In November, 1776, when Sir William Howe seemed to be carrying everything before him, he detached some seven thousand men, of whom about one half were Hessians, to occupy Newport. This corps landed without opposition, and spent three years in Rhode Island, lying, during the larger part of the time, inactive, and suffering during the last years from scarcity of flour and of wood. There is little doubt that the men could have been better employed elsewhere. With six thousand, or even with four thousand more soldiers at his command, Clinton might have acted more promptly and efficiently than he did for the assistance of Burgoyne. We may well suppose, however, that Sir William Howe, having taken possession of Newport when he thought he had no better use for his troops, was afraid of losing prestige if he abandoned the town. He drew some regiments from the garrison in the summer of 1777, before the opening of the campaign.
On the whole, I do not think that the service in Rhode Island could have been very trying to the soldiers. If flour was scarce, meat was plenty. The inhabitants were shy at first, and shut up their families. On Shelter Island, when the strangers approached, the country people ran away; believing, says one, that the Hessians ate up little children. "But in time," writes an officer, "they became more familiar with us, learned to understand our broken English, showed us their families, and let their fear of us disappear." (MS journal of the Regiment von Huyn.)
When this easy footing had been established, there was substantial comfort to be found in the hospitable houses of Newport. The inhabitants entertained entirely in the English fashion. All dishes were placed on the table at once. Every guest ate and drank at his pleasure, without urging. Soup was seldom given, but there were four or five kinds of vegetables on the table, and boiled potatoes with every dish. The list of drinks given in the journal before me includes punch, cider, strong beer, porter, grog, madeira, port, claret, sherry, toddy, sangaree, and syllabub. People pledged each other during the meal, and regular toasts were given after the cloth was removed. The toasts went round to the right, the bottle to the left.
Sir Henry Clinton was the first commander of the expedition, and was succeeded by Lord Percy. The latter laid down the command in May, 1777, to return to England. The hopes which had brought him to America had been disappointed, for it is said that on leaving home he had sworn not to come back unless with the olive branch of peace. He was popular at Newport, and the Tory inhabitants sent him a complimentary address on his departure, wishing him a safe and pleasant passage and a long continuance of perfect health. "Your excellency's illustrious rank and character," they add, "render it unnecessary to wish you any other blessing of life." In return, his lordship assured them that it was the duty and the wish of every British and Hessian soldier to protect all peaceable and innocent inhabitants.
The people of Newport were less satisfied with Major-general Prescott, Lord Percy's successor. They were not long obliged to suffer from him. The general had chosen for his headquarters a lonely house about four miles from Newport, and as much as a mile from the nearest troops. He relied for safety on a small guard and on a ship anchored not far from the house. On the night of the 10th of July, 1777, about midnight, a party of Americans under Colonel Barton landed from two whaleboats at Redwood Creek, crept across the fields to Prescott's headquarters, overpowered the guard, broke into the house, pulled the general and his aide-de-camp out of their beds, and made off with them without giving them time to dress. The boats safely ran the gantlet of the British shipping, and carried the captives to Providence.
The command now devolved on Major-general Pigot, and things went on in their old course. Constant expeditions were made to the neighboring islands, or to the mainland, for provisions or wood. At the end of July a party of women and children were sent to Providence, on account of the scarcity of food in Newport. I do not think, however, that the soldiers suffered severe privations. On the whole, the year 1777, and the first half of 1778, passed quietly away, though the Americans sometimes made as if they would attack the island. Meanwhile Burgoyne had taken Ticonderoga, had advanced on Albany, and had surrendered at Saratoga; Howe had taken Philadelphia, and Clinton had abandoned it; the King of France had declared war, and an anxious hour for the little army at Newport was approaching.
On the 15th Of July, 1778, General Prescott, who had been exchanged since his capture, arrived from New York with reinforcements. Among these were the two regiments of Anspach. He announced that the French fleet was coming to America, and on the 29th that fleet appeared off Newport. It was commanded by Count d'Estaing, and consisted of five ships of seventy-four guns, six of sixty-four, and three of twenty-six. At eleven o'clock in the morning these vessels were lying at anchor before the harbor. The island of Connanicut was immediately evacuated by the Germans and occupied by the French, who took some provisions which there had not been time to remove. The English and Hessian soldiers expected an immediate landing of the enemy on Rhode Island. The town was in confusion, and the Tories in despair.
The French admiral, however, did not immediately follow up his advantage. It was not until the 8th of August that he forced his way into the harbor, past batteries at Brenton's Neck, King's Fort, Goat Island, and North Point. The cannonade lasted an hour and a half, at the end of which time the fleet anchored near Connanicut. Not a man was wounded in the town, but the ships had suffered some damage.
The regiments that had been outside of Newport were now called back within the lines. General Sullivan had landed on Rhode Island with a rebel army. The British and German soldiers were crowded like sheep in the town. They were worn out with continual toil, for ever since the appearance of the French fleet every available man had been busy in the intrenchments. Four frigates and two smaller vessels were burned, and one frigate and another vessel sunk, to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy. There was great anxiety in Newport, but on the 9th of August came relief. An English fleet of thirty-six sail, under Lord Howe, appeared off Point Judith. Count d'Estaing sailed out the next morning to meet it, undergoing a brisk cannonade from the shore batteries. The English fleet fell back, pursued by the French. The 10th was a day of suspense. On the 11th a violent storm arose, and both fleets were scattered before it.
It was the French fleet that reappeared first. "Now all our hopes were vain," writes the Hessian quartermaster; "we already, in our thoughts, saw ourselves in the hands of our enemies, for our force was too small to withstand so strong a corps, from the side of the land and of the sea." Suddenly, to the joy and surprise of the garrison, the fleet sailed away.
For a week longer Sullivan remained in front of the intrenchments of Newport, while his army of militia melted away. On the evening of the 28th he fell back to the northern end of the island, and was followed by the English on the morning of the 29th. The Americans turned, however, inflicted a check on their pursuers, and on the night of the 30th left the island without being further molested. The expedition had been grossly mismanaged. The losses on each side, in the affair of the 29th, were between two and three hundred men. Of these, one hundred and twenty-eight were Germans. It was well for the Americans that they made off when they did, for on the 1st of September Sir Henry Clinton arrived in Newport harbor with a fleet and reinforcements.
For more than a year longer the British and Germans remained on Rhode Island, useless and inactive. At last, in October, 1779, a fleet was again seen in the offing, but, as it came along the Sound, it was recognized as friendly. It turned out to be composed of transports, come to take away the garrison. Immediately the baggage was put on board, the store of fuel given away. The sad spectacle of Tory families flying from their native land was repeated. There were more who wished to go than could be taken in the ships, and some were forced to stay and face the wrath of their neighbors.
Cordial feelings had grown up in the course of three years between the Hessians and the inhabitants of Newport. General Prescott feared that some of his soldiers might wish to stay behind, and gave orders that on the day when the troops were to embark all the houses should be closed and no one, especially no woman, should be seen at a window. With bands playing and flying colors the regiments marched through the empty streets and took their places in the boats which carried them to the ships. The hostile occupation of Rhode Island was ended (For the occupation of Rhode Island, cf. Bancroft, vol. ix. pp. 200, 357, 358; vol. x. p. 146 et seq.; Eelking's "Hulfstruppen," vol. i. p.105 et seq.; vol. ii. pp. 14, 15, 30 et seq.; Ewald's "Belehrungen," vol. ii. p. 249 et seq.; MS journal of the Regiment von Huyn.)