Heritage Park and the Battle of Rhode Island

Photo by Michael Kleen

A mixed-unit of African Americans, American Indians, and white colonists fended off wave after wave of British infantry in this little-known Revolutionary War battle.

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The Battle of Rhode Island was fought on August 29, 1778 between American and French forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene and Brig. Gen. John Glover, and British and Hessian forces commanded by Sir Robert Pigot, Maj. Gen. Francis Smith, and Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg on Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island during the American Revolutionary War. The battle was a tactical draw, but ultimately ended in British victory when the Americans withdrew, failing to retake the island

In the winter of 1776, British troops seized control of the strategic town of Newport, Rhode Island and fortified Aquidneck Island. In the spring of 1778, as France entered the war on the American side, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan was appointed overall command of American troops in Rhode Island. He hatched a plan for a joint Franco-American land and sea invasion to retake Newport.

While American militia were mustering and organizing for the fight, Sir Robert Pigot withdrew his men from their fort on Butts Hill into the island’s interior. As the Americans moved into position, French commander Comte d’Estaing informed them his fleet would be unable to assist due to damage from storms and skirmishing. Without French support, hundreds of American militiamen went home. The remaining units arrayed themselves across the island to block the British from retaking the high ground.

The British divided their forces into two columns and marched north the morning of August 29, running into American defenses. The Hessians under von Lossberg attacked the American right flank, which was defended by the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island regiments. The 1st Rhode Island had several companies of black slaves (who were promised freedom in exchange for service) and freedmen. They repulsed three charges by Hessian soldiers.

The battle was inconclusive, but American forces withdrew as planned the following day. In total, 30 Americans were killed, 137 wounded, and 44 missing. The British lost 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing, but they retained control of the island until October 1779.

Fought between Great Britain and her Thirteen American Colonies from 1775 to 1883, the Revolutionary War led to a Declaration of Independence and the formation of the United States of America in 1776. The Thirteen Colonies won their independence, at the cost of an estimated 158,000 British, American, French, German, Spanish, and American Indian lives. It was a dynamic and surprisingly international conflict.

Today, an unassuming strip of land marks the location of Rhode Island’s only Revolutionary War battle. It was declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Perhaps because the battle’s result was inconclusive, there is only a single interpretive sign telling its history. A memorial to Rhode Islanders who lost their lives in the battle was erected at Patriot’s Park, and Heritage Park was dedicated in 1990.

A small gravel parking area for Heritage Park is located off Highpoint Avenue, north of the intersection of Highpoint and Hedly Street in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Patriots Park is located off W. Main Road, where northbound W. Main splits from the southbound lane. Butts Hill Fort is located in a residential area south of the intersection of Fort and Butts streets. All parks are open to the public from dawn to dusk.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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