Sunday, April 11, 2021

ARP196 Rhode Island Campaign

By late summer, 1778, the British forces in North Ameirca were mostly restricted to their major garrisons on New York City and Quebec.  The next largest force in North America was in and around Newport Rhode Island.  

British Defenses 

In 1776, when General Howe ordered General Clinton to capture Newport, Clinton had been upset because it removed him from the primary campaign in New Jersey against Washington’s retreating Continentals.  After capturing Aquidneck Island, Clinton went back to London to resign his commission.  The king refused to accept his resignation and sent him back to New York City.  The British garrison in Newport came under the command of General Richard Prescott.  The Continentals managed to kidnap the general (see Episode 147) and the British sent General Robert Pigot to take command in Rhode Island.

First Rhode Island Regiment
Because soldiers were needed elsewhere, Rhode Island never really got enough soldiers to go on the offensive in New England.  Instead, they fortified Aquidneck Island and kept the waters around it as a port for the navy.  Occasionally the Americans in the surrounding areas would run minor raids against the island, but this was really just harassment.  Other than the mission to kidnap General Prescott, there was not much they could do.  Retaking Aquidneck Island without being able to control the waters around the island was just not possible.

In the spring of 1778, General Pigot ordered  a few British raids against the mainland, which I described back in Episode 185.  But again, those were day raids, designed as quick search and destroy missions, designed to be over before the enemy could respond in force. These minor raids aside, the occupation was pretty much a standoff for nearly two years, with the British in control of Aquidneck Islan and the patriots controlling the surrounding mainland.

General Pigot commanded between 2000 and 3000 British Regulars and Hessians, along with a handful of loyalist militia.  In July, before the French fleet reached New York, General Clinton sent an additional nearly 2000 regulars to Newport, under the command of General Richard Prescott.  The more senior General Pigot remained in command.  A short time later, Clinton dispatched another two regiments of Hessians.  All of these reinforcements travelled by sea and arrived via troop transports.  Rounding out Pigot’s command were Major General Francis Smith and Hessian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg.

These reinforcements put nearly 6000 soldiers under General Pigot’s command in defense of Aquidneck Island.  The British Navy still had at least a dozen smaller warships in the waters around Aquidneck in order to protect against any American assault on the island from the mainland.

American Forces

The Americans had been frustrated with this British outpost in New England.  But the Continental Navy was no match for the British, thus leading to the nearly two-year standoff.  However, until the French Navy under Admiral d’Estaing was able to threaten the British Navy  Washington saw no good chance to remove the British from Newport.

A year earlier, Washington had sent General Joseph Spencer of Connecticut to challenge the British presence in Rhode Island.  Spencer had called up New England militia for an attack on Aquidneck Island, but then cancelled the attack at the last minute fearing he had lost the element of surprise.  The Continental Congress had censored Spencer for his failure to attack.  Although a court of inquiry later exonerated the general, he resigned his commission and left the army as a result of the controversy.

 Gen. John Sullivan

Washington then sent General John Sullivan with similar orders.  Sullivan had spent several months trying to build up an assault force, but had done little other than try to parry against the British raids against the mainland.  

Washington, seeing the opportunity to use the French fleet to resolve this deadlock, sent his aide, Alexander Hamilton, to meet with Admiral d’Estaing at Sandy Hook, at the southern end of New York Harbor.  Hamilton, who spoke fluent French, advised d’Estaing of Washington’s plan to capture Newport with the French Navy’s assistance.  The French admiral set sail for Rhode Island. 

At the same time, Washington sent Sullivan about 2500 Continental reinforcements, as well as Generals Lafayette and Greene.  Nathanael Greene was, of course, from Rhode Island.  Even though he was serving as Quartermaster of the army at this time, Washington hoped his presence in the military command would help inspire local militia to turn out.  The bulk of the Continental army remained at White Plains, New York, just north of New York City, and perhaps a week’s march from Newport.  Washington was not going to break his siege of British-occupied New York.  His position north of the city also prevented Clinton from trying to march any British reinforcements overland to Rhode Island.

Washington had called on Sullivan to raise 5000 New England militia to supplement his army, but to keep secret the involvement of the French fleet.  Washington hoped to keep that a secret from the British.  Sullivan had difficulty getting the militia to turn out in great numbers until the actual arrival of the French fleet on July 29.  Buoyed by the presence of the fleet, New England militia began making their way to the Continental camp. 

Congress also ordered three Continental Navy ships in Boston to work with d’Estaing’s fleet. Two of the ships could not muster enough sailors to leave port.  All of the sailors were serving aboard privateers.  A third ship, the 32 gun Warren, did manage to leave port.  However, Captain John Burroughs Hopkins, much like his father, the now-disgraced Commodore Esek Hopkins, opted to disobey orders and set out in search of a merchant fleet sailing from Ireland to New York City.

Narragansett Bay

Washington’s aide, Colonel John Laurens, had been attached to General Sullivan for the campaign.  Laurens received Sullivan’s instructions and then waited for the French fleet.  When it arrived at Point Judith at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Laurens, who also spoke French fluently, met with Admiral d’Estaing.

The meeting did not go particularly well.  Laurens informed d’Estaing that Sullivan only had about 1600 soldiers ready to go.  He was still awaiting the arrival of the Continental reinforcements under Lafayette and Greene.  He was also still awaiting the arrival of most of the New England militia. D’Estaing also learned that the British had destroyed most of the Continental boats in their May raids.  Sullivan wanted to wait for the arrival of more reinforcements and the manufacture of more boats before he could begin an assault. The French fleet should guard the entrance into Narragansett Bay and await further instructions.

Admiral d'Estaing

The French were not happy about having to wait. It would simply give the British time to improve their defenses.  There was also the danger that the British could send a relief fleet before the French and Americans could take out the defenders.  Also, the French sailors and soldiers aboard the ships had not been ashore since sailing from France.  The men were suffering from scurvy and lack of fresh water.  On top of all that, d’Estaing was perturbed that General Sullivan was issuing orders to him like he was some subordinate officer.

The British did, in fact, take advantage of the delay.  The French fleet was much larger than the small British contingent of ships around Newport.  Admiral Howe had issued orders to make sure the British ships were not captured.  The British Navy unloaded and scuttled the ships in Narragansett Bay, where they would serve as obstacles to an advance by the French fleet.  The crews mounted the cannons in batteries around the various islands in Narragansett Bay, prepared to contest any French advance.

The day after his arrival, d’Estaing sent two of his ships into Narragansett, to the west side of Conanicut Island, which sat west of Aquidneck Island.  The British defenders on Conanicut spiked their cannons, blew up their powder magazine and retreated to Aquidneck.  The following day, the French landed a small party and raised the French flag on Conanicut. A couple of days later, they placed their own cannons on the island to cover the entrance to Newport Harbor.  They did not land in force though, fearing a British counterattack would lead to the soldiers being trapped on the island.

French ships also attacked several British warships that were still unloading onto Aquidneck.  The British abandoned their ships and set them on fire, their primary goal, keeping the ships from falling into the hands of the French.

On August 1, General Sullivan came aboard the Languedoc to meet personally with Admiral d’Estaing.  The leaders agreed that, once they were ready, the Continentals would land on Aquidneck from their bases on the mainland east of the island.  The French would land on the west coast at the same time.

The French also landed some of their sick, to be cared for on the mainland, turned over several hundred prisoners from prize ships to be held as American prisoners, and sent to Boston nine prize ships that they had captured since leaving France.

On August 3, two small British ships took advantage of the fog and sailed past the French fleet into Newport. They carried word from Admiral Howe that he was assembling a relief fleet.  With that, General Pigot ordered several remaining ships to put their cannons back aboard in order to protect Aquidneck from any attack before the British relief fleet arrived.

The French, seeing these ships back in position, came after them.  After trying to sail away from the French, the British commanders ordered their ships set on fire and destroyed them.

General Pigot became convinced that the French were planning to assault Newport.  The British commander attempted to enlist more local loyalists, even slaves, to assist in the town’s defense. Most locals, however, did not like British chances and did not want to be captured on the losing side of the battle.  Pigot also virtually abandoned the northern part of Aquidneck Island, concentrating his forces and supplies in the area immediately around Newport on the south of the island.

American Assault

In response to the call for militia, Massachusetts had called up about 3000 soldiers.  Of these, about 1000 were already in the field and had their terms extended.  Another 2000 were drafted and sent marching.  Connecticut only sent a mere 500 soldiers, leaving another 4000 militia in the state to protect against any British invasion from Long Island.  New Hampshire neglected to send any militia, despite New Hampshire General Sullivan’s command.  Rhode Island called about 3000 militia, but only for fifteen day’s service.  Officials were concerned about getting men home in time for harvest.

1778 French Map of the Area Around Aquidneck Island
In addition to the militia and the 2500 Continentals still making their way from White Plains, Sullivan also had command of several regiments of state regulars: the First and Second Rhode Island regiments, two Massachusetts Regiments, and one regiment from New Hampshire.  Massachusetts also sent a regiment of artillery.  

By the first week of August, the bulk of the American forces had arrived.  The Rhode Island militia were some of the last, given that they did not bother to muster until August 6.  The other delay was a lack of boats to transport the army to Aquidneck Island.  Sullivan did not get authorization to pay for replacement boats until July 20.  Now he was rushing to buy, borrow, or build enough flat bottomed boats to transport his army.  By August 8 though, Sullivan had the fleet that he thought he needed.

With his forces ready, Sullivan called on d’Estaing to attack Aquidneck island as a feint to draw off British defenders, thus making the main American landing on the other side of the island easier.  The French leader, once again offended by Sullivan giving French forces a secondary role, insisted that both armies land simultaneously.

In point of fact though, although d’Estaing claimed to have 4000 French forces, he had only had about 1000 regular soldiers and 1600 marines.  The remainder of his forces were 1400 sailors who were not even armed with guns.  Much of his crew was also too sick for battle.  To supplement the French forces, Sullivan sent Lafayette commanding 300 Continentals and 900 militia to land with the French. 

Lafayette did not actually arrive until August 7.  Sullivan had planned the attack for August 8.  However most of his expected militia was still a day or two away.  He delayed the attack until August 10.  Even so, d’Estaing sailed several of his larger ships past Newport on the 8th, forcing the British to burn two more of their ships to avoid risk of capture.  Pigot also recalled the remainder of British soldiers from the northern part of the island, completely abandoning his defenses there.

On the morning of August 9, the day before the planned invasion, Sullivan called a council of war to discuss overnight intelligence that the British had abandoned their defenses on the northern part of the island. The council agreed to begin the landing right way, before the British thought better of their decision to withdraw, and returned.  

Sullivan sent a messenger to inform d’Estaing, while he deployed the First Rhode island Regiment to land and confirm the intelligence.  When the intelligence proved true, Sullivan began landing in full force.  The French had begun landing soldiers on Conanicut Island that same morning.  They planned to cross over to Aquidneck the following day.  About this time, d’Estaing received Sullivan’s message that he was already landing and inviting the French to move up their assault on Aquidneck.  The French landing force, mostly on Conanicut Island by this time, prepared to move on Aquidneck in the afternoon.

British Fleet

As the French prepared for their landing, d’Estaing received word of a fleet appearing in Narragansett Bay.  Fearful of the arrival of a large fleet from England, d’Estaing halted the French landing and began recalling his forces back to the fleet.  

As it turned out, the British ships were part of a fleet that Admiral Howe had cobbled together from ships arriving in New York Harbor.  Howe had been waiting for a larger fleet under the command of Admiral John Byron.  By August 6, Howe had eight ships of the line, seven smaller ships with at least 44 guns each, and a flotilla of smaller ships.  Howe figured that even if he could not defeat the French fleet decisively, it was better to go disrupt the assault on Newport than to await the arrival of the rest of the fleet. 

That night, under cover of darkness, d’Estaing took his fleet out of the narrow channels, preparing to sail into the open sea, where the large ships had a much greater advantage against the British.  The admiral hoped he could defeat the British fleet before more reinforcements arrived, then return to assist with the assault on Aquidneck.

Howe’s smaller fleet, having succeeded in drawing the French away from Newport, tried to get the best position upwind from the enemy before engaging.  The French pursued the British, who managed to keep their distance for the rest of the day. 

The next morning, the two fleets resumed the chase, but also noticed that the wind had picked up considerably.  Over the course of the day, the winds got worse, along with heavy rain and fog.  The storm was the remainder of a hurricane making its way up the east coast.  By evening, both fleets gave up the idea of battle and focused on riding out the storm.

Over the next two days, General Howe’s fleet got scattered, with several ships losing their masts and taking other damage.  The French also took serious damage and were scattered.  The Languedoc, d’Estaing’s flagship, not only lost several of its masts, but also broke its rudder, leaving the crew unable to steer.  On the morning of August 13, with the storm having passed, the smaller British ship, the Renown spotted the Languedoc and attacked.  Normally, the larger French ship would have had a clear advantage.  But after realizing the amount of damage, the Renown moved in to attack.  The French managed to keep the enemy at bay for most of the day, and overnight was able to signal other French ships to join her and chase away the British attacker.

Two British ships also attacked the damaged Marseilles.  But the larger French ship of the line managed to get off several broadsides despite damage to her masts, and chased off the British attackers.  Several other engagements took place as the damaged ships on both sides struggled to regroup their fleets.

Battle of Rhode Island

As the fleets struggled at sea, Sullivan’s forces dug in on the heights on the northern part of Aquidneck Island.  Sullivan had over 10,000 soldiers on the island  The army had to hunker down and endure the same storm that had hit the fleets at sea.  Soldiers’ tents were blown away and everyone was soaked.  Most of the gunpowder was ruined by water, making any battle plan much more difficult.

By the morning of August 15, the army had recovered sufficiently from the storm to begin moving south toward the British lines around Newport.  The Americans moved within a mile of the British.  Then, over the next couple of nights, moved within a few hundred yards, in artillery range of the lines.

The British defenses were formidable.  The reason that Pigot had given up the northern part of the island without a fight was so that he could concentrate his forces on entrenched heights just north of Newport.  The British laid out two lines, with water protecting their flanks and artillery covering the open fields that the Americans would have to cross.

The Americans outnumbered the British probably by two to one.  Sullivan tried to bait the British into leaving their lines to advance on the Americans, but Pigot remained safely inside his defensive perimeter.  For several days, the two sides just traded artillery fire, each side waiting for their navy to return.

On August 20th the British garrison happily caught sight of the British ship Senegal returning to Narragansett Bay.  Their hopes were dashed after learning that the Senegal was now a prize ship under French control.  Several other ships from the French fleet soon appeared.  They were badly damaged, but the French were returning to Narragansett, not the British.  If the French controlled the waters around Newport, the British could only hold out for a short time before inevitably having to surrender.  Their only hope was that a British fleet would arrive before they reached the end of their supplies.

The Americans appeared to be on the verge of victory.  Then, the Senegal landed a messenger at Point Judith with a message for General Sullivan.  D’Estaing informed Sullivan that the fleet was too badly damaged and that they were leaving right away, headed to Boston for repairs.  Sullivan immediately dispatched General Lafayette, General Greene, and Colonel John Langdon to persuade d'Estaing to remain.  The fleet’s presence, even for a few days, might be enough to convince the British garrison to surrender.  If d’Estaing could deploy his 4000 French troops onto the island, it would either convince Pigot to surrender, or at least divide his defensive lines, making an American attack more likely to prevail.

D’Estaing, however, would not be swayed.  His fleet was too badly damaged to do any good.  His lookouts had identified a few British ships of the line which they knew were part of Byron’s relief fleet.  The French did not want to get caught in Narragansett Bay facing a superior force, especially with their ships in such poor condition.  On the evening of August 21, the French fleet set sail for Boston.

With the French departure, Sullivan saw the American victory slip away.  He had already had to deal with several hundred militia leaving the island when their 15-day enlistments ended.  These were draftees, not volunteers.  Nothing would compel them to remain a minute longer than required.  Sullivan faced the imminent departure of all of the 3000 Rhode Island militia.  The other soldiers remaining were demoralized by the abandonment of the French fleet.  Following another council of war, the Americans withdrew back to the northern end of the island, where they occupied the defensive heights there.

Upon receiving word from Washington that a fleet of over 100 ships was gathering in Long Island Sound, likely a relief force for Newport, Sullivan began removing his supplies, heavy equipment, and some of his larger artillery off Aquidneck Island and back to the mainland.

By the evening of August 28th , the Continentals had completely evacuated their lines in front of Newport.  The British sent out two divisions, under General Von Lossberg and General Smith, to move to the northern part of the island and test the American lines.  The Americans held stiff resistance on fighting at Quaker Hill and Turkey Hill.  The back and forth fighting cost the Americans about 200 casualties, with the British and Hessian attackers taking about 260.  The British, back in control of the waters, brought up several frigates to support the attack. On the night of August 30, the Americans abandoned their position entirely on the island and rowed back across to Tiverton to take up defensive positions on the mainland.


With that withdrawal, the situation pretty much returned to the status quo.  The British held Aquidneck Island while the Americans remained across the water on the mainland.  The militia returned to their homes and the standoff remained.  The morning after the withdrawal, a 70-ship British relief fleet was spotted off Point Judith.  The British, once again, took control of the waters around Aquidneck Island.  

In the days following the French withdrawal, an angry General Sullivan and his officers hurled invectives and the French, the 18th Century equivalent of cheese eating surrender monkeys.  General Lafayette nearly got drawn into several duels while trying to defend the honor of his home country.  Some feared that the angry words might damage the new French alliance.  Sullivan had to put out a public declaration praising the efforts of the French.  The Continental Congress praised both the efforts of the Americans and the French.  The diplomatic statements papered over the hard feelings.  But once again, the Americans had failed to take their intended target.

Next week: we head back to upstate New York where battles still rage with the Indians and Loyalists at at Cobleskill and German Flatts.

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Next Episode 197 Battle of German Flatts (Available April 18, 2021)

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Further Reading


Battle of Rhode Island:

The Battle of Rhode Island:

Battle of Rhode island:

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 22 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 27 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 28 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 10 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 17 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 19 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 21 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 29 August 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 1 September 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 3 September 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

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. 

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 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 (book recommendation of the week).

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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