When Did Butts Hill Fort Begin?

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Butts Hill Fort 1781: Palisades, Ditches and Ordnances


Letters written by American forces during the 1780-81 time that Americans and French were working on Butts Hill Fort give us some details that enable us to visualize the fort to some extent.

There is a remarkable new book by John Robertson (Revolutionary War Defenses in Rhode Island) that provides more clues to what the fort might have looked like in 1781. Robertson relates information from letters from Major General William Heath and Col Jacobs.

“On 30 August MG Heath requests the Deputy Quarter Master to supply 3,600 palisades ten feet long and from five to eight inches in diameter for use at the fort.” (Robertson p. 75)

With the scarcity of wood for heat and cooking after the brutal British Occupation, I doubt that 3,600 palisades were put up at the fort.

Robertson also gives us information from a letter from Col. Jacobs to Heath on September 5th.

  1. The circumference of the ditch in rods is 111 (about 1,830 feet)
  2. 81 of which are solid stone
  3. 4 rods have been dug to 6 ft, 26 to 5.5 ft. 27 to 5 feet, 38 to 3ft, and 16 to 1.5 ft.
  4. The depth from surface to stone was 18 inches.

It is difficult for me to even imagine this and I hope that someone can take these measurements and draw what it might look like.

What kind of ordnance did they have at Butts Hill Fort?

Robertson found a return of Ordnance document (in and near the fort) on September 26, 1780

Listed are:

  1. 6 iron 18 pounders. (Five are on garrison carriages.)
  2. 2 four pounder brass cannon on field carriages.
  3. The magazine had 643 dozen musket cartridges.
  4. Four spiked cannons,
  5. Four dismounted cannons.

When the French left Aquidneck Island in June of 1781 the fort was complete but the French guns had been removed. The fort was occupied until July of 1782. There was no longer fear of a British attack on Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island). On September 19th, 1782, a Rhode Island resolution passed that authorized Col. Archibald Crary to call on the commanding officer at Newport for help in removing the cannon and stores from Butts Hill and move them to Providence.

In June of 1783, a Rhode Island resolution passed to authorize William Anthony, Jr. “to sell at public venue the gates, timber, etc on Butts’s Hill in Portsmouth” (Bartlett, Records IX, p. 709). There were reports that the wooden barracks building was taken by the Town of Portsmouth to use for a poor house, but it was in rough shape and was quickly broken up. From the French maps we know there was a barracks there, but I don’t have a confirmation of what happened to the building. Perhaps Portsmouth town records may shed some light on that question.

Butts Hill Fort was no longer fortified.

What do the letters and documents tell us about what Butts Hill Fort might have looked like?

  1. It had a gate
  2. It had a barracks
  3. There was timber at the fort – but we have no confirmation palisades were installed
  4. There was a magazine for ammunition
  5. 6 (18 lb) cannons – five on garrison carriages
  6. 2 (4 lb) brass cannons
  7. There was about1830 feet of ditches around the fort (some ditches deeper than others).

Archaeological study-Babit

Butts Hill Fort 1781: French Masons and Sally Ports


We can get clues to what Butts Hill Fort may have looked like in 1781 from the orderly books of the American units who were helping the French reshape the fortifications into a proper fort. One of these orderly books was written by Ebenezer Thayer Jr. It covers August 16 to November 28, 1780. It is available through the Huntington Digital Library. There is another orderly book at the John Hay Library at Brown. It is difficult for me to transcribe the one at Brown. Thayer’s book was less difficult to transcribe and covered a greater period of time, so it was easier for me to draw material from it. Thayer, a Harvard educated minister, was in charge of a three-month regiment of a Massachusetts militia raised to support the Expédition Particulière, the French expeditionary army under the command of Rochambeau. The regiment was placed under the command of William Heath and stationed in Rhode Island at Butts Hill.

Oct 17. 1780 – Thayer’s orderly book. Transcription adapted for understanding.

The wagon masters of the Brigade are directed to attend on the works with their Wagons at the time the Fatigue party (Non Military chores) goes on the works and fetch one Load of Stones each for the purpose of Building the pillows (could that be pillars?) of the Fort every morning until they Receive further Orders from the Commandant. And they will apply to the (Linguister?) at the fort to know where the Stone shall be brought from.

One group that were assured of good provisions were those actively helping the French masons.

October 16th “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows (pillars?) of the Fort are completed and two masons detached to assist the French Masons until the works are finished and for their service they shall receive half a pint of rum a day when in the store.” Their provisions are ready for them so that they can complete the Fort works in a timely manner.”

Fort building was hard work. One entry records that the American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer. Members of the Black Regiment continued the “works” at Butts Hill Fort once the Massachusetts militias departed.

October 25, 1780: “The wagoners will attend on the works tomorrow and fetch two load of stones each for the building of the pillows of the sally port”

They are building a “sally port.” All tools must be returned to the engineer. What could a sally port to an earthenware fort look like? We have an example that gives us an idea. Below are examples of sally ports with earthen fortifications. Both images are in the collection of the Library of Congress. The image on the left is of Fort Wayne in Detroit. The image on the right is from Yorktown.

What have we learned about Butts Hill Fort in 1781 from the Orderly Book of Thayer?

  1. In 1780 a sally port was being constructed.
  2. French and American masons worked on the sally port.
  3. Wagon loads of stone were being brought up to the fort.
  4. “Pillows” or could they be pillars, were part of the sally port design.

I would welcome the help of those who understand more about military fortifications to guide me on the meaning of the “pillows.” The wagoner’s were getting guidance from the “Linguister” (Singuister) on where to get the stone. Who in the military could that be?

Butts Hill Fort 1781 – the Shape of It

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I am continuing to find clues to what Butts Hill Fort looked like in 1781 after the French and Americans had made it into a true fort. In this blog I am gathering images that might help us figure out the shape of the fort.

The first three images are from French made maps. The top two are Rochambeau maps in the Library of Congress. The third map is in the Pierce Collection of the Portsmouth Free Public Library and is also a French map.

What do we learn from the maps?

  1. The entrance was on the Southeast.
  2. There was a road leading from the entrance to East Main Road.
  3. There was a barracks inside the fort.
  4. The last map seems to show some defenses to the northeast – outside of the fort.
  5. The last map shows were Col. Greene’s men were camped while working on the fort with the French.
  6. The triangular defensive (ravelins) positions are most prominent to the south.

The image below is LIDAR- Light Detection and Ranging. It uses light to measure distances and is also known as laser scanning or 3D scanning. It shows us what is under the vegetation on Butts Hill today. We still have the elementary outlines of the fort under the vegetation today.

What did Butts Hill Fort look like in 1781: Searching for clues

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It is hard for us to picture what Butts Hill Fort looked like when it ceased operation in 1781 (some say 1782). The French and Americans took the British fortifications, enclosed them and really make them into a real fort. I am searching for clues among the records of that time, maps, orderly books and those like Benson Lossing who record what they saw at the fort years after the abandonment of the fortification. I am trying to do this in an orderly way, putting together the clues of the primary sources. I have needed an education in military terms, so I have tried to put a definition next to words I had to research.

Today I am working with the Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Vol. 1. This was published in 1850 by Benson Lossing.

The remains of the old fort on Butts’s Hill, the embankments and fossé, with traces of the hastily-constructed ravelins, are well preserved. Even the ruts made by the carriage-wheels of the cannons, at the embrasures (for the ordnance was composed of field-pieces), were visible. The banks, in some places, are twenty feet high, measuring from the bottom of the fossé. Fortunately for the antiquary, the works were constructed chiefly upon a rocky ledge, and the plow can win no treasure there; the banks were earth, and afford no quarry for wall builders, and so the elements alone have lowered the ramparts and filled the ditches. Southward from this eminence, I had a fine view of Quaker and Turkey Hills – indeed, of the whole battle-ground.

What clues does this source give us?

  • Remains of hastily-constructed ravelins (Ravelins – Ravelin: a triangular fortification in front of bastion. (Bastions are generally curved or angular in shape. This allows the soldiers to keep a watch on the approaching enemy from many directions. as a detached outwork.
  • Ruts from carriage wheels of the cannons
  • Embrasures visible. (Embrasures – An opening for a gun to fire through)
  • Banks 20 feet high from bottom of fosse. (Fosse – ditch or moat)
  • On rocky ledge
  • Banks of earth,
  • Elements had lowered ramparts and filled ditches. (Rampart) main defensive wall of a fortification)
  • View of Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill from the south rampart.

I will work with one source at a time.

Picturing Butts Hill Fort

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It is hard for us to imagine what Butts Hill Fort looked like. In the 1970s four Portsmouth High School Students tried to create a model of the fort. It was part of a project for an applied math class. One of the students was David Boscarino whose father was spearheading an effort to save the fort. The others were Robert Keshura, Ron Linhares and Brian Martineau. The model shows the abatis or tree branches arranged about the mote, the barracks and the cannon positions. Images of the model appeared in the July 15, 1976 issue of the Sakonnet Times.

Does anyone know what happened to the model?

My thanks goes to town historian Jim Garman for keeping such a great collection of Battle of Rhode Island material.

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.

Day of Battle: American Positions

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August 29, 1778

General Sullivans main aim at this stage of the RI campaign was to protect the retreat route to Howland Ferry. Sullivan was positioned at Butts Hill were he occupied fortifications left by the British that could accommodate his officers and staff. It commanded a view of Howland Ferry and Bristol Ferry to the north and East and West Roads to the south.

Beginning positions: Primary Line

Somewhat south of Butts Hill, Sullivan deployed his army of five to six thousand men along a fortified line almost two miles long which stretched across Aquidneck Island from the East Passage (Sakonnet River) on the east to Narragansett Bay on the west.

Gen. John Glover’s brigade (4 Massachusetts Regiments of Continentals), was stationed on the left, near East Road and facing Quaker Hill.

Glover’s left flank was protected by Gen. John Tyler’s Connecticut militia.

To Glover’s right, in the center, was a brigade temporarily under Col. Christopher Greene (who had been shifted from his usual command of the Black Regiment). Col. Greene commanded a state regiment from Massachusetts and a state regiment from New Hampshire and two Providence County militia Regiments. Butts Hill stood to their rear.

To Col. Greene’s right, the line was extended to West Road by Col. Ezekiel Cornell’s R.I. Brigade.

Across West Road from Cornell, facing Turkey Hill to the south, was Gen. James M. Varnum’s Brigade of four Continental regiments.

Flanked on the far right of Varnum was Col. Henry Brockholst Livingstone’s 1st Canadien regiment. They extended down a hill toward the Bay.

Holding a redoubt on the far right (Burrington’s) was Christopher Greene’s Black Regiment, under command of Maj. Samuel Ward, Jr.

Nathaniel Greene was in command of the entire right wing.

Advanced Guards:

Sullivan posted the light infantry unit of Col. John Laurens on West Road.

Col. Henry Beekman Livingstone was posted on East Road.

Secondary Line:

2000 Massachusetts Militiamen, (Titcomb’s Brigade to the east and Lovell’s Brigade to the west ) were situated to the north of Butts Hill.

Further to the north were the reserves, General William West’s 800 Rhode Island militiamen. They were newly drafted and the least experienced.


Denison, J. Map of Newport, Rhode Island, and vicinity showing the disposition of American and British forces in August 1778 [map]. No Scale Provided. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://geodata.lib.utexas.edu/catalog/princeton-s7526f86c

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

Butts Hill – Before and After 3 CleanUps

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A fort is emerging:

2020 stonewall by entrance

A Walk Around Butts Hill Fort

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Stop 1: At Stone Wall: An Introduction:

We welcome you to Butts Hill Fort. It may be difficult to understand what you can see today at the fort. The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee as part of the Battle of Rhode Island Association is working towards a time when there are marked trails, observation posts of three battle vistas, signage and QR codes to scan for more information. Meanwhile, we hope this tour helps to explain what you see at the fort.

Butts Hill Fort (or Windmill Hill Fort) evolved along the way. The British called this area Windmill Hill because it was a traditional site for a windmill. The Americans called this area “Butts Hill” after the John Butts family that held the land when the war began. The outlines we are seeing date from the improvements made by the French (with the help of Americans) in 1780-1781. If you look at a LIDAR image of what the fort looks like under the vegetation, you would see the outlines clearly.

We can see ramparts – large earthen mounds used to shield the inside of a fortified position from artillery fire and infantry assault. The ramparts protect a battery which is a cluster of cannons in action as a group.

North battery ramparts: The oldest portion of the fort. It is intact except for its south wall which opens to the parade ground.

South battery ramparts: The north, south and east faces of this battery’s ramparts are basically intact. The West ramparts were removed during the expansion of the fort when the French and Americans modified it (1780-1781).

Parade Ground: Place where soldiers practice or have parades.

At the Stop 2 at the North/East rampart and moat. Butts Hill in British Hands

Here we see the North ramparts with moat or ditch and glacis. At the base of the ramparts is the moat (depression surrounding a fortification). The moat was a natural result of early methods of fortification by earthworks, for the ditch produced by the removal of earth to form a rampart made a valuable part of the defense system with the glacis (an embankment sloping gradually up to a fortification, so as to expose attackers to defending gunfire) descending to the north.

If what we see today at Butts Hill Fort is the outline of the modifications made by the French and Americans, what was the fort like just before the Battle of Rhode Island?

We start the tour with the oldest section – the North ramparts.
The Rebels had fortifications across in Bristol and they would often direct fire at the troops stationed by the Aquidneck Island side of the Bristol Ferry crossing. The British are beginning construction to enlarge the American fortifications.

Portsmouth residents are used as forced labor to construct fortifications for the British.

Sept. 17, 1777: “We are at present very busy in fortifying different posts on the Island; and there are already more works planned and traced out, than can possibly be finished by the end of December. …… A fortified Barrick on Windmill hill for 200 men.” (From Mackenzie diary).

Blueprints of the British fort plans and an overlay done by Dr. Abbass in her plans for Butts Hill Fort help us to visualize what the fort looked like just before the Battle of Rhode Island. Some of the fortifications were in what is now a residential area. We need to know other terms to understand the visuals.

Redoubt, (pronounced rih-dowt): An enclosed field work which had several sides and was used to protect a garrison from attacks from several directions. A redoubt could also extend from a permanent fortress.

Stop 3: South Ramparts: Role of Butts Hill in the Siege of Newport and Battle of Rhode Island: Butts Hill in American hands.

We are at the southern fortifications. This part of the story takes us to the three weeks in August of 1778 when the Americans held this high position during the Siege of Newport and Battle of Rhode Island.

South ramparts

Drone images from Butts Hill illustrate what a commanding view was possible from this location. The British were concerned with the view of possible American invasions from the north from Bristol and the east from Tiverton. For the Americans, however, the view south was essential.

July 29th: d’Estaing met with American Commanders when he arrived at Point Judith.

August 9th: Fearing an attack, British forces abandoned Butts Hill and General Pigot withdrew his forces to Newport as the French were landing on Conanicut (Jamestown). Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned Butts Hill, so he and his troops crossed over to Aquidneck and occupied the high fortifications. He called for the heavy cannon at Fox Point to be moved to Portsmouth.

August 12-13: A hurricane hit that destroyed men, horses, camps and supplies on both the British and American sides. The storm caused the French Navy to abandon attack in Newport.

August 16: As the Americans built earthworks and dug trenches toward Newport, American reserves and the sick who were healthy enough to do garrison work remained at Butts Hill which served as Sullivan’s headquarters.

August 26: Americans now know that the British fleet is coming and that it would be at least three weeks before French would arrive. They begin to send their heavy cannon back to northern locations like Butts Hill. General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. This was not a hasty retreat.

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.

“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?

West Main Road and Union Street Engagement:

During the early hours on August 29th around 7:00 AM, Hessian Chasseurs [rapid movement soldiers] 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 Road 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 43rd took pursuit down Middle Road while the 54th, 38th, and 43rd continued down East Main Road.

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’ 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 were now engaged on Quaker Hill. The British forces formed a line that extended from East Main Road to about where Sea Meadow Drive is now located. Americans were also formed between the Quaker Meeting House; and Hedly Street. 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 the Fort kept the British from advancing.

Lehigh Hill Engagement (Durfee’s Hill)

General Nathanael Greene held the right flank of the American Army and along the right-wing stood a small artillery redoubt. This was a vital position for both sides. The 1st RI Regiment (The Black Regiment) was under the direct command of Major Samuel Ward who was commanded by Col. Christopher Greene. The Hessians tried multiple times to take the position. 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. The Hessians retreated to Turkey Hill. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the night.

The retreat plan in Sullivan’s words: “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.”

Stop 4: At the parade grounds

Parade Grounds

In December of 1779 the British finally departed from Aquidneck Island. The Americans regained possession of Butts Hill. The French arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 11, 1780 and the island was again occupied by troops. In October of 1780 one American militiaman would report in a letter:

“…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.”

The allied French and American forces felt secure, but they continued to prepare to defend the island. On Butts Hill there were American troops assigned to support the work of the French troops in restoring the fortifications. Through the summer and fall of 1780, Butts Hill was actively being enclosed and made into a fort by the Americans and their French allies. This is the fort shape we recognize today

Fort building was hard work. One entry records that the American wagons are bringing loads of stone to the works at Butts Hill Fort. They are building a “sally port” which is a secure, controlled entry way to an enclosure like a fort. All tools must be returned to the engineer. Members of the Black Regiment continued the “works” at Butts Hill Fort once the Massachusetts militias departed.

When Did Butts Hill become a Fort?

Rochambeau map shows outline of completed fort.

“The fortifications there were called ‘works’ from 1775/6 to 1780. There was never a ‘Windmill Hill Fort’ because the Fort did not exist until the French combined the separate works in 1780/81 and by that time the hill was called Butts Hill.”

Going back to the revolutionary terminology guides (American Battlefield Trust Glossary) clarified things for me.

Fort: fully enclosed earthwork; a fortified building, enclosure, or strategic position.

The British works at “Windmill Hill” were fortifications. When they arrived on the island they took over an American militia made natural (hill top) defensive position that was a temporary construction of wood and soil.

Fage Map 1778

The Edward Fage map (1778) shows a second redoubt – the Southern Redoubt – was added to the fortifications. This was the condition of the fortifications when the Americans returned to Aquidneck Island in August of 1778.

We think of the Black Regiment’s valor during the Battle of Rhode Island, but I am discovering more ties between the First Rhode Island Regiment (commanded by Col. Christopher Greene) and the construction of the fort at Butts Hill. According to pension petitions, they helped the French soldiers and masons complete the job of re-enforcing the fortifications at Butts Hill. Fifty of their soldiers were detached to help the French move their artillery. After two calls back to Aquidneck Island, they would later join the American Army on the march south and participated in the final battle at Yorktown.

Stop 5: At the memorial

“Butts Hill Fort. These fortifications erected by the British 1777 were occupied by the Americans 1778 becoming the island base of the Continental Army under General Sullivan in the Battle of Rhode Island. They are consecrated to the immortal memory of those brave men who upon August 29, 1778 withstood the assaults of the more numerous highly trained British Army under General Pigot. Dedicated to posterity by the Newport Historical Society, August 29, 1923.”

1923 Memorial Stone

This memorial stone was dedicated with some fanfare. There were speeches and battle reenactments, marching bands and the blast of cannons. This sacred piece of land was saved from being a housing development by the then President of the Newport Historical Society, Rev. Roderick Terry. He personally bought the property (and Fort Barton as well) and gave them to the Society. This gift came with some restrictions:

*The Newport Historical Society and its successors were to forever “preserve, keep and maintain” the property as a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War.
*That the property will always keep the name “Butts Hill Fort.”
*That the property should never be used for monetary gain.

The Newport Historical Society could not maintain the fort. In 1968 the land was transferred to the State and on to the Town of Portsmouth. Terry’s restrictions on the property remain today as the responsibility of the town of Portsmouth.

The Butts Hill Fort Restoration Committee aims to fulfill Rev. Terry’s mandate to preserve, keep and maintain the property as a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War. The Committee is working on a land management plan to restore the fort and create an open space area of walking trails and informational signage. The three acres of land with the fort provide ample space for major re-enactments.

As the anniversaries of the American Revolution (2026) and Battle of Rhode Island (2028) draw near, the task of “preserving” the fort and ensuring that it is a monument to those who fought in the Revolutionary War becomes even more vital.

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