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A Hessian View of the Rhode Island Campaign

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The diary of Johann Conrad Dohla gives us a unique account of the Rhode Island Campaign. Dohla was one of the Hessian (German) troops whose services were sold to George III to fight against the Rebels in the American Revolution. He arrived in America in 1777 as a private in the Ansbach-Rayreuth group of Hessians. In June of 1777 he arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. In this blog I will include part of his diary entries from August 1778 that help us understand what was happening on Aquidneck Island (Rhode Island) during the Rhode Island Campaign.

August 7, 1778


Our Bayreuth Regiment sent a large command to the region beyond Tonimy Hill. All Turkish and Indian corn and all other grains on Rhode Island were destroyed. All stone walls and fences around the fields were torn down. All trees were chopped down, and many houses torn down and burned down in order to detect sooner the arrival of the enemy crossing over from New England.

August 9, 1778

…. During the night, after tattoo (a military lights out), our regiment had to fall out in the greatest haste and march forward three English miles because the rebels were crossing over to Rhode Island in many boats. We remained under the open sky throughout the night and the next morning returned to our camp. Also during the night a Hessian ensign and three men, and an English lieutenant and two men, went over to the enemy.

August 11, 1778.

We moved our camp about one hour forward and again set up our tents near Tominy Hill. This Tominy Hill, an exceptionally strong hill fortification on a high cliff, is the place to which our troops would fall back in an emergency.


August 17, 1778

At work on the fortifications. We laid out a line and dug the trench. Everywhere batteries and redoubts, as well as connecting trenches, were completed all along our line, and everything soundly reinforced with wood. The fortifications work continued day and night without let up, and we had many hardships. Within or lines ten principal fortified points were played out namely: 1. Stone Battery, 2. The North Trench, 3. Somerset, 4. The Irish Redoubt, 5. Fort Fanning, 6. Fort Clinton, 7. Fort Percy, 8. the Ice Redoubt, 9. Prince Dauneck, and 10, Conanicut. The enemy, in a little less than an hour, set up a big camp opposite, set his posts and sentries very near us, and fortified himself in the region of Boxland Ferry.

August 19, 1778

At noon today the enemy, after completing his battery on this side of the heights, began to fire cannon at our camp and defenses and to throw in bombs. Therefore we had to change our front and camped all together behind the fortifications of Tominy Hill as we camped in front of it previously. eHere we were safe from the balls and bombs. The batteries and fortifications of both sides fired heavily, and that continued unceasingly, only ending during the blackness of night.

August 22, 1778

In the morning I went on work detail at the fortifications. During the night the French ships, which had been before the Newport Harbor, disappeared and no one knew where they had gone.

August 28, 1778

This night a 25 man picket from our regiment, commanded by Lt. Ciracy, was attacked by a strong party of Americans, who had crept up through a field of Indian corn. One of our men was killed in this action, and three men were wounded. The enemy, however, had to pull back and take flight. Also tonight, the Americans withdrew the artillery with which they had been firing at us and their heavy baggage to New England, but continuously harassed our outposts in order to cover their withdrawal.

August 29, 1778

When during the early morning, we began to fire our cannon at the enemy, there was no answer in return. Therefore, two thousand men from the army, including our two regiments, were ordered to search out and pursue the retreating enemy, They marched for about three English miles, where they caught up with the enemy, who opposed us as much as possible and, grouped together in order to frustrate our attack, amounted to about ten thousand men. Finally, when the cannon began firing at them, they took flight. They were pursued, and the firing from both sides lasted throughout the day. In our advance we had to climb over many stone walls, five to six feet high, which served as fences around the fields. The enemy often took post behind these and fired through the openings where stones had been removed. Despite this difficulty, we chased them back into their fortifications, of which one, called “Windmill Hill,” had many heavy cannon. Since a farther advance was not advisable, we stood still until the cannon arrived; from which time, throughout the day, each side fired against the other.

During this heavy fighting our regiment, as we were on the left wing, engaged in combat the entire day. We lost no more than three me….They were killed by a cannonball, and two men were wounded. …

August 31, 1778

In the morning, as it became apparent that the enemy had completely left the island, the vacated defenses were immediately occupied by the English and Hessians, and we began to set up camp near Windmill Hill.

Resources

Map: Partie de l’etat de Rhode-Island, et position des armees Americaine …

Dohla, Johann. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution. Norman, Oklahoma,University of Oklahoma Press. 1990.

Durfee’s Account of Rhode Island Campaign

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This is an account by an eyewitness, but Joseph Durfee is penning his reminiscences many years after the events. At the time of the Battle of Rhode Island, Durfee was a major in Col. Whitney’s Regiment. The last blog related Durfee’s account of the “Battle of Fall River” and this blog entry is a continuation of the account beginning with the Americans crossing to Aquidneck Island.

Preparation for invasion of Aquidneck

” During a considerable part of the month of August following (the Battle of Fall River – see the previous blog), we were busily engaged in procuring arms, ammunition, and provisions for the soldiers, and in building flat-bottomed boats and scows for the troops to cross over the river on to Rhode Island, with a view to dislodge the British army, who then had possession of the island. A barn, now standing near the Stone Bridge, was occupied for a commissary store, of which I had the charge until things were in readiness and the troops prepared to cross over to the island, when I left the store in charge of my friend and relative, Walter Chaloner.

The Expedition Begins

In the fore part of August 1798, the American troops embarked in the boats and scows prepared for them and landed on Rhode Island, where I joined them, having been appointed a Major in Colonel Whitney’s Regiment. Our troops were then marched to a spot but a short distance to the North of what is called Butts’ Hill; where they encamped for the night with nothing but the canopy of heaven for a covering and the ground for our beds. But we were animated with the hope of liberty–with a belief that we were engaged in a righteous cause—and that He, who sways the sceptre of the universe would prosper our undertaking.

Waiting on the French

At this time we were anxiously looking for the French fleet from which we hoped for assistance against the enemy, whose numerous bodies of troops were before us. Soon the French fleet bore in sight, when the British set fire to the shipping in the harbor and blew up most of the vessels within their reach. Not long after the French fleet came up, the British fleet appeared in the offing. Immediately the French fleet tacked about, went about and attacked the British squadron, when broadsides were exchanged and a bloody battle ensued.

The Storm

A tremendous storm came on long remembered as the Angust storm, in which the two fleets were separated, and many who had escaped the cannon’s mouth found a watery grave. The French feet, or so much of it as survived the storm, went into Boston to repair and the remnant of the British fleet went into New York.

Siege of Newport

Soon after this storm, our troops marched in three divisions towards Newport. One on the East road, so called one on the West road, and the Brigade, commanded by General Titcomb moved in the centre, until we came in sight of Newport–when orders were given to halt, erect a marque and pitch our tents. General orders were issued for a detachment from the army of three thousand men – our number being too small to risk a general engagement with the great body of British troops then quartered on the South end of the Island. Early on the next morning a detachment of troops, of which I was one, was ordered to proceed forthwith and take possession of what was called Hunneman’s Hill. The morning was foggy and enabled us to advance some distance unobserved by the enemy — but the fog clearing away before we reached the hill, we were discovered by the British and Tory troops, who commenced such a heavy cannonade upon us, that it was deemed expedient by the commanding officers, to prevent the destruction of many of our brave troops, that we should fall back and advance under the cover of night. Accordingly when night came, we marched to the hill undiscovered by the enemy. We immediately commenced throwing up a breast work and building a fort. When daylight appeared, we had two cannon mounted–one twenty-four pounder and one eighteen–and with our breast work we had completed a covered way to pass and repass without being seen by the enemy. The British had a small fort or redoubt directly under the muzzles of our cannon, with which we saluted them and poured in the slot so thick upon them that they were compelled to beat up a retreat. But they returned again at night to repair their fort, when they commenced throwing bomb shells into our fort, which however did but little damage. I saw several of them fiying over our heads and one bursting in the air, a fragment fell upon the shoulder of a soldier and killed him.

Retreat

At this time, we were anxiously waiting the return of the French fleet from Boston, where they had gone to repair. But learning that they could not then return, and knowing the situation of the British troops, that they were enlarging and strengthening their furts and redoubts, and that they had reinforcements arriving daily from New York, it was deemed expedient by our commanding officers, Lafayette, Green and Sullivan, all experienced and brave Generals, that we should retreat to the North end of the Island. Accordingly, on the 29th day of August, early in the morning we struck our marque and tents and commenced a retreat. The British troops followed, and soon came up with our rear-guard and commenced firing upon them. The shots were briskly returned and continued at intervals, until our troops were joined by a part of our army a short distance to the South of Quaker Hill, so called, when a general engagement ensued, in which many lives were lost on both sides. At night, we retreated from the Island to Tiverton. On the following day we left ‘Tiverton, crossed over Slade’s ferry and marched through Pawtucket and Providence to Pawtucket where we remained until our service expired.”

Resources:

“Plan of the works, which form the exterior line of defence, for the town of New-Port in Rhode Island : Also of the batteries and approaches made by the rebels on Honeymans Hill during their attack in August 1778 / This plan surveyed and drawn by Edward Fage, lieutt of artillery, November 1778.”. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-8373/wcl008443. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 21, 2022.

Reminiscences of Col. Joseph Durfee : relating to the early history of Fall River and of Revolutionary scenes. (1830s)

Rhode Island Military Units: The Varnum Continentals

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

Varnum Continentals Image by Jay Killian

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

https://varnumcontinentals.org

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

Rhode Island Military Units: Kentish Guards

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

Jay Killian Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

“Brave Sullivan’s to Lead us on.” Noah Robinson’s diary account of the Rhode Island Campaign

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Eyewitness accounts help us to understand what was going on during the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island. Robert Geake has provided researchers with a glimpse of the life of a young private in the local militia. Titled “Fired a Gun at the Rising of the Sun,” Geake transcribes and richly annotates the diary entries of Noah Robinson, an Attleboro soldier. I am very grateful to Robert Geake for making this diary accessible to researchers. Transcribing and annotating are tedious jobs but they contribute greatly to our understanding of events in Revolutionary Rhode Island.

Volume III is entitled: “Journal of a Six Month Campaign by God’s Permition in the State of R. Island in a Company Commanded by Capt. Caleb Richardson…from the town of Attleboro.

“Boys to Play

The horn does blow for us to go

And fight our Enemies

We’ll take our guns & swing our packs

In God we Trust

and Fear em’ not

Brave Sullivan’s

to Lead us on.”

Noah Robinson had gone out to war with the militia on a number of occasions. This time he served in place of his uncle who was paying him. Robinson was educated and often served as a scribe in his units.

In the entries below, I have chosen to share the pieces of writing that speak most about the Rhode Island Campaign. Noah Robinson was among the troops being gathered for General Sullivan in Tiverton to take part in a French and American effort to take Aquidneck Island from British control.

Wednesday, August 5, 1778: Noah reports that he “Heard one of the Enemies ships was blown up. ….Towards Night heard two more British ships were blown up.” This is a reference to the Cerebus, Orpheus, the Juno and the Lark, British ships whose captains were given the order that under no circumstances would they allow their ships to be captured. With the French ships threatening, the British captains rain their ships aground and set them on fire.

Friday 7th: Gen. Varnum’s & Gen. Glovers brigade, Col. Jackson & Col. Shearburne’s Regt of Continental troops crossed the ferry ..

Saturday 8th: “…about Twelve o’clock marched on through heat and dust to Howland’s Ferry and encamped on the ground. Heard some firing towards Newport.”

Sunday 9th August: “…About eight o’clock pack up, took boat & crossed Howland Ferry on to R. Island. Formed and marched boldly up to the Fourth on the N. end of ye island then was informed ye enemy had retreated to the end of ye island so we lay on our post until about four o’clock when a shower came up so that we got very wet..”

Monday, 10th August: ” ..Much firing below ye island. ” Geake notes that day there was an exchange of fire between the French ships and the British batteries. By the next day, August, 11th, the whole army paraded and they had general orders to march by 6 AM to Newport. By August 15th they marched to within two and a half miles of Newport. August 16th Noah comments that “since last night our men have been very delinquent in trench making.” In his annotations Geake comments the some 800 men were digging trenches for the coming assault. 400 men were digging a four cannon battery just north of Green End Road in Middletown. Another 400 were making a concealed trench from the first battery down the west slope of Honeyman Hill.

Wednesday, August 19th, Noah could hear cannonading and he heard that some of the men were killed at the lines the night before. On Thursday the 20th of August Robinson reports that he washed his clothes, there was cannonading and he heard that the French fleet returned to Newport harbor. By August 24 he heard the French fleet had definitely left the harbor.

Geake’s notes add needed background to the brief entries. On the eve of battle, August 28th, Robinson noted that “At 2 o’clock a man was hanged in our camp.” Geake tells us that a soldier from Webb’s Regiment of Continentals was hanged for desertion because Sullivan wished to set an example.

On Saturday, August 29th, Noah reports that “Last night (8/28/1778) about 8 o’clock struck tents and returned back to the N. end of Island, about 9 o’clock an action began, the enemy pressing on our light party. It appeared there would be a general action however our Army looking for the rights of their country; fighting like heroes, the enemy dare not press on our main body.” Geake’s notes tell us that Robinson was one of about the 120 Bristol County men which were in the rear guard of Titcomb’s brigade.

Robinson writes that action ceased at about 4 PM but cannon shot continued. He writes on Sunday, August 30: “Last night returned to our former station (from the wall) and blanketed down. (Some cannonading on both sides). Dug an intrenchment, drawer some provision and Rum &c. The loss of killed and wounded yesterday I can not certify but it appeared considerable on both sides.

Denison Map

August 31st Robinson reported that “Last night (August 30) mustered up about 5 o’clock, evacuated the lines. The whole Army crossed H(Howland) Ferry. Encamped for the night…

Reference:

“Fired a Gun at the Rising of the Sun.” Transcribed and Annotated by Geake, Robert. Privately printed by author. 2018.

“We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

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“Who won the Battle of Rhode Island?” someone asked me recently. I cautiously answered that I thought it was a draw. The Americans were able to get out of a tough situation with their men and equipment. They retreated from Aquidneck Island but lived to fight another day. They proved they could fight valiantly. The question of who won or lost has always been a sore point for me, especially when people dismiss the importance of the battle simply because it was not a Patriot victory.

Nathanael Greene
Nathanael Greene

I have been reading “Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution” by Terry Golway. In battle after battle it seems that the Patriots had to retreat and retreat strategically. Golway quotes Greene writing to a French ally, “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.” I found another similar quote in a letter about the Southern Campaign from Greene to Washington 1 May, 1781: “My public letters to Congress will inform your Excellency of our situation in this quarter. We fight, get beat and fight again.”

I understand a little more today than I did a week ago. Yes, we should celebrate the victories like Yorktown. But… we shouldn’t dismiss the retreats. They kept the Patriots going, wore down the British, and ultimately worked towards gaining Independence.

“We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

Resources:

Founders Early Access: https://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-print-01-01-02-5589

Golway, Terry. Washington’s General: n Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution. Holt, NY, 2006.

Lafayette in Rhode Island – First Visit 1778

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Lafayette’s stay in Rhode Island during the Siege of Newport and the Battle of Rhode Island in August of 1778 was just the first time the General came to our state. The second visit was to Newport in 1781 when he came to confer with Rochambeau. In 1784 he came to Rhode Island on a tour after the War for Independence was over. His last visit came during a grand tour of America in 1824. This blog will focus on the first visit.

In the summer of 1778 Lafayette brought a detachment of troops from General Washington to assist General Sullivan in the Rhode Island Campaign, a joint French and American effort to free Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) from the British Occupation.

A letter Washington wrote from White Plains, New York, on July 22, 1778 contained the orders:

“Sir, You are to have the immediate command of that detachment from this army which consists of Glover’s and Varnum’s brigades and the detachment under the command of Colonel Henry Jackson. You are to march them by the best routes to Providence in the State of Rhode Island. When there, you are to subject yourself to the order of Major General Sullivan, who will have command of the expedition against Newport and the British and other troops on the islands adjacent.”

Lafayette reached Providence with 2,000 men on August 3rd or (August 4th according to other accounts). On their way, Lafayette and his men stayed by “Angell’s Tavern” in Scituate. There his men had a chance to wash and refresh themselves with the spring that became known as Lafayette’s Spring. On August 5th, Lafayette was aboard the French flagship Le Languedoc to meet with French commander d’Estaing. The French fleet was waiting off of Point Judith and d’Estaing provided Lafayette with the ship Provence to bring him back to Providence.

There is some documentation for where Lafayette stayed in Rhode Island at that time, and there are other homes that have “Lafayette Stayed Here” legends that have come down through time.

The American forces gathered in Tiverton, close to the Howland Ferry. By August 6, 1778, Lafayette and his troops had moved to Tiverton where he is said to have stayed at the Abraham Brown House on Main Road close to Lafayette Street. He is said to have occupied the northwest chamber on the second floor. This may have been before the move to Aquidneck Island or it may be that he stayed there after the retreat.

"Lafayette House" in Tiverton
“Lafayette House in Tiverton”

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. 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.”

Metcalf Bowler House (now torn down)
Metcalf Bowler House (now torn down)

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.”

Metcalf Bowler’s estate has been torn down, but there are two homes in Portsmouth with “Lafayette” legends. One is the Dennis House on East Main Road and not far from Butts Hill Fort. The southeast room on the second floor has traditionally be associated with Lafayette. Lafayette has traditionally been associated with a house on Bristol Ferry Road (Bayles’ History of Newport County: p.665).

Dennis House, East Main Road, Portsmouth
Dennis House, Portsmouth

Although the American forces had moved onto Rhode Island (Aquidneck), the French forces were unable to move forward with their attack of Newport. Their ships were damaged in a storm and d’Estang decided to head to Boston for repairs on August 21st. The joint French and American plan was about to fail without the French aid. On August 28th, Lafayette made the six and a half hour trip to Boston to talk to d’Estaing. The mission was fruitless and on August 30th Lafayette rode back to Portsmouth in record time. He had missed the battle, but he took command of the rear guard to bring it safely across to Tiverton.

Israel Angell’s Diary notes that on September 1st General Varnum’s brigade in General Lafayette’s detachment passed by boat to Warren. The next day they were in Bristol where Lafayette made the Hope Street home of Joseph Reynolds his headquarters. A plaque on the house reads: This house built about the year 1698 by Joseph Reynolds was occupied by Lafayette as his headquarters September 1778 during the War of American Independence.” Lafayette’s room was the northwest chamber. The southwest room on the first floor was his dining room and office.

Reynold House today.
Reynolds House today

By September 18th Lafayette had moved on to Warren where the brigade encamped on Windmill Hill. Lafayette’s quarters were at Coles Tavern which has since burned down. On September 28th he was in Boston and on his way to Philadelphia on October 1st.

Lafayette would return to Rhode Island under more peaceful circumstances. More on those visits in our next blog.

References: This article was based on Preston’s 1926 article with added information from other sources.

Preston, Howard. “Lafayette’s Visits to Rhode Island.” Rhode Island Historical Society Collections. January 1, 1926.

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

Taylor, Erich A. O’D. Campaign on Rhode Island, 1930?

The Diary of Colonel Israel Angell Commanding Officer, 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, Continental Army
by Edward Field.

The View from Butts Hill: Jim Garman’s 1978 images

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There has been so much growth in vegetation that it is difficult to imagine the view that General Sullivan would have had from his command post at Butts Hill Fort. Jim Garman has loaned me his notebooks from the 1978 re-enactments of the Battle of Rhode Island. His images clarify things.

Walking the Battlefield: An Event at Heritage Park

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On Saturday September 24th ,2022, the Battle of Rhode Island Association is proud to partner with the Portsmouth Conservation Commission as we present “Walking the Battlefield.” The event will be held at Heritage Park, located at Hedley St and Highpoint Ave. Visitors will be guided through the action of The Battle of Rhode Island that took place August 29th, 1778.

Called Turkey Hill in 1778 and occupied by both Patriot and British forces, the Park will be laid out with stations representing key skirmishes of the Battle, the largest action in Rhode Island during the War for Independence. Guides and Speakers will take visitors through the events of the day to provide a clear understanding of a complex series of individual fights.
The event is free to the public. First tour starts at 11 am, 2nd tour at 11:45. For more information visit: https://portsmouthhistorynotes.com/

Since 1956 the Portsmouth Conservation Commission has worked to protect and preserve the town’s natural resources as well as protecting the natural aesthetic areas within the town. The BUTTS HILL FORT RESTORATION COMMITTEE is a committee of the BATTLE OF RHODE ISLAND ASSOCIATION. The mission of the Committee is to restore and maintain the Revolutionary War fort in order to provide a safe and accessible educational and recreational site that raises public interest in this National Historic Landmark and its role in the Battle of Rhode Island. The Association is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit committed to raising awareness of Rhode Island’s role in the War for Independence. Donations may be made payable to “BoRIA” at PO Box 626, Portsmouth, RI 02871.a

Aftermath of the Battle of Rhode Island

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French Map 1778 (Library of Congress) Shows the Retreat Route via Howland’s Ferry area.

A diary entry by Israel Angell gives us a glimpse of the aftermath of the Battle of Rhode Island:

August 30th. “A Cloudy morning and the wind very high it rained a Considerable in the night the Enemy Remained on their Ground this morning two English friggats Came up yesterday to prevent our retreat but could do but little they Still Remained here. I was Relieved this morning and got Some provisions and being much worn out for the want of sleep went to a hous and took a good knap there was a Cannonade kept up to day and Some small arms from the Sentries at night we Recd orders to Retreat off the Island which we did without the loss of anything, this Retreat was in Consequence of an Express from Genl Washington informing Gen Sullivan that the Brittish Ships of war and transports had sailed from New York Some days before.”

The diary entry tells us 

  • That the troops were worn out.  
  • They had had little to eat and had not slept.  
  • The enemy remained in its position overnight and two English frigates stayed in position.
  • On the day after the battle a cannonade was kept up and there was occasional gunfire at sentry positions.
  • The Americans received orders to retreat because the British ships were on the way.

August 30th was also a day to tend to the dead and wounded.

  • Sullivan listed the American casualties as 30 killed, 138 wounded, and 44 missing.
  • Pigot reported that British forces sustained 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing.   
  • American General Sullivan ordered a hundred men to bury the American dead.  
  • The wounded were transported to mainland hospitals in Providence, Bristol and elsewhere.  

A diary entry by Israel Angell:

August 31st, 1778.  “Our retreat off the Island was completed by three o’clock this morning it is Supos’d that the Enemy attempted a Retreat last Evening but after finding that we Had Retreated they Returned to their ground as it was late in the morning before they took possession of the forts we left …………..After we had Crost at howlands ferry we Encampt about a mile from Sd. ferry where we tarried this day at Night……”

On the night of August 30/31, American forces departed Aquidneck Island and moved to new positions at Tiverton and Bristol.

Resources:

Diary of Colonel Israel Angell: Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment During the American Revolution, 1778-1781.

Christian McBurney’s book on the Rhode Island Campaign.  

Paul Dearden’s book The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778.  

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