Revolutionary Rhode Island – Vernon House Newport

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Plaques on the side of Vernon House on Clarke Street feature images of Rochambeau and Lafayette. Why are these French military officers associated with the home?

Vintage postcard of Vernon House

The application for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places calls it one of Newport’s “most interesting buildings.” Peter Harrison, the designer of Redwood Library, is often mentioned as the architect of this colonial home. Re-modeling of the home in 1759 provided additions that give it an appearance of a Georgian mansion. Charles Bowler may have bought the property in 1753 when he became the Collector of Revenue. Bowler sold it to his son, Metcalf Bowler. Bowler was a noted merchant in the West Indies trade and he was active in local politics. He had a country home on Wapping Road in Portsmouth where Lafayette stayed during the Siege of Newport in 1778. Bowler fled to Providence and even held a state judgeship, but years later it was determined that he had acted as a British spy.

In 1773 Bowler sold the Newport home to William Vernon who was a successful merchant and ship builder. When the French arrived in Newport in 1780, Vernon offered the home as the quarters of Rochambeau. Rochambeau hosted both Lafayette and Washington while he resided at the home from 1780 to 1781.

The home is now in the hands of the Newport Restoration Foundation. The address is 46 Clarke Street.

Other homes associated with the French in Newport:

Hunter House: Headquarters of Charles Louis de Ternay before he died in December of 1780.

The Thomas Robinson House: Vicomte de Noailles of the Soissonain Regiment.

Buliod-Perry House occupied by Quartermaster Belville.

Sources: Application for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Place.

Lafayette in Rhode Island: Second and Third Visits

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A Second Visit to Rhode Island

General Lafayette’s first visit to Rhode Island was during the perilous times of the Rhode Island Campaign in 1778. His second visit was in the summer of 1780. Washington sent Lafayette to carry his greetings to Rochambeau. Lafayette was in New Jersey when he received his orders from General Washington. His route led him through Peekskill, Danbury, Hartford, Lebanon and finally arriving in Newport on July 25th. Lafayette remained in Newport with Rochambeau at Vernon House (Rochabeau headquarters) until July 31, 1780. By August 7th Lafayette was back in Peekskill commanding his troops.

Vernon House in Newport where Lafayette stayed with Rochambeau

A Third Visit to Rhode Island

After the close of the Revolutionary War, Lafayette made a third trip to Rhode Island. In October of 1784 he arrived in Providence. The Providence Gazette of 1784 reported:

“Last Saturday Afternoon (October 23) the Honorable Marquis de la Fayette arrived here from Boston. He was met a few miles from hence by a Number of principal Inhabitants, and received at the Entrance of the Town and escorted in, by the United Company of the Train of Artillery under arms. On his Arrival he was welcomed by a Discharge of 13 Cannon at the State House Parade, the Bells were rung and at Sunset, the Salute was repeated by heavy Cannon on Beacon Hill.”

“The Marquis having visited Newport returned from thence on Monday Evening and on Tuesday partook of an Entertainment at Mr. Rice’s Tavern at which were present his Excellency the Governor, his Honor the Deputy-Governor, both Houses of Assembly, a Number of respectable Inhabitants, Officers of the late Army &c. After diner the Marquis set out for Boston and was again saluted with 13 Cannon.”

“On Monday last (October 25) the Society of Cincinnati of this State convened at Mr. Rice’s Tavern where an elegant Dinner was provided upon the Occasion; and having finished the Business of their Meeting they were honored with Company of his Excellency the Governor his Honor the Lieutenant Governor and the Honorable the Marquis de la Fayette accompanied by the Chevalier De L’Enfant.” Thirteen toasts were given.

References: Preston’s 1928 article in the Rhode Island Historical Society Collections.

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.


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