Sunday, May 3, 2020

Episode 147 Kidnapping General Prescott

This week, I’m stepping away from the events in upstate New York to take a look at some other events happening at the same time.

Back in Episode 119, I talked about how the British seized Newport, Rhode Island in late 1776.  General William Howe wanted a salt water port for his brother Admiral Richard Howe’s naval fleet.  They were concerned that New York Harbor might freeze over the winter and lock in some of the  ships.  By moving much of the fleet to Newport, they would be assured of continued access by water over the winter.

Howe assigned his second in command General Henry Clinton to capture Newport.  At the time Howe and Clinton were fighting constantly over strategic and tactical decisions regarding the campaign to push Washington and the Continentals out of the New York City area.  Clinton had been requesting an independent command for months.  Howe saw this as an excuse to push Clinton aside.

Clinton took command of the army that would capture Newport and General Cornwallis got command of the army that chased Washington across New Jersey.  Clinton, of course, saw this for what it was, a chance to push him aside.  Clinton was already paranoid that everyone blamed him for his failure to capture Fort Sullivan in Charleston, South Carolina before the New York campaign began (See Episode 96).  Clinton desperately wanted an important command like that given to his junior, Lord Cornwallis.

Howe was not going to give him that.  Instead once Clinton took Newport without any real opposition, Howe started sending him letters asking why he was not using his army more actively to take more of Rhode Island.  Of course, Howe knew why.  He had not given Clinton nearly enough soldiers to capture larger areas of land without putting his outposts at risk.  New England was considered the most hostile region in America.  Setting up isolated outposts would only invite attack.  But Clinton had been chiding Howe for months for not being aggressive enough.  Howe saw this as a chance for some payback.

Clinton, saw this assignment as a career dead-end.  He was stuck in an unimportant outpost while other generals were engaging with the enemy and capturing New Jersey.  His boss, General Howe, was creating a paper trail to show that Clinton was a “do nothing” general who just sat around in Newport.  If Clinton did try to get more aggressive and lost a major outpost he would be savaged for being careless with his soldiers and only justify General Howe’s caution in the New York campaign.

In response to all this, Clinton simply packed up and went home.  A few months after taking Newport, Clinton boarded a ship for London and went back to resign his commission.

Command of Newport then fell to his second in command, Lieutenant General Lord Percy.  You may recall that General Percy had rescued the British column marching back from Concord in 1775.  Percy had distinguished himself in the New York Campaign, but as a Clinton ally, General Howe was pleased to push him off with Clinton into the Newport backwater where his career would also be stifled.  So, a few months after taking command from Clinton, and receiving letters from General Howe needling him for doing nothing in Newport, General Percy also boarded a ship for London and went back to resign his command.

Richard Prescott

Percy’s departure in the spring of 1777 left Brigadier General Richard Prescott in charge of the army at Newport.  Prescott is of no relation to William and Oliver Prescott, two patriot leaders in Massachusetts, nor does he appear to be of any close relation to British General Robert Prescott, who was serving as a colonel under Lord Howe at this time.

General Richard Prescott
(from Newport Restoration)
When he took command in Newport, Prescott was already in his fifties.  Although he would eventually rise to the rank of Lieutenant General, I cannot find much information about his early years.  Most summaries of his life start off when he was 31 years old and already a major in the army.  Given his rise through the ranks, he must have been considered a capable officer, and since his rise was not particularly speedy, he probably did not come from a family of great wealth or social prominence.

Prescott did have a reputation for being bad tempered and was definitely not one of those British leaders who secretly sympathized with the American cause.  After the British captured Ethan Allen in late 1775, Prescott took custody of the prisoner.  He did not treat Allen as a captured enemy officer but rather at a criminal, guilty of rebellion against the King. He slapped Allen in chains and shipped him off to London for trial.

A couple of months later, Prescott was serving under General Guy Carleton in Canada when the Americans invaded under General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold.  You may recall a story I told back in Episode 78. I described an incident where the Americans captured most of the British Army while it was attempting to retreat from Montreal back to Quebec.  The commander, General Guy Carleton managed to escape from the command ship in disguise and made his way back to Quebec, leaving his army to be captured.

Command of that army, once Carleton left, fell to none other than General Richard Prescott.  The man who had such disdain for captured American officers now found himself a prisoner of those American rebels.  The Americans were well aware of Prescott’s treatment of Ethan Allen and were happy to return the favor by clapping the general in irons and throwing him into a jail cell. They held Prescott as a prisoner for about ten months.  In September 1776, they exchanged him for General John Sullivan, who the British had captured at the Battle of Long Island.

A few months after his return to duty, Prescott joined General Clinton’s expedition to capture Newport, Rhode Island.  After Generals Clinton and Percy left for London, General Prescott found himself in command of the army beginning around May 1777.

Prescott’s time as an American prisoner had done nothing to endear him to the local population.  Part of Prescott’s responsibilities was to obtain supplies for both his own army and for General Howe’s army in New York.  Prescott established quotas for area farms to come up with needed goods, and exacted draconian punishments for those who failed to meet their quotas.  He demanded locals show him and his men the respect accorded British officers, going so far as to force local Quakers to salute his officers, even though it violated their religious beliefs to do so.  There is one story of his ordering a civilian to receive 300 lashes for refusing to help soldiers to move a cannon.

Occupied Newport

The British chose the town of Newport, Rhode Island to become a naval port not only because of its good defenses and salt water ports, but also because it was thought to be one of the least hostile areas on New England.  Large parts of the population were Quakers who tended to submit to British rule.  But even if local hostility did not rise to the levels it might in Connecticut or Massachusetts, there was a large and active patriot militia movement in Rhode Island that was not happy about the British occupation.

Overing House (from Small State Big History)
With perhaps 10,000 soldiers and sailors occupying the area around Newport, including numerous warships in the harbor, the locals had no realistic chance of expelling the British occupiers.  The town of Newport sits on Aquidneck Island, which protected the British garrison from a land attack.  The waters around the island were filled with British warships, which deterred any type attack by sea.

Although the patriots still controlled the rest of Rhode Island, the British occupation of Newport seemed secure.  Rhode Island patriots raised and trained militia units to be ready for an opportunity to present itself, but there seemed to be no chance of doing anything as long as the Continental Army did not make the liberation of Newport a priority.

General Prescott felt so secure that he opted to move out of downtown Newport and requisitioned the country farmhouse of a Quaker named Henry John Overing who lived a few miles north of town.  The house was still on Aquidneck Island, the same island as Newport, and well within the control of the British occupation force.  It was in between the town of Newport where Prescott worked each day, and the military camp on the northern tip of the island where the army kept on alert for attack from the American mainland.

Prescott kept guard of ten soldiers who occupied the house next door and who maintained a single guard at his front door.  Prescott also kept a squad of dragoons in the house next door on the other side to use as messengers.  As the Overing farm was a large one, both neighboring houses were several hundred yards away.

Rhode Island Patriots

Because the British only occupied a few islands around Newport, the patriots maintained control of most of the state.  The patriots deployed a 6000 man army, comprised of both Rhode Island and Massachusetts soldiers, to deter the British from launching an attack against the rest of the state.  Most were militia, but Rhode Island also had its own state army of longer term soldiers.  These were similar to the Continentals, but were completely under the authority of the Rhode Island state government.  After a few months, most of the militia went home as it did not appear that the British planned any further invasions.  Further, General Howe recalled nearly 3000 British soldiers from Rhode Island to reinforce his armies elsewhere.

The militia and state soldiers satisfied themselves with launching occasional small raids against the British, sometimes capturing or killing a few guards along the coast.  Rhode Island offered rewards for the capture of any enemies, depending on rank, ranging from $20 for a private to $1000 for a general.  These raids served as reminders to the British that they still faced an actively hostile population and had to remain on guard.

Barton’s Raid

Among the patriot soldiers manning the front lines was Lieutenant Colonel William Barton.  A hatter by trade, Barton had joined the army in 1775 as a corporal, but quickly became an officer and rose through the ranks.  Barton was in the Rhode Island Army, not the militia.  He was stationed in Tiverton, just across the Sakonnet Channel from the British garrison at the northern tip of Aquidneck Island.

William Barton
(from Wikimedia)
Like many Americans, Barton was disheartened to learn about the British Capture of General Charles Lee in December 1776.  Lee had visited Rhode Island and was regarded as the best officer in the Continental Army.  Over the next few months, Barton developed a plan to kidnap General Prescott, in hopes of exchanging the major general for Lee.

In June, 1777 Barton received intelligence from a slave who had escaped from Aquidneck Island that Prescott slept at the Overing House each night.  A few days later, a British deserter confirmed the information.  Barton was familiar with the location of the Overing house.  Before the British invasion, he had been stationed near the House.

Barton proposed a small squad of whaleboats would row across the bay at night, grab Prescott and return with his prisoner before the British were alerted.  It was an extremely high-risk plan. The British maintained many patrols both on land and in the surrounding waters at night.  If even one person spotted them and sounded an alarm they would almost certainly be killed or captured.

Barton knew secrecy was key to his plan.  He told his commanding officer.  A few other select leaders were informed, including the Governor of Rhode Island, but largely the plan remained on a need to know basis.

He asked five of his regimental officers to volunteer for what he described as a dangerous mission, but would give no details.  The officers obtained the five necessary whaleboats for the mission.  Shortly before the raid, he asked for forty volunteers from his regiment, again saying it was for a dangerous mission with no details.  Every man in the regiment stepped forward to volunteer, so Barton had to select forty men that he knew to be fit and experienced rowers.  At least four were former Aquidneck residents who would serve as guides.

Since most of the earlier raids had taken place on the eastern side of Aquidneck Island and because the Overing house was closer to the western side, Barton opted to launch his raid from the west.  On the night of July 4th as the Rhode Islanders distracted the British with an independence day celebration of cannon fire, Barton’s five whaleboats made their way to Bristol and then over to Hog Island, just northwest of Aquidneck.  It was only then that he informed the officers and men of his plan.

Barton Raid (from Zillian Blog)
With too many British ships in Narragansett Bay, Barton moved his whaleboats further west to Warwick on the night of July 6th.  Instead of a short row across to Aquidneck, the team would make a longer trip along the west coast of Prudence Island.  This was a much longer route, but would keep them more than a mile from any British warships and would allow them to use the island as a screen from any British lookouts.  Continued planning and poor weather left the team waiting until July 10.  During that time, Barton tracked the patterns of the British patrol boats in the bay.

Barton gave his final instructions to his men, strictly follow orders, keep quiet at all times, don’t bring any liquor, and refrain from any looting.  The boats had to row ten miles in the dark, Barton put a pole with a white rag at the top so that the other boats could identify the lead boat.  The men used muffled oars and benefited from a cloudy night.  As they moved through the water, they could hear British patrols shouting all’s well to each other across the bay.

By about 11:30 PM, the boats landed at Aquidneck Island.  The team left five men, one with each of the boats, and then proceeded to make the one mile march to the Overing House in about twenty minutes.  At the house, the unit divided into five groups as planned.  Three of the teams would surround three sides of the house, while a fourth commanded by Barton would enter through the front door.  The fifth group acted as a reserve in case needed anywhere.

As Barton approached the front door, just before midnight the sentry called out for him to identify himself.  Barton eventually shouted out that they were friends.  The sentry then asked for the countersign, in other words the password to identify whether they were really British soldiers.  Barton, still approaching, said that they did not have it but asked if he had seen any deserters that night.  By that time Barton’s team was close enough to grab the sentry’s musket and threaten him with death if he made a sound.

Next, the group found the front door to be locked.  According to legend, one of the soldiers, an African American, rushed forward and bashed down the door with his head.  Inside, the team quickly found Overing and his son, but could not locate General Prescott.  When Barton threatened to burn down the house, a voice called out.  The soldiers rushed to the room, finding a man sitting on the bed, still groggy and in his night clothes.  Barton asked if he was General Prescott, he responded “yes, sir” Barton said “you are my prisoner” and Prescott replied, “I acknowledge it.

Capture of Prescott (from Tiverton History)
Barton’s aide, Lieutenant William Barrington heard the noise and attempted to slip out his bedroom  window.  Barrington had been taken prisoner with Barton back in 1775 and had no desire to repeat the experience.  Unfortunately for Barrington, one of Barton’s teams was waiting outside that window and took him prisoner anyway.

The teams collected Prescott, Barrington, and the sentry.  They attempted to take Overing and his son as well, but when the two put up a struggle they decided they were not worth the hassle and left the Tories behind.  They were focused on getting Prescott back to the boats.  Prescott and Barrington were still in their nightclothes and barefoot.  When Prescott complained that his feet were hurt while walking over the rough ground, the team simply picked him up and carried him. The entire time inside the house had taken only about seven minutes.  It was still about midnight when the time began its march back to the boats.

Back at the Overing House an undetected dragoon who had been sleeping at the house dashed a quarter of a mile to the guard house to alert the guards.  But when challenged, he thought the sentry who was challenging him was an American and he ran back to the Overing House without giving the news.  Shortly after, a slave from the Overing house alerted the guard.  The guard then jumped on a horse and galloped two miles to the British camp to the north where he raised the alarm.

The British first assumed the raiders had come from the east, where most earlier raids had originated.  They searched along the east coast of Aquidneck Island and found nothing.  It wasn’t until around 2:00 AM that they considered the raiders may have escaped across Narragansett Bay to the west.  They fired alarm rockets to alert the navy ships.  But the navy officers did not know what the alarm was about. By the time they launched a boat to go to Aquidneck Island, learn of the kidnapping, and return to the ship, it was already 4:00 AM and the raiders were already back in Warwick.  The entire raid had taken about 6 ½ hours.


General Prescott’s kidnapping surprised everyone.  Americans were delighted, while the British were shocked.  Colonel Barton became an instant hero.  The Continental Congress sent him congratulations and a ceremonial sword, one of only three issued to officers outside the Continental Army during the war.  Several months later, Congress commissioned Barton as a full colonel in the Continental Army.

Barton’s team received a reward of $1120 from the Rhode Island legislature: $1000 for the general, $100 for Lt. Barrington, and $20 for the sentry.  Barrington was also the nephew of British Secretary of War Lord Barrington, making him a particularly valuable prize.

The British sentry had attempted to desert several times prior, and apparently took this opportunity to leave the British army and start a new life in America. He was locked up for a time and exchanged for another prisoner.  However, during the exchange, he simply disappeared and never showed up in the British camp.

Prescott and Barrington were moved to Providence.  Prescott accepted his situation as a prisoner and signed a parole agreement not to try to escape.  Later, the Americans moved him to Lebanon, Connecticut where it would be harder for the British to launch a raid to recapture him. At first, the Americans planned to give him free reign of the town as they did other officers.  General Washington, however, ordered that Prescott be kept locked up.  This was in retaliation for the way the British kept General Lee locked up and refused to allow him free reign as a prisoner in New York.

Almost immediately, General Washington reached out to General Howe to discuss exchanging Prescott for Lee.  But, Howe was in no hurry.  He thought Lee was a more valuable prisoner, that it was not clear if the Americans would honor the exchange, and he was still unclear if London considered Lee a prisoner of war or a deserter.

General Robert Pigot
(from Wikimedia)
By December 1777, Howe received word from London that he could treat Lee as a prisoner of War.  Lee was given parole to move about New York City.  Prescott then received the same privileges in Connecticut.  It would take nearly a year before the two sides agreed to exchange prisoners. Prescott and Lee would both rejoin their respective armies in the spring of 1778.

In Newport, Brigadier General Francis Smith took command of the British army there.  He immediately increased security to prevent further raids.  A short time later, Howe sent Major General Robert Pigot to take command of this unpopular post.

In London’ Prescott became the butt of jokes.  This was the second time he had been taken prisoner by the Americans.  Rumors circulated that he had been caught in bed with the farmer’s daughter and had been carried away naked.  This was of course not true, but such rumors die hard. More significant was the charge that he had been negligent in taking quarters away from the army and was prone to attack.

Prescott faced a court martial upon his return to the army.  His fellow officers agreed that he was more unlucky than negligent.  His choice of housing on a secure island between his two armed military camps was a reasonable decision, one similar to those made by commanders before and after him.  He was acquitted and returned to duty.  During his captivity, London promoted him to major general. Before that he had only held the temporary rank of major general in America.

General Lee would return to Continental duty as well.  That, of course, is the topic for a future episode.

Next week, we return to upstate New York where General Burgoyne must contend with the murder of Jane McCrae.

- - -

Next Episode 147 Murder of Jane McCrae (Available May 10, 2020)

Previous Episode 145 Retreat from Ticonderoga

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Further Reading


"William Barton Goes From Hero to Deadbeat and Back" New England Historical Society:

Barton's Raid:

Carbone, Gerald Colonel Barton's Raid

Schenawolf, Harry “Jack ‘Prince’ Sisson – Black Soldier in the Revolutionary War & The Capture of British Brigadier General Richard Prescott” Revolutionary War Journal, March 28, 2013:

Falkner, Leonard “Captor Of The Barefoot General” American Heritage Magazine, August 1960, Vol. 11, Issue 5:

Welsch, William M. "Trading Generals" Journal of the American Revolution, March 17, 2020:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Defense Technical Information Center Hearts and Minds: The Political and Military Effectiveness of the Rhode Island Militia in the American Revolution, 1992.

Diman, J. Lewis The Capture of General Richard Prescott by Lt.-Col. William Barton: An address delivered at the centennial of the Exploit, Sidney S. Rider, 1877 (Hathitrust).

Field, Edward Revolutionary defences in Rhode Island; an historical account of the fortifications and beacons erected during the American revolution, with muster rolls of the companies stationed along the shores of Narragansett bay, Providence, R.I., Preston and Rounds, 1896.

Paul, Edward J. The part borne by Sergeant John White Paul, of Col. John Topham's regiment of the Rhode Island Brigade, in the capture of Brigadier General Richard Prescott, commander of the British forces, near Newport, R.I., in 1777, Milwaukee: Swain, & Tate, 1887

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Crane, Elain F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era, Fordham Univ. Press, 1985.

McBurney, Christian M. Kidnapping the Enemy, The Special Operations to Capture General Charles Lee and Richard Prescott,  Westholme Publishing, 2014. (book recommendation of the week).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. I know that I have dozens of ancestors who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution & that Nathanael Greene was the first cousin of my 5th great-grandmother, but listening to this podcast I discovered that I have a relative who helped to kidnap a British General. I got about halfway through the podcast & thought to myself, “Hey, I am descended from a lot of the earliest families to settle in Rhode Island & I’m pretty sure some of them were named Barton.” I didn’t have William Barton in my family tree already but it only took me about 10 minutes to figure out that he is my 2nd cousin 7x removed. I can’t wait to share his story with the rest of my family!