Newport, Rhode Island

views updated

Newport, Rhode Island

NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND. 29 July-31 August 1778. Franco-American failure. In December 1776 General Sir Henry Clinton was sent from New York to occupy Newport, which the Royal Navy considered a superior winter anchorage to New York. By the summer of 1778 the British had already survived two American efforts to oust them and had developed a significant network of defensive fortifications. In June 1778 the 3,000-man garrison under Major General Robert Pigot included four Hesse-Cassel regiments, three British regiments, and one Loyalist regiment, along with a detachment of artillery. On 15 July, following the evacuation of Philadelphia, a reinforcement convoy landed an additional 2,000 men, including one British regiment, two Anspach-Bayreuth regiments, and another Loyalist regiment. Meanwhile the Americans had begun massing an assault force at Providence under Major General John Sullivan. These troops included about a thousand Continentals and a variety of militia and state troops that had been maintaining a loose cordon. When it became apparent that the task force of Admiral Charles comte d'Estaing could not participate in an attack on New York because of British ships stationed inside Sandy Hook, Congress proposed an attack on Pigot at Newport.

In preparation for a combined operation that held such promise Washington called on the New England states to mobilize 5,000 New England men. He also sent Sullivan the veteran Continental brigades of James Varnum and John Glover and two additional major generals with special backgrounds: the Frenchman the Marquis de Lafayette and Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Island native. Although it took a long time to assemble the militia and volunteers, they eventually gave Sullivan an army of about 10,000 by early August. In accordance with Washington's instructions to provide stiffening to the volunteers, he mixed the militia and Continental units to organize two divisions, one under Greene and the other under Lafayette. D'Estaing had an impressive fleet and several thousand troops serving as ships' garrisons that he could put ashore for land operations.

The French fleet reached Rhode Island (Point Judith) on 29 July and established contact with the American army. Despite the tone of exaggerated compliment to Sullivan in d'Estaing's early communications, there was friction between the two allied leaders from the start. And unlike the situation with Lieutenant General comte de Rochambeau's later expedition, the two forces this time had no appreciation for each other and no common tactical doctrine. D'Estaing had expected everything to be ready when he appeared and was not impressed by Sullivan's preparations: "We found that the troops were still at home," d'Estaing wrote in his report of 5 November (quoted in Dearden, Rhode Island Campaign, p. 48). He mistook Varnum's and Glover's Continental brigades for militia and complained that the Americans did not have water and provisions ready for his ships when they arrived.

While Sullivan collected the boats needed to move the troops from the mainland the French started isolating the British. On 30 July two frigates and a brigantine moved into the East Passage, and the Royal Navy's crews had to destroy the sloop of war Kingsfisher and the galleys Alarm and Spitfire to prevent their capture. On 5 August three ships of the line in the West Passage moved around the northern tip of Conanicut Island and caught another portion of the British garrison's squadron by surprise, forcing the crews to destroy the frigates Cerberus, Juno, Orpheus, and Lark and the galley Pigot. Other vessels were scuttled over a period of days to form underwater obstructions blocking approaches to the Newport harbor. The grounded sailors now took up positions manning defensive batteries in the British lines.

Despite misgivings, d'Estaing agreed to Sullivan's concept of operations. On 8 August his ships would enter the Middle Passage, running past the British defenses. The next night (9-10 August) Sullivan's troops would cross from Tiverton to the northeast tip of Rhode Island and prepare to attack south. Early on 10 August the French were to land as many men as possible on the west side of the island, opposite the Americans, and bombard the enemy fortifications from the water; the combined ground forces would then assault. The French moved up the Middle Passage according to plan on 8 August, forcing the British to scuttle their last two warships, the frigate Flora and the sloop Falcon, and destroy the last of the transports.

Then the trouble started. Shortly after dark Pigot withdrew his units on the north end of the island and concentrated all 6,700 men at the main defensive lines. In the morning of 9 August Sullivan wrote to d'Estaing confirming the plan to carry out the invasion as planned on 10 August. But at 8 a.m. Sullivan confirmed reports from British deserters and realized that Pigot had fallen back, so he immediately crossed over to occupy the northern works before the enemy could return. When d'Estaing learned of the landing, only an hour after he had received the earlier message, many of the French officers were offended by what they interpreted to be a breach of military etiquette—the Americans landing ahead of the French, and without prior notification. In spite of this, d'Estaing began preparing to land his own troops when about noon a large fleet was detected offshore.

At 3 p.m. a scouting frigate confirmed that the ships were those of Howe's fleet from New York. Admiral d'Estaing now had to make a decision: continue on with the invasion as planned, or stand out to sea with his warships to deal with the new problem. Given the size advantage of his force, he could easily have duplicated Howe's earlier feat at Sandy Hook and denied the British any chance to come to Pigot's aid.


Since the standoff at Sandy Hook, Admiral Lord Richard Howe had received two additional ships of the line (one from the squadron under Admiral John Byron sent out from England to offset d'Estaing) and two fifty-gun ships. Howe was bothered by adverse winds, but finally sailed from Sandy Hook on 6 August with a squadron of seven ships of the line, five fifties (which could be pressed into fighting in the line), seven frigates, two bomb ketches, three smaller warships, and four galleys; the Twenty-third Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers) embarked to augment his marines. On 9 August, while Howe anchored off Point Judith, the southerly wind held the French in position, but during the night it shifted to the north. About 8:00 a.m. on 10 August, d'Estaing stood out to sea to give battle with a squadron of eleven ships of the line, one fifty, and four frigates. When Howe detected this movement he detached one of his frigates to escort the smaller craft back to New York and took the main body (including the fireships) out to sea. Knowing that he was outnumbered, and more importantly that he was outgunned (both in numbers and in size) by the larger French ships, he retreated to the south.

For the rest of that day and the next Howe maneuvered, trying to gain the weather gauge, which was the only condition under which he could even think about engaging in line of battle That night the weather deteriorated, and heavy seas and gale-force winds scattered both fleets and inflicted considerable damage before blowing out on 13 August. Howe was left with one fifty, four frigates, and an armed ship still sailing in company; the rest were limping back to Sandy Hook for repairs. However, as the day ended two of the other British fifties—Renown and Preston—fell in with two of the large but badly damaged French ships of the line. The eighty-gun flagship Languedoc had lost all of her masts in the storm and was virtually defenseless; the seventy-four-gun Marseillois had only one of her masts left, drastically reducing her maneuverability. The British pounded both vessels until darkness fell but were driven off by other French ships the next morning when they sought to resume the battle. Three days later, on 19 August, another fifty, the Isis, fought for an hour and a half with the seventy-four-gun César twenty leagues from Sandy Hook before the two battered antagonists separated. Howe finally rejoined the rest of his squadron at New York on 18 August, while d'Estaing returned to Rhode Island on 20 August to take stock of his condition. On the night of 21-22 August, knowing that Byron could arrive at any time and shift the balance of power, d'Estaing sailed off to carry out repairs at Boston.


The land forces continued their contest while the fleets were gone. The handful of French frigates left in harbor gave the Allies total control of the coastal waters, so Sullivan continued bringing his troops across to the island and, after the storm cleared, on 15 August pushed south to camp two miles from the outer line of Pigot's fortifications. These works stretched 1,372 yards across the island and were held by 1,900 men. They posed a formidable challenge, so Sullivan started the approach trenches for a formal siege. He concentrated on the eastern side of the line, apparently leaving the other side for the French as in the original plan.

The steady massing of forces left Pigot increasingly worried. Despite the strong natural advantages of the terrain he held, he knew that control of the sea would leave him vulnerable to flank or rear attacks and subject to being starved into surrender. D'Estaing's reappearance on 20 August further eroded British morale. The pendulum quickly swung the other way when the French departed for Boston. The volunteers and militia started melting away while infuriated American officers made heated comments that would poison diplomatic relations. Sullivan kept his positions for several days in the hopes that something positive might happen but quietly started moving supplies and heavy equipment back to the mainland. Information from Washington alerted Sullivan that Howe and Clinton were assembling a strong relief force in New York, and when three British frigates arrived he correctly concluded that the task force would soon follow. At 8:00 p.m. on 28 August Sullivan started slowly withdrawing his remaining 5,000-6,000 men.


The Americans halted at 3 a.m. in the vicinity of Butts Hill, where there were some covering earthworks. They were twelve miles north of Newport. Glover's brigade held the left (east) end of the line; Colonel Christopher Greene commanded a brigade in the center with Brigadier General Ezekiel Cornell's brigade on his right; on the west end was Varnum's brigade. Detachments protected both coasts back to Bristol Ferry, while a skirmish line stood in front. Pigot detected the withdrawal at first light and decided to harass the Americans. About 6:30 he sent forward three columns, with covering parties, but retained over half of his strength in the fortifications as a precaution. Major General Richard Prescott moved in the center with the Thirty-eighth and Fifty-fourth Foot; Brigadier Francis Smith went up the east road with the Twenty-second and Forty-third Foot plus the flank companies of the Thirty-eighth and Fifty-fourth. Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossburg took the west road with the two Anspach-Bayreuth regiments led by Captain Wihelm von der Malsburg's and Captain August Christian Noltenius's Hesse-Cassel chasseur companies. A half-hour later the chasseurs collided with Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens's skirmish force and the battle began. Moments later Smith on the other side of the island, who had not put out flankers or an advance guard, walked into a trap set by Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston's covering force.

The firing made it clear to Pigot that Smith was in a significant fight, and he started feeding in reinforcements. He ordered Prescott to send him the Fifty-Fourth while Pigot sent up the Loyalists of the Prince of Wales's Volunteers. He also pushed up the Hesse-Cassel Huyn Regiment and Fanning's Kings American Regiment to Lossburg. The covering parties fell back to the main American line, fighting all the way, and the British formed a line of battle on Turkey and Quaker Hills.

Before all of the supporting forces had come up, Smith launched an attack on the east that Glover stopped cold. The British supporting artillery then entered the fight about 9 a.m. and action settled back down to sporadic skirmishing. Four British ships moved up into position off the western shore and at 10 a.m. opened fire on the American right. With this support Pigot shifted his main effort to envelop Sullivan's right. Lossburg's troops charged the First Rhode Island Regiment holding the key redoubt but were driven back twice. Meanwhile some heavy American guns chased the ships back to a position off the British flank. Between 2 and 3 p.m. Lossburg made a third try and after some initial success was pushed back by Nathanael Greene's counterattack. When the American force on that wing of increased about 1,500 men, Greene moved forward towards Turkey Hill. At this point Sullivan called Greene off rather than risk a defeat. Both sides kept up sporadic fire until dark.

Pigot sent back to Newport for additional artillery, and Sullivan made a show of preparing to receive his attack, but neither commander wanted to bring on a decisive battle. During the night of 30-31 August, however, the Americans successfully executed the difficult operation of evacuating the island. Most of the troops crossed to Tiverton. A smaller number of troops crossed to Bristol, where the heavy baggage and stores had been sent earlier. Clinton reached Newport the morning of 1 September with 5,000 troops, bringing the campaign to an end. Sullivan's army discharged the bulk of the militia, and the Continentals moved to Providence. On the way back to New York, Clinton detached Major General Charles Grey for operations in Massachusetts (the Bedford-Fair Haven Raid, 6 September, and Martha's Vineyard raid, 10-11 September 1778).


American losses were 30 killed, 137 wounded, and 44 missing on 29 August. Pigot reported his casualties officially as 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 44 missing—most of the casualties among the German units. One Anspacher thought the true total was closer to 400.


From a military standpoint neither side gained any significant advantage from the attack on Newport. Howe survived until Byron's arrival restored British control of the seas. Pigot (unlike Cornwallis in 1781) hung on until relief arrived, but the British had seen how tenuous their hold was, and within a year would voluntarily evacuate the outpost. The need to mount a rescue operation delayed Clinton from complying with the Ministry's orders to transfer forces to the Caribbean and initiate a "southern strategy," but did not cause any fatal harm.

Perhaps the worst damage came in the rift that opened between the Americans and the French. Popular anger erupted in Boston while d'Estaing was repairing his ships. On 5 September the young chevalier de Saint Sauveur was mortally wounded when he tried to stop a Boston mob from pilfering a bakery established by the fleet in the town. Three or four French sailors were killed at Charlestown in another riot. Finally the Massachusetts House of Delegates resolved to erect a monument over Saint Sauveur's grave. Preceded by the failure outside New York, 11-22 July 1778, and followed by the fiasco at Savannah, 9 October 1779, d'Estaing's performance at Newport did not bode well. But on 10 July 1780 a new French expedition, commanded by a much more diplomatic general, Rochambeau, landed in Newport and restored harmony, making the Yorktown campaign possible.

SEE ALSO Bedford-Fair Haven Raid, Massachusetts; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; Martha's Vineyard Raid; New York Campaign; Savannah, Georgia (9 October 1779); Weather Gauge.


Amory, Thomas C. "The Siege of Newport, August, 1778." Rhode Island Historical Magazine 5 (October 1884): 106-135.

Crawford, Michael J. "The Joint Allied Operation at Rhode Island, 1778." In New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Ninth Naval History Symposium Held at the United States Naval Academy, 18-20 October 1989. Edited by William R. Roberts and Jack Sweetman. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

Dearden, Paul F. The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778: Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance. Providence: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1980.

Rider, Sidney S., ed. The Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Rhode Island, at Portsmouth, R.I., August 29, 1778. Providence: Sidney S. Rider, 1878.

Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholar Press, 1989.

                          revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

About this article

Newport, Rhode Island

Updated About content Print Article