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The Battle of Rhode Island (also known as the Battle of Quaker Hill and the Battle of Newport) took place on August 29, 1778. The battle was the first attempt at cooperation between French and American forces following France’s entry into the war as an American ally.

Battle of Rhode Island Background

  • Newport: fourth-largest city in the thirteen colonies, with 9500 residents who used over 750 ships in commerce.  It was on an island and was easily defendable.
  • It had an excellent harbor in which a fleet could winter.  It rarely froze.
  • General Howe wanted to take Newport.  Doing so was part of his plan to end the war in 1777,
  • The complete capture of NYC freed up soldiers for an expedition to Newport.
  • Howe put together an invasion force of 7100 (4000 British regulars and 3100 Hessians).  They boarded ships in late November 1776.
  • The first of the attackers landed on Aquidneck (Rhode) Island on December 8, just north of Newport. Soon afterward, the remainder of the force landed.
  • The British captured the city without opposition. Soon they took control of all of Aquidneck Island, but the rest of the state remained firmly in Patriot hands.
  • Many pro–independence Patriots left town, while loyalist Tories remained.  About 1700 captive American seamen were forced into prison ships in Newport Harbor.

The Bristol, Warren, and Fall River Raids

  • On March 10, 1778, Washington appointed Major General John Sullivan to be commander-in-chief of the Rhode Island theater.  Sullivan began recruiting more troops and planning an attack on Newport.
  • On May 24, 500 British troops under the command of Lt. Colonel John Campbell landed near Bristol, RI, on the mainland. There they captured a small force of RI militia and destroyed their cannons.
  • Next they marched to Warren, meeting no resistance.  They burned more American property and supplies, especially boats.  British and Hessian soldiers alike plundered and destroyed much Patriot property.
  • They then returned to Bristol, taking Patriot fire along the way, plundering, and taking prisoner most of the men they encountered.
  • A few days later, Campbell’s force marched to Fall River, MA, where they burned a sawmill, a grist mill, and many other supplies.
  • The raids were very costly to the Continentals and served to delay any possible attack.
  • After these raids, Pigot decided to focus on strengthening Newport’s defenses rather than conducting any further raids.

The Campaign Begins

  • On February 6, 1778, the US signed a treaty of alliance with France.  American leaders were hoping that the French would soon send military and naval aid.
  • King Louis appointed Charles Henri Theodat, Comte d’Estaing. d’Estaing was unpopular with his subordinates, mainly because his background was in the army, not the navy, and he had no experience commanding a fleet.
  • d’Estaing’s orders were to attack the British in North America wherever he thought would be best.  Later he was to sail to the Caribbean to threaten British possessions there and protect French ones.
  • On April 13, d’Estaing, along with 11 ships of the line, one 50-gun ship, and four frigates, plus 9600 crew members (including marines) and 1000 soldiers, sailed for N. America.
  • After an agonizingly slow voyage of 87 days, the French squadron reached the mouth of the Delaware River on July 8.  Had they arrived sooner, the French could have trapped the British fleet that had been there just a few days earlier. Instead, the British got away.
  • The French fleet then proceeded to Sandy Hook, near NYC.  From there, d’Estaing sent a message to Washington proposing a joint effort against Newport (a much better base of operations for the French fleet).  Washington sent Alexander Hamilton to d’Estaing with a message that he agreed to the plan.
  • Washington also sent orders to John Sullivan to raise 5000 New England troops. Meanwhile, the British sent reinforcements to Newport.
  • On July 22, d’Estaing ordered his fleet to sail for Newport.  They again moved slowly, not arriving until the 29th.
  • At the same time, Washington ordered three Continental brigades in NE to march to Providence.  He named the Marquis de Lafayette and Nathanael Greene to command the Continental forces that would attack Newport.
  • When the French fleet reached Newport, d’Estaing hesitated, since the channels were unfamiliar to him. Also, the Americans had only assembled 1600 troops, which, even added to the 4000 French soldiers present with the fleet, were not enough to defeat the 5700 well-entrenched British troops.
  • Between July 30 and August 5, the French fleet destroyed 5 British frigates, 2 sloops, and 3 row-galleys.  This was “the most substantial, single-campaign loss of warships suffered by the British navy in United States waters during the entire war.” (Christian McBurney, 95). The British also destroyed 13 of their own transport vessels to hinder the sailing of French vessels. 
  • The British pulled all their forces on Aquidneck Island into the Newport defenses, awaiting the allied attack.

Preparing the Assault

  • Sullivan continued to gather forces, but they were (in general) slow to respond.  There were four types of Patriot forces: Continentals, State Regiments, Militia, and independent volunteer companies.  John Hancock commanded one Massachusetts militia unit. One of his officers was Lt. Col. Paul Revere.
  • On August 6, Sullivan ordered all of the units in Providence to march to Tiverton, the staging ground for the planned invasion. They arrived two days later. The number of transport boats at Tiverton was far too few, as was the number of seamen to operate them.
  • While the Americans waited, d’Estaing sent six ships to block the channels leading to Newport in case any British ships appeared.
  • By August 9, there were enough boats and seamen to ferry the American troops onto Aquidneck Island.  By early afternoon, several thousand Americans were on the island, while a few French troops were on nearby Conanicut Island.
  • Then something changed d’Estaing’s plans: Admiral Howe and the British fleet arrived. d’Estaing had to choose between holding his position and cooperating with the Americans or challenging the British fleet.  He decided to attack the British fleet and then return to assist the Americans with the invasion.
  • As the French fleet approached the British squadron, the latter turned and sailed toward New York.

The Great Storm

  • Howe had set a trap for d’Estaing.  He planned to circle back around the pursuing French fleet and envelop them. 
  • Both fleets were quite spread out and were trying to tighten up their ranks.  As this was happening, a storm was rolling in.
  • By 6 PM on August 11, the storm increased in intensity, bringing fog and heavy rain and forcing the two fleets to disengage from each other.
  • For the next two days, gale force winds battered both fleets and destroyed any formation they might have had.
  • On the 13th, the storm cleared and a series of small-scale engagements between British and French ships occurred.  None were decisive, but many ships on both sides were damaged either in these engagements or by the storm. Two minor British vessels fell into French hands.
  • Howe ordered the remainder of his fleet to return to Sandy Hook.
  • Meanwhile, the storm was drenching Sullivan’s forces on Aquidneck Island as well as the British and Hessian defenders of Newport.  Many men on both sides had no tents and had to camp in the open.
  • On August 15, Sullivan’s army (now totaling nearly 12,000) slowly advanced toward Newport.  Soon they were within sight of the British lines.
  • The British had two well-fortified lines manned by 5700 soldiers.
  • The Americans built their own fortifications and gun batteries under the cover of fog.  On August 19, they opened a barrage on the British defenses. The British returned fire.  Newport was under siege.

The Siege: Battle of Rhode Island

  • On August 20, a British ship that had been captured by the French arrived at Aquidneck Island.  Its commander informed Sullivan that the French fleet had gone to Boston for repair and resupply.  The Americans were shocked and infuriated by this news.
  • Sullivan and Nathanael Green tried to change d’Estaing’s mind, but to no avail.  d’Estaing also took all the French soldiers with him.
  • Sullivan wrote several angry letters that were widely published and threatened American-French relations.  Sullivan later retracted some of his statements.  
  • During this time, Sullivan’s men continued to extend their trenches and add new batteries, while the British tried to stop them with artillery fire.
  • Between August 15 and 24, many Continentals soldiers’ enlistments had expired and they had gone home.  By August 24, total American strength was down to about 3000 regulars and 5000 militia, which was not enough to capture the British position.
  • Some senior American commanders suggested a retreat.  At first, Sullivan said no. He hoped the French would return before the British could be reinforced.
  • On the 26th, however, the arrival of three British ships caused Sullivan to change his mind and to begin planning a withdrawal to the northern part of the island.  
  • By the 28th, the Americans were down to 7000 soldiers, with only about 5400 fit for duty.  That day, he ordered a retreat, and the next morning, the Americans began heading north.

The British Counterattack 

  • Sullivan deployed the bulk of the American army in defensive line in a valley near a pair of hills at the north part of the island.  There they dug in.
  • On the 29th, Pigot led a force of about 5800 British and Hessian troops.  The next day, a group of Hessians drove back a small American force under Col. John Laurens.
  • The British and Hessians continued north and ran into another line of Americans, who checked the British advance.  British officers mistook blue-coated Americans for Hessians, resulting in many British casualties.
  • The redcoats began to prevail, and the Americans retreated to their main line.
  • The British continued to attack, gradually driving the Americans back up the island.  After much skirmishing with light casualties over two days, the battle was over. 
  • Combined British and Hessian casualties were 260, including 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing.  The Americans lost 211, including 30 killed, 137 wounded, and 44 missing. 
  • Although the battle of Rhode Island was a draw, Sullivan succeeded in preventing the British from cutting off his retreat from Aquidneck Island.  

Aftermath of the\ Battle of Rhode Island

  • On August 30, Sullivan received word that d’Estaing and his fleet would not be coming anytime soon.  He also learned that Howe’s fleet was on the move and seemed to be headed for the Battle of Rhode Island.
  • Based on this information, Sullivan decided to evacuate Aquidneck Island.  He covered the movement by ordering some men to set up tents and dig fortifications (so the British would think they were digging in).
  • The deception did not work; nevertheless, by 3 AM the next day (the 31st), the Americans were off the island.
  • Later that same morning, a fleet carrying 4300 British reinforcements and General Clinton himself arrived.  Clinton criticized Pigot for letting the Americans get away. Pigot went to London in late September.
  • The failure of the American attempt to take Newport disappointed Washington and led to much casting around of blame.  Most New Englanders blamed the French.
  • JAR: “This failed American campaign, often overlooked as insignificant, not only stopped American military momentum gained from Saratoga and the recovery of Philadelphia, it showed that alliance with France would not bring a speedy end to the war. The northern theater remained in a stalemate for the rest of the war.”
  • The British abandoned Newport in October 1779, leaving behind an economy ruined by war
  • Miscellaneous Fun Fact…the Battle of Rhode Island was notable for the participation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which consisted of Blacks, Indians, and white colonists.

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"Battle of Rhode Island" History on the Net
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October 18, 2019 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/battle-of-rhode-island-1778-key-battle-7>
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