Battle of Rhode Island Site

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Battle of Rhode Island Site
Patriot's Park, Portsmouth, RI.jpg
Patriot's Park, memorial off RI 114 to Rhode Island militiamen slain in battle
Location Lehigh Hill and both sides of RI 24 between Hedley and Dexter Sts., Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Area 365 acres (148 ha) (main battlefield)
34 acres (14 ha) (Fort Butts and Butts Hill)
Built 1778
Governing body Local
NRHP Reference # 74002054
Significant dates
Added to NRHP May 30, 1974[1]
Designated NHL May 30, 1974[2]

The Battle of Rhode Island Site is the partially preserved location of the Battle of Rhode Island, fought August 29, 1778, during the American Revolutionary War. The battle took place in the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, located on Aquidneck Island north of Newport, and was the only major action of the war that took place in Rhode Island. It was also significant as the only battle of the war in which an entirely segregated unit of African-American soldiers fought. At the time of the action, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment consisted of companies of locally-recruited African Americans, with white officers. The two main areas associated with the battle were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974.[2]

Battle of Rhode Island from a 1779 print

History[edit]

In December 1776 a British force occupied Newport, Rhode Island. Following the pivotal Battles of Saratoga in September and October 1777, France decided to enter the war as an ally of the United States. The two militaries then sought possibilities for working together to defeat the British in North America. The first significant effort in this regard took place in July 1778, when a French fleet commanded by the Comte d'Estaing arrived off the east coast of North America. Originally commanded to blockade Delaware Bay, d'Estaing altered is target to New York City after learning the British had evacuated the city of Philadelphia.[3] However, he concluded that the bar at the mouth of New York Harbor was such that his largest ships could not safely enter. As a result, French and American military leaders decided to operate instead against the British at Newport.[4]

American Continental Army forces were dispatched to Rhode Island, and militia were raised from surrounding states to assist in the effort. A storm arose at a critical moment when the French and British fleets were about to do battle, scattering both fleets. By this time the American forces, led by Major General John Sullivan, had already occupied the northern end of Aquidneck Island. The French fleet withdrew on August 22 to Boston to repair, while Sullivan engaged in preliminary siege operations against Newport.[5]

The French withdrawal prompted an exodus of militia from the American camp. Combined with news that a relief force was being organized by the British in New York, Sullivan decided to withdraw from Aquidneck Island. The British commander at Newport, Major General Robert Pigot, led his forces out of Newport in pursuit, and engaged the American forces in August 29 in the Battle of Rhode Island. The battle was tactically inconclusive in its outcome: The British failed to overwhelm the American force, which was able to continue its orderly retreat from the island.

Battlefield[edit]

The main area in which the battle was fought is a valley bounded by Lehigh Hill to the north and Turkey and Almy Hills to the south, an area of about 365 acres (148 ha). This area is presently sparsely populated, and had no structures at the time of the battle. Turkey Hill was one of the major objectives of the British advance, and Lehigh Hill was one of the anchors of the American line. Barker Brook, now largely obscured due to the construction of Rhode Island Route 24, was an area that saw intense fighting.[6]

The secondary site of importance was Butts Hill, which is located about 0.5 miles (0.80 km) northeast of the battle area. It was fortified with earthworks, and served as a command post and fallback defensive position for the Americans. Its earthworks, a rough oval 500 feet (150 m) by 250 feet (76 m), are in good condition.[6]

African-American participation[edit]

The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was raised in early 1778, as a specifically African-American unit, in order to help meet the state's obligations for manning the Continental Army. The unit joined Sullivan's force in Providence in July 1778, and participated in the occupation of Aquidneck Island. When the battle lines were drawn, the 1st Rhode Island was placed on Turkey Hill, the rightmost end of the American front line. The British made three separate assaults on Turkey Hill, and were repulsed each time. The 1st Rhode Island suffered relatively light casualties, one killed and ten wounded, despite the severity of the action. This is attributed at least in part to the strong defensive position afforded by the hill.[6]

The Rhode Island legislature repealed the act allowing African Americans to enlist in June 1778. As a result, the unit thereafter began to lose membership due to to attrition and combat, which was compensated for by adding white recruits. This, as well as the merger of Rhode Island's two regiments in January 1780, resulted in an integrated unit for the remainder of the war.[6]

Legacy[edit]

The battleground site and the fort at Butts Hill were declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.[2][6] The site includes two separate areas. The principal battle site is roughly centered at 41°35′46″N 71°15′47″W / 41.596°N 71.263°W / 41.596; -71.263 (Battle of Rhode Island)Coordinates: 41°35′46″N 71°15′47″W / 41.596°N 71.263°W / 41.596; -71.263 (Battle of Rhode Island), and Butts Hill (41°36′56″N 71°15′03″W / 41.615506°N 71.250815°W / 41.615506; -71.250815 (Butts Hill Fort)), one of the high points on Aquidneck Island, is also preserved.[6]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ a b c "Site of Battle of Rhode Island". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 
  3. ^ Morrissey, p. 77
  4. ^ Morrissey, p. 78
  5. ^ Dearden, pp. 74–98
  6. ^ a b c d e f Marcia M. Greenlee (1973-12-01). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Battle of Rhode Island Historic District / Battle of Rhode Island Site" (pdf). National Park Service.  and Accompanying one photo, undated PDF (32 KB)

Sources[edit]