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Mary Almy’s Journal: The Battle of Rhode Island from a Loyalist View

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In a recent trip to a museum I came across Mary Almy’s miniature portrait and journal as part of a display on American art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. The two items aren’t usually viewed together. The portrait is in the Rienzi Collection in Houston and the diary is in the Redwood Library collection. Viewing those two items reminded me that Mary’s journal gives us a Loyalist view of what was happening during the British Occupation and the Battle of Rhode Island.

Mary Almy is an interesting figure in history. She was born into the Gould family in Newport in 1735. Her great grandfather, Walter Clarke, served three terms as Governor of Rhode Island. Mary married Captain Benjamin Almy in 1762. Mary was a Loyalist, but Benjamin had volunteered to serve with the militia forces that were supporting the American Continental forces. One wonders how many families on Aquidneck Island were split between Loyalist and American sympathies. Mary ran a boarding house on Thames Street in Newport. Christian McBurney in his book “Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island” portrays Mary as hosting a Tory spy ring passing information on French movements once the French occupied Newport.

Mary’s journal is written to her husband and relates what was happening in British occupied Newport during August of 1778. Basically it tells about the fears of the coming of the French Navy and ends with the outcome of the Battle of Rhode Island. She writes to him September 2, 1778 – “I am to give you an Account of what Past during the Seige–but first Let me tell you it will be done with Spirit — for my dislike to the Nation that you call your friends..” Mary believed the Patriot cause would end with the “discredit of the Americans.”

The focus of this blog will be her entries on the Battle of Rhode Island.

Mary Almy’s Diary – I have converted this somewhat with modern spelling and punctuation.
August 22, 1778

Sent a light horse man to call the 38th back. (38th Regiment of Foot with 334 men in Newport). By this time all was horror and confusion. The Hessians overtook a Party in the West Road (West Main Road, Portsmouth) near Mr. Redwood’s farm. They pursued with violence. The other retreated with prudence leaving the roads strewn with dead bodies. The East Road (East Main Road, Portsmouth) was a scene of blood and slaughter from Cousin Almy’s down the foot of Quaker Hill. All the crossroads filled with them and they kept up a smart fire up until 2 o’clock. Then they began to bury the dead and bring in the wounded. Oh how many wretched families were made that day! It would have softened the most callous heart to see cartloads of wretched men brought in. Their wives screaming at the foot of the cart in consort with their groans. Fine youths with their arms taken off in a moment. In short it is too far beyond my description. The horrors of that day will never be quite out of the remembrance. I quitted company and hid myself to mourn in silence for the wickedness of my Country. Never was a heart more differently agitated than mine. Some of my good friends in the front of battle here and heaven only knew how many of the other Side. Instead of inquiring news or asking after a soul, a stupidity took hold of me at last. I shut myself from my family to implore heaven to protect you and keep you from imprisonment and death. Every dejected look and every melancholy countenance trembled for fear they would say – “your husband lies among the slain” or that he is wounded and a prisoner. Think you what a life I live owing to your violence of temper – which I knew would lead you to all things dangerous.

Sunday morning August 23, 1778

The Provincials encamp on the Wind Mill Hill. Little or no firing from either party. More regiments ordered out. Something great is intended if you should not slip away too soon. Constant riding from Quaker Hill every hour expecting a general battle. My whole heart is sick with melancholy story. Every hospital is crowded with wounded men. No church (services.) No appearance of anything but horror and distress. The Country people will plunder. In the midst of all the confusion some were going to eternity while others were robbing. Innocent farmers houses – death and destruction was before their eyes from every quarter until the officers heard what was doing. They directly ordered guards to every house – whose kind protection was the saving of them. And to do justice to the British, their humanity and leniency was beyond all conception to the wounded prisoners. There was a hospital on purpose for them. Nurses were chosen from amongst the inhabitants that they might have every indulgence that their unhappy situation needed – doctors whose goodness, understanding and compassion might never be forgotten. Whenever justice is done at the end of war, I hope this instance will be in your records. Night is coming on – everything I suppose will be left for daylight.

Monday August 24th, 1778

By daylight, the trampling of horses, the different sounds of voices, brought to her thoughts a poor creature who had scarcely had sleep enough to compose her distracted brain but had brought her self willing to hear the worst. Seven o’clock – a light horseman with news. They are retreated – quite gone over Howland ferry. At eight o’clock a messenger. They began to decamp early in the evening and before day. Their artillery, baggage , wounded men and part of the Army were over. At 10 o’clock Thomas Hill came in. He told me he saw you on Friday – that you desired him to let me know by daylight on Monday morning you should be at home at breakfast with a number of gentlemen. Oh, Mr. Almy. What shocking disappointment to you. Can you keep up your spirits? Heaven I hope will support you. So positive, so assured of success. And remember in all your difficulty and trials of life that when the all wise disposer of human events thinks we have been tried, then our patience is waiting. We will be amply repaid by a joyful meeting.

And a joyful meeting they must have had. After the Occupation and War Mary’s Tory leanings didn’t seem to be held against her. She continued with her boardinghouse and hosted Thomas Jefferson in 1784 and George Washington in 1790.

References

McBurney, Christian. Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island. Charleston, History Press, 2014.

Hattendorf, John B. Mary Gould Almy’s Journal 1778. Published for the Rhode Island Society Sons of the Revolution, 2018.

Celebrating Black History in Portsmouth: “The Black Regiment”

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On February 14, 1778, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow “every able-bodied Negro, mulatto, or Indian slave in this state to enlist into either of the Continental Battalions being raised.”  The Assembly specified that:  “every slave so enlightening shall, upon the passing muster before Colonel Greene, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress and be absolutely free.”  Owners of the slaves enlisted were to be compensated by the Assembly for the market value of the slave.

Before 1778 Blacks had not been allowed to serve in the Continental Army. Rhode Island had trouble meeting its recruitment quotas with just white men, so General Varnum wrote to George Washington with the idea of allowing the ranks to be filled with Black and Native Americans. He asked Washington to send soldiers from Valley Forge to recruit these men.

Camp [Valley Forge] Janry 2d 177[8]1 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. (see citation below)*

In the Pre-amble to the letter, Varnum wrote that “History affords us frequent precedents of the wisest, freest, and bravest nations having liberated their slaves and enlisted them as soldiers to fight in defense of their country.” ( RI Colonial Records VII, 640, 641.) Washington did not comment on the letter, but he sent it on to the Governor of Rhode Island, Nicholas Cooke.

Rhode Island slave owners opposed the idea of the new regiment. In June of 1778 the Rhode Island Assembly repealed the decree, but those four months that it was in effect, 100 free and formerly enslaved African Americans enlisted. Forty-four slaves enlisted even after this repeal. The First Rhode Island Regiment had 225 men, 140 of them were African Americans. This was the largest percentage of blacks in an integrated military unit during the American Revolution. At first the African Americans comprised a separate company, but slowly the regiment was integrated.

At the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778 the regiment fought under the command of Major Samuel Ward, Jr. It defended a redoubt on West Main Road and repelled three charges by the Hessians. The American line was not broken and General Sullivan was able to get American troops off of Aquidneck Island.

The August 30, 1778 diary entry of Samuel Ward provides an eyewitness account:
“The army retreated the evening of the 28th. Early yesterday morning, the enemy moved out after us, expecting that we were leaving the island, and took possession of the Heights in our front. They sent out parties in their front, and we made detachments to drive them back again. After a skirmish of three or four hours, with various success, in which each party gave way three or four times, and were reinforced, we drove them quite back to the ground they first took in the morning, and have continued there ever since. Two ships and a couple of small vessels beat up opposite our lines, and fired several shots, but being pretty briskly fired upon from our heavy pieces, they fell down, and now lay opposite the enemy’s lines. Our loss was not very great, it has not been ascertained yet; and I can hardly make a tolerable conjecture. Several officers fell, and several are badly wounded. I am so happy to have only one captain slightly wounded in the hand. I believe that a couple of the blacks were killed and four or five wounded, but none badly. Previous to this, I should have told you our picquets and light corps engaged their advance , and found them with bravery.”

Through the years of war the First Rhode Island Regiment and the Second Regiment were united into the unit called the Rhode Island Regiment. They ended their battles at Yorktown in the battle that led to the British surrender. After Yorktown they were quartered at Saratoga, New York and discharged from service there. While the white soldiers were given pensions and land, the Black and Native American soldiers were dumped back into civilian life. In 1874 13 of the veterans of the Black Regiment hired a lawyer to get the wages or pensions they deserved. The Rhode Island Assembly passed an act for these soldiers on February 28, 1785. It called for the “support of paupers, who heretofore were slaves, and enlisted into the Continental battalions”. **. The act called on the town councils where they lived to take care of them.

As far as we know there were no members of the Black Regiment from Portsmouth, but our town is the site of a special memorial to the soldiers. It is located at the intersection of West Main Road (Rhode Island Route 114) and Rhode Island Route 24 on West Main Road

One of the plaques reads: “Site of the Battle of Rhode Island has been designated a National Historic Landmark. This site possesses National significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America. 1975. National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior”

Another of the monuments reads: Patriots Park, A Memorial To The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and The Battle of Rhode Island, August 29, 1778. Dedicated August 2005

Another monument reads: Bloody Run Brook, First Black Militia, R. Island Regt., August 29, 1778 [In a circular design with a coiled rattle Snake and 13 Stars]. In honor of the first Black slaves and freemen who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island as members of the First Rhode Island Regiment The Black Regiment. Erected 1976 by Newport, Rhode Island Branch, NAACP, Bicentennial Commission.

There is also a large monument with the battle map. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Line 1775-1783

Timeline:

  1. Late 1776 British Army occupies Newport
  2. August 8, 1778 – French fleet forces past Newport harbor
  3. August 9, 1778 – American Army moves onto Aquidneck Island
  4. August 10, 1778 – British fleet lures French fleet and troops away from Newport
  5. August 28, 1778 – American army begins retreat north
  6. August 29, 1778 – British troops pursue retreating American army northward
  7. August 29, 1778 – Hessian troops march north on west road in pursuit of American army
  8. August 29, 1778 – British regulars advance to Quaker Hill
  9. August 29, 1778 – Hessian mercenaries attack, but are repulsed by the 1st Rhode Island Regiment
  10. August 30, American army withdraws onto mainland
  • “To George Washington from Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum, 2 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0104. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 13, 26 December 1777 – 28 February 1778, ed. Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003, p. 125.]

**Fought Bravely, but Were Unfortunate:”: The True Story of Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment” and the Failure of Segregation in Rhode Island’s Continental Line, by Daniel Popek.