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The Battle of Rhode Island On the Map

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From Israel Angell’s Diary
McBurney Map
Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Co. Map 1926
Library of Congress – Attacks Upon Rhode Island

Huntington Library Map of North Portsmouth

Black Regiment Memorial

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Siege of Newport/Battle of RI Map – Rhode Island Historical Society
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

The Role of Butts Hill in the Siege of Newport

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This blog is part three of information that might be provided on a tour of Butts Hill Fort today. We are at the southern fortifications.

The narrative of our tour of Butts Hill Fort has taken us through the British improvements to the 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.

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 Tiverton. For the Americans, however, the view south was essential.

With the French sailing to Newport to help the American forces, Butts Hill became a strategic site.

July 29th: d’Estaing met with American Commanders when he arrived at Point Judith. Plans called for Sullivan’s American forces to cross from Tiverton to Aquidneck Island and advance to the British fortifications at Butts Hill. The French would land on Conanicut Island (Jamestown) before arriving in Newport to cut off the British forces.

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. Sullivan discovered that the British had abandoned Butts Hill, so he crossed over to Aquidneck and occupied the high fortifications. He called for the heavy cannon at Fox Point to be moved to Portsmouth. Sullivan was supposed to wait until August 10.

August 11: Most of the American troops were camped about Butts Hill. The diary of Rev. Manasseh Cutler who served as chaplain for American General Titcomb’s Brigade, provides a few glimpses of what was going on around Butts Hill. He wrote on August 11th that at 4 o’clock the whole army paraded and passed in review by the general officers. “The right wing of the army was commanded by General Greene and the left by the Marquis de Lafayette.”

August 12-13: A hurricane hit that destroyed men, horses, camps and supplies on both the British and American sides. Rhode Island’s governor (William Greene) replaced the ruined powder on the American side.

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 17: Sullivan calls a council of War. All officers recommend holding positions until they could be reinforced.

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. The Council of War again determines to hold American positions until they could be reinforced. General Sullivan began to prepare for a retreat. He knew that enemy reinforcements were coming and his best course was to retreat. Cutler’s entry on Monday, August 24th “As much of the heavy baggage moved off last night as possible. A body of men retreated to strengthen the works at Butts’ Hill. At the lines – heavy fire – army preparing to retreat.” Cutler’s story ends on August 26th when he, like many in the militias, escaped to Tiverton and away from battle.

This was not a hasty retreat. Sullivan ordered increased defenses in the North (especially Butts Hill and fortifications guarding the Bristol Ferry and the ferry to Tiverton). He wanted to get all his weaponry out so it would not fall into enemy hands to use against them another day. In his letter to Congress after the retreat, he makes it clear that this was an “unanimous” decision to first retreat to Portsmouth and hope that the French would return.

Initial positions of Americans

Resources

Providence Gazette on September 26, 1778. “Letter from the Hon. Major General Sullivan to the President of Congress dated headquarters Tiverton, August 31, 1778″.

Cutler’s Diary is found in Edwin Stone’s “Our French Allies.” This is an old book (1884, Providence) but it was a great help. It is available online through Google Books. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_French_Allies/YY8LAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

Image of Quaker Hill: Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 7) (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1912)

A map of part of Rhode Island shewing the positions of the American and British armies at the Siege of Newport, and the subsequent action on the 29th of August 1778. [1807]. Original in Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center.

The British Scuttle Their Ships

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Recorded in the London Gazette is a letter from Major General Pigot to General Clinton – dated August 31st, 1778. From this letter we learn of the preparations the British made with the threat of French ships approaching. With the appearance of the French, Pigot began to gather provisions, ammunitions and stores of goods in order to prepare a fortified camp.

With the French in the Sakonnet, Pigot ordered the Kingfisher and two Galleys (Alarm and Spitfire) to be set on fire; and afterwards … the four advanced Frigates (Juno, Orpheus, Cerberus, Lark). These ships were destroyed to keep them from being captured.

According to the annotations by John Hattendorf:

  1. Kingfisher was a sloop. She was deliberately set on fire, broke from anchorage and blew up off High Hill Point in Tiverton
  2. Alarm was a galley. She was set on fire and exploded south of McCorrie Point.
  3. Spitfire was a galley. She also was set on fire off High Hill Point in Tiverton.
  4. Juno was sunk in Coddington Cove.
  5. Orpheus was sunk off Melville.
  6. Cerberus was sunk about 400 feet off Carr Point.
  7. Lark was sunk on the south side of Arnold’s Point in Portsmouth.

A few years ago I had come across a newspaper clipping dealing with these scuttled British ships. I’m not sure where the clippings came from, but Barre Press 1966 was sited in the article. Note that Flora, Pigot and Falcon are also listed as burned or sunk. Red circles show the locations of the downed ships.

The ship locations also appear on an early map 1778- Attacks upon Rhode Island that is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Resources:

John Hattendorf – The Battle of Rhode Island in 1778: the Official British View as Reported in the London Gazette.2021 Stone Tower Press, Middletown, Rhode Island