British-Hessian Occupation of Newport and Narragansett Bay

By Robert Geake and Fred Zilian, Ph.D.

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.

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A map of Newport from the occupation, dated 1777.

Governor Nicholas Cooke and British General Sir Henry Clinton.

A bust of John Spencer.