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The French arrived in Newport in July of 1780. Most of the forces wintered in Newport except the Lauzun Legion which camped in Connecticut. Rochambeau was very skillful in handling his troops and the Americans began to appreciate their presence. Where the British had demolished defenses, the French engineers worked on rebuilding them. Major General William Heath’s diary for September of 1780 notes that “The batteries were strengthened, a very strong one erected on Rose-Island, and redoubts on Coaster’s-Island: the strong works on Butt’s-Hill (were) pushed..” A few days later he would remark: “The French army continued very busy in fortifying Rhode-Island: some of their works were exceedingly strong, and mounted with heavy metal.” We know from orderly books (daily records) that the American militiamen were aiding the French masons as they enlarged and fortified Butts Hill Fort.

On March 6, 1781, three months before the French army departed from Newport, General Washington visited Count de Rochambeau to consult with him concerning the operation of the troops under his command. Washington was hoping to encourage Rochambeau to send out his fleet to attack New York City. In an address to the people of Newport, Washington expressed gratitude for the help of the French:


“The conduct of the French Army and fleet, of which the inhabitants testify so grateful and affectionate a sense, at the same time that it evinces the wisdom of the commanders and the discipline of the troops, is a new proof of the magnanimity of the nations. It is a further demonstration of that general zeal and concern for the happiness of America which brought them to our assistance; a happy presage of future harmony…appeasing evidence that an intercourse between the two nations will more and more cement the union by the solid and lasting times of mutual affection.” (Quote taken from New Materials for the History of the American Revolution by J. Durant. Henry Holt, New York, 1889.)

Washington left Newport and journeyed overland to Providence. On his departure he was saluted by the French with thirteen guns and again the troops were drawn up in line in his honor. Count de Rochambeau escorted Washington for some distance out of town, and Count Dumas with several other officers of the French army accompanied him to Providence. We know that General George Washington travelled by Butts Hill Fort on the old West Main Road on his way to the Bristol Ferry because the West Road was the customary route from Newport to the ferry. Washington’s aide, Tench Tilghman, recorded the fee for the Bristol Ferry on the expense book.

In May of 1781 Washington and Rochambeau met again, this time in Weathersfield, Connecticut. This meeting confirmed the joining of the forces and the march South.

The French left Newport in stages:

  • Regiment Bourbonnois under the vicomte de Rochambeau, left on June 18.
  • Regiment Royal Deux-Ponts under the baron de Vioménil, left on June 19.
  • Regiment Soissonnois under the comte de Vioménil, left on June 20.
  • Regiment Saintonge under the comte de Custine, left on June 21.

Brigadier General de Choisy was left behind in Newport with some French troops. He sailed with Barras’ fleet to the Chesapeake area in August. In the summer of 1781, General Rochambeau’s French Army joined forces with General Washington’s Continental Army, With the French Navy in support, the allied armies moved hundreds of miles toward victory in Yorktown Virginia in September of 1781.

Resources:

https://www.nps.gov/waro/learn/historyculture/washington-rochambeau-revolutionary-route.htm

By Robert Selig, PhD. for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Resource Study & Environmental Assessment, 2006.
https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=ri_history. Visit of George Washington to Newport in 1781 – French E. Chadwick. 1913
Loughrey, Mary Ellen. France and Rhode Island, 1686-1800. New York, King’s Crown Press, 1944.

The French Arrive: 1780

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July 11, 1780 a squadron of French warships approached Newport. Their journey was started on February 2, 1780, when King Louis XVI approved a plan, code-named the expédition particulière (special exhibition). On May 2, a fleet with crews totaling about 7,000 sailors, commanded by Admiral de Ternay set sail from France for Rhode Island. This was not the first French fleet that had arrived at Newport waters as part of a French and American alliance. The fleet commanded by General d’Estaing in 1778 was part of a Rhode Island Campaign to free Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) from the grip of British occupation. That fleet quickly retreated following damage from a storm and the campaign ended with the retreat of the Americans at the Battle of Rhode Island. This 1780 arrival would prove to be a key moment in the French and American alliance. This landing was the beginning of cooperation between the forces that would ultimately lead to victory at Yorktown.

When the French arrived they found a Newport that was diminished by three years of British occupation. The people couldn’t feed themselves or gather enough wood to keep warm. Livestock had been taken, anything wood had been burned, farm fencing had been destroyed and almost all the trees had been chopped down. After years of occupation Newporters were not enthusiastic about having to support another army.

The French had their own concerns. One-third of the French troops were weakened during the long voyage by scurvy. Forty-seven men died during the first seven weeks on Rhode Island. General Washington sent Dr. James Craick, the assistant director of hospital for the Continental Army, to set up hospitals. With a good diet of fruit and vegetables, the men recovered.

At first the French troops were camped throughout Newport. A camp ran east from Easton’s Beach to the west by Thames Street. Lauzon’s Legion camped at Castle Hill. When the winter came it was important to find housing for the troops. General Rochambeau was in charge and he began to repair the houses that the British had left in ruins.

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. [1780] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/gm71002156/.

Rochambeau was skillful in managing his troops. Conduct and discipline were important. Where the British had taken from the inhabitants, the French were careful to bring supplies in from France and they paid for what they needed. Newport merchants began to resume trade. Townspeople were able to work again. The French Commissary department employed sailors, drivers, cooks, butchers, carpenters, wheelwrights and countless other tradesmen.

The French brought engineers and soon after they landed they began to repair the defenses that the British had destroyed before they left. These fortifications were remodeled and guns were mounted. In a letter to a friend, Militiaman Dr. John Goddard commented: “…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men (militia), at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state….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.”

With the arrival of the French in 1780, Rhode Islanders felt more secure.

Resources:

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

France and Rhode Island, 1636-1800. Mary Ellen Loughrey, New York King’s Crown Press 1944.

https://w3r-us.org/french-encampment-newport-11-july-1-november-1780/. French Encampment in Newport (11July-1 November 1780 National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association, Inc.

https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/01/why-newport-rhode-island-scorned-the-french/. Why Newport, Rhode Island, scorned the French by Norman Desmarais. Journal of the American Revolution January 2, 2020

Camp Butts Hill 1780-1781: French and Americans Complete the Fort

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A continuation of a tour of Butts Hill Fort : Stop 5: At the 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.

Rochambeau Map 1780

We get a glimpse of their work through the Orderly Books of Ebenezer Thayer and John Jacobs. An orderly book is a record of the day to day activities of a unit. Thayer recorded the activities of a troop assigned to support the Expedition Pariculiere, the French Expeditionary Army under the command of Rochambeau. Their service was from August 16th to November 28, 1780. Other orderly books and some letters written from the camp give us an idea of life in the camp. That life was not easy.

The September 9th entry by Thayer shows they were assigned six men to a tent with a cook for each group of six. Later entries show that the kitchens had to be moved higher to prevent the smoke from filling the tents. A later entry tells us that the guard consisted of sixty rank and file soldiers. There were also sentinels around the encampment – 2 in front and one in the rear. This is kept up day and night. This day’s entry also includes concern about the filth around the camp that could be detrimental to the soldiers’ health.

They were not equipped well. An entry expresses concerns that there were not enough axes. One of the “fatigue duties” (labor duties that don’t require arms) was gathering wood. The axes would have been essential to chopping wood. Wood on Aquidneck Island was so scarce they had to go to Freetown, Massachusetts to obtain firewood.

Soldiers were hungry and stole from nearby homes and they were disciplines for that. The officers had a hard time securing enough food to last a day so that they might be fit for duty. In a October 10, 1780 letter to friends in Boston, Major May of the Boston Regiment shares his experience.

“We have but 21 days to tarry here, but famine seems to stare us in the face. I could give you particulars, but I never was fond of telling all. It may suffice to say, that we have one day’s rations of Indian meal on hand, no meat, no wood, no sauce etc. Before I go any further I must tell you I have been, even now, sick with a stupefying cold. ..I hope I may be returned to you all again, in health and safety.”

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

Camp Butts Hill – October 1780: Americans and French Working Together.

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This is a continuation of information in Thayer’s Orderly Book that covers what was going on at Camp Butts Hill. This is not a transcription, but it is notes on the information provided. This book ends at the end of October when the brigade leaves Camp Butts Hill. The orderly book helps us understand the cooperation between the French masons and engineers who are working on Butts Hill Fort and the Americans who are aiding in this building project.

October 2, 1780: The main guard will consist of one captain, one “subb (Subaltern-like a second lieutenant),” two sergeants, four corporals and 48 privates. There was concern that the “property of the inhabitants be secured” and public property be guarded. Captain Devol wants one boat builder and one caulker to assist him in repairing the public boats from this port.

Rocambeau’s Map

October 3, 1780: The drum major and fife major will practice two hours a day with the drummers and fifers.

October 4, 1780: Commanding officers of each brigade should insure that there are enough provisions on hand “that they may be always fit for duty.” At least one day’s provisions is required to be on hand. In letters from Camp Butts Hill we find that hunger was a real concern. The drum major is to start the beat for reveille at first light for the guard and the drummer should sound the beat through the whole camp. Lieutenant Waterman will receive directions for removing the small barracks which stands at Butts Hill Fort.

October 6, 1780: Cartridge boxes in tents will have names of commanding officers and be taken to the magazine in the fort. Kitchens were built in front of the tents and high so smoke doesn’t get to the tents. There will be a regimental court martial for James Stanford of Captain Hodge’s group of Thayer’s regiment. The charge was insulting language to the Captain. Found guilty, 15 lashes on a naked back will be administered and the guilty party must ask pardon of the Captain in the presence of the commanding officers. “It is Col. Commandant Greene’s pleasure that one Field Officer shall inspect the works at Butts Hill Fort. They will attend the works in rotation.”

October 7, 1780: Lt. Col. Hallet will supervise the “works” – the work being done on Butts Hill Fort.

October 8, 1780: Lt. Col. Clap will inspect the works. Henry Hilman is accused of desertion. He “shall be drummed out of the brigade with his Hatt under his arm.” The Bristol Ferry Commanding Officers will make a report to the officer of the day.

October 12, 1780: There were complaints of too many soldiers in Newport. They will now need a pass. “It is requested by General Rochambeau and Commander Jacobs that every officer not on duty will attend upon the works for the purpose of encouraging the soldiers and completing the fort.”

October 16, 1780: “There are four men to be detached from the brigade to attend constantly on the French Masons until the stone pillows 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.

October 17, 1780: The commander has been informed that “the inhabitants have had a large number of fowls taken from them” supposedly by the soldiers. Those caught stealing from the inhabitants will be punished. “The wagon masters of the brigade are directed to attend on the works with their wagons at the time the fatigue party goes on the works and fetch one load of stones each for the purpose of building the pillows of the fort.

October 19, 1780: The French are getting wood at Freetown and are in need of the American flat bottom boats.

October 25, 1780: 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.

October 26, 1780: Jacob’s regiment is leaving and his men are requested to return the tools they have borrowed from the French. They will return them to the engineer. Tents and other equipment are to be returned to the quartermaster.

Map:

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport.
Created / Published
(1780)