My journey to Rhode Island was off to a rough start. First, there was a maintenance issue with my flight, followed by a reschedule onto a different airline. But foggy conditions prevented a timely takeoff, necessitating another flight change. My layover was at first to be in Newark, NJ, then was rescheduled for Chicago, finally scheduled once again, this time for Charlotte, North Carolina.
So, after hanging out at the airport for most of the day and having to go through security twice due to the change in airlines, I was finally on my way to Providence, Rhode Island. I definitely thanked Providence for my arrival, safe and sound!
It’s a good thing I love research. 😉
My friend Cherrilynn picked me up and we hugged and visited for hours. We spent the next day drinking tea and coffee, and planning our agenda for the first trek to Portsmouth, Bristol, and Newport, the areas featured in my manuscript, “Scarred Vessels.” I’d spoken with a couple of historians on our planning day to set up meetings in Portsmouth and Bristol. Our first venture on Friday morning was the site of the Battle of Rhode Island.
To see the landscape now, one would never know the island known as Aquidneck was the site of this major battle in August of 1778. While many historic sites around the country are preserved to appear as they were during the American Revolution, much of the island is now businesses and farms. But fortunately, for the sake of preserving this heritage, the area where the actual battle took place on Butts Hill in Portsmouth is so covered in shale rock as to be worthless for agriculture. By benefit of its geological formation, Butts Hill still bears the marks of the battle site.
Although tree growth is abundant, the general outline of the fort that was originally built in 1777 by the British, can still be envisioned. One of the local historians assured Cherrilynn and I that the fort was undoubtedly created by the forced labor of the local colonists who were conscripted to bear the load of digging through the hard dirt and unforgiving shale to create the ramparts that would protect the British from the American Army.
But by 1778 when the American regiments arrived at Portsmouth on flat boats from Bristol Ferry, the British Army had by then abandoned the fort, propping up straw-filled “soldiers” dressed in red coats to appear from a distance to be actual troops.
This was their starting point to take back the city of Newport, held by the British, on the southern tip of Aquidneck island. It was approximately seven miles south to that city and thousands of American troops traversed the island and set up camp, thinking they would attack the fort and take it back from the British. But multiple circumstances forced an evacuation of the American troops back to Butts Hill in Portsmouth and that is where the stand-off took place.
Gloria Schmidt, a local historian, did the honors of showing us the fort area and answering our many questions. She was a delight and so very helpful.
As I stood on top of the earthen fortress built so long ago and envisioned the sweat, the fear, the ear-splitting sounds of gunfire and cannon fired on that sweltering day in 1778, I was truly moved by the sacrifice of these men. It was sad to realize that, with support from the community, this fort could be restored in some manner as a memorial to the bravery of the soldiers who fought here. But the technicalities of declaring a place a historical site affects local communities in far-reaching ways that often cause towns to shy away from such a commitment. While it is sad, it is also understandable.
A volunteer at the Portsmouth Historical Society, John Watts, showed us an area on the edge of the fort where the local militia in Portsmouth had rallied together to help the main body of troops returning from Newport. When the militia discovered the British had sent a unit to attack the Americans as soon as they’d arrived at the fort, this militia engaged that British regiment and prevented the slaughter of the Americans soldiers.
In 2005, a monument to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, comprised of nearly 200 black soldiers, was erected to honor the men who fought so valiantly in this battle. Every name of every soldier in the regiment is etched on the long stone wall. It’s a fitting tribute to honor the black soldiers who signed on to earn their freedom, in a country that had yet to declare all black people free.
Next week will be the historical visit to Bristol, Rhode Island, home of my main characters in “Scarred Vessels.”