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Notables at the Battle of Rhode Island: John Trumbull, Patriotic Painter

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Who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island? As I research for the upcoming website for the Battle of Rhode Island Association, I keep coming across some interesting individuals who took part in that battle. Many of the soldiers went on to very promising careers, but I did not expect to find a prominent artist among them. I came across an eyewitness account of the battle written by John Trumbull. When I searched for information on him, I found that he was an artist noted for portraits and depictions of leaders and events in the American Revolution. I had read about him in the past, but I did not think he had a local connections.

Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, John Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773. He served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the revolution. Many of the biographical materials I read had him resigning from that regiment and going on to England to study painting. How could he write about the Battle of Rhode Island if he wasn’t there? Further research gave me an answer. In 1778 he became an aide-de-camp to General John Sullivan in Rhode Island.

Portrait of Trumbull by Frothingham in Brown University Collection

This is a portion from “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. In performing this duty I had to mount the hill {Quaker Hill} by a broad smooth road {East Main}, more than a mile in length from the foot to the summit, which was the scene of conflict, which, though an easy ascent, was yet too steep for a trot or a gallop. It was necessary to ride at a leisurely pace, for I saw before me a hard day’s work for my horse, and was unwilling to fatigue him.

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.”

Trumbull’s Reminiscences quote in Our French Allies: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en

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

“The Murder of Peleg Hedly” and “Gunpowder from the British Frigate Lark destroys the Wilcox House”: Notes on a Map

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What was Portsmouth like during the British Occupation? What happened during the Battle of Rhode Island? Who lived in Portsmouth during this time and what happened to their property? These are questions I have been asking as I do research for Butts Hill Fort and the Battle of Rhode Island. Recently I was able to get more answers through poring over an online map recently found by a member of the Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee. It is part of the map collection of the Huntington Library, but there are some mysteries about it. Usually a map lists a “maker” – the person who drew the map. This map lists no maker, but it is clear that the maker was part of the British occupying forces. The Legend reads:

“Plan of the northern part of Rhode Island in the township of Portsmouth. Shewing 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. When the Siege of Newport was raised after the Attack of the French and Americans in August 1778. The Enemy retreated the 29th and remained two days in possession of Wind-Mill Hill. The Kings Troops pursuing them took the Position upon Quaker Hill as represented in the Plan, till the Enemy totally vacated the Island the 1st of September, 1778.”

The map itself is neatly done, but there are interesting notes here and there. This blog will feature some of the notes about Portsmouth citizens and what happened to them during the Occupation and battle.

“Peleg Headly was murdered by us and his house destroyed on the 29th of August.” was one note that struck me. There was a Peleg Hedly in Portsmouth at the time, but I have not found a death record for him.

This map shows the Bristol Ferry area. The notes provides the location of a Rebel made fortification. The Bristol Redoubt “was left by the Rebels about 1775, nearly finished.” A note to the north of the Bristol Redoubt tells us houses were destroyed and orchards were cut down between Town Pond and the Bristol Ferry landings. Another orchard was cut down off of Bristol Ferry Road to the south of the ferry landings. William Burden (Borden?), Codington (Coddington) and Earl are three of the farmers mentioned. Widow Westgate’s house was made into a barracks for 50 soldiers. Other farms mentioned are those belonging to George Irish, David Anthony, Stephen Brownell and George Hall.

The Wilcox (Cook Wilcox) “house burnt by some fire from the Lark Frigate when she blew up August 1778.”

As the French fleet was arriving in late July of 1778, the British ordered that their ships would be destroyed rather than be taken by the enemy. The frigates Lark, Cerberus, Orpheus and the Juno were no match for the French ships coming in. The Lark’s Captain Smith ran his ship aground and set her on fire. The Lark’s 76 barrels of gunpowder exploded and ignited the Wilcox home. Flaming debris landed as far away as three miles. In his diary, British engineer Frederick Mackenzie wrote: “It was a most mortifying sight to us, who were Spectators of this conflagration, to see so many fine Frigates destroyed in so short a time, without any loss on the part of the Enemy.”

More notes from the map in future blogs.

A View of the Battle: Butts Hill as Sullivan’s Headquarters

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Part 4 in brainstorming a tour of Butts Hill Fort: Focus on the Battle of Rhode Island. At the SW corner of the Fort.

We pick up our timeline:

August 28th: (From Sullivan’s letter to Congress after the battle):

Sullivan details the positions of his forces on the evening of August 28, 1778.

“One regiment was posted in a redoubt advanced to the right of the __ line. Colonel Henry B. Livingston with a light corp, consisting of Colonel Jackson’s detachment, and a detachment from the army was stationed in the east road: Another light corp, under command of Colonel Laurens, Col. Fleury, and Major Talbot, was posted on the west road. These corps were posted near three miles in front; in the rear of these was the picquet of the army, commanded by Col. Wade.”

“On the evening of the 28th we moved with our stores and baggage, which had not been previously sent forward, and about two in the morning encamped on Butts’s Hill, with our right extending to the west road, and left to the east road; the flanking and covering parties ____further towards the west road on the right and left.”

August 29th, 1778: What was going on around Portsmouth during the day of the battle? These engagements are detailed for us by Seth Chiaro. They are culled from The Rhode Island Campaign written by Christian McBurney.

West Main Rd and Union Street Engagement: During the early hours on August 29th around 7:00 AM, Hessian Chasseurs made contact with American forces near the intersection of West Main Rd and Union Street. A small engagement took place from that area and would eventually lead towards the Lawton Valley. The Hessians would eventually break the American line with Artillery. 

East Main Rd and Union Street Engagement: By 8:00 AM the British 54th, 22nd, 43rd, and the 38th Regiments of Foot are ambushed by Col. Nathaniel Wade’s American picket line. The Americans fired two volleys into the British column. The picket line retreated towards Quaker Hill. The 43rd RoF took pursuit down Middle Road while the 54th, 38th, and 43rd  RoF continued down East Main Rd. 

Turkey Hill Engagement: German Captain Von Malburg pursued Col. Laurens Regiment to Turkey Hill. Laurens men took up a strong defensive position on top of Turkey Hill. Col. Laurens sent a request for reinforcements to General Sullivan. Sullivan responded with orders to ‘”fall back to the main line.” General Sullivan sent Webb’s Connecticut Regiment to support Laurens’ retreat. Ameican and Hessian units engaged on Turkey Hill before the Americans fell back. Laurens’ Regiments fell back to General Nathanael Green’s position to the right of Butts Hill. By 8:30 AM the Hessians had secured Turkey Hill. 

Quaker Hill Engagement: The British units that had engaged with American Forces were now engaged on Quaker Hill. The British forces formed a line that extended from East Main Rd to about where Sea Meadow Drive is located. Americans were also formed between the Quaker Meeting House and Hedly St. General Sullivan sent reinforcements to Quaker Hill, giving the Americans the upper hand, but only for a short time. Both sides engaged on the hillside over a poorly defended artillery position. American forces were able to secure the position. The British attacked and poured effective volleys of musket balls into the Americans causing them to retreat. Sullivan ordered the units fighting on Quaker Hill to retreat back to the mainline around Butts Hill Fort. The engagement on Quaker Hill lasted a full hour. The British attempted to attack Butts Hill Fort but the 18 pound cannons from Butts Hill Fort kept the British from advancing. 

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill):  General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army, along the right-wing stood a small artillery redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (Black Regiment)  was under the direct command of Major Samiel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of Nathanael Greene. German Captain Malsburg was ordered to attack the hardened position. The first attack failed. The 1st RI Regiment held its ground. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. The Hessians tried to flank the position, this also failed. On the third attempt, the 2nd RI Regiment supported the 1st RI Regiment. As the 2nd RI Reg. approached the redoubt the Hessians were attempting to climb the walls. All together Greene had about 1,600 soldiers fighting on the Lehigh Hill. Units included 1st RI Regiment, 2nd RI Regiment, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, and Webbs Regiments. More than 800 Continentals including Laurens advance guard and Jacksons’ Detachment participated. The American line veered SW at a 45-degree angle from Butts Hill to Durfee’s Hill making the American fire even more effective. Col. Henry Jackson’s men fixed bayonets and charged into the Hessian Line, turning the tide of the battle. The Battle was over at 4 pm. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night. Cannon fire was also exchanged between Turkey Hill and the Butts Hill Fort. 

Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company map, 1926

August 30, 1778

From Sullivan’s letter: “The morning of the 30th I received a letter from his Excellency General Washington, giving me notice that Lord Howe had again sailed with the fleet, and receiving intelligence at the same time that a fleet was off Block Island and also a letter from Boston, informing me that the Count D’Estaing could not come round so soon as I expected, a council was called, and as we could have no prospect of operating against Newport with success, without the attendance of a fleet, it was unanimously agreed to quit the island until the return of the French squadron.”

The retreat plan in Sullivan’s words:

“To make a retreat in the face of an enemy, equal, if not superior in number, and cross a river without loss, I knew was an arduous task, and seldom accomplished, if attempted. As our sentries were within 200 yards of other, I knew it would require the greatest care and attention. To cover my design from the enemy, I ordered a number of tents to be brought forward and pitched in sight of the enemy, and almost the whole army employed themselves in fortifying the camp. The heavy baggage and stores were falling back and crossing through the day; at dark, the tents were struck, the light baggage and troops passed dawn, and before twelve o’clock the main army had crossed with the stores and baggage.

Resources:

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

Sullivan’s letter to the Continental Congress which was published in the Providence Gazette, September 26, 1778.

Sullivan’s Letter – Continued

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A continuation of Sullivan’s letter to the Continental Congress which was published in the Providence Gazette, September 26, 1778.

The stage was set for the Battle of Rhode Island. Sullivan goes on to describe what happened.

August 29, 1778

“The enemy having received intelligence of our movement, came out early in the morning with nearly their whole force, in two columns, advanced in the two roads (East Main and West Main) and attacked our light corps; they made a brave resistance, and were supported for some time by the piquet. I ordered a regiment to support Col. Livingston, another to Col. Laurens, and at the same time sent them orders to retire to the main army in the best order they could; They kept up a retreating fire upon the enemy and retired in excellent order to the main army. The enemy advanced on our left very rear, but were repulsed by General Glover; They then retired to Quaker Hill. The Hessian columns formed a on chain of hills running northward from Quaker Hill. Our army was drawn up, the first line in front of the works, on Butts’s Hill, and the second in rear of the hill and the reserve near a creek, and near half a mile off the hill line. The distance between these is about one mile. The ground between the hills is meadow land, with tree and of wood. The enemy began a cannonade upon us about nine in the morning, which was returned with double force. Skirmishing continued between the advanced parties til near ten o’clock, when the enemy’s two ships of war and __armed vessels having gained our right flank and began a fire, the enemy bent their whole force that way, and endeavored to turn our fight under cover of ship’s fire, and to rake the advanced redoubt on the right: They were twice driven back in great confusion; but a third trial was made with greater numbers and with more resolution which, had it not been for the timely aid sent forward would have succeeded. A sharp conflict of near an hour ensued, in which the cannon from both armies placed on the hills, played briskly in __ part of their own party. The enemy were at length routed, and fled in great confusion to the hill where they first formed, where they had artillery and some works to cover them, leaving their dead and wounded in considerable numbers behind them. It was impossible to be certain of the number of dead on the field, as it could not be approached by either party without being exposed to the cannon of the other army. Our party recovered about twenty of their wounded, and took near sixty prisoners, according to the best accounts I have been able to collect; amongst the prisoners is a Lieutenant of grenadiers. The number of their dead I have not been able to ascertain, but I know them to be very considerable. An officer informs me that in one place he counted sixty of their dead. Col. Campbell came out the next day to gain permission to view the field of action, to search for his nephew, who was killed by his side, whose body he could not get off, as they were closely pursued. 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.”

Sullivan writes about how well his troops functioned, even though they had little experience.

“Not more than fifteen hundred of my troops had ever been in action before. I should before have taken possession of the hill they occupied, and fortified it, but it is in no defense against an enemy coming from the south part of the island, though exceedingly good against an enemy advancing from the north and towards the town, and had been fortified by the enemy for that purpose.

I have the pleasure to inform Congress, that no troops could possibly show more spirit than these of ours which were engaged. Col. Livingston, and all the officers of the light troops, behaved with remarkable spirit; Colonel Laurens, Fleury, and Major Talbot, with the officers of their corps, behaved with great gallantry. The brigades of the first line, Varnum’s Glover’s Cornell’s and Greene’s behave with great firmness. Major-General Greene, who commanded in attack on the right, did himself the highest honor, by the judgment and bravery exhibited in the action. One brigade only of the second line was brought into action, commanded by Brigadier-General Lovell; he, and his brigade of militia, behaved with great resolution. Col. Crane and the officers of the artillery deserve the highest praise.”

Sullivan writes about the casualties:

“I enclose Congress a return of the killed, wounded and missing on our side, and beg leave to assure them, that, from my own observation, the enemy’s loss must be much greater. Our army retired to camp after the action; the enemy employed themselves in fortifying their camp at night. “

Sullivan justifies the retreat: Lord Howe and his fleet were approaching.

In the morning of the 30th I received a letter from his Excellency General Washington, giving me notice that Lord Howe had again sailed with the fleet, and receiving intelligence at the same time that a fleet was off Block Island and also a letter from Boston, information me that the Count D’Estaing could not come round so soon as I expected, a council was called, and as we could have no prospect of operating against Newport with success, without the attendance of a fleet, it was unanimously agreed to quit the island until the return of the French squadron.

The retreat plan is shared with Congress

To make a retreat in the face of an enemy, equal, if not superior in number, and cross a river without loss, I knew was an arduous task, and seldom accomplished, if attempted. As our sentries were within 200 yards of other, I knew it would require the greatest care and attention. To cover my design from the enemy, I ordered a number of tents to be brought forward and pitched in sight of the enemy, and almost the whole army employed themselves in fortifying the camp. The heavy baggage and stores were falling back and crossing through the day; at dark, the tents were struck, the light baggage and troops passed dawn, and before twelve o’clock the main army had crossed with the stores and baggage. The Marquis de la Fayette arrived about 11 in the evening from Boston, where he had been by request of the general officers, to solicit the speedy return of the fleet. He was sensibly mortified that he was out of action; and that he might not be out of the way in case of action, he had rode from hence to Boston in seven hours , and returned in six and a half, the distance near seventy miles — he returned time enough to bring off the pickets, and other parties, which converted the retreat of the army, which he di in excellent order; not a man was left behind, nor the smallest article left. I hope my conduct through this expedition may merit the approbation of Congress. Major Morris, on of my aids will have the honor of delivering this to your Excellency; I must beg leave to recommend him to Congress as an officer who is in the last, as well as several other actions, has behaved with great spirit and good conduct, and doubt not Congress will take such notice of him, as his long service and spirited conduct deserves. I have the honor to be, dear Sir, with must___
Your very humble servant – John Sullivan.

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

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Battle of Rhode Island Historic District

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Did you know that we have an important battlefield in Portsmouth? Most Rhode Islanders aren’t aware that within Portsmouth is an area of 365 acres that has been designated an historic district on the National Register of Historical Places. We can view this battlefield from Heritage Park off of Hedley Street and from a site on the top of Lehigh Hill that has signage to help you understand the action of the battle. The monument to the Black Regiment between West Main Road and Route 24 and Butts Hill Fort are part of this battlefield as well. There are new efforts to preserve and restore Butts Hill Fort which would give us the view of the battlefield from the position of Patriot headquarters.

Battle of Rhode Island Historic Landmark District.

What is the National Register and what special significance is this area of Portsmouth?

According to their website: “The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

What is special about this 365 acres of our town? This parcel of land is an important Revolutionary War battlefield. The Battle of Rhode Island was fought in Portsmouth in a valley between three hills. Lehigh Hill is to the North and Turkey and Almy Hills are to the south. This battlefield area along with the 34 acres of Butts Hill Fort are included in this historic district. The outline of the battlefield is approximately:

Western boundary: Parallel to West Main Road. Southern boundary: Cory Lane, West Main Road and a short stretch of Hedley Street. Eastern boundary runs to the east of Turkey Hill and then northward around Barker’s Brook. The boundary crosses Freeborn and Dexter to the southern rise of Lehigh Hill. Butts Hill Fort is to the northeast of the battlefield and is included in the battlefield.

Historians who prepared the application for this designation as an historic district cited a number of reasons why the Battle of Rhode Island was of significance and why the battlefield should be preserved.

  1. The Battle of RI (BRI) was the last major battle fought in the North during the Revolution.
  2. This was the only major battle fought in Rhode Island, so it is important to Rhode Island military history.
  3. The battle was the only occasion in which the Black Regiment served as a segregated unit. They served admirably in repulsing three successive enemy assaults. Due to losses of men in combat and with the repeal of the law allowing blacks to enlist, by 1780 this unit was combined with other units under Christopher Greene.
  4. The battle shows the growing professionalism of the American army.
  5. Although the French were not able to stay and participate in the battle, the overall plan was the first joint effort of the French and American alliance.
  6. The British realized their position in Newport was vulnerable. The Indecisive conclusion of the battle was indirectly responsible for the British evacuation of Newport in October of 1779.

What action occurred on this battlefield during the Battle of Rhode Island? The following descriptions are culled from Christian McBurney’s book, The Rhode Island Campaign by Battle of Rhode Island Committee member Seth Chiaro.

Turkey Hill Engagement: Hessian troops under Captain Von Malburg pursued American Col. Laurens Regiment to Turkey Hill. Laurens men took up a strong defensive position on top of Turkey Hill. Col. Lauren sent a request for reinforcement to General Sullivan. Sullivan responded with orders to ‘fall back to the main line’. General Sullivan sent Webb’s Connecticut Regiment to support Laurens retreat. Ameican and Hessian units engaged on Turkey Hill before the Americans fell back. Laurens Regiments fell back to General Nathanael Green’s position to the right of Butts Hill. By 8:30 am the Hessians had secured Turkey Hill. 

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill):  General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army, along the right-wing stood a small Artillery Redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (Black Regiment)  was under the direct command of Major Samiel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of Nathanael Greene. Captain Malsburg was ordered to attack the hardened position. The first attack failed. The 1st RI Regiment held its ground. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. The Hessians tried to flank the position, this also failed. On the third attempt, the 2nd RI Regiment supported the 1st RI Regiment. As the 2nd RI Reg. approached the redoubt the Hessians were attempting to climb the walls. All together Greene had about 1,600 soldiers fighting on the Lehigh Hill. Units included 1st RI Regiment, 2nd RI Regiment, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s, and Webbs Regiments. More than 800 Continentals including Laurens advance guard and Jacksons’ Detachment. The American line veered SW at a 45-degree angle from Butts Hill to Durfee’s Hill making the American fire even more effective. Col. Henry Jackson’s men fixed bayonets and charged into the Hessian Line, turning the tide of the battle. The Battle was over at 4 pm. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night. Cannon fire was also exchanged between Turkey Hill and the Butts Hill Fort. 

General Sullivan’s Account of the Battle of Rhode Island – Part 1

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After the Battle of Rhode Island, John Sullivan had to explain his retreat from Aquidneck Island. We have a record of that explanation in a letter published in the Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″. I was able to find that article and transcribe it. This is quite a lengthy letter, so In the next few blogs I will take you through Sullivan’s explanations in stages. In reading through this letter, we need to remember that Sullivan had been part of retreats before and the Congress had questioned his actions. I am not a military historian and I am only now beginning to study the Battle of Rhode Island, but this is a primary source to be respected as a first hand account of the man in charge of the American troops in the battle.

For some background I searched for some basic information about John Sullivan. He was born in New Hampshire in 1740, the son of Irish immigrants. His original training was as a lawyer.
In 1772 New Hampshire’s Royal governor appointed him as major in the New Hampshire militia. As the break with Britain was unfolding, he began to favor the rebel cause. Sullivan was sent as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774. In 1775 Sullivan was sent to the Second Continental Congress. Congress appointed George Washington Commander in Chief and John Sullivan as brigadier general. Sullivan joined the army at the siege of Boston. Later he took command of a force in Quebec in a failed invasion. Sullivan had to withdraw the survivors. He was captured in defeat at the Battle of Long Island. British General Howe released him on parole to deliver a message to Congress. He was later released in a prisoner exchange for captured British general Prescott. He had some success in battle but had continued difficulties as well. In Early 1778 he was transferred to the post of Rhode Island where he led the continental troops and militia. John Sullivan fought bravely, but his command decisions were questioned on a number of occasions. He had to defend himself, but he was often judged not at fault. Sullivan needs to explain his decisions.

The first part of the letter deals with the prelude of the battle. The French fleet under Count De’Estaing had gone to Boston to make repairs and Sullivan expressed belief that they would come back soon. He decided to carry on with the planned invasion of Aquidneck Island.

“I thought it best to carry on my approaches with as much vigor as possible against Newport, that as time might be lost in making the attack upon the return of the fleet, or any part of it, to cooperate with us. I had sent expresses to the Count to hasten his return which I had no doubt would at least bring part of his fleet to us in a few days.”

Initially he had good success and the enemy abandoned positions. “…on the 27th we found they had removed their cannons on all the outworks except one.” He details the British positions at Newport and described them as two basic lines. He expresses regrets that he had not stormed some of these defenses when the cannons had been withdrawn, but he began to lose manpower. “

He writes he found: ” ..to my great surprise, that the volunteers which completed the great part of my army, had returned [left for home], and reduced my numbers to little more than that of the enemy; between two and three thousand returned in the course of twenty-four hours, and others were______ going off, upon a supposition that nothing could be done before the return of the French fleet.”

Sullivan’s troops were a combination of Continental soldiers and militia. Many militia units came from nearby Massachusetts and in discouragement that the mission could not be accomplished without the French fleet, many units headed home. General Sullivan was in a difficult position.

“Under these circumstances, and the apprehension of the arrival of an English fleet with a reinforcement to relieve the garrison, I sent away all the heavy articles that could be spared from the army to the main; also a large party was detached to get the works in repair on the north end of the island to throw up some additional ones, and put in good repair the batteries at Tiverton and Bristol, to receive a retreat in case of necessity.”

General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. This was not a hasty retreat. He ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill Fort and forts guarding the Bristol Ferry and the ferry to Tiverton). He wanted to get all his weaponry out so it would not fall into enemy hands to use against them another day. His letter makes clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

“On the 28th a council was called, in which it was unanimously decided to remove to the north end of the island, fortify our camp, ______ (secure?) our communication with the main, and hold our ground on the island til we could know whether the French fleet would _____ return to our alliance.  On the evening of the 28th we moved with our stores and baggage, which had not been previously sent forward, and about two in the morning encamped on Butts’s Hill, with our right extending to the west road, and left to the east road; the flanking and covering parties ____further towards the west road on the right and left.”

Sullivan details the positions of his forces on the evening of August 28, 1778.

“One regiment was posted in a redoubt advanced to the right of the __ line. Colonel Henry B. Livingston with a light corp, consisting of Colonel Jackson’s detachment, and a detachment from the army was stationed in the east road: Another light corp, under command of Colonel Laurens, Col. Fleury, and Major Talbot, was posted on the west road. These corps were posted near three miles in front; in the rear of these was the picquet of the army, commanded by Col. Wade.”

The stage is set for battle. 

Map: http://library.providence.edu/encompass/rhode-island-in-the-american-revolution/primary-sources/map-of-the-siege-of-newport/

The Battle of Rhode Island from the British View

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A new book with material presented by John Hattendorf gives us a glimpse of the British view of the battle. ( “The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. The Official British View as Reported in The London Gazette. Middletown, RI, Stone Town Press, 2021). This slim volume offers an annotated transcript of the battle as it appeared in the British government’s official publication. Hattendorf’s explanations and copious notes are valuable as we research what happened during the battle. I will be examining the reports gradually in this blog. I appreciated Hattendorf’s introductions, but it is the primary sources – such as the letters printed in The London Gazette – that often give us insights.

A segment from a letter from Sir Henry Clinton dated New York, September 15, 1778:

“In the State Things were, when Lord Howe sailed for Rhode Island; and it was my intention to proceed up the Sound, with the Troops above mentioned, (4,000), that they might be within his Lordship’s Reach, in case we should see an Opportunity for landing them to act with Advantage; but on the 27th of last Month (August), at the Instant they were embarked, I received a Letter from Lord Howe, inclosing one from Major-General Pigot, by which I was informed, that the French Fleet had quitted Rhode Island; but that the Rebels were still in great Force.

I thought it advisable to sail immediately for the Relief of that Place, but contrary Winds detained us till the 31st; and, on our Arrival, we found that the Enemy had evacuated the Island……..I was not without Hopes, that I should have been able to effect a Landing, in such Manner as to have made the Retreat of the Rebels from Rhode Island very precarious; or that an Opening would have offered for attacking Providence with Advantage: Being thwarted in both these Views by the Retreat of the Rebels, as the Wind was fair I proceeded towards New London……”

This letter from Clinton helps me to understand how critical and precarious the “Retreat of the Rebels” was. Clinton was bringing 4,000 troops to Newport, but he had missed the French fleet. After damage in a storm, d’Estaing and the French were heading to Boston for repairs. He was alarmed that “the Rebels were still in great Force.” He proceeded on to Newport, and his hope was to 1) have the Retreat of the Rebels “very precarious” and 2) that they could attack Providence. Winds detained him.

The Americans were indeed in a precarious situation. The winds of a storm foiled the plans of the Americans and French, but the “wind coming unfavorable” made Clinton’s troops unable to foil Sullivan’s retreat.

Map:

Attacks upon Rhode Island, Augt. 1778.
Created / Published
[1778] – Collection of Library of Congress.

Battle of Rhode Island Myths and Legends: The Hessian’s Hole and Bloody Brook

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It seems appropriate during Halloween week to write about a graveyard and a brook that runs red with blood. Portsmouth has many legendary places and Hessian’s Hole and Bloody Brook are among them..

Hessian’s Hole is among the historical graveyards listed in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. This gravesite has its origin in the Battle of Rhode Island. Among the English troops that occupied Aquidneck Island were German soldiers, Hessians, who came primarily from the Hesse-Cassel region. During the Battle, Hessian and British troops chased the Americans who were trying to retreat from the island after the French fleet abandoned the campaign for Newport to repair their ships. Around Turkey Hill on the West Main Road, the Hessians rushed the hill to take an American redoubt.

From Captain Malsburg’s journals: “Here they experienced a more obstinate resistance than they expected. They found large bodies of troops behind the work and at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirt sleeves, and among them many negroes.”

The Hessians had encountered the Rhode Island First Regiment – known as the Black Regiment. The Hessians were repulsed at least three times and according to General Sullivan’s account, 60 Hessians were left dead.

“Hessian’s Hole” was the name commonly used for the burial ground of these German soldiers. You can find it on modern online maps, but there are debates about just where it is located. One possible location is on the grounds of Portsmouth Abbey. Other sources claim it is by the top of Lehigh Hill on route 114 where there is a look-out. According to the state database of historical cemeteries, “This cemetery is just south of one of the holes on the golf course on the edge of the woods. It is on land of Portsmouth Abbey – must get permission to visit. These are the graves of Hessian soldiers who died during the Revolutionary War.”

Do the ghosts of the Hessian soldiers make an appearance now and then? A Daily News account in May of 1960 included a comment that the Hessian soldiers march on foggy nights around the Hessian’s Hole.

“Bloody Brook” is a nickname for Barker’s Brook because it was said to run red with the blood of the soldiers that died in that skirmish. Route 24 has interfered with the natural course of the brook, but you might still see portions of it.

References:

Rhode Island Historical Tracts #6. Copyright by Sidney Rider 1878

Good Uses for an Old Fort

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On Sunday, October 17, 2021, old Butts Hill Fort was lively once more. Re-enactors in Revolutionary era uniforms demonstrated the same military drills used in the War for Independence. It was a perfect example of what Dr. Roderick Terry had in mind when he donated the land around Butts Hill Fort to the Newport Historical Society in the 1920s. He envisioned a “place where the public may enter, view and study the battle field on which our soldiers fought, be enlightened in the battles thereon fought, and in American history.” Through the years the land passed into the hands of the Town of Portsmouth, but the town still has Terry’s mandate to use Butts Hill Fort as a public space where citizen can learn about the Battle of Rhode Island and our history. The Living History Day is a perfect example of how we can use the fort in the spirit it was given to us. Another mandate given was that the fort should be maintained. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee (an outgrowth of the Portsmouth Historical Society) has been working towards a goal of clearing the vegetation that threatens the earthen fortifications. The committee has already begun to bring the fort out of the trees and bushes. There is much to do, but their goal is to preserve this historic battlefield, create a park with walking trails around it and prepare it for Revolutionary War celebrations around 2026. Visiting an historic site is certainly a valuable way to learn our history and the committee is doing the research to create informative signage and educational stations. How can we use this historical gem in our community? A gathering spot for community celebrations, for scout activities, staging area for re-enactments, and opportunities for heritage tourism are just some ideas that come to mind.

Are you interested in volunteering for some cleanup or other activities?  Email Seth Chiaro at seth.chiaro@gmail.com.

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