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Fortified Newport: Patriot Port Defenses at Brenton Point and Goat Island

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As early as 1700 there was a fort located at Goat Island. Royal officials deemed Newport an important port to defend. The Goat Island fort was originally named “Fort Anne.” It would later be called “Fort George,” “Fort Liberty” and then “Fort Washington.” In his “Revolutionary Defenses in Rhode Island,” Edward Field states that it was the only fort in the colony at the start of the War for Independence. Men were not permanently stationed there, but it was well supplied and had fifty guns mounted. Those guns were shifted to Providence, but in 1776 it was furnished with twenty-five guns, 18 and 24 pounders and fifty men manned it.

On April 29, 1776 a town meeting was held in Newport “to enter, at once into the defense of the town.” A large group of Newport citizens erected fortifications at Brenton Point where Fort Adams is today. Townspeople were ordered to work on the defenses and were fined if they did not. Newport citizens also worked on the “North Battery” on Washington Street.

When the British occupied Aquidneck Island in December of 1776, it appears that they used the defenses at Brenton Point and Goat Island. British soldier Frederick Mackenzie wrote in his diary on May 19, 1778:

“As there appears a great probability of the Rebels receiving assistance from the French, and affairs may have undergone a great change since the date of our last accounts from England, I think it would be prudent to mount some heavy Cannon in the Battery at Brenton’s point, and on Goat Island. The entrance of the harbour is at present totally undefended, and a few guns at those places may be of great service.”

References:

Field, Edward. Revolutionary Defenses in Rhode Island

Fage Map, Clinton Collection – Clement Library

History of Fort Adams: https://fortadams.org/discover-the-fortress/fort-adams-history/full-history/

Frederick Mackenzie Diary

Portsmouth Women: Edith Taylor Nicholson and the Portsmouth Free Public Library

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Most people associate Edith Taylor Nicholson with her Glen Farm and Glen Manor House, but she was a major benefactor to a Portsmouth institution. The Portsmouth Free Public Library was one of those places where you can see her good works. Ernest Dennome in his history of the library gives us an idea of her generosity.

“A cultured lady of kind concern for her adopted Community Portsmouth, Mrs. Nicholson was a splendid volunteer worker and an outstanding Red Cross Chairwoman during War War II. She was extremely generous with her huge personal fortune and spent her active senior years in Portsmouth on her 1000 acre estate, Glen Manor and Farm.”

rEdith Taylor Nicholson as Red Cross Chairman.

By the 1940s the library was collecting more juvenile books. This was a point in time when the publication of good books for beginning readers was growing. The Millers (Clara May Miller and her family) donated a special fund to buy children books. Edith and other donors like Clara Anthony, Pauline Weaver and Sue Brady, donated to the collection. By 1952 the board of directors of the library decided to make the Art Room (which had been donated by Sarah Eddy) into a Children’s Room. Edith had made some donations to the library in the 1930s. When the needs of the library were made known to her in the 1950s, she was prepared to make a donation of $5,000 for repairs to make the Children’s Room functional.

Edith made a bequest of $25,000 to the library and with matching state funds the library constructed the North wing. The Wing was dedicated as a memorial to Edith after her death in 1959.

When you visit the North Wing today to browse for a good book, think of Edith Taylor Nicholson and others who have made donations that make the Portsmouth Free Public Library the heart of the Portsmouth community today.

On the Map : Siege of Newport and Battle of Rhode Island

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Maps are wonderful primary sources. I have begun collecting as many Revolutionary Era maps as I can. The Clinton Collection of the Clement Library and the Collection of the Library of Congress have some maps that help us understand the actions in the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island. The Huntington Library Map of North Portsmouth helps us to understand a British perspective of the battle. I will post more as I find them. I urge you to go to the embeded URL to go to the map directly and use the zoom feature to travel around the map. It is in examining the map close up that we find our most intriguing information.

Fage August 1778 British Defenses (Clement Library- Clinton Collection)

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-6052/wcl006125

Plan of the Works – Fage- Defense of Newport – Clinton Collection of Clement Library

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-8373/wcl008443

Fage – After the Battle: 29 August – Clinton Collection – Clement Library

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-8379/wcl008450

Huntington Library Map after Battle

https://cdm16003.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15150coll4/id/16295/rec/3

Attacks upon Rhode Island, Augt. [1778] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/gm71000685/.
Library of Congress: Attacks Upon Rhode Island

Portsmouth Women: Clara May Miller

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If you attended the recent exhibit of the works of internationally recognized artist Oscar Miller, you may have seen the portrait he painted of his wife, Clara. Clara is another one of those remarkable Portsmouth women. Oscar was drawn to Portsmouth by the artists’ community that centered around Sarah Eddy. Sarah introduced him to Clara and to prepare for their marriage, Oscar built a home and studio on the Mitchel property on Bristol Ferry Road. As the wife of a painter, Clara traveled to Europe and New York, but Portsmouth was always a part of their lives.

Clara – painted by Oscar Miller

Clara came from a family with long roots in Portsmouth. The Mitchel Sisters – Cora, Sophie and Floride – were very active in Portsmouth culture and social reform movements.  Through their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, they had long roots in the Bristol Ferry area.  Their father, Clara’s grandfather, was a cotton merchant in Florida before the Civil War and the Mitchel family had to literally escape the South once the fighting began.  They came to Bristol Ferry because it was an ancestral and summer home for them. Clara was the daughter of Floride Mitchel May.

Clara took part in many of the activities that her aunts and mother pursued.  She was among those doing suffrage work. In 1917 she was one of the Vice Presidents of the Newport County Women’s Suffrage League.  Her aunt, Cora Mitchel, was the first president of the group. As the women of Portsmouth prepared to vote, the sixty women at the voter orientation meeting elected Clara Miller to be chairman.  Once the women got the vote, Clara was active in Republican politics.  In 1920 she was one of the organizers of the Newport County Women’s Republican Club.  She was a delegate to the state Republican convention.  Even after her husband’s death she continued as a patron of the arts and was active in the arts exhibits in the County Fair.

North Battery, Newport – aka Fort Greene and Battery Park

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Battery Park in Newport is a lovely place to sit and view the harbor. From its name you can imagine that it was the site of a battery (a cluster of cannons) during the American War for Independence). The British called it North Battery and it was an important element in the defenses of Newport. British soldier Frederick Mackenzie writes in his diary in September of 1777 that they were doing the principal work “enclosing the town of Newport from Easton’s beach, round the three windmills, to the North Battery and extent of 3000 yards.”

The Battery began as an earthen work begun by American forces. The British re-enforced this so it could be manned by seven soldiers. In preparation for the arrival of the French fleet in 1778, the British thickened the walls and installed guns. The battery was part of the defenses to protect Newport from a sea attack and was armed with two 24-pound and three 12-pound cannons.

When the British abandoned Aquidneck Island in December of 1779, they leveled the fortifications at North Battery. The Americans tried to reconstruct the battery when they returned to the Aquidneck Island. The North Battery was re-named Fort Greene in 1798 in honor of Rhode Island’s General Nathanael Greene.

Resources: Kathy Abbass’ Rhode Tour:

https://rhodetour.org/items/show/54

“Plan of the town and environs of Newport, Rhode Island / Exhibiting its defenses formed before the 8th of August 1778 when the French fleet engaged and passed the batteries, the course of the French fleet up the harbor, the rebel attack and such defensive works as were erected since that day untill the 29th of August when the siege was raised; also the works proposed to be erected in the present year 1779..” https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-6052/wcl006125. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

“The Works” : Green-end, Dudley, Bannister’s Irishes, and Tomini

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Frederick Mackenzie’s Diary and Edward Fage Maps give us an idea of the preparations the British made for an American attack in June of 1778.

Mackenzie diary, June 6, 1778: “A new Chain of Redoubts lately constructed for the defense of Newport, are now complete. The ground in all parts extremely advantageous; but I think some of the Redoubts are not well placed and that in general they are too confined. They are called, Green-end, Dudley’s, Bannister’s, Irishes, and Tomini….”

Mackenzie expresses concerns about the Green End Redoubt. It is “very small” and intended for 3 guns. He laments that a soldier in one of these redoubts could only “fire directly forward…” He muses that the engineer designed it to “show his fancy.” The Green End Redoubt was on the high ground above Green End Pond to complete the outer walls of defense. Two thousand British and Hessian soldiers as well as Loyalist volunteers would be stationed along the redoubt lines. While construction was going on General Pigot ordered all trees to be chopped down and all houses burned down so that the enemy could be detected.* Later in the diary entry Mackenzie suggests that another redoubt should be built to the right of this redoubt to have better control over Easton’s Pond.

Mackenzie states “Dudley’s Redoubt is certainly placed too far back. If it had been about 60 yards forward it would have answered every purpose much better.” Charles Dudley, the owner of the land on which the redoubt was built, had left in 1775. His home had become a hospital before the redoubt was built.

Mackenzie goes on to write: “Bannister’s and Irishes have a very good command of the adjacent ground.” He would have changed the position of Irishes Redoubt. The John Bannister family (Loyalists) had been at their Middletown country home. The British tore down the home next door that had belonged to George Irish who had left to join the Rebels. Marian Desrosiers in her book about the Banister family wrote:

“The redoubts the British built on both the Irish and Banister properties were about thirty to fifty yards on two sides and twenty yards in front of each redoubt to prevent American solders from storming the area.” (1).

Fage’s map of the Works

Thomas Banister had left Rhode Island to fight with loyalists and the British took over his estate, “West Farm”, that included the high ground at Miantonomi Hill. Mackenzie wrote: “Little Tomini should certainly have been formed as an outwork to the great hill. A single gun, en barrette, in a small work, open behind, would have been of service, as it would command a good deal of ground unseen from Great Tomini.” He saw Little Tomini as a liability.

References:

(1) Desrosiers, Marian Mathison. The Banisters of Rhode Island in the American Revolution. MacFarland, 2020.

Fage, Edward. Plan of the works which form the exterior line of defense for the Town of Newport. 1778. Clinton Collection, Clement Library.

Mackenzie, Frederick. Diary of Frederick Mackenzie, Vol. 1. Harvard Press,

Portsmouth Women: Sarah Eddy, Loyal Backer of the Portsmouth Free Public Library

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This year the Portsmouth Free Public Library is celebrating one hundred and twenty-five years of service to the Portsmouth community. Portsmouth women have been vital to the success of the library. In a history of the library, Ernest Denomme remarks that Sarah Eddy of Bristol Ferry Road was “one of the best educated and well traveled women in Portsmouth….she made her presence felt throughout the community.” She contributed to the success of the Portsmouth Free Public library from the beginning of the organization, but you won’t find her name among the board of directors. She was a private person who worked effectively behind the scenes. Many of the original library organizers were in her circle of friends. One of her best friends, Emeline Eldrege, served on the library board for years.

Sarah was a world class artist, writer, and sculptor. The Bristol Ferry area where she lived became a center for artists such as Oscar Miller. She is famous for her portrait of Frederick Douglass and she brought Susan B. Anthony to Portsmouth to sit for her portrait. That portrait is in the Smithsonian in Washington today. She made a number of donations of artwork to the library, some of which are on view now. Sarah never sold her work, she always gave it away.

By the 1920s the original library needed to be expanded. The West Wing was constructed chiefly through Sarah’s funding to be used as an Art Room. It was common for libraries in that period to also serve as places to display art and bring culture to the community. In 1921 a Newport Mercury article shows Sarah as part of the Art Committee of the library. As she grew older her interest in the library waned, but the traces of her influence remain. In the 1950s the Art Room was re-purposed into a Children’s Room. It serves as the book shop today.

Fortified Portsmouth – Continued

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Maps by Edward Fage of the Royal Artillery provide us with a visual record of the British fortifications on occupied Aquidneck Island. There are many maps made by Fage and they each have different details that add to the story. Many of them are in the Clinton collection of maps at the Clement Library and are available online.

The Huntington Library map illustrated the fortification in North Portsmouth, so I will focus this blog on the fortifications on the rest of Portsmouth. I will try to match some of Frederick Mackenzie’s diary with the images from the Fage maps.

Mackenzie’s Diary: June 13, 1778
“The following are the present stations of the troops on this Island. –

Bunau’s Regt – At Windmill hill: This Regt furnishes all the posts at the North End, in front of a line drawn from their right & left to the Shore.
22d Regt At Quaker hill on the East road, their right to the Seconnet. They furnish the posts on the East shore, from Ewing’s, as far as McCurrie’s.
43rd Regt On the left of the West road, near Turkey hill: four Companies with their right to the W. Road; and four Companies, 200 yards to their left. They furnish the posts on the West shore, from the left of Bunau’s Regt as far as the Creek of Layton’s Mills.
A Detachment of 80 Hessians from the three Battalions in Newport, at Fogland Ferry. This detachment furnishes the post at Fogland, and Patroles as far as little Sandy-point, on their right.

54th Regt At the Blacksmith’s on the E. road. Their right to the road, and to that which leads up from Lopez’s house; furnishing the posts from Sandy point to Black point.
All the above mentioned Troops report to General Smith, and furnish a chain of post and patroles from Black point on the E. side, round to Layton’s Creek on the West.”

“Windmill Hill” (Butts Hill), Turkey Hill and Quaker Hill have been covered in previous blogs, but Fogland and the Lopez site have not been covered. At that time the old Fogland Ferry was approximately where the docks now are at the Glen Manor House. This was an important defensive post because this is a narrow spot from Tiverton to Portsmouth and the troops were guarding against Rebels slipping through to the island over night. When H.A.C. Taylor of Glen Farm bought this land north of Glen Road (in the late 1880s), vestiges of the Fogland fortifications could still be seen.

Diagrams in the Clinton Map collection of the Clement Library help us to visualize what some of these fortifications looked like.

Lopez’s House is mentioned and several maps show a Lopez Bay. This is property owned by Greenvale Vineyards today. There was a wide dirt road from Lopez’ home on Wapping Road to the Sakonnet River that Aaron Lopez is believed to have used for smuggling of goods. This location became part of the British defensive positions. In the Clinton Collection there is a diagram of the Lopez fortifications, but I wonder if that was a plan that didn’t become a reality, but another of Fage’s maps shows a fortification there, entrenched and as a barrack.

Elam’s House (Vaucluse) also has fortifications as an “Intrenched House as a Barrack.” There is a small redoubt below Sandy Point that is listed as made in October 1776. That would date it as started by the Americans.

More Fortifications in Portsmouth from the Huntington Map

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Windmill Hill (Butts Hill) from Huntington Map

Information from the Huntington Library map gives us a picture of the fortifications at Butts Hill and other locations in Portsmouth during the British Occupation. The map’s purpose to show “the British posts of defence as compleated during the possession of Rhode Island, from the 8th of Dec. 1776 to the 25th of Oct. 1778.” It covers only the Northern portion of “the Township of Portsmouth”.

The map adds to our understanding of the structure of Windmill Hill (Butts Hill) Fort at the time of the Battle of Rhode Island. On the map you can see the abatis around the Windmill Hill Barrack and the Redoubt and Battery. The fortification is dated from 1776, and that confirms that it was begun by the Americans.

The map even provides information on Rebel constructed fortifications that the British destroyed. To the left of the depiction of the Windmill Hill is a handwritten note: “All the works in colored yellow were made by the Rebels August 30, 1778 but immediately after their retreat were filled in by us.” Another part of the map shows “fleches” made by the Americans on August 30, 1778. This was a new term for me. It derives from the old French word for arrow. “An earthwork consisting of two berms forming an angle with an open gorge.”

“Fleches” made by Rebels

On West Main Road, southwest of Butts Hill Fort, there is an artillery redoubt listed as made in September of 1776. This also must have originated with the Americans. Looking at a Fage map, this redoubt might be labeled as “Burrington Hill.” Durfee’s Hill and Lehigh Hill are other names for it.

There are handwritten notes that add information like what structures in Portsmouth became barracks, whose orchards were cut down, and the location of local homes by owner’s names.

The British positions for the Battle of Rhode Island are quite prominently labeled.

The Huntington Map can be found online: https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll4/id/16295/rec/3

Fortifications (American and British) in Northern Portsmouth

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Maps provide a prime source of information on the British fortifications on Aquidneck Island, and the North Portsmouth map from the Huntington Digital Library provides some interesting information. From the notes we get a glimpse of what the American fortifications were before the British Occupation. In some cases the British enlarged what had already existed. In other cases they constructed fortifications to secure their own needs.

Starting at the Bristol Ferry area:

Looking at a modern map the location of this redoubt seems be where the Bristol Landing Condos are today. The note says “Left by the Rebels ___1775 nearly finished.” The diagram in the Henry Clinton Collection of the William Clements Library gives us more details.

A diary entry from a British soldier, Frederick Mackenzie, gives us an idea of the fort changing hands in the initial actions after the occupation.

“Dec 8th 1776 – The Army landed this morning at Weaver’s Cove near Mr. Stoddards House…
The first embarkation under General Prescott, marches as soon as formed to the high road from Newport to Bristol Ferry, a short distance from the landing place, and finding that the few of the Enemy who were on the Island, had retired in haste towards the N. End of it, he pursued them to the ferries, where he took a few prisoners and a 9 lb cannon; and save a great many cattle and sheep which they had not time to Carry off.

The Rebels abandoned a well situated fort at the N. End of the Island yesterday, without attempting to defend it. It in some measure commands the passage to Bristol by the ferry.”

Heading east on the map we see the fortifications heading toward Common Fence Point.

The redoubt by the Lawton house was labeled “made a Redoubt July 1776 now demolished”. That would have been an American fortification. Looking at a map today, it seems to be in the Anthony Road/Boyd’s Lane area to the south of Town Pond. In the direction of Common Fence Point there is a line of “abbatis” which is an obstacle made by cutting down trees, interlacing them and having the sharp points face the enemy. What we call Anthony Road was labeled Common Fence Road on the map.

The map labels a “Common Fence Redoubt” but the modern location is actually closer to East Main Road. There were fortifications toward Howland Ferry. We don’t think of a bridge being on Park Avenue, but early maps show a bridge there. The Bridge Redoubt is listed as September of 1776 which would have made it an American fortification originally.

A map made by Fage in 1778 that is part of the Clinton Collection at the Clements Library helps us to view the fortifications as a whole. One would think that the Common Fence Redoubt would be on Common Fence Point and the Bridge Redoubt would be close to the bridge to the Howland Ferry, but their locations on the map seem to be somewhat puzzling. Perhaps they were guarding the way from Common Fence Point and guarding the way from the bridge. The positions of the redoubts put them closer to established central roads. Howland Ferry was an important location. It is close to where the remains of Stone Bridge are today. It was a narrow spot between Aquidneck Island and the mainland at Tiverton. From Mackenzie’s Diary: Oct. 20, 1777 In order to strengthen the post at Howland’s bridge, an abbatiss of large apple trees from the neighboring Orchards was thrown across the Neck about 200 yards this side of the bridge, which will prevent the enemy from advancing in that part with Cannon or any considerable number of troops without first removing them, which will take u some time and must be done under our fire.”

Oct 21, 1777 – “We have had some convincing proofs of late of the bad construction of Howland Bridge Redoubt.  The 9 pounders place in the right embrasure could not be brought to bear on the ground from which the Rebels fired the night of the …”

Nov. 26, 1777 – “An Abbattis was made this morning from the shore at the Mouth of the town pond for 300 yards o the right along the edge of the pond, which is passable at low water.”

March 16, 1778
“The 43rd regiment having undertaken to supply themselves with the necessary quantity of wood from Commonfence Neck, during the time they continued on duty at the advanced posts,& having employed several carts yesterday in drawing away what had been cut near Hick’s orchard…”

Fage Map 1778

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