For the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on Philadelphia where the British occupation has been winding down. As the British prepared for the 1778 spring fighting season, they conducted a number of raids around Philadelphia. This week, I want to explore a few other small raids in New England, which took place around the same time.
This will also give me an opportunity to cover the British occupation of Newport, RI. The British Army held Newport for nearly three years.
You may recall from back in Episode 119, that the British landed an army at Newport, Rhode Island for the purpose of setting up a saltwater port for the fleet. General Henry Clinton captured Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located, and did little else before leaving for London. His second in command, Lord Percy, also only stuck around a short time after that before he also left for London.
That left Major General Richard Prescott in command. You may recall from Episode 147 that the local patriots kidnapped General Prescott from his home on the island and later traded him for Continental Major General Charles Lee. By the spring of 1778, Prescott had been exchanged and had returned to Newport. However, the more senior Major General Robert Pigot who had been sent to take command after Prescott’s kidnapping, remained in command of the British army at Newport.
General Robert Pigot has been a big part of the war since the beginning. However, I don’t think I’ve mentioned much about his background. Pigot’s family history is a bit unusual for a top British officer. His family was French. Robert’s grandfather migrated to England, likely to escape the increasing persecution of the Protestant Huguenots in Catholic France.
France had tolerated Protestant for several decades when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes in the late 1500s. Henry IV had been a Protestant himself, but converted to Catholicism for the purely political reason of securing the crown of France. He famously said “Paris is worth a mass.”
After Henry’s death, France, under Henry’s son Louis XIII, grew increasingly hostile towards its Protestant population. Internal Huguenot rebellions led to inevitable crackdowns and many fleeing the country. Henry’s grandson, Louis XIV, eventually revoked the edict entirely in 1685, forcing French Protestants pretty much to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Most chose the latter. For them, Paris was not worth a mass.
|Sir Robert Pigot|
Although he was without title, Richard Pigot was rather wealthy and well-connected. His wife became a lady’s maid to Queen Caroline, wife of George II. The couple had three sons and a daughter. Robert was the second son, meaning he was not in line to inherit the family wealth. So, as was common practice at the time. Dad bought Robert a commission in the army.
Robert Pigot served in the War of Austrian Succession. It is not clear what he did during the Seven Years War. However, he was a captain when it started. By the time that war was over, he had risen to lieutenant colonel. During this same time, Pigot won election to Parliament. Men from good families often went to Parliament to help with their advancement in the army. Pigot was not known for taking any controversial positions or even speaking much on the Commons floor. He seemed to use his position to ingratiate himself with the crown and the ministry.
Robert’s older brother George Pigot had gone to work for the East India Company as a young man and by the 1750s had served as the Governor and Commander in Chief of Madras. George returned to England where he purchased a large estate for £100,000, which was a considerable fortune at the time. Consider that the King ran the entire government at the time for £800,000 annually. George also obtained a Baronetcy, which greatly improved the family’s standing in British society. After Robert served for a few years in Parliament, he received a commission as Warden of the Mint. This was one of those honorary jobs that did not require much work, but paid well. It was a reward from the king given to politically loyal officials
When things started to heat up in America, Robert received a promotion to brigadier general and shipped out to Boston in 1774. He remained in Boston during Lexington and Concord, but commanded a division at Bunker Hill. He was one of the few officers to survive that battle unscathed, despite being recognized for conspicuous bravery during the assaults on the American position.
Pigot moved with the army, first to Halifax, then to the invasion of New York. He commanded General Howe’s second brigade at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. After that, he remained in New York until after the Americans kidnapped Major General Prescott.
The year 1777 was a notable one for Pigot. His older brother George died. Although George had several children, they were illegitimate. As a result, Robert and his brother Hugh, who was a naval officer, and their sister, inherited the family fortune. As Robert was the next oldest, he also inherited George’s baronetcy. That same year, he took command of the Rhode Island occupation at Newport after General Prescott’s kidnapping, and also received promotion to major general.
A question for me was how Pigot retained command at Rhode Island after the return of Major General Prescott. Remember, Prescott had been kidnapped to be exchanged for Major General Charles Lee. If Pigot just got promoted to major general, how did he outrank Prescot? Well, it turns out that Prescott was not a real major general at the time of his kidnapping. He was a “major general in America.” He got his full promotion to major general right after Pigot, so Pigot was the more senior.
The size of the British Army in Newport is not well recorded. Sir Henry Clinton had initially captured Newport with an army of six or seven thousand British and Hessian soldiers. But almost immediately afterward, General Howe began transferring much of the army back to his command in New York. That was one of the reasons that Clinton and Lord Percy abandoned the command in early 1777. My best guess is that by early 1778, the occupation army had dwindled to between two and three thousand soldiers.
For this reason, the British did not attempt to occupy more of Rhode Island beyond Aquidneck Island, where Newport is located. The water created a natural defensive barrier for the British and was an impediment to taking and holding more territory on the mainland.
Other than the kidnapping in the summer of 1777, the British occupation at Newport had remained relatively quiet. The British held Aquidneck Island. The British Navy had spent the prior two winters there, keeping the bulk of the Continental Navy bottled up and using Newport as a base for ship repairs and for other naval missions. The naval presence also discouraged any large-scale patriot assaults on the island. For the most part, the British remained on Aquidneck Island and the waters around it, while the patriots kept a watch on them from the mainland.
|Gen. Joseph Spencer|
By the time war broke out, the sixty year old Spencer was a general in the Connecticut militia. He led a group of militia to the Siege of Boston, days after Lexington and Concord. When the Continental Congress took control of the army in July 1775, they made Israel Putnam the major general from Connecticut and granted Spencer a commission as brigadier. Spencer had been Putnam’s superior in the Connecticut army, so Spencer was understandably miffed at this reversal. He ended up returning to Connecticut without even speaking to the new commander, George Washington.
Eventually, his friends convinced him to return and accept his position as a brigadier in the new Continental Army. He rode back to Boston, and served for the remainder of the siege, then moving with the rest of the army to New York in the summer of 1776. In August of that year, Congress promoted him, along with three others, to major general. Despite this promotion, Washington never seemed to rely on General Spencer for anything important. He did not trust him with an independent command or even a critical leadership role, during the New York campaign.
At the end of the year, Spencer did finally get an independent command in Providence. After the British captured Newport, Spencer had the responsibility of contesting their control of Rhode Island. General Spencer did almost nothing for nearly a year. He did not have many Continentals under his command, but could have made use of the New England militia to do something.
After nearly a year of occupation, in September of 1777, Spencer planned an amphibious assault on Aquidneck Island. The soldiers had boarded their boats and prepared to cross over to the island, when at the last minute, Spencer called off the assault. Spencer believed that the British had found out about the surprise attack and were prepared to challenge the amphibious assault on the beaches. Spencer decided this made the attack an unacceptable risk. He called off the attack and stood down the army.
The Continental Congress found this last minute cancelation to be unacceptable and censured the general. Spencer called for a court of inquiry and was eventually exonerated. But the general, now in his sixties, had had enough of all this, and resigned his commission over the incident.
|Gen. John Sullivan|
Sullivan, the new commander, had his own issues. Congress was still unhappy with Sullivan’s performance at the battle of Brandywine. Sullivan had just survived his own court martial over that and other issues. Washington, however, still had confidence in Sullivan and recommended this independent command in a less critical theater to see what Sullivan could do.
The new commander had the same lack of manpower that the old one had. Sullivan took command in the spring of 1778 and was still getting a feel for the situation. One positive note for the patriots was that the bulk of the British Navy around Aquidneck Island left in March, headed for Philadelphia. That left the British camp around Newport more vulnerable to attack.
At the beginning of May, Sullivan reported to Washington that the British had about 3600 soldiers on Aquidneck Island. This is almost certainly an over estimate, perhaps almost double the actual amount. But based on Sullivan’s estimate, he did not think he had the manpower necessary to take any offensive actions against Aquidneck Island.
Sullivan nevertheless began amassing supplies nearby so that he would be prepared for an opportunity to attack Newport if one arose. The Continentals stored a fleet of small boats, as well as ammunition and other supplies in and around Warren, Rhode Island, about ten miles north of Aquidneck Island.
Raid on Warren & Bristol
The British commander, General Pigot, received intelligence about the American stockpiles from local loyalist spies. He ordered a raid to destroy whatever the Americans were planning.
On the night of May 24, 1778, a detachment of five hundred British and Hessian soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Campbell climbed into a fleet of whaleboats. The soldiers rowed several miles north, through the water, to the mainland, during the night. By the next morning, the force was ashore and ready to march.
|Church in Warren, burned.|
Campbell divided the soldiers into groups. One group marched along the bank of the Kickemuit River on a search and destroy mission. The soldiers found a small fleet of 70 boats stored by the Continentals, burning or otherwise destroying most of them. They also found a larger sloop, which they tried to destroy but which was later repaired and recovered. The soldiers located and destroyed other stored military supplies, as well as a corn mill.
The other detachment moved overland, directly to the town of Warren, expecting to find local resistance from the militia. The Rhode Island militia under the command of Colonel Archibald Clary had about 300 soldiers assembled to challenge the raiding party. Since the British had divided their force, the Americans may have slightly outnumbered the British. Colonel Clary, however, listened to rumors that the force was much larger. His soldiers retreated from town before the British even arrived.Unopposed, the British set fire to the town’s powder magazine. The powder explosion destroyed six nearby houses, as well as the town’s meeting house. The British also found and destroyed five field cannons abandoned by the local militia. Having completed their work, the force turned around and marched back to the south toward Bristol, joining up with the other half of the raiding party. Around this same time, a British naval vessel also managed to surprise an American row galley, the Spitfire. The British captured the vessel, along with the crew of about 16 men, and took it back to Aquidneck Island.
Further to the north, in Providence, Continental Colonel William Barton got word of the British raid. This was the same Colonel Barton who led the raid a year earlier to kidnap British General Richard Prescott. Following that successful raid, the Continental Congress had commissioned Barton as a colonel in the Continental Army, but gave him no specific command. Barton assembled about two hundred local militia. As they marched from Providence toward Warren, they encountered the other 300 retreating Connecticut militia under Colonel Clary, turned them around and marched the combined force of about 500 militia toward the British raiding party. General Sullivan took more time to organize a larger force, but never reached the battle before the British departed.
|William Barton |
The American advance under Colonels Barton and Clary caught up with the British, leading to light skirmishing. The militia did not seem to be terribly aggressive in engaging with the British and the British were focused on pulling back to their ships before a larger group of Americans arrived. Most of the fighting was from a distance, resulting in almost no casualties on either side. Colonel Barton struggled to encourage the men forward, putting himself out in front of the advancing Americans. The British shot and wounded Barton in the leg, which seemed to end any serious attempt to engage with the British any further. Barton continued to try to rally the soldiers, even while wounded, but could not convince them to assault the British in any aggressive way.
When the British returned to Bristol, they went on a rampage, burning a church and 22 houses, and looting others. They also took 69 civilian prisoners. They were able to board their whaleboats without interference. General Pigot had deployed two larger ships with cannons to provide cover. This kept the militia at a distance. The raiding party reboarded their whaleboats and was back at Aquidneck island by the evening.
Raid on Freetown
Nearly a week later, the British deployed another raiding party. On the night of May 30, Major Edmund Eyre, who had also been a part of the May 25 raid on Warren, took 100 soldiers across the bay again aboard two ships. This time, the raiders moved up the Taunton River just across the border into Massachusetts. The group landed near Freetown, once again looking to destroy patriot resources.
In this case, the main target appeared to be a sawmill that was producing lumber for the patriots. The raiding party destroyed the sawmill and about 15,000 feet of lumber. They also burned a gristmill, at least one house, and nine boats that they happened to come across.
With concern that more militia reinforcements might arrive, Major Eyer pulled back and began marching his British party back to their boats. Along the way, they burned at least one more house and took a civilian hostage. The American militia pursued them with harassing fire, but always keeping a distance.
The British jumped aboard their boats and rowed back out to the main ships, all the while taking fire from the shore. During the initial British landing, one of the two British ships ran aground on a sandbar. Sailors were still working to free it as the raiding party returned. As the British struggled to free the ship, named the Pigot after their commander, the Americans managed to bring an artillery battery to the shore. They opened fire on the Pigot and the ships assisting her.
The British, who had taken a few casualties ashore while skirmishing with the militia, took a few more killed and wounded from the shore battery. Eventually, they managed to free the Pigot and sailed it back to Aquidneck, but not before it suffered serious damage. The Americans did not report any casualties beyond the one elderly man taken hostage by the British. Several days later, the British freed him and he returned home.
Collectively the raids became known as the Mount Hope Bay Raids. Colonel Barton’s battle injury proved severe enough to prevent him from returning to active duty with the Continental Army. Even so, he used the raids as a rallying call to convince more militia to protect the coasts from further raids. It does not appear that the militia heeded the call to turn out in great numbers. They did, however, respond to payments to rebuild all of the boats that were destroyed and to cut more lumber to build them. Warren also established a night coastal watch and built stronger coastal defenses. Over the next few months, the Americans rebuilt a fleet of small boats to prepare for another attempt to take back Aquidneck Island.
What really got the locals motivated was when the French fleet arrived a little over two months later. That allowed General Sullivan to collect a militia army of over 10,000 men, ready to storm Aquidneck Island with the cooperation of the French. That future action will have to be the topic of a future episode.
Next week: We return to Philadelphia, where the British Carlisle Peace Commission attempts to settle this rebellion one and for all.
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“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 1 May 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0013.
Fort Barton - Tiveron, RI: https://rhodetour.org/items/show/52
Revolutionary War Raids & Skirmishes in 1778: https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/1778-skirmish
(from archive.org unless noted)
Defense Technical Information Center Hearts and Minds: The Political and Military Effectiveness of the Rhode Island Militia in the American Revolution, 1992.
History of the town of Freetown, Massachusetts, Fall River, Mass: Press of J.H. Franklin & Co., 1902.
Almon, John The Remembrancer or Impartial Repository of Public Events, Vol.7, London: by author, 1779 (pp. 23-26 contain letters from Gen. Pigot to Gen. Clinton describing the May raids).
Baker, Virginia The History of Warren, Rhode Island, in the War of the Revolution, 1776-1783, Warren: [Self-Published] 1901
Durfee, Joseph Reminiscences of Col. Joseph Durfee: Relating to the Early History of Fall River and of Revolutionary Scenes, 1834 (from Harvard Univ. Library).
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.
Munro, Wilfred H. The History of Bristol, R.I: The Story of the Mount Hope Lands, Providence: J. A. & R. A. Reid, 1880.
Murray, Thomas H. Gen. John Sullivan and the Battle of Rhode Island: a Sketch of the Former and a Description of the Latter, Providence : The American-Irish Historical Society, 1902.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Crane, Elain F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era, Fordham Univ. Press, 1985.
Dearden, Paul F The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778: Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance, Rhode Island Bicentennial Federation, 1980.
McBurney, Christian M. Kidnapping the Enemy, The Special Operations to Capture General Charles Lee and Richard Prescott, Westholme Publishing, 2014..
McBurney, Christian M. The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War, Westholme Publishing,
Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.