Then and Now

The Battle of Rhode Island


In August 1788 Rhode Island was the setting for one of the major land battles of the Revolutionary War. The Marquis de Lafayette, in writing of this encounter, termed it "the best fought action of the war."

The immediate goal of the Continental Army at this time was to drive the British from Newport. George Washington hoped that a victory in Rhode Island might possibly result in an ending of hostilities. This battle was to accomplish neither of these goals, but it did prove that the American army could adapt to adverse conditions and hold its own against highly trained professional soldiers.

This battle on Aquidneck Island was the scene of fierce hand-to-hand combat, bravery and sacrifice as well as international misunderstanding, petty jealousies and violent eruptions of nature.

The "battle" was the long-awaited result of the attempt to free Rhode Island from British occupation. The British had overwhelmed Newport in December 1776. They came into Narragansett Bay with a large fleet of 75 ships, which included seven warships, four frigates and a large number of transports. Within a short time, four to six thousand British troops took control of the island, martial law was declared, and Newport was in the hands of the enemy. The once prosperous candle factories, distilleries and ropewalks were closed. Skilled craftsmen no longer had a market for their wares. Nearly half the population fled from Newport to the safer areas of Providence and Coventry. Rhode Island experienced, firsthand, the terrible consequences of war.

Early in 1777, the General Assembly begged Congress to send an army large enough to drive the British out. British control of Newport, they argued, jeopardized the entire northern seacoast and brought trade to an all-time low. George Washington and the Continental Congress sympathized with Rhode Island's dilemma but felt that all early efforts had to be concentrated on the New York area and no troops could be spared for Rhode Island until later.

The first attempt to free Rhode Island came in October 1777, when an army of about 8,000 men was assembled under General Spencer of Connecticut. When a severe storm arose making it difficult to cross the Seaconnet River, Spencer postponed the attack for three days. When he again postponed the advance because of a change in British defensive positions, many of his troops deserted, feeling that "Granny" Spencer was too timid to attack and lost confidence in the expedition.

When Spencer was finally ready on Oct. 26, l777, he had less than 5,000 men left under his command. When news reached Rhode Island of the great American victory at Saratoga, Spencer completely abandoned the idea of an attack on Newport. The General Assembly was furious. Those historians who defend Spencer claim that his actions were merely part of the overall plan of Greene and Washington. Spencer, they say, was to keep the British in Newport so they couldn't be sent to aid Burgoyne at Saratoga or Howe in New Jersey.

The victory at Saratoga persuaded the French to join the war on the American side. By the summer of 1778, General Washington was able to free enough troops to attempt another invasion of Newport. The army was to be commanded by General John Sullivan of Massachusetts. Two Continental divisions, one under Nathanael Greene and the other under the Marquis de Lafayette, were to accompany him. Lafayette's regulars included the celebrated brigades of John Varnum of Rhode Island and John Glover of Massachusetts.

British raids on Warren and Bristol had so angered New England that Sullivan received excellent cooperation and more troops than he might otherwise have had. Troops from Massachusetts even included the famous Paul Revere and John Hancock, who had served as president of the Continental Congress.

On July 29, 1778 the French fleet under Count D'Estaing, with 12 warships, four frigates and number of transports, sailed into Narragansett Bay. The French marines landed and secured the island of Conanicut (Jamestown).

The overall strategy, as devised by General Greene, was excellent. Sullivan would take his 7,000 troops across the Seaconnet from Tiverton. The French from their warships would open fire on the British from the sea, and then invade Newport with 4,000 French marines that had assembled at Conanicut. The British General Pigot, with about 7,000 men, would be trapped, outnumbered and forced to surrender. Washington felt that this force would provide us with such an outstanding victory that the British would abandon their attempts to use force against the colonies.

Unfortunately, events did not proceed as planned. Misunderstanding and extremely bad weather combined against the Americans. D'Estaing felt that his major responsibility was to his own fleet and was a bit concerned over exactly what authority the Americans had over him. Precious time was lost before he and Sullivan agreed on August 10 as the date set for the attack. This gave General Pigot a chance to shift his troops and to prepare for the invasion.

On Aug. 9 Sullivan, impatient and irritated by the French delay, noted with alarm that Pigot was moving his forces and, without informing D'Estaing, began his attack. Eighty-six flatboats, built under the direction of Major Silas Talbot, ferried the men across. The landing was successful, but on the same day a large British fleet was sighted off Point Judith. D'Estaing, fearing that he would be bottled up in Narragansett Bay and become the laughing stock of both continents, gathered his troops from Conanicut and on Aug. l0 abandoned the plan to attack Newport. Instead he sailed out to meet the British fleet. On Aug. 11 both fleets went out to sea all day and began maneuvering for position.


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