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.