The Road to War

By Robert Geake and Fred Zilian, Ph.D.

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:

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.

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By The original uploader was Swampyank at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https-//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5872015.

The burning of the Royal schooner the Gaspee.

"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 Providence Gazette, 1775

The Battle at Lexington, where the first shot of the Revolution was fired.