and in her grief she insisted she saw the baby alive. She had a chance to recant at her trial, but did not. Her case is an early example of a witchcraft trial and some speculate her depression led her to view the hanging as justified. Her husband, Henry, moved to Portsmouth almost immediately and the family was divided until they all settled in the Little Compton area. Henry’s son, David Lake, married Sarah Cornell, the widow of Thomas Cornell, Jr. David’s sister, Elizabeth Lake, would marry Thomas Butts.

Thomas Butts was admitted as a freeman in Portsmouth in May, 1660. Thomas sought to exchange land with the town in 1665, but thought better of it when the land he was swapping for proved worthless. In 1666 he purchased two acres of land in Portsmouth from Richard Bulger for a cow and ten shillings in wampum. The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth list him as a surveyor of cattle in 1679. Like many men at that time, he had property in Dartmouth and Tiverton at the same time he was in Portsmouth. He died in Little Compton in 1702 and his will refers to him as a cooper. One of his daughters, Elizabeth, married Joseph Cundall. The Cundalls would be a prominent Portsmouth family and the Glen area was once known as “Cundall’s Mills.”

Thomas’ son, Zaccheus lived in Little Compton. He was married to Sarah Cornell, the daughter of Thomas and Sarah Earle Cornell. Thomas was tried and convicted (with testimony involving a spirit) of murdering his mother. According to the Little Compton Historical Society, Zaccheus was a scoundrel and abandoned his wife and five children. He sold his daughter Mary as an indentured servant.

A son, John, was born to Zaccheus and Sarah in Little Compton in 1691. The family history is complicated, but John would have had his grandfather (Thomas Cornell, Jr.) hung for murder and his great grandmother (Alice Lake) hung for witchcraft. He moved to Portsmouth and is recorded to have had two wives. One of his wives was from the Wordell family and the other, Abigail, was from the Briggs Family. This Briggs connection is interesting because what we call Butts Hill was once called Briggs Hill. On January 15, 1725 John bought from Caleb Bennett a windmill and about one rood (about a quarter of an acre) of land on Windmill Hill (now called Butts Hill). He erected a house by the windmill. He must have owned other land in Portsmouth since he had been considered a freeman for some time. A 1726 map of the Newtown area of Portsmouth shows him having a small parcel of land on what would be the East Path (East Main Road today). John is recorded as being a tavern keeper. He was accused in 1747 of allowing card playing at his tavern and his future son-in-law Thomas Cook was called as a witness against him. John’s daughter Sarah married Cook in 1763. When John died in 1768 he left his daughter, Sarah Butts Cook, “my dwelling house and land, bounded southerly on land from my father-in-law Enoch Briggs, next to David Lake.” This is as far as I can trace the Butts presence on this Windmill Hill (Butts Hill). Some of Butts land was passed down through the Cook family. One Butts family genealogist wrote that the War for Independence had ruined the family fortunes. They lost their land and their business interests.

Family histories tell me conflicting stories about the family. It is difficult to sort out who came from which family line. I will give you some background on what I have learned about the Butts family members from Portsmouth, but I won’t try to tie them genealogically.

There was an Enoch Butts from Portsmouth who was Deputy Governor of Rhode Island in 1763 and 1767.

In a previous blog I wrote of the capture and imprisonment of Enoch Butts Jr: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2021/07/08/portsmouth-patriots-enoch-butts-prisoner-of-war/

Coggeshall Butts served in the Rhode Island Navy during the War for Independence. Although he was born in Portsmouth, after the war he is found living in Bristol as a rope maker.

Benjamin Butts was detained in Newport by British troops.

William Butts was a private in Crary’s Regiment.

Samuel Butts was a shipwright who also lived in Bristol.

Thomas Butts was a master of a vessel.

I welcome any additional information on the Butts family in Portsmouth. Family genealogists can really add to our understanding of the role this family played in our history. The family name still lives on our maps today.

Resources:

Thomas Butts will 1702

Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth

Thomas Butts will: Little Compton Families

Sarah Cornell Butts: Little Compton Women’s History Project: https://littlecompton.org/historical-resources/little-compton-womens-history-project/sarah-cornell-butts-cole/

Alice Lake: https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2008/01/alice-lake.html

I want to thank master genealogist Marge Webster for her help on this topic and so many others.

Utilizing Butts Hill Fort: Playground, Ball Park, Scouting and Re-enactments

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Butts Hill Fort has been a presence in Portsmouth and Aquidneck Island since the War for Independence. The other redoubts and fortifications were lost through time as Portsmouth farmers resumed plowing and farming the land. The Butts Hill area was spared because the rocky soil wasn’t useful for agriculture. Butts Hill Fort continues to be depicted on area maps even today. What happened to the fort after it was purchased by Rev. Terry and entrusted to the Newport Historical Society in 1923? According to Terry’s stipulations:

  1. The Newport Historical Society and its successors were to forever “preserve, keep and maintain” the property as a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War.
  2. That the property will always keep the name “Butts Hill Fort.”
  3. That the property should never be used for monetary gain.

How has Butts Hill Fort been utilized through the years?

1939: A newspaper article (Newport Mercury, April 31, 1939) announces plans to use Butts Hill Fort as a playground and ball field for the children of Portsmouth. The land would still be held by the Newport Historical Society, but the American Legion would supervise the playground. The field in the center of the fortifications would be used for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and American Legion activities. The American Legion pledged to police the area and keep it litter free. The Legion would work to prevent vandalism. According to the article, the fort had been badly damaged by vandals through the years.

1946: Boy Scouts from local troops “gained further knowledge of Rhode Island in the Revolution” when they hiked from Butts Hill Fort along the picket and entrenchment lines where colonial forces met the British during the Battle of Rhode Island. (Newport Mercury, May 24, 1946.)

1947: An article in the Daily News of January 31, 1947 tells us that the Newport Historical Society is still trying to maintain the fort. “Butts Hill was given a general clean up; the grass was mowed, ground cleared and iron fence rails that had fallen were cemented in place. Eleven pipe rails missing from the fence could not be replaced with available funds. The work on Butts Hill cost $194.” There is no mention of the playground or how the fort was used, only the continual effort to maintain the grounds. Maud Howe Elliott was among the committee members trying to raise funds for Butts Hill Fort, Fort Barton and the Sherman Windmill.

1955: “Portsmouth Scouts’ Plans for Bonfire Go Up in Smoke of ‘Book Burn” Tag” reads the headline on a February 12, 1955, Newport Daily News. It seems that the scouts were indeed using Butts Hill Fort for events. The Newport Historical Society and the Portsmouth Fire Department gave permission for the boys of Explorer Post 18 to burn crime and horror type comics as part of a campaign on indecent literature. They had been collecting them from their homes and the homes of neighbors. The New York Post got the idea this was book burning and that generated media attention. In the end the quiet night of bonfire and refreshments at Butts Hill Fort was cancelled.

1975: The Portsmouth Conservation Commission lead a special “colonial” celebration to mark the beginning of a restoration effort at the fort. “Celebration at Butts Hill is Colonial” reads the headline on the Newport Daily News article of September 2, 1975. This restoration effort was begun to prepare the fort for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island. Much like our restoration efforts today, it began with cutting brush, spraying poison ivy and clearing the fort. A new flagpole was raised. Volunteers included Boy Scouts from Portsmouth and surrounding areas. The celebration included fife and drum music, and canon firing by the Newport Artillery Company. Colonial dress was the uniform of the day for the 200 participants.

1976: “1978 showdown looms at Fort Butts” read the headline of a Newport Mercury article on April 16, 1976. The showdown was a fight between Tiverton and Portsmouth as to where the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island would be held. Tiverton held celebrations at Howland Ferry, but Portsmouth Conservation Commission members wanted to bring the festivities back to Butts Hill Fort. By this time the fort had changed hands and now the six acres belonged to the Town of Portsmouth. Steve Boscarino and George Thurston of the Commission told the reporters that although there are no buildings left, the area is ringed by 15 to 20 foot mounds of earth called parapets. These survived because of the rocky soil used to build them. “mostly made of shale, the earth was piled around huge bundles of sticks tied together to make an embankment.” The Public Works Department will cut down all the overgrown shrubs and there will be spraying to rid the area of poison ivy. They completed a small parking lot to the left of the site and there were plans in the works to construct a 15 foot tower so visitors can enjoy the panoramic view from the top of Butts Hill. Vandalism by motorbike riders is a problem.

1980: Butts Hill Fort was the site of an 18th century encampment that was part of the Portsmouth Heritage Celebration. (Daily News, May 1, 1980).

Camp Butts Hill – October 1780: Americans and French Working Together.

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This is a continuation of information in Thayer’s Orderly Book that covers what was going on at Camp Butts Hill. This is not a transcription, but it is notes on the information provided. This book ends at the end of October when the brigade leaves Camp Butts Hill. The orderly book helps us understand the cooperation between the French masons and engineers who are working on Butts Hill Fort and the Americans who are aiding in this building project.

October 2, 1780: The main guard will consist of one captain, one “subb (Subaltern-like a second lieutenant),” two sergeants, four corporals and 48 privates. There was concern that the “property of the inhabitants be secured” and public property be guarded. Captain Devol wants one boat builder and one caulker to assist him in repairing the public boats from this port.

Rocambeau’s Map

October 3, 1780: The drum major and fife major will practice two hours a day with the drummers and fifers.

October 4, 1780: Commanding officers of each brigade should insure that there are enough provisions on hand “that they may be always fit for duty.” At least one day’s provisions is required to be on hand. In letters from Camp Butts Hill we find that hunger was a real concern. The drum major is to start the beat for reveille at first light for the guard and the drummer should sound the beat through the whole camp. Lieutenant Waterman will receive directions for removing the small barracks which stands at Butts Hill Fort.

October 6, 1780: Cartridge boxes in tents will have names of commanding officers and be taken to the magazine in the fort. Kitchens were built in front of the tents and high so smoke doesn’t get to the tents. There will be a regimental court martial for James Stanford of Captain Hodge’s group of Thayer’s regiment. The charge was insulting language to the Captain. Found guilty, 15 lashes on a naked back will be administered and the guilty party must ask pardon of the Captain in the presence of the commanding officers. “It is Col. Commandant Greene’s pleasure that one Field Officer shall inspect the works at Butts Hill Fort. They will attend the works in rotation.”

October 7, 1780: Lt. Col. Hallet will supervise the “works” – the work being done on Butts Hill Fort.

October 8, 1780: Lt. Col. Clap will inspect the works. Henry Hilman is accused of desertion. He “shall be drummed out of the brigade with his Hatt under his arm.” The Bristol Ferry Commanding Officers will make a report to the officer of the day.

October 12, 1780: There were complaints of too many soldiers in Newport. They will now need a pass. “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.

October 17, 1780: The commander has been informed that “the inhabitants have had a large number of fowls taken from them” supposedly by the soldiers. Those caught stealing from the inhabitants will be punished. “The wagon masters of the brigade are directed to attend on the works with their wagons at the time the fatigue party goes on the works and fetch one load of stones each for the purpose of building the pillows of the fort.

October 19, 1780: The French are getting wood at Freetown and are in need of the American flat bottom boats.

October 25, 1780: The American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer.

October 26, 1780: Jacob’s regiment is leaving and his men are requested to return the tools they have borrowed from the French. They will return them to the engineer. Tents and other equipment are to be returned to the quartermaster.

Map:

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport.
Created / Published
(1780)

Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort: Landmarks of the Battle of Rhode Island

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In Newport County we are fortunate to have “history we can see.” Fort Barton and Butts Hill Fort are locations where we can imagine events during the War for Independence. As I research Butts Hill Fort and the Battle of Rhode Island, I always find references to what we call Fort Barton today. The Tiverton redoubt (called Tiverton Heights Fort at the time) was the gathering place for the troops who would go to Aquidneck Island in hopes of ending the British Occupation. They traveled across the Howland Ferry area to get to Portsmouth. They returned to this same area in Tiverton during the retreat after the Battle of Rhode Island.

After the British occupied Aquidneck Island in 1776, Tiverton became a base of operations for Colonial forces. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts cooperated in building the fortification. British officer Frederick Mackenzie’s journal describes the construction in a entry in his diary on June 11, 1777:

“The Rebels have been busily employed in making a work on the hill above Howland’s ferry where their guns have been placed all the Winter. It appears to be very extensive, and must cost them a great deal of labour, as there is little or no soil on the hill.” On June 28th 1777, Mackenzie observed the fort as “irregular in its figure, but very extensive. From the situation, it must be strong.”

In July of 1777 William Barton began his journey from this fort to capture British General Richard Prescott at the Overing House on the Portsmouth/Middletown border. Barton’s raid gave the Americans hope during a very discouraging time and so this fort was named in his honor.

On August 9th of 1778, 11,000 Continental troops and militia under the command of General Sullivan ferried across the short passage between Tiverton and Portsmouth known as Howland Ferry. General Sullivan used Butts Hill Fort as his headquarters. American plans were dashed when a storm damaged the French fleet which was to have helped in the battle for Aquidneck. The Continental troops later moved south toward Newport, and they engaged the British forces in what has been called “The Battle of Rhode Island.” The American effort to regain Newport was crushed and Sullivan made plans for a quick and orderly retreat to save his men. Patriot forces retreated from the island overnight on August 30, 1778. They navigated the same Howland ferry passage under the protection of the guns at Fort Barton. From this location the Americans dispersed to other locations within Rhode Island.

We have these historic landscapes today because of the generosity of Dr. Roderick Terry of the Newport Historical Society. To preserve both Butts Hill Fort and Fort Barton, Dr. Terry bought the lands and donated them to the Newport Historical Society. The Newport Historical Society turned Fort Barton over to the town of Tiverton in the 1960s.

Hopefully there will be a park around the Butts Hill earthworks, but today you can hike the trails in the woods behind Fort Barton. The trails are difficult for the beginning hiker, but the landscape is beautiful to see. A tower provides excellent views of North Portsmouth.

References:

D. K. Abbass, Ph.D., “Fort Barton, Tiverton,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 21, 2021, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/52.

PLAN of RHODE ISLAND, the HARBOUR, the Adjacent ISLANDS, and COAST

Cartographer:Fage, Edward

https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:hx11z3134

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. 1

Lafayette in Portsmouth

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The Marquis de La Fayette has been held in high esteem by the people of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. When the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker for the Battle of Rhode Island at Butts Hill Fort in 1922, they included a quote from Lafayette saying the battle was the “best fought action in the War of the Revolution.” Colonial era homes like the Dennis House on East Main Road claim that Lafayette stayed there before the Battle of Rhode Island. What do we know about Lafayette’s brief stay in Portsmouth?

The Marquis played a pivotal role in the French and American alliance that was just beginning before the Battle of Rhode Island. He was passionate about the American cause. In a letter dated September 23, 1778 to Henry Laurens, President of Congress “The moment I heard of America I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her, at any time, or in any part of the world, will be the happiest of my life.” With the French alliance came D’Estaing and his fleet. He wanted to battle Howe’s English fleet in New York, but he settled on the goal of capturing the British garrison in Newport. Washington put his army in motion from his New Jersey camp. He detached two brigades of Connecticut and Rhode Island troops under the command of Glover and Varnum, but both under the direction of the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington wanted a mix of the seasoned Continental and State troops with the less experienced militias and ordered General Sullivan to divide all the forces into equal numbers under the commands of General Greene and the Marquis.

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. Cutler wrote on August 11th that at 4 o’clock the whole army paraded and passed in review by the general officers. “The right wing of the army was commanded by General Greene and the left by the Marquis de Lafayette.” 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.” The gardens of Metcalf Bowler’s estate on Wapping Road were indeed famous. When the British occupied the island Bowler fled to Providence, but he was later found to be a British spy passing information in hopes it would save his precious property. 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.”

Sunday, August 23, Cutler wrote that they were informed that: “the French fleet was so disastered (sic) they could by no means afford us any assistance, but were gone to Boston to refit.” That ended the plans the Americans had. The diary records: “The Generals were called upon to give their opinion whether an immediate retreat was not absolutely necessary. This unexpected desertion of the fleet, which was the main spring of the expedition, cast a universal gloom on the army, and threw us into consternation”.

General Sullivan wrote to General Washington about his disappointment.
“The departure of the Count D’Estaing with his fleet for Boston.. has, as I apprehended, ruined all our operations. It struct such a panic among the militia and volunteers that they began to desert in shoals (sic – perhaps as we would say “droves”). The fleet no sooner set sail than they began to be alarmed for their safety. This misfortune dampened the hopes of our army, and gave new spirits to that of the enemy.” Lafayette did not sign onto the letter, but he had been among those who pleaded with D’Estaing to at least let his soldiers disembark from the ships before the fleet left for Boston.

Cutler’s entry on Monday, August 24th “As much of the heavy baggage moved off last night as possible. A body of men retreated to strengthen the works at Butts’ Hill. At the lines –heavy fire–army preparing to retreat.” Cutler’s story ends on August 26th when he, like many in the militias, escaped to Tiverton and away from battle.

With the bitterness over the departure of the French fleet, the alliance between the French and Americans was threatened. Lafayette would play a major role in keeping the alliance intact. On the night of August 28th, Lafayette left Portsmouth on a frantic ride to and from Boston. Later General Sullivan would write in a letter to Congress:


“The Marquis de La Fayette, arrived about eleven in the evening from Boston, where he had been, by request of the general officers, to solicit the speedy return of the fleet. He was mortified that he was out of action; and, that he might be out of the way in case of action, he had ridden hence to Boston in seven hours and returned in six and a half- the distance nearly seventy miles. He returned in time enough to bring off the pickets and other parties which covered the retreat of the army, which he did in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article lost.”

One of the pickets was left behind and was later returned in a prison swap. Although the Marquis missed the action, he contributed what he could, even ordering the setting of camp fires to make it look like the army had hunkered down. His efforts in the retreat were memorialized with an engraving on a sword given to Lafayette by Benjamin Franklin in Paris on behalf of the Continental Congress. (Stone- Our French Allies)

Resources:

As always Christian McBurney’s book, (The Rhode Island Campaign: the first French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War) is a great general resource.

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

Forbes, Allan and Paul Cadman, France and New England Vol. 1. Boston, State Street Trust, 1925.

The French in Rhode Island (An Address Delivered in Newport by John Stevens, 1897) Franklin Printing, 1925.

“The French in Newport” – Journal of the Newport Historical Society Fall 2003-Spring 2004.

Letters from Camp Butts Hill: Pvt. Phelix Cuff, Slave or Free?

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We know about the Black Regiment’s presence at Butts Hill Fort in 1780, but a letter from Camp Butts Hill in August of that year makes us aware of another black soldier in camp – Phelix Cuff. Whether Cuff was free or a slave is up for debate. Cuff enlisted on August 7, 1780 as a private in Captain Zaccheus Wright’s Company. By that time in the War for Independence, there was a lack of able-bodied white men and it became acceptable to accept black slaves and free blacks into the Massachusetts militia. Just a few days after Cuff enlisted, a Waltham resident named Edward Gearfield claimed that he owned Cuff.

In letter dated August 26th, 1780 from Camp Butts Hill, Colonel John Jacobs writes to Major General Heath:

“In obedience to your Honor’s order of the twenty-third of this instant, respecting the Black man by the Name of Philicks Cuf in Col. Hows Regiment Agreable to the above order of the twenty third I have Inquired into the mater and have heard all the evidence that Can be produced on both Sides and it appears that Philiks Cuff is the property of Edward Garfield and find that he was taken by point of the Bayonet and Brought by Lt. Hastings by order of the Commitee and Select men of the town of waltham into Camp and with your Honors permission I shall discharge the above Sd. Philicks Cuff and Deliver him to his master.” *

What is the story? Another letter, this one from Abraham Peirce and others from Waltham, Massachusetts, was dated August 17th, 1780. The men express their “duty to inform your Honor the Truth of Phelix Cuff being engaged for this town in the Militia for three Months…” The men write that had ‘Your Honor” (Heath) been rightly informed he would not have permitted Edward Gearfield to take Phlix Cuff and his arms and Accoutrements. They refute the idea that Phelix was “clandestinely” taken. Edward Gearfield was at home when Phelix signed up for the militia. From 1778 Massachusetts did have all black regiments, but Cuff was part of an integrated regiment. Slaves might expect that they would receive freedom for their service. The Waltham men wrote: “we are persuaded that he (Gearfield) has no Demand on Justice on the said Phelix as a Slave whatever he may pretend by any pretended Bill of Sale.” **

In the letter the Waltham men pointed out that Cuff’s arms belonged to the town and his uniform was purchased by Cuff with the money Cuff received from the town when he enlisted. Gearfield has refused to give back the Arms and uniform. Cuff “is desirous of returning with Lieut. Hastings.” When Cuff was discharged he had served just twenty-four days.

Cuff would not return to Gearfield and with three other “slaves” he went into hiding. Hastings learned where Cuff was hiding and gathered a small group to capture him, but he didn’t succeed. Cuff filed charges against Hasting and his men accusing them of “incitement to riot.” In September of 1781 Hasting requested that Waltham pay the expenses of his defense but the selectmen denied the request. Cuff went on to collect wages for his service in the war. Massachusetts paid Cuff “1,500 pounds in currency and 60 bushels of corn” for his service” ***

References:

*Letter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26, August 1970. https://www.masshist.org/database/704?mode=transcript

** Letter from Abraham Peirce regarding Phelix Cuff’s service in the militia. http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=703&img_step=1&mode=dualLetter from John Jacobs to William Heath regarding the status of Phelix Cuff, 26 August 1780. https://www.masshist.org/database/704

Massachusetts, U.S., Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War

Massachusetts Society Sons of the American Revolution: African American Men in the Revolution (massar.org)

***. Kenneth W. Porter, “Three Fighters for Freedom, Maroons in Massachusetts: Felix Cuff and His Friends, 1780.” The Journal of Negro History, 28:1 (January 1943), 51. This reference was listed in the Mass. Society Sons of the American Revolution blog. I was not able to find the original article.

Slave and soldier, he fought for freedom on two fronts: Stephanie Siek http://archive.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/04/20/slave_and_soldier_he_fought_for_freedom_on_two_fronts/

Letters from Camp Butts Hill: A “Sham Battle”

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In my last blog entry I relayed some notes from Col. Thayer’s Orderly Books from Camp Butts Hill in 1780. One of the last entries I shared was about a court martial for Thaddeus Fuller who was accused of abuse to Dr. John Goddard. I was able to find a letter Goddard wrote from Camp Butts Hill. This letter reported a “sham battle” training exercise which involved Col. Greene’s Black Regiment. The letter is dated October 16, 1780 and was sent to Dr. Clement Storer. The general aim of the letter was to request a surgeon for a voyage. I found parts of the letter published online, and my interest was peaked by the description of the troops on Aquidneck Island and the description of the training exercise. This letter reminded me that there were German troops fighting with the French forces.

“…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men, at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state, stationed at Stoddard’s Farm 3 miles from Newport Northwest. 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.

I had like to have forgot to mention a famous Sham Battle on the 2d Inst between a party of the French Troops on one part representing the English & the Continental Regt reinforced by a party of the French and the German Line representing the allied Armies, the particulars I have not time to give you in full shall only mention a few of the principals, Maj. Gen’l Vianumino (Charles Joseph Hyacinthe du Houx de Viomenil) second in Command in the French Army (under Rochambeau) commanded the English who landed at Stoddard’s Farm & marched up & attained Col. Greene’s Reg’t. The line began with skirmishing between the Flank Guards light horse &cc. soon after a heavy cannonade on the part of the British obliged Col. Greene to retreat & form his Reg. behind a Wall where the resistance was obstinate & a constant fire kept uphill. Col. Greene was reinforced with about 2000 French & Germans commanded by his Excellency Count de Rochambeau with 12 pieces of Cannon, a severe conflict ensued in which the British gave way were finally surrounded & all made prisoners, the Action lasted about two hours during which a constant heavy fire was kept up – if I have any just Idea of a real Action this very nearly resembles it.”

I wonder how the “inhabitants” of Portsmouth reacted to such a vivid battle in their midst. Stoddard’s Farm would be just over the Middletown line off of West Main Road and the “battle” seemed to move through the west side of Portsmouth and uphill towards Turkey Hill and Butts Hill.

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

Life at Camp Butts Hill – September 1780

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As I was trying to trace the land history of Butts Hill Fort, I found there was little information on what happened to the fort once the French and Americans came to occupy it after the British withdrawal in October of 1779. Quite by chance I came upon two primary sources that give me a glimpse of what life was like in “Camp Butts Hill.” They are hand written “Orderly Books” which were a document of the day-to-day life in the military during the Revolutionary War. They record such things as who was in command on a particular day, the duties of certain units, court-martials and accounts of daily life in camp.

One of these sources is in the collection of the John Hay Library of Brown University. It details a few months around August to October of 1780. We are not sure who was writing that Orderly Book, but within the book is the comment “Samuel Reed: his book”.

The other orderly book is more lengthy. We know the author was Ebenezer Thayer Jr and it covers some of the same time period – August 16 to November 28, 1780. It is available through the Huntington Digital Library. Thayer’s book was easier to transcribe and covered a greater period of time, so it was easier for me to draw material from it. Thayer, a Harvard educated minister, was in charge of a three-month regiment of a Massachusetts militia raised to support the Expédition particulière, the French expeditionary army under the command of Rochambeau. The regiment was placed under the command of William Heath and stationed in Rhode Island at Butts Hill. I will focus this blog on Thayer’s Orderly book.

As background it is good to remember that the French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780. These American troops were to support the French troops. Thayer’s Orderly book has this entry:

September 3, 1780. Col. Thayer’s Regiment is to march next Wednesday 8 o’clock to Butts Hill where they are to be employed on the works until further ordered.

The Orderly book provides some information on how the troops were organized and what life was like in Camp Butts Hill.

  1. The September 9th entry shows they were assigned six men to a tent with a cook for each group of six. Later entries show that the kitchens had to be moved higher to prevent the smoke from filling the tents.
  2. The September 14th entry details that the guard consisted of sixty rank and file soldiers. There were also sentinels around the encampment – 2 in front and one in the rear. This is kept up day and night. This day’s entry also includes concern about the filth around the camp that could be detrimental to the soldiers’ health.
  3. On September 15th the entry talks about concerns that there were not enough axes. One of the “fatigue duties” (labor duties that don’t require arms) was gathering wood. The axes would have been essential to chopping wood.
  4. September 17th’s entry shows concern about the soldiers getting enough time for military exercises and an hour a day was allotted.
  5. September 19th records the regiment dealing with a complaint from an “inhabitant” named Mathew Slocum. Overnight soldiers took a quantity of beets, potatoes and heads of cabbage. The Commanding Officer would investigate and those found guilty would have to “make satisfaction to the owner” and be disciplined per regulations. Later there are complaints about stolen fowl and wood. The officers are clear that the soldiers should be protecting the property of the inhabitants and that punishment will be doled out to those being found guilty. Hunger is a real problem. The officers try to ensure that there are provisions on hand for at least the next day.
  6. September 20th entry mentions that the men who went with the boats to bring Col. Green’s Regiment to Greenwich need to come back with the boats as soon as possible and make a report on any damage done to the boats.
  7. September 24th entry relates a court martial at the camp for Thaddeus Fuller in Captain Bacon’s Company in Col. Thayer’s Regiment. He is accused of “abuse to Dr. John Goddard.” Fuller was found guilty and as punishment he received 15 lashes (stripes) on his naked back. He must make an apology to Dr. Goddard. Henry Hilman was found guilty of being absent without leave and was sentenced to 39 lashes on his bare back.

Some of those fulfilling the role of commanding officer or were mentioned in roles of officers were: Col. Mitchell, Col. Thayer, Col. Glover, Col. Bancroft, Col. Richardson, Col. Hallet, Major Stowe, Captain Wilder, Captain Bacon.

These notes on the Orderly Books will continue in future blogs.

Butts Hill area from French map

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