Durfee’s Account of Rhode Island Campaign

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This is an account by an eyewitness, but Joseph Durfee is penning his reminiscences many years after the events. At the time of the Battle of Rhode Island, Durfee was a major in Col. Whitney’s Regiment. The last blog related Durfee’s account of the “Battle of Fall River” and this blog entry is a continuation of the account beginning with the Americans crossing to Aquidneck Island.

Preparation for invasion of Aquidneck

” During a considerable part of the month of August following (the Battle of Fall River – see the previous blog), we were busily engaged in procuring arms, ammunition, and provisions for the soldiers, and in building flat-bottomed boats and scows for the troops to cross over the river on to Rhode Island, with a view to dislodge the British army, who then had possession of the island. A barn, now standing near the Stone Bridge, was occupied for a commissary store, of which I had the charge until things were in readiness and the troops prepared to cross over to the island, when I left the store in charge of my friend and relative, Walter Chaloner.

The Expedition Begins

In the fore part of August 1798, the American troops embarked in the boats and scows prepared for them and landed on Rhode Island, where I joined them, having been appointed a Major in Colonel Whitney’s Regiment. Our troops were then marched to a spot but a short distance to the North of what is called Butts’ Hill; where they encamped for the night with nothing but the canopy of heaven for a covering and the ground for our beds. But we were animated with the hope of liberty–with a belief that we were engaged in a righteous cause—and that He, who sways the sceptre of the universe would prosper our undertaking.

Waiting on the French

At this time we were anxiously looking for the French fleet from which we hoped for assistance against the enemy, whose numerous bodies of troops were before us. Soon the French fleet bore in sight, when the British set fire to the shipping in the harbor and blew up most of the vessels within their reach. Not long after the French fleet came up, the British fleet appeared in the offing. Immediately the French fleet tacked about, went about and attacked the British squadron, when broadsides were exchanged and a bloody battle ensued.

The Storm

A tremendous storm came on long remembered as the Angust storm, in which the two fleets were separated, and many who had escaped the cannon’s mouth found a watery grave. The French feet, or so much of it as survived the storm, went into Boston to repair and the remnant of the British fleet went into New York.

Siege of Newport

Soon after this storm, our troops marched in three divisions towards Newport. One on the East road, so called one on the West road, and the Brigade, commanded by General Titcomb moved in the centre, until we came in sight of Newport–when orders were given to halt, erect a marque and pitch our tents. General orders were issued for a detachment from the army of three thousand men – our number being too small to risk a general engagement with the great body of British troops then quartered on the South end of the Island. Early on the next morning a detachment of troops, of which I was one, was ordered to proceed forthwith and take possession of what was called Hunneman’s Hill. The morning was foggy and enabled us to advance some distance unobserved by the enemy — but the fog clearing away before we reached the hill, we were discovered by the British and Tory troops, who commenced such a heavy cannonade upon us, that it was deemed expedient by the commanding officers, to prevent the destruction of many of our brave troops, that we should fall back and advance under the cover of night. Accordingly when night came, we marched to the hill undiscovered by the enemy. We immediately commenced throwing up a breast work and building a fort. When daylight appeared, we had two cannon mounted–one twenty-four pounder and one eighteen–and with our breast work we had completed a covered way to pass and repass without being seen by the enemy. The British had a small fort or redoubt directly under the muzzles of our cannon, with which we saluted them and poured in the slot so thick upon them that they were compelled to beat up a retreat. But they returned again at night to repair their fort, when they commenced throwing bomb shells into our fort, which however did but little damage. I saw several of them fiying over our heads and one bursting in the air, a fragment fell upon the shoulder of a soldier and killed him.


At this time, we were anxiously waiting the return of the French fleet from Boston, where they had gone to repair. But learning that they could not then return, and knowing the situation of the British troops, that they were enlarging and strengthening their furts and redoubts, and that they had reinforcements arriving daily from New York, it was deemed expedient by our commanding officers, Lafayette, Green and Sullivan, all experienced and brave Generals, that we should retreat to the North end of the Island. Accordingly, on the 29th day of August, early in the morning we struck our marque and tents and commenced a retreat. The British troops followed, and soon came up with our rear-guard and commenced firing upon them. The shots were briskly returned and continued at intervals, until our troops were joined by a part of our army a short distance to the South of Quaker Hill, so called, when a general engagement ensued, in which many lives were lost on both sides. At night, we retreated from the Island to Tiverton. On the following day we left ‘Tiverton, crossed over Slade’s ferry and marched through Pawtucket and Providence to Pawtucket where we remained until our service expired.”


“Plan of the works, which form the exterior line of defence, for the town of New-Port in Rhode Island : Also of the batteries and approaches made by the rebels on Honeymans Hill during their attack in August 1778 / This plan surveyed and drawn by Edward Fage, lieutt of artillery, November 1778.”. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wcl1ic/x-8373/wcl008443. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 21, 2022.

Reminiscences of Col. Joseph Durfee : relating to the early history of Fall River and of Revolutionary scenes. (1830s)

Prelude to Battle: The Allied Troops Gather

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We often focus on the day of the Battle of Rhode Island, but the Rhode Island Campaign was more than just a day. It began with the cultivation of French help in the war and then the buildup of French and American forces in the Rhode Island area. This blog will focus on the American gathering of troops at Tiverton. The next blog will feature the amassing of flat bottom boats for the landing on Aquidneck Island.

7/22/1778 – Washington received word from Alexander Hamilton that the French were sailing for Rhode Island. Col. John Laurens was sent to Providence to be liaison officer with the French.

DuChesnoy Map

7/23/1778 – Varnum and Glover and Jackson marched toward Rhode Island. “The game for Rhode Island was on.”

7/27/1778 – Lafayette was ordered to surrender half his command to Major General Nathanael Greene.

7/29/1778 – The French fleet arrived off Point Judith. General Sullivan came aboard to tell French the Continentals and militia had not arrived. The Fleet had to wait.

7/31/1778 – General Nathanael Greene appeared in Rhode Island. He brought carpenters and boat builders under Major Benjamin Eyres. Greene devoted himself to supply and transportation issues. He wrote the Board of War. “It will be necessary for the board to order that one half of the militia fit for actual service be drafted and none others. If something of this sort don’t take place, there will be a great diminution of our expected force.” The Rhode Island Council of War waited until the French arrived to draft the militia and that call up was only for fifteen days so as not to delay the harvest. The militia were not due to arrive until August 6th.

Glover’s brigade arrived in Providence.

8/3/1778 – All the Continental forces had arrived in Rhode Island. Troops were camped in Swansea in Massachusetts and in Tiverton, Bristol and Providence.

8/4/1778 – Lafayette boarded the Languedoc – d’Estaing’s flagship.

A plan was agreed upon. The French were to block the entrance of the Newport harbor on August 8th. The next convenient day, after militia arrived, there were to be two simultaneous landings (1st – by Americans at Fogland Ferry. 2nd by French and some American reinforcements near Lawton’s Valley.). This would cut off Portsmouth and give Americans control of Northern forts.

The forces would unite and move against the works at Newport.

Sullivan’s address to his troops before moving onto Aquidneck Island: (quoted in Taylor’s Campaign on Rhode Island but I have not be able to find this in another source.)

“The commander in chief in Rhode Island takes this opportunity to return his cordial thanks to the brave officers and soldiers and volunteers who have with so much alacrity repaired to this place to give their assistance in extirpating the British tyrant from this country. The zeals which they have discovered are to him the most pleasing presages of VICTORY; and he is happy to find himself at the head of an army far superior in numbers to that of the enemy, animated by a sacred regard for the Liberties of their country and fired with a just resentment against the Barbarians who have deluged with innocent blood and spread desolation on every part of the continent where they have been suffered to march.

The prospect before you is exceeding promising. The several corps have now everything to animate them and to press them on to VICTORY. The tried bravery of the Continental officers and soldiers and the idea they must have of the dependence upon their valor of both the army and country stimulates them to support themselves in the character they most justly acquired. Independent corps and volunteers who have so cheerfully come to assist in the enterprise have every inducement to exert themselves to meet the expectations they have acquired by flying to the relief of their country. The state troops which the General has so long had the honor to command, he has the strongest reasons to believe will not suffer themselves to be outshined or excelled in bravery by any troops in the army. The militia composed of respectable freemen and citizens of America who have so ably fought and conquered the last year must now feel every inducement inspirit them on to Conquest and Glory.

The character of the several corps which compose the army; the expectations of their country; the safety of our land; the protection of our property; and, in short, everything which animates men to fight and conquer calls aloud upon us to act the part of freemen, becoming to the character of Americans.

The General, for his part, assures his brave army that he will with the utmost cheerfulness share with them in every danger and fatigue and is ready to venture his life in every instance where the good of his country calls for it – to them and to his country he stands ready to sacrifice his life if necessary – And from the brave officers and men which he has the honor to command, he expects to find the same disposition. Fired with the same sentiment and engaged in so just a cause, we must conquer. We must win the laurels which await us; and return into the arms of a grateful country.”

Major General John Sullivan.

Campaign on Rhode Island 1778 by Erich A. O’D. Taylor, 1928
The Rhode Island Campaign by Christian McBurney, 2011.

Map: Capitaine Du Chesnoy, Michel, and Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier Lafayette. Carte des positions occupeés par les trouppes Américaines apres leur retraite de Rhode Island le 30 Aout. [1778] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/00555648/.