Last week we diverted slightly from our war timeline after The Battle of Monmouth and discussed the Illinois campaign in full.
And as we discussed last week, the Battle of Monmouth was the last major battle of the Philadelphia campaign, and resulted in the subsequent retreat of General William Howe from Philadelphia, back to the British stronghold of New York.
The puts us in July of 1778 with the Illinois Campaign getting started up in the western part of the colonies. Today we’ll focus on what continued to occur in the Northern part of the colonies.
For its first major attempt at cooperation with the Americans, France sent Admiral the Comte d’Estaing with a fleet of 12 ships of the line and some French Army troops to North America in April 1778, with orders to blockade the British North American fleet in the Delaware River. Although British leaders had early intelligence that d’Estaing was likely headed for North America, political and military differences within the government and navy delayed the British response, and permitted him to sail unopposed through the Straits of Gibraltar. It was not until early June that a fleet of 13 ships of the line under the command of Admiral John Byron left European waters in pursuit. D’Estaing’s crossing of the Atlantic took three months, but Byron (who was called “Foul-weather Jack” due to his repeated bad luck with the weather) was also delayed by bad weather and would not reach New York until mid August.
The British evacuated Philadelphia to New York City before d’Estaing’s arrival, and their North American fleet was no longer in the river when his fleet arrived at Delaware Bay in early July. D’Estaing decided to sail for New York, but its well-defended harbor presented a daunting challenge to the French fleet. Since d’Estaing’s largest ships were believed (by the French and their American pilots) to be unable to cross the bar into New York harbor, French and American leaders decided to deploy their forces against British-occupied Newport, Rhode Island. While d’Estaing was outside the harbor, British General Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Lord Richard Howe dispatched a fleet of transports carrying 2,000 troops to reinforce Newport via Long Island Sound; these reached their destination on July 15, raising the size of Major General Robert Pigot’s garrison to over 6,700 men.
American and British forces had been in a standoff since the British occupation began in late 1776. Major General Joseph Spencer had been ordered by Major General George Washington to launch an assault on Newport in 1777, but he had not done so, and was removed from command of the Rhode Island defenses. In March 1778 Congress approved the appointment of Major General John Sullivan to Rhode Island. By early May, Sullivan had arrived in the state and produced a detailed report on the situation there. He also began logistical preparations for an attack on Newport, caching equipment and supplies on the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay and the Taunton River. General Pigot was aware of Sullivan’s preparations, and launched an expedition on May 25 that raided Bristol and Warren, destroying military supplies and plundering the towns. Sullivan’s response was to make renewed appeals for assistance, which were reinforced by a Congressional declaration after a second raid on Freetown (present-day Fall River, Massachusetts) on May 31.
General Washington wrote to Sullivan on July 17, ordering him to raise 5,000 troops for possible operations against Newport. Sullivan did not receive this letter until July 23, and it was followed the next day by the arrival of Colonel John Laurens with word that Newport had been chosen as the allied target on the 22nd, and that he should raise as large a force as possible. Sullivan’s force at that time amounted to 1,600 troops. Laurens had left Washington’s camp on the 22nd, riding ahead of a column of Continental troops (the brigades of John Glover and James Mitchell Varnum) led by the Marquis de Lafayette.
News of the French involvement rallied support for the cause, and militia began streaming to Rhode Island from neighboring states. Half the entire Rhode Island militia was called up and led by William West, and large numbers of militia from Massachusetts and New Hampshire along with Continental Artillery came to Rhode Island to join the effort; however, these forces took some time to muster, and the majority of them did not arrive until the first week of August. Washington on July 27 sent Major General Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Island native and reliable officer, to further bolster Sullivan’s leadership corps. Sullivan had been regularly criticized in Congress for his performance in earlier battles, and Washington urged him to take counsel from Greene and Lafayette. Greene, in writing to Sullivan on the matter, reinforced the need for a successful operation.
On July 22, when the British judged the tide high enough for the French ships to cross the bar, d’Estaing instead sailed from his position outside the New York harbor. He initially sailed south before turning northeast toward Newport. The British fleet in New York, eight ships of the line under the command of Lord Richard Howe, sailed out after him once they discovered his destination to be Newport. D’Estaing arrived off Point Judith on July 29, and immediately met with Generals Greene and Lafayette to develop their plan of attack.
Sullivan’s proposal was that the Americans would cross over to Aquidneck Island’s eastern shore from Tiverton, while French troops, which would use Conanicut Island as a staging ground, would cross from the west, cutting off a detachment of British soldiers at Butts Hill on the northern part of the island. The next day, d’Estaing sent frigates into the Sakonnet River (the channel to the east of Aquidneck) and into the main channel leading to Newport.
As allied intentions became clear, General Pigot decided to redeploy his forces in a defensive posture, withdrawing troops from Conanicut Island and from Butts Hill. He also decided to move nearly all livestock into the city, ordered the levelling of orchards to provide a clear line of fire, and destroyed carriages and wagons. The arriving French ships drove several of his supporting ships aground, which were burned to prevent their capture. As the French worked their way up the channel toward Newport, Pigot ordered the remaining ships scuttled to hamper French access to Newport’s harbor. On August 8, d’Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport Harbor.
On August 9 d’Estaing began disembarking some of his 4,000 troops onto nearby Conanicut Island. The same day, General Sullivan learned that Pigot had abandoned Butts Hill. Contrary to the agreement with d’Estaing, Sullivan then crossed troops over to seize that high ground, concerned that the British might reoccupy it in strength. Although d’Estaing later approved of the action, his initial reaction and that of some of his officers was one of disapproval. John Laurens wrote that the action “gave much umbrage to the French officers”. Sullivan was en route to a meeting with d’Estaing when the latter learned that Admiral Howe’s fleet had arrived.
Lord Howe’s fleet was delayed departing New York by contrary winds, and he arrived off Point Judith on August 9. Since d’Estaing’s fleet outnumbered Howe’s, the French admiral, fearful that Howe would be further reinforced and eventually gain a numerical advantage, reboarded the French troops, and sailed out to do battle with Howe on August 10. As the two fleets prepared to battle and maneuvered for position, the weather deteriorated, and a major storm broke out. Raging for two days, the storm scattered both fleets, severely damaging the French flagship. It also frustrated plans by Sullivan to attack Newport without French support on August 11. While Sullivan awaited the return of the French fleet, he began siege operations, moving closer to the British lines on August 15 and opening trenches to the northeast of the fortified British line north of Newport the next day.
As the two fleets sought to regroup, individual ships encountered enemy ships, and there were several minor naval skirmishes; two French ships (including d’Estaing’s flagship), already suffering storm damage, were badly mauled in these encounters. The French fleet regrouped off Delaware, and returned to Newport on August 20, while the British fleet regrouped at New York.
Admiral d’Estaing, despite pressure from his captains to immediately sail for Boston to make repairs, instead sailed for Newport to inform the Americans he would not be able to assist them. Upon his arrival on August 20, he informed Sullivan, and rejected entreaties that, with their help, the British could be compelled to surrender in just one or two days. Of the decision, d’Estaing wrote, “It was … difficult to persuade oneself that about six thousand men well entrenched and with a fort before which they had dug trenches could be taken either in twenty-four hours or in two days.” Any thought of the French fleet remaining at Newport was also opposed by d’Estaing’s captains, with whom he had a difficult relationship due to his arrival in the navy at a high rank after service in the French army. D’Estaing sailed for Boston on August 22.
The French decision brought on a wave of anger in both the American rank and file, and its commanders. Although General Greene penned a complaint that John Laurens termed “sensible and spirited”, General Sullivan was less diplomatic. In a missive containing much inflammatory language, he called d’Estaing’s decision “derogatory to the honor of France”, and included further complaints in orders of the day that were later suppressed when cooler heads prevailed. American writers from the ranks called the French decision a “desertion”, and noted that the French forces involved “left us in a most Rascally manner”.
The French departure prompted a mass exodus of the American militia, significantly shrinking the American force. On August 24, Sullivan was alerted by General Washington that Clinton in New York was assembling a relief force. That evening his council made the decision to withdraw to positions on the northern part of the island. Sullivan continued to seek French assistance, dispatching Lafayette to Boston to negotiate further with d’Estaing. This proved fruitless in the end. D’Estaing and Lafayette met fierce criticism in Boston, Lafayette remarking that “I am more upon a warlike footing in the American lines than when I came near the British lines at Newport.”
In the meantime, the British in New York had not been idle. Lord Howe, concerned about the French fleet and further reinforced by the arrival of ships from Byron’s storm-tossed squadron, sailed out to catch d’Estaing before he reached Boston. General Clinton organized a force of 4,000 men under Major General Charles Grey, and sailed with it on August 26 destined for Newport.
On the morning of August 28, the American war council decided to withdraw the last troops from their siege camps. Over the last few days, as some of their equipment was being withdrawn, the Americans had engaged the British with occasional rounds of cannon fire. General Pigot was also made aware of the American plans to withdraw on August 26 by deserters, so he was prepared to respond when they withdrew that night.
The American generals established a defensive line across the entire island just south of a valley that cut across the island, hoping to deny the British the high ground in the north.
On the west, General Greene concentrated his forces in front of Turkey Hill, but sent the 1st Rhode Island to establish advance positions a half mile (1 km) south under the command of Brigadier General James Varnum.
On the east, Brigadier General John Glover, who concentrated his forces behind a stone wall overlooking Quaker Hill. The British followed suit and organized their attack in a corresponding way, sending Hessian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg up the west road and Major General Francis Smith up the east road with two regiments each under orders to not make a general attack. As it turned out, this advance led to the main battle.
Smith’s advance stalled when it came under fire from troops commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Brockholst Livingston, who were stationed at a windmill near Quaker Hill. Pigot sent word to the commander of the British reserve, Major General Richard Prescott to dispatch the 54th Regiment and Brown’s Provincials to reinforce Smith. Thus reinforced, Smith returned to the attack, sending the 22nd and 43rd Regiments and the flank companies of the 38th and 54th Regiments against Livingston’s left flank. Livingston had also been reinforced with Col. Edward Wigglesworth’s regiment, sent by Sullivan, but was nevertheless driven back to Quaker Hill. Then, with a German regiment threatening to outflank Quaker Hill itself, Livingston and Wigglesworth abandoned the hill and retreated all the way to Glover’s lines. Smith made a probing attack but was repulsed by Glover’s troops. “Seeing the strength of the American position, Smith decided against launching a major assault”. This ended the fighting on the American left.
By 7:30 a.m., Lossberg had advanced against the American Light Corps under Col. John Laurens, who were positioned behind some stone walls south of the Redwood House. With the Hessian chasseurs, Huyne’s Hessian regiment and Fanning’s Provincial Regiment, Lossberg pushed Laurens’ men back onto Turkey Hill. Despite Laurens being reinforced by a regiment sent by Sullivan, Lossberg stormed Turkey Hill and drove the defenders right back on Nathanael Greene’s wing of the army before starting a cannonade of Greene’s lines.
By 10 a.m., the sixth-rate HMS Sphynx, the converted merchantman HMS Vigilant and the row galley HMS Spitfire Galley had negotiated the passage between Rhode Island and Prudence Island and commenced a bombardment of Greene’s troops on the American right flank. Lossberg now attacked Greene: German troops assailed Major Ward’s Rhode Island Colored Regiment but were repulsed, bayoneting the American wounded as they fell back. Meanwhile, Greene’s artillery and the American battery at Bristol Neck concentrated their fire on the three British ships and drove them off.
At 2 p.m., Lossberg once again attacked Greene’s positions without success. Greene counterattacked with Col. Israel Angell’s 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, Brigadier General Solomon Lovell’s brigade of Massachusetts militia and Henry Brockholst Livingston’s troops. Failing in a frontal attack, Greene sent his 1,500 men forward to try to turn Lossberg’s right flank. Heavily outnumbered, Lossberg withdrew to the summit of Turkey Hill. By 3 p.m., Greene’s wing was holding a stone wall three hundred paces from the foot of Turkey Hill. Towards evening, an attempt was made to cut off the Hessians on Lossberg’s left flank but Huyne’s Hessians and Fanning’s Provincials drove off Greene’s men. This ended the batt le, although some artillery fire went on through the night. Out of 260 British casualties, 128 were German
Continental forces withdrew to Bristol and Tiverton on the night of August 30, leaving Aquidneck Island under British control. However, their withdrawal was orderly and unhurried. According to an account in the New Hampshire Gazette, it was accomplished “in perfect order and safety, not leaving behind the smallest article of provision, camp equipage, or military stores.”
The inflammatory writings of General Sullivan reached Boston before the French fleet arrived; Admiral d’Estaing’s initial reaction was reported to be a dignified silence. Under pressure from Washington and the Continental Congress, politicians worked to smooth over the incident, and d’Estaing was in good spirits when Lafayette arrived in Boston. D’Estaing even offered to march troops overland to support the Americans: “I offered to become a colonel of infantry, under the command of one who three years ago was a lawyer, and who certainly must have been an uncomfortable man for his clients.”
The relief force of Clinton and Grey arrived at Newport on September 1. Given that the threat was over, Clinton ordered Grey to instead raid several communities on the Massachusetts coast. Admiral Howe was unsuccessful in his bid to catch up with d’Estaing, who held a strong position at the Nantasket Roads when Howe arrived there on August 30. Byron, who succeeded Howe as head of the New York station in September, was also unsuccessful in blockading d’Estaing: his fleet was scattered by a storm when it arrived off Boston, after which d’Estaing slipped away, bound for the West Indies.
General Pigot was harshly criticized by Clinton for failing to await the relief force, which might have successfully entrapped the Americans on the island. He left Newport for England not long after. When the British abandoned Newport in October 1779 they left behind an economy ruined by war.
The Battle of Rhode Island Site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It partially preserves the ground on which the battle was fought. The underwater site of HMS Cerberus and HMS Lark, two Royal Navy ships scuttled during the French fleet’s advance on Newport, is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is Fort Barton, one of the American defenses in Tiverton, and the Conanicut Battery, an earthworks on Conanicut Island built in 1775 and expanded by the British during their occupation of Newport. The site was abandoned by the British after the arrival of the French fleet. The Joseph Reynolds House in Bristol, a National Historic Landmark and one of the oldest buildings in Rhode Island, was used by General Lafayette as his headquarters during the campaign
The battle was also notable for the participation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment under Colonel Christopher Greene was composed of African Americans and Native Americans as well as European-American settlers
Major General John Sullivan reporting upon the Battle of Rhode Island shortly after its conclusion, specifically commended the portion of the Continental line which included the First Rhode Island Regiment as: “entitled to a proper share of the day’s honors.” The ability of this portion of the line to hold fast was crucial to the successful retreat of Continental forces from Newport to the mainland. The failure of the storm-damaged ships carrying French reinforcements to arrive by sea led to a concentrated British attempt to destroy the six battalions commanded by Sullivan. The success of Sullivan’s strategic retreat was evident in the low casualty rate and the preservation of equipment despite the aggressive charges made by British regulars and Hessian forces. The British specifically expected to breach the Continental line where the inexperienced Rhode Island soldiers were stationed. Recently recruited and trained, Newport was the first campaign for the unit in late August of 1778. In spite of several charges by seasoned British forces, the regiment tenaciously held position and inflicted heavy casualties upon the British.
While the First Rhode Island’s acknowledged courage in battle was central to the day’s events, the composition and origins of the regiment are of special interest. The First Rhode Island Regiment in August of 1778 was a nearly all-black unit made up largely of recently freed slaves. Commended for valor by commanders in its own day, and a frequent reference for abolitionists in the nineteenth century for “deeds of desperate valor,” the First Rhode Island has been largely forgotten in our own. It is important, however, when considering the Revolution to understand that men fought not only for the idea of political liberty, but also for personal liberty.
The American Revolution yields many examples of military service by African American men on both sides of the conflict. While as many as 10,000 were recruited, primarily in the South, by the British promises of freedom in return for service, as least 5,000 black men served the American effort. Black men served in the Continental Army in every enlisted position from infantryman to cook. Black sailors used their considerable experience at sea in the Continental Navy as able seamen and pilots. Black soldiers were present at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Saratoga, and virtually every other battle of the Revolutionary War. Individuals such as Salem Poor, Peter Salem, and Crispus Attucks were commended for gallantry or died in defense of the Patriot cause. A Hessian officer wrote in 1777 of the American army that “no regiment is to be seen in which there are not Negroes in abundance; and among them there are able bodied, strong and brave fellows.”
Commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene, the regiment at the time of the Battle of Rhode Island was as close to a “segregated” unit as it would ever be. Recruited to meet the quota of the Continental Congress for two regiments from the state to augment the Continental line, initial recruitment efforts were concentrated upon enrolling slaves. The regiment, however, was never entirely composed of former slaves or even African-Americans. White men, free blacks, and a few Narragansett Indians were present from the beginning. Over time, the unit resembled most of the Continental forces with a mix of whatever recruits could be found. That the majority of the men in this regiment were African American through most of the war was due to the terms of enlistment for former slaves.
Policy regarding African American military service (particularly that of slaves) from the colonial period through the Revolution shifted from philosophical opposition to practical acceptance in times of need. Between 1775 and 1778 policy changed from formal exclusion of any black man to acceptance of those free men already under arms to active recruitment not only of free black men but slaves. Catalysts for this change were the British offer of freedom in exchange for service and the desperate conditions of the Continental Army.
I bring this up to discuss not only the merits of these men and the battle that they fought, but also to bring to light that fact, that when fighting for freedom, against a common enemy, skin color did and should not matter. These men may have started out being looked at as Negroes, slaves, or even simply “property”, but as the war went on, they started to be looked at as Americans. And although it was almost 200 years later before slavery would be abolished, the fact that these men were willing to fight for their country should not be forgotten.
Also published on Medium.