The British warship Renown attacks Admiral d’Estaing’s dismasted flagship Languedoc in the Atlantic, 13 August 1778.
By Charles P. Neimeyer
During February 1778, the new Franco-American alliance was announced, and it immediately changed the entire complexion of the war. Now the British not only had to guard against American forces surrounding the island but also against the possibility of a French invasion fleet arriving off the harbor mouth with little or no notice. Moreover, British intelligence had determined that the French fleet at Toulon had sortied from its base and, under the command of the Comte d’Estaing, was somewhere in the Atlantic. In addition, French privateers were now capturing British ships in the English Channel, thus forcing the recall of many Royal Navy ships to home waters.
Perhaps taking the advice of Captain Mackenzie that the cause of many administrative problems was idle soldiers in Newport, General Pigot on 25 May 1778 ordered a large 600-man raid on the towns of Warren and Bristol, located immediately to the north of the island of Rhode Island and largely believed to be the primary base for American raiding parties on the island.
Burning numerous boats and skiffs found gathered along the shoreline, the soldiers also set fire and pillaged the two towns at will. Believing that the house of Mrs. Peleg Anthony had been set on fire by militia as a signal, the soldiers attacked townspeople who arrived to put out the fire. According to Newport diarist Fleet Greene, “the inhabitants, without respect of persons, were greatly abused, knocked down, and beat. Wearing apparel of all sorts, necklaces, rings, and paper money, taken as plunder at Bristol and Warren, were offered for sale by the soldiers” in Newport.
But the true revelation of the raid was not the plunder. Rather, it was the large amount of barges and other landing craft that had been gathered by the Americans for a possible assault to retake the town of Newport. The British feared that with the help of the French fleet, the Americans might seriously threaten the British hold on Newport.
And indeed on 29 July 1778, Admiral d’Estaing and the French fleet sailed into Narragansett Bay and quickly forced their way past the British batteries at the harbor entrance. Anchoring just out of range, d’Estaing’s force waited in the bay to consult with their American allies, now under command of Continental Army Maj. Gen. John Sullivan. Newport resident Mary Almy, a woman of Tory sympathy, stated that most townspeople assumed that the fleet in sight must be that of Admiral Howe. However, by 10 a.m. it was determined that the ships were French and the news “threw us into the greatest consternation.” She added that now “the merchant looks upon his full store as nothing worth. The shopkeeper with a distressed countenance locks and bars the shop, not knowing what is for the best. . . . Heavens! with what spirit the army undertook the old batteries; with what amazing quickness did they throw up new ones.” Almy spent the night comforting her frightened children and was busy burying her “papers and plate in the ground.” Two days later, Mary Almy was shocked to see the British burning their now trapped frigates and observed at Coddington’s Cove the HMS Kingfisher and two galleys furiously ablaze and stated that she spent this day, “trembling, crying and hiding.” By 3 August, she noted that American troops were landing at Howland’s Ferry opposite the north end of the island.
Two days later, she observed that “at night [the British] ordered all the sailors into town, if possible to keep some order with them.” But apparently this did not take place as she noted that “every sailor was equipped with a musket that could get one; he that could not, had a billet of wood, an old broom, or any club they could find. They all took care to save a bottle of spirits, which they call kill grief; some fiddling, some playing jewsharps. . . . By dark the bottles were exhausted, and they so unruly that we were obliged to be safely housed that night.”
The appearance of the French had clearly caused great consternation among the townspeople. Almy noted that orders had been given that upon the appearance of the American army on the island, houses within three miles of the town were to be burned; all livestock on the island except a single cow per family were to be driven into town. All the wells outside of Newport were ordered filled and blocked. Her up-island relatives fled into Newport with all their belongings. She wrote, “Heavens! what a scene of wretchedness before this once happy and flourishing island.” On 7 August, the French shelled part of the town. Almy described a scene of sheer pandemonium: “the women shrieking, the children falling down.” Taking her children with her, Mary Almy ran with them to a house outside of town she thought might be safe from the shelling, lying flat on the ground until a broadside had passed overhead and then jumping up and running until the sound of the next salvo. The following evening was equally frightening, as the British set fire to their ships in the harbor that had not been sunk, and a brisk wind put the town in danger. Almy wrote, “to attempt to describe the horrors of that night, would pronounce me a fool, for no language could put it in its proper colors. Fire and sword had come amongst us and famine was not afar off, for the want of bread was great.” Fleet Greene concurred with Mary Almy and noted that in addition to the loss of livestock, “all carriages, carts, wheelbarrows, shovels, pickaxes, &c, are taken from the inhabitants.” The next day, “a number of trees were cut down at Portsmouth and Middletown and put in the road to obstruct the Provincials march.” Three days after that he recorded, “The army continues to lay waste the island, cutting down orchards and laying open fields, and numbers of the inhabitants without the lines are ordered to move from their houses that they may be taken down.”
On 9 August 1778, the Americans landed over six thousand troops on the north end of the island and the soldiers manning the British and Hessian outposts had fled to the safety of their lines in town. However, on this very same day, a small fleet from New York under the command of Admiral Howe arrived off Narragansett Bay to challenge that of Admiral d’Estaing. And while d’Estaing had originally planned to land approximately five thousand troops to assist their American allies, he now weighed anchor without landing any of them and prepared to engage Howe in a decisive sea battle. Passing the British forts guarding Newport, the French encountered “a very smart fire,” which they returned. As a result, Fleet Greene reported, “Great numbers of shot went through the houses in the town, but no other damage is done.”
However, despite the best laid plans of the Americans and French, the weather turned against both fleet commanders. In fact, a hurricane had likely moved up from the Caribbean. For three days the storm tossed and damaged both fleets and widely scattered them. Several of the largest French ships, including d’Estaing’s flagship Languedoc, were totally dismasted. While Howe was able to retreat to New York City with its extensive shipyards and repair facilities, d’Estaing limped back into Narragansett Bay with Newport’s yards still in enemy hands. Thus he decided to leave the environs of Newport for American-held Boston to refit his damaged fleet. This decision, of course, left the Americans alone in their quest to liberate Newport. Even so, the American ranks, now swelled with local militia, still outnumbered the British and Hessian forces. Ominously, after d’Estaing decided to depart for Boston, Sullivan’s militia began to dissipate. Still, the Americans pressed the British into their outer Newport fortifications and began exchanging cannon fire. However, with militiamen departing his force daily, Sullivan decided that, now that the French no longer controlled the bay, his best move was to retreat off the island before he was trapped by British warships whose return from New York was anticipated. Indeed on 27 August 1778, three British frigates, the Sphinx, the Nautilus, and the Vigilant, dropped anchor in Newport. They formed the vanguard of a relief force coming from New York.
On 29 August 1778, Private Döhla noticed that the Americans no longer returned cannon fire launched at their lines on nearby Honeyman Hill. Pigot ordered an immediate counterattack by two thousand men to see if he could catch or damage the American army as it tried to retreat off the island. During a day-long battle with American forces, which had anticipated an attack, Pigot’s regiments were repulsed and the Americans held their ground. The Hessians, in particular, suffered heavy casualties in the fighting. Sullivan was able to move his forces completely off the island the following evening. Fleet Greene reported two days after the battle that the British and Hessian troops further plundered the up-island inhabitants so that “some families are destitute of a bed to lie on.”
While recriminations flew back and forth as to who was to blame for the Franco-American failure to take vulnerable Newport, life for the troops in the town and on the island returned to mind-numbing routine once again. In fact, the British increased their troop strength there to over nine thousand men. In October 1778, Captain Mackenzie observed, “We are left at present in a Strange situation: Two of the three passages [in Narragansett Bay] are entirely open to the enemy. The winter advancing, & no provision made for the supplying the Garrison with firing [wood]. . . . No Barracks provided, no materials to fit up any, nor any Straw for the troops either while in the field, or when they come into quarters.” Fleet Green noted that the dearth of winter firewood forced many residents to leave town because the British refused to allow the locals to buy wood or have it brought in from the countryside.