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“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.  

Day of Battle: British Naval Operations

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There was a significant naval component to the Battle of Rhode Island. Maps from the time period may show three or four British vessels firing on the west side of Portsmouth, but scholars such as Dr. D.K. Abbass believe there were five vessels. The ships were under the command of Captain Alexander Graeme.

Sphynx: 20-gun frigate (Graeme’s ship)
Vigilant: 20-gun armed ship
Spitfire: 10-gun row galley. This was a former Rhode Island row galley (used oars)
A loyalist brig
Another unidentified vessel

The main goal of this little British fleet was to destroy the American battery at Bristol Ferry (on the Bristol side) and block the Americans from retreating to Bristol.

The captain’s log of the Vigilant recorded that at 7:30 a.m. he “received orders to Weigh & try to cut off the Retreat of the Rebels at Bristol Ferry.”

While “working up” toward the ferry, (this would be Bristol Ferry) at 10 a.m. he “Observed the British and Hessian Troops engaged with the Rebels who had posted themselves on Quaker and Windmill hills,”

At 11:30 a.m.the ship “Stood close in & fired Several Shot to facilitate the operations of the Hessians who were by this time driveing the Rebels out of the Wood.”

Observing the Americans “turning a Work up” at Portsmouth Point (maybe Arnold’s Point), he “Stood close in and fired Several Guns with Round & Grape among those people which only disturbed them for the time.”

At 1 p.m. “Stood up as far towards Bristol Ferry as the Pilot would take Charge of the Ship the Rebels kept a Constant fire … from a Battery above the Ferry most of which Shot fell close on board and the rest passed over between the Mast Hd and kept fireing.”

The shallowness of the water in the area around Bristol Ferry may have been the factor that made the vessels turn around and pass by Portsmouth’s Narragansett Bay shores again.

“Shot at the Rebels posted on Wind Mill and Quaker hills.”

At 2 p.m. the ship again “Stood Close in” to support the Hessians, “but … the Rebels began a Cannonade from three 24 pounders the three first Shot hulled the Ship and the others fell all round her, received orders … to move.”

Thereafter the ship was “employed Standing off and on frequently exchangeing Shot with the Enemy. … “

At 6 p.m. the Cannonade on shore began to abate D[itt]o received orders … to Anchor on the Flank of the British Army during the Night with the Reprisal Brig and the Sphynx with the other two Armed Vessels stood over and Anchored under the No. end of Prudence Island”

There is another account from the diary of British officer Frederick Mackenzie, who was very critical of the Vigilant’s failure to continue its bombardment.

“As soon as the Troops marched out in pursuit of the Rebels, The Sphynx, and Vigilant, with the Spitfire Galley and the Privateer Brig, got under way with the wind at N.E. and worked up the passage between Rhode-Island and Prudence, in order to annoy the Enemy’s right if there should be an opportunity. The Vigilant got up in time to have some shots at the right of the Rebels when drawn up in front of the Artillery Redoubt, but they turning some 18 prs [18-pounder cannons] against her from thence and from Arnold’s point, she dropt lower down, and anchored with the other vessels opposite Slocum’s. We were of opinion that had the Vigilant continued in the position she had gained, and persisted in cannonading the Enemy’s right with her 24 prs she would have galled them exceedingly, and possibly have enabled us to turn that flank. ‘Tis certain there was no necessity for her moving back so soon as she did.”

British ships firing on American positions – Map 1778 Rhode Island Archives

Resources:

Abbass, D.K. The Forgotten Ships of the Battle of Rhode Island: Some Unpublished Documents. Rhode Island History Magazine, Winter/Spring 2009.

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 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1930), 383.

Log entries from Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-16-02-0462.

Battle of Rhode Island Timeline

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Action in the Battle of Rhode Island took place along East and West Roads. Sometimes there were two or more actions going on at approximately the same time. This brief timeline is an approximation.

For clarification the British and Hessian leaders are noted with a (B) and the American leaders are noted with an (A).

August 29, 1778

Dawn:
*Captain Mackenzie (B) saw empty American works. He travels to Pigot’s (B) headquarters to inform him of withdrawal. Pigot decides to hamper the retreat.

6:30 AM:
*General Prescott (B) moved out with the 38th and 54th Regiments to occupy fortifications at Honeyman’s Hill in Middletown.
*Brigadier General Smith (B) marched toward Quaker Hill by East Road with 22nd and 33rd Regiments with the flank companies of the 38th and 54th.
*On West Road Captain von Malsburg (B) and Captain Noltenius (B) with Hessian Chasseurs advanced toward Laurens (A). Behind them came Major General von Lossberg (B) leading two Anspach battalions.

7 AM:
*Von Malsburg (B) spotted Laurens (A) and Talbot (A) with their Light Corps behind stone walls to the south of Redwood House. Americans were driven back up West Road.
*Livingston’s men (A) attacked Smith’s men (B) from behind stone walls on East Road.
Commander Pigot ordered von Huyne’s Regiment (B) and Fanning’s Regiment (B) to support von Lossberg (B) on West Road.
*Pigot (B) orders Prescott (B) to send 54th Regiment and Brown’s Regiment to reinforce Smith (B) on East Road.

8 AM:
*Von Lossberg (B) sent troops toward Lauren’s positions on three sides.
*Coore’s and Campbell’s troops (B) ran into group fo Wade’s (A) pickets by the intersection of East Road and Union Street.
*British moved down Middle Road and East Road toward Quaker Hill.

8:30 AM:
*Von Lossberg (B) came to aid of Hessian Chasseurs.
*Laurens (A) and his Light Corps was forced to retreat across Lawton’s Valley to the works on a small height in front of Turkey Hill.
*Lauren retreats to Turkey Hill. Laurens was told to retire to main army as soon as possible.
Hessian (B) attackers arrived on top of Turkey Hill.

9 AM:
*Wigglesworth’s Regiment (A), Livingston’s Advanced Guard (A) and Wade’s pickets (A) waited for British at intersection of East Road, Middle Road and Hedley Street.
*Quaker Hill was the scene of intense fighting.
*Americans retreated toward Butts Hill and Glover’s (A) lines.

9:30 AM:
*From top of Quaker Hill, Smith (B) could see strength of Glover’s position.
*Smith was under orders not to begin a general engagement, so he decided against a frontal assault. *Smith withdrew forces to top of Quaker Hill.

*10 AM:
*Von Lossberg’s (B) troops arrived at Turkey Hill.
*Americans had positions on Durfee’s Hill and Butts Hill.
*Samuel Ward (A) and the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (Black Regiment (A)) held an Artillery Redoubt. *His men repulsed von der Malsberg’s (B) men.

11:30 AM:
*Von Lossberg (B) ordered von der Malsburg’s men (B) to try to attack Ward’s (A) First Rhode Island Regiment position again.
*British ships Sphynx, Spitfire, and Vigilant shelled the American positions from the West shore, but they did little damage.
*The Americans held their position.

1PM:
*British ships planned to attack American positions.
*General Greene’s (A) men dragged cannon down to beach and forced the British ships to retreat.

2 PM:
*Pigot B) reached Quaker Hill to observe the action.
*Pigot ordered Landgrave (B) and Ditfurth Regiment (B) to march to von Lossberg’s (B) troops.

4PM:
*General Glover (A) saw movement in British lines and ordered Tyler’s Connecticut militia (A) and Titcomb’s (A) Brigade of Massachusetts militia to positions behind stone walls (maybe Freeborn Street), but the British did not engage.

7PM:
*Landgrave (B) and Ditfurth (B) Regiments arrived at von Lossberg’s lines.

7PM (August 29) to 3AM (August 30) :
*There was sporadic artillery fire and light skirmishing. Musket and cannon shots were heard for seven hours.
*The Battle of Rhode Island was basically over.
*The Americans and British forces retired to their lines.

Dr. Abbass’ map

Resources:
The timeline was culled from McBurney’s Rhode Island Campaign and Dearden’s The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778. Map from Dr. Abbass’ proposal to restore Butts Hill Fort.

At the Battle: New Hampshire Men – a Declaration signer, a future Congressman and a slave

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The action on Quaker Hill on the morning of August 29th, 1778 was hot and heavy. General John Glover and his New Hampshire officers were having breakfast at a house on Quaker Hill. Their horses were saddled by the door. General Smith’s Redcoats were firing furiously. Glover ordered Rufus King, an aide de camp, to investigate the action. As he left the table, Major John Sherburne took his place. The enemy fired a field piece from a range of three-quarters of a mile. A cannon ball tore through one of the horses outside (it may have been Glover’s) and smashed Sherburne’s foot. Sherburne’s leg had to be amputated, but the circumstances of the wounds bothered him. “The loss of a leg might be borne, but to be condemned all future life to say I lost my leg under the breakfast table is too bad.” Sherburne’s injury did not hinder him from progressing in a law career. He served as a US Attorney for the District of New Hampshire from 1789 to 1793 and from 1801 to 1804; he also served in the US House of Representatives from 1793 to 1797. He went on to serve as a federal judge for the District of New Hampshire from 1804 until his death in 1830.

Sherburne was in Rhode Island under the command of General William Whipple. Whipple was a signer of the Declaration of Independence from the State of New Hampshire. As New England militias and Continentals were gathering for General John Sullivan’s Rhode Island Expedition in 1778, Whipple followed his New Hampshire General. The Expedition was based on the aid of the French, but the French navy sailed off to Boston to repair their ships that had been damaged in a storm. By August 26, 1778 it was clear that the French were not coming back. To Whipple’s dismay, 1,100 of the New Hampshire volunteers left.

John Trumbull’s Portrait of Whipple – National Portrait Gallery

Whipple stayed through the battle and a group of his men stayed in service until September 5, 1778. Records list a “Prince Whipple” as a servant of Whipple. Whipple was a merchant and ship owner and he engaged in the slave trade. He personally owned slaves and Prince was one of them. There is a story that in preparing to go off to the battlefield, Whipple said: “Hurry up Prince, we’ve got to go and fight for our freedom.” Prince responded “But I have no freedom to fight for.” Supposedly Whipple answered, “From this moment on you are a free man, Prince. Hurry up now and we will fight for our freedom together.” Prince was loyally at Whipple’s side throughout the war. After the war Whipple officially gave Prince his freedom. As a reward for his service, Prince was granted a plot of land that he eventually used for a school for African children.

Resources:

“General Glover’s Role in the Battle of Rhode Island,” by George Billias. Rhode Island History, April 1959.

Fold3 Military records for William Whipple, Prince Whipple and J. Samuel Sherburne.

Day of Battle: Skirmishes by Lehigh Hill

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The skirmishes around Lehigh Hill have taken on importance because of the presence of the Black Regiment. We call the area Lehigh Hill, but the British called it Burrington’s Hill and it was known as Durfee Hill by the Americans. The British had constructed a redoubt (temporary fortification) right by the West Road.

This redoubt became a focal spot for American defenses and British attacks. During the Battle of Rhode Island this thick walled redoubt became the strong position of the Rhode Island First Regiment, the Black Regiment. Normally led by Christopher Greene, it was led at this time by Major Samuel Ward. Around 10 AM the British, led by von der Malsburg, charged this position. Malsburg would write: “We found obstinate resistance, and bodies of troops behind the work (redoubt) at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirtsleeves, and among them many negroes.” Malsburg pulled back, but General von Lossberg ordered another attack around 11:30 AM. British vessels (the Sphynz, Spitfire and Vigilant) had put themselves in good position to be shelling the Americans from Narragansett Bay. This attack was repulsed on land and the naval attack was ineffective. General von Lossburg personally directed a third more powerful assault. American General Nathanael Greene ordered Colonel Israel Angell’s 2nd Rhode Island Regiment to support Ward’s First Rhode Island Regiment. They were able to reach the redoubt before the British forces.

We have some first hand accounts from the leaders of both American regiments.

From the diary of Samuel Ward (First Rhode Island Regiment):

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.”

From the diary of Israel Angell (Second Rhode Island Regiment):
August 29th, 1778. A Clear morning and Very Cool the ( ) Recd orders last evening to Strike their tents and march to the north end of the island; the advanced piquet was to come off at 12 oclock the enemy finding that we had left our ground pursued with all possible speed. Come up with our piquet about sunrise and a smart firing begun, the piquet repulsed the Brittish troops 2 or 3 times but was finally obliged to retreat as the Enemy brought a number of field pieces against them. The Enemy was soon check’t by our Cannon in coming up to our main body and they formed on Quaker Hill and we took possession of Buttses Hill the left wing of the British army was Compossed of the hessians who Attackt our right wing and a Sevear engagement Ensued in which the hessians was put to flight and beat of the ground with a Considerable loss. Our loss was not very great but I cannot assertain the number. I was ordered with my Regt to a Redoubt on a Small hill which the Enemy was a trying for and it was with Difficulty that we got there before the Enemy. I had 3 or 4 men kill’d and wounded today at night I was ordered with my Reg to lie on the lines. I had not Slept then in two nights more than two or three hours. The Regt had eat nothing during the whole Day. This was our sittuation to goe on guard, but we marched off Chearfully and took our post.

At this point the Americans were being flushed out of the area in the valley north of Turkey Hill and some of the British soldiers had moved beyond the redoubt. Nathanael Greene in command of the American troops saw an opening to attack a vulnerable spot in the Hessian lines. He sent in Sherburne’s and Jackson’s Continentals. The American line included 1600 soldiers (Varnum’s Brigade of 2nd RI, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, Webbs) as well as 1st RI, Lauren’s Guard and Jackson’s men. A bayonet charge by Jackson’s troops helped turn the tide. Greene sent in Lovell’s brigade with John Trumbull in charge to attack the Hessians. The British forces began to retreat to Turkey Hill. By 3:30 PM the fighting on the west side had ended.

In his August 31st letter to Congress, General Sullivan would write”

“The firing of artillery continued through the day, and the _ with intermission six hours. The heat of the action continued near an hour, which must have ended in the ruin of the British army, had not their redoubts on the hill covered them from further pursuit. We were about to attack them in their lines, but the men’s having had no rest the night before, and another to eat either that night or the day of the action, and having been in constant action through most of the day, it was not thought advisable, especially as their position was exceedingly strong, and their numbers fully equal, if not superior to ours.”

Plan of the Battle of Rhode Island from a Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

Resources: As always, an excellent description of the Battle is in Christian McBurney’s Rhode Island Campaign.

Other sources include Paul Dearden’s The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778 (1980)

Anthony Walker’s So Few the Brave, 1981.

Geake, Robert. From Slaves to Soliders. Yardley, Pennsylvania, Westholme Publishing, 2016.

Angell, Israel. Diary of Colonel Israel Angell Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment during the American Revolution 1778-1781. Edited by Edward Field. Providence; Preston and Rounds, 1899.

A Memoir of Lieut – Colonel Samuel Ward, First Rhode Island Regiment, Army of the American Revolution; John Ward, New York, 1875. (available on Kindle)

Day of Battle: Skirmishes at Quaker Hill

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Before 9 AM, August 29, 1778

After a skirmish with American Wade’s forces, British General Smith and the 43rd Regiment pushed up Middle Road while the 22nd Regiment proceeded up East Main Road. The diversity of the troop coats created confusion during the fight. British soldiers mistook Continentals with blue coats for Germans with blue coats, so American soldiers got within easy firing range of the Red Coats.

American units (Wiggleworth’s Regiment, Livingston’s advanced guard and Wade’s pickets) were waiting at the junction of Middle Road, East Road and Hedley Street near where the Quaker Meeting House is. American General Sullivan saw his troops retreating, so he sent in Shepard’s Regiment of Massachusetts Continentals. General Sullivan’s “Life Guards” were sent in as well. For a while the Americans had an advantage.

A private from Jackson’s attachment described the action:

“We began to attack. The action began to be warm when we were reinforced by Col. Shepard’s Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Sprout. The action then commenced hot. We plied them so briskly that they began to give way. Our troops seeing this, gave three cheers and advanced. The enemy then gave way and left one piece of cannon but poorly supported. A party of our men then advanced, drove the artillerymen and took possession of the cannon. The enemy then rallied and being reinforced, advanced and gave our men so heavy a fire that they obliged them to quit their prize, the cannon.”

Diary of a soldier in the RI Expedition (Massachusetts Historical Society. Quoted in McBurney.

Sullivan sent an aide, John Trumbull, to order Wigglesworth to retreat.

“Reminiscences of his own Times” by John Trumbull that describes events on August 29th, 1778. My notes are in bold italics.

“Soon after daybreak the next morning, the rear-guard, commanded by that excellent officer, Colonel Wigglesworth, was attacked on Quaker, otherwise called Windmill Hill {actually it was Butts Hill that was called Windmill Hill} and General Sullivan, wishing to avoid a serious action on that ground, sent me with orders to commanding officer to withdraw the guard. …..

Nothing can be more trying to the nerves, than to advance deliberatively and alone into danger. At first I saw a round shot or two drop near me, and pass bounding on. I met poor Colonel Tousard, who had just lost one arm, blown off by the discharge of a field piece, for the possession of which there was an ardent struggle. He was led off by a small party. Soon after, I saw Captain Walker, of H. Jackson’s regiment, who had received a musket ball through his body, mounted behind a person on horseback. He bid me a melancholy farewell, and died before night. Next, grape shot began to sprinkle around me, and soon after musket balls fell in my path like hailstones. This was not to be borne. I spurred on my horse to the summit of the hill, and found myself in the midst of the melee. ‘Don’t say a word, Trumbull;’ cried the gallant commander, ‘I know your errand, but don’t speak; we will beat them in a moment.’

‘Col. Wigglesworth, do you see those troops crossing obliquely from the west road towards your rear?’

‘Yes, they are Americans, coming to our support.’

‘No sir, those are Germans; mark, their dress is blue and yellow, not buff; they are moving to fell late your rear, and intercept your retreat. Retreat instantly — don’t lose a moment, or you will be cut off.’

The gallant man obeyed, reluctantly, and withdrew the guard in fine style, slowly, but safely.”

The heavy action lasted for almost a hour. Some American writers called it an orderly retreat, but British writers recorded that the Americans retreated at a run. As the British came within range of the six 18 pounders fired from Butts Hill, the British regrouped. From Quaker Hill British General Smith could see the strength of Sullivan’s lines. By 9:30 AM Smith decided against an assault and he withdrew back to the top of Quaker Hill. Almost half the casualties of the battle came from the skirmishes on East Main Road.

Resources:

McBurney’s The Rhode Island Campaign provides an excellent narrative.

Anthony Walker, So Few the Brave. 1981, R.I. Sons of the American Revolution.

“Reminiscences of his own Times” by John Trumbull is quoted in Stone’s Our French Allies.

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