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Letters from Camp Butts Hill: A “Sham Battle”

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In my last blog entry I relayed some notes from Col. Thayer’s Orderly Books from Camp Butts Hill in 1780. One of the last entries I shared was about a court martial for Thaddeus Fuller who was accused of abuse to Dr. John Goddard. I was able to find a letter Goddard wrote from Camp Butts Hill. This letter reported a “sham battle” training exercise which involved Col. Greene’s Black Regiment. The letter is dated October 16, 1780 and was sent to Dr. Clement Storer. The general aim of the letter was to request a surgeon for a voyage. I found parts of the letter published online, and my interest was peaked by the description of the troops on Aquidneck Island and the description of the training exercise. This letter reminded me that there were German troops fighting with the French forces.

“…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men, at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state, stationed at Stoddard’s Farm 3 miles from Newport Northwest. Notwithstanding the Superiority of the English Fleet the French appear to feel very secure their Fleet consisting of seven sail of the Line & three Frigates are drawn up in line of Battle from Tomany Hill across the Chanel to Conanicut. The Town of Newport is surrounded with Forts which are well filled with Cannon, on the whole I believe there is no Reason to fear an Attack from the Enemy this season.

I had like to have forgot to mention a famous Sham Battle on the 2d Inst between a party of the French Troops on one part representing the English & the Continental Regt reinforced by a party of the French and the German Line representing the allied Armies, the particulars I have not time to give you in full shall only mention a few of the principals, Maj. Gen’l Vianumino (Charles Joseph Hyacinthe du Houx de Viomenil) second in Command in the French Army (under Rochambeau) commanded the English who landed at Stoddard’s Farm & marched up & attained Col. Greene’s Reg’t. The line began with skirmishing between the Flank Guards light horse &cc. soon after a heavy cannonade on the part of the British obliged Col. Greene to retreat & form his Reg. behind a Wall where the resistance was obstinate & a constant fire kept uphill. Col. Greene was reinforced with about 2000 French & Germans commanded by his Excellency Count de Rochambeau with 12 pieces of Cannon, a severe conflict ensued in which the British gave way were finally surrounded & all made prisoners, the Action lasted about two hours during which a constant heavy fire was kept up – if I have any just Idea of a real Action this very nearly resembles it.”

I wonder how the “inhabitants” of Portsmouth reacted to such a vivid battle in their midst. Stoddard’s Farm would be just over the Middletown line off of West Main Road and the “battle” seemed to move through the west side of Portsmouth and uphill towards Turkey Hill and Butts Hill.

The letter was included in: Recent Acquisitions in Americana – William Reese Company – https://www.williamreesecompany.com

Battle of Rhode Island: Diary of Samuel Ward

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We are fortunate to have eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Rhode Island. One of those accounts is by Lieut.-Colonel Samuel Ward, the son of Rhode Island Governor Samuel Ward. He was born in Westerly on November 17, 1756. He graduated from Brown University in 1771. He was the grandfather of Julia Ward Howe.

Ward received his commission as Captain on May 8th, 1775. Ward was promoted to major of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment on January 12, 1777 and became a lieutenant colonel on 5 May 1779 (with date of rank retroactive to May 26, 1778). When the First Regiment arrived on Aquidneck Island, there were changes in leadership. Major Samuel Ward was given command of the First Rhode Island Regiment. The regiment was assigned to guard the abandoned British redoubt that was part of the American line. This location was to the southwest of Butt’s Hill. Ward and the Black Regiment are credited with driving back three waves of Hessian troops.

Ward’s published diary is more of an account of his military career with just a few quotations with his actual words. Fortunately the description of the Battle of Rhode Island is among the quotations.

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

We can make some comparisons between the diary accounts of Ward and Angell. Each was with a different Regiment – Ward RI First and Angell RI Second – so they had different skirmishes to fight.

Looking at the Movements of the Rebel and British forces:

Ward reports that the army began to retreat on the evening of August 28th. Angell reports that his troops struck their tents and marched north on August 29th.

Both Ward and Angell show fighting back and forth between the Rebels and the British. Ward reports that one such skirmish lasted three or four hours “in which each party gave way three or four times.”

Both Angell and Ward tell us that the British ships were firing on the Rebel forces, but Americans fired on them and the vessels retreated.

Looking at casualties:

Ward comments “our loss was not very great” and Angell seems to report that the British had considerable losses but there were only three or four of the Rebels killed.

Looking at the retreat:

Angell tells us that the Americans retreated because of Washington’s warning about British ships heading in.

Angell also tells us more about the retreat via Howland’s Ferry. The soldiers had little sleep and little to eat. They had to “lie in their lines” that night and the crossing happened in the early hours of the morning. After encamping near the ferry they went to an area between Bristol and Warren.

Sources:

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

Laura E. Richards, Maud Howe, Florence Howe Hall, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, in two volumes, with portraits and other illustrations: volume 1

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

Celebrating Black History in Portsmouth: “The Black Regiment”

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

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

Camp [Valley Forge] Janry 2d 177[8]1 Sir—The two Battalions from the State of Rhode Island being small, & there being a Necessity of the State’s furnishing an additional Number to make up their Proportion in the continental Army; The Field Officers have represented to me the Propriety of making one temporary Battalion from the two, so that one intire Core of Officers may repair to Rhode Island, in order to receive & prepare the Recruits for the Field. It is imagined that a Battalion of Negroes can be easily raised there. Should that Measure be adopted, or recruits obtained upon any other Principle, the Service will be advanced. The Field Officers who go upon this Command are Colo. Greene, Lt Colo. Olney and Major Ward: Seven Captains, Twelve Lieuts., six Ensigns, one Pay Master, one Surgeon & Mate, One Adjutant & one Chaplin. I am your Excellency’s most obdt Servt J. M. Varnum. (see citation below)*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timeline:

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

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