Robert Geake and Fred Zilian, Ph.D.
The Road to War
Beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764 to 1776, the British government tried in various ways to recoup from the American colonies expenses incurred from defending them during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
Rhode Islanders became increasingly belligerent to what they viewed as unjustified British coercion. In July 1764, Newporters went to Fort George on Goat Island and began firing on the British schooner St. John, after the ship had seized a cargo of sugar from a New York merchant ship. Soon afterwards the HMS Maidstone appeared at Newport with a similar mission: confiscation and impressment of Americans into military service. Incensed Newporters stole one of its boats, dragged it to the Parade (Washington Square) and burned it.
In July 1769, Newporters stripped and burned the Liberty, an armed sloop which had been harassing merchant vessels on the Bay. On June 9, 1772, John Brown of Providence and 60 men seized the HMS Gaspee by force, brought its crew ashore, and set the ship ablaze. Historian Rockwell Stensrud states: “The total destruction of the HMS Gaspee … was a direct assault on the Royal Navy and thus an offensive action against the king and Great Britain itself.”
As tensions escalated, the colony prepared itself for war. The Kentish Guard and the Pawtuxet Rangers were among the first patriot militia to be formed in 1774, and communities around the colony followed suit in the months that followed as tensions began to grow. Committees of correspondence were formed among the colonies, and coastal communities especially, kept an eye on the horizon and fortified their shoreline.
In July 1775, it was determined to build fortifications at Fox Point as well as to construct breastworks on Sassafras and Field Points. In addition, a number of scows were sunk with combustibles aboard, at the entrance to the Providence River and a chain and boom were drawn across the mouth of the harbor.
The General Assembly of Rhode Island also decreed six months later that “a number of men, not exceeding fifty, be stationed at Warwick Neck, including the Artillery Company in Warwick; the remainder to be minutemen”. Col. John Waterman commanded the troops stationed there which over the course of the war would include the Kentish Guard, the Pawtuxet Rangers, the Scituate Rangers, and militiamen from Massachusetts’s regiments. According to Edward Field, “a substantial work…was erected” and in addition to the fort, “a system of entrenchments was laid out along the northerly side of the old road leading from Apponaug to Old Warwick”.
All of this was the result of a sense that the coming conflict was inevitable. The Providence Gazette had stated as much in early 1775 when it reported that:
“Not a day passes, Sundays excepted, but some of the companies are under arms; so well convinced are the people, that the complexion of the times renders a knowledge of the military art indispensably necessary”.
The so-called “shot heard round the world” came at Lexington on April 19, 1775. British regulars and American militia exchanged fire, and eight Americans lay dead. There was more fighting at Concord that morning, five miles away, before the British retreated to Boston. The American Revolutionary War had begun.
On May 4, 1776, the colony of Rhode Island severed its relation with the British Crown. The colony’s General Assembly listed the many grievances against Great Britain and its king and declared that all allegiance to the king by “his subjects, in this his colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, BE, AND THE SAME IS HEREBY REPEALED.”
Though Rhode Islanders celebrate this day as our Independence Day, actually it was not until July 19, that the RI General Assembly approved the Continental Congress’s resolution declaring full independence.
British-Hessian Occupation of Newport and Narragansett Bay
In late 1776, the British for several reasons decided to seize and occupy Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay. The British military viewed the bay and the island as a good base of operations in New England. From the bay British forces could launch operations to other parts of New England, as well as defend New York City merchant ships from revolutionary privateers operating from Boston and other ports. The fleet could spend the winter in a protected, deep-water port. At the same time, the Royal Navy could blockade Narragansett Bay and prevent colonial privateers and commercial vessels from Providence, Bristol, Warren and other port towns from exiting the bay.
Politically, Newport was home to many Loyalists, Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown. Many Loyalist Newport merchants, for example, could be counted on to support British efforts so that the strained economic and social connections could be restored.
When the British force arrived offshore on December 7, 1776, Newport’s population had plummeted from a prewar high of about 9,000 to 5,000 or lower. The main cause of this was the fear of bombardment from Royal Navy warships and of British occupation. Later that day the armada dropped anchor west of Weaver’s Cove (near Melville, Portsmouth). The force consisted of seven ships of the line (the battleships of the day), four frigates (lighter warships), and seventy transports. Onboard were about 7,000 soldiers and about 1,500 civilians. The military forces consisted of both British soldiers and their German allies called Hessians, about equal in number, as well as some Loyalist units. Certainly a good number of Newporters welcomed the arrival and shared the reaction of Hessian officer C. Wende, who recorded in his regimental journal, “One can hardly imagine how majestic the arriving fleet looked.”
For the remainder of the British occupation of Newport, the threat of the British attacking Warwick or Providence remained very real to residents. Governor Nicholas Cooke would write to the President of Congress on January 6, 1778, “The harbour of Newport is filled with the enemy’s ships of war, frigates, transports, etc., to the amount of nearly two hundred sail, and we hear that a descent upon the main land is in contemplation by the enemy from Rhode Island”.
American Military Movements
In January 1777, Americans began planning to attack Aquidneck Island to end the British occupation. They estimated that they would need at least 8,000 troops. Calls went out to the New England states to send units, which were slow in coming. In the early fall, Massachusetts and Connecticut promised more militia units, and planning for the operation increased. Major General Joseph Spencer was given command, and so the operation was soon called “Spencer’s Expedition.”
All forces were to rendezvous in Tiverton, east of Aquidneck Island, by October 1, 1777. Getting enough boats to transport the troops presented a substantial problem; however, by October, Nannaquaket Pond in Tiverton was filled with 130 boats. In place at Howland’s and Fogland Ferries were units from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. These 8,000 troops would face an estimated force now of 3,600 British and Hessians.
By the middle of October, the force was ready; however, boat logistical problems arose. Also, over the next few days, British intelligence learned of the operation. Finally, on Oct 22, the weather turned bad; desertions increased.
By Oct 25, the force had diminished to 5,300, lessening the chances of success. The next day, Gen. Spencer cancelled the operation and released the remaining troops, causing great disappointment and recriminations.
American-French Alliance and Operations
The American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (NY) in October, 1777, had a strategic impact on the Revolutionary War. It convinced the French to ally with the fledgling United States. In February, 1778, France signed a treaty of commerce and friendship and also a treaty of alliance with the United States. Great Britain now faced a much different threat. The US was hopeful and emboldened.
On July 29, the French fleet arrived off Pt. Judith, RI. Under the command of Charles Henri Théodat, Comte d’Estaing, it consisted of 16 ships, with 12 ships of the line and about 4,000 army troops. The British naval forces were clearly overmatched, so they took defensive measures. They withdrew their forces spread throughout the island to defensive positions near and in Newport. They also scuttled about 10 ships to prevent them from falling into French hands.
On August 8, d’Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport harbor. However, the next day British Admiral Howe and his fleet, a relief force, were spotted off Pt. Judith. On August 10, the fleets were maneuvering for position in the Atlantic south of the bay; however, Mother Nature stepped in. A tremendous hurricane arrived and raged for two days, disabling both fleets.
The American Siege of Newport
During this same time, the American forces, led by Maj Gen John Sullivan, had launched an offensive from Tiverton across Howland’s Ferry and landed unopposed in Portsmouth. They quickly occupied the fortifications which the British had evacuated, most prominently, Fort Butts, where the Portsmouth town wind turbine now stands. Gen Sullivan decided on a siege of Newport to try to strangle the British until the French fleet returned to the bay. American forces advanced in the east as far as the high ground east of Valley Rd. (Honeyman’s Hill), in the west as far as the high ground north of Miantonomi Ave.
The French Fleet Departs
Worried about the British relief force, Adm d’Estaing informed Gen Sullivan that he was taking his fleet to Boston for repairs. The Americans were stunned and angry; Gen. Sullivan was indignant.
Thus began the unraveling of the allied offensive operation. To make matters worse, the terms of enlistment for several of the militia units were expiring. They wanted to get back to their farms and families. Lastly, sickness, especially dysentery, began to take its toll. On August 24, the siege ended and American forces began a retreat.
The British Take Leave of Newport
With losses in the southern campaigns beginning to have their toll, and the constant harassment from American privateers and militia, the British decided to leave Aquidneck Island and regroup their forces around long occupied New York. The occupying forces departed Newport on the evening of October 25, 1779. The British burned the barracks used at Breton Point, but left other works intact, along with fuel, forage, and a number of horses behind.
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