The Battle of Rhode Island

August 29, 1778

The Battle of Rhode Island took place on August 29, 1778, between the United States of America and Great Britain. The outcome of the battle was inconclusive, however, it is most well-known for being the first battle of the war in which American forces coordinated with allied French forces.

General John Sullivan, Portrait, Illustration

General John Sullivan. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Rhode Island Summary

The Battle of Rhode Island was fought on August 29, 1778, between the United States of America and Great Britain. The battle took place as American forces, under the command of General John Sullivan, ended a short siege of Newport, Rhode Island after French forces withdrew their support and sailed to Boston. Sullivan’s men evacuated their siege lines on August 28 and took defensive positions, forming a line across the island. The next morning, British forces attacked the Americans. The battle carried on most of the day, but neither side was able to break the other’s lines or gain an advantage. The outcome of the battle was inconclusive and British forces retained control of Rhode Island after the Americans returned to the mainland on August 30–31.

Battle of Rhode Island Facts

  • Also Known As: The Battle of Rhode Island is also called the “Battle of Quaker Hill” and the “Battle of Newport.”
  • Start Date: The Battle of Rhode Island started on August 29, 1777.
  • End Date: The battle ended on August 29, 1777.
  • Theater: The battle took place in the Northern Coastal Theater of the war.
  • Winner: There was no winner. The outcome of the battle is considered inconclusive, even though British forces were able to retain control of Rhode Island.
  • Fun Fact: The American forces included the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which was also known as “Varnum’s Regiment” and the “Black Regiment.” The regiment included freed slaves and is considered to be the first black military unit in the U.S. Army.
Battle of Rhode Island, 1st Rhode Island Regiment, Illustration. LOC
This illustration by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger depicts a soldier from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Image Source: Library of Congress.

What Happened at the Battle of Rhode Island?

In May 1778, General John Sullivan made plans to retake control of Newport, Rhode Island, and General George Washington ordered him to raise 5,000 troops to carry out the campaign. Washington also sent the Marquis de Lafayette, Nathanael Greene, John Laurens, and troops to support Sullivan.

Marquis de Lafayette, Portrait, Illustration
Marquis de Lafayette. Image Source: Tennessee Virtual Archive.

On July 29, Sullivan called his officers together for a Council of War. They were joined by the French Admiral, Comte d’Estaing. During the meeting, Sullivan laid out a plan to retake Newport, which is located on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay.

Sullivan suggested that American forces should attack Newport from the east, and French forces would attack from the west. The two-pronged approach was intended to isolate British forces, who were located on the north end of the island at Butt’s Hill, and keep them from supporting the garrison at Newport. The plan was agreed to and preparations started.

However, British intelligence learned of the plan and informed General Robert Pigot, commander of the garrison at Newport. Pigot reinforced Newport by moving the troops on the north end of the island down to Newport.

Pigot also took measures to ensure the Americans would not be able to use any of the island’s resources and supplies. He had his men gather the livestock on the island and secure them, so they could not be used by the Americans for food. He also had all wagons and carriages — used to transport cannons and artillery — destroyed.

In front of Newport, where the Americans would advance, there were orchards of trees. Pigot had the orchards cut down, so the Americans would not be able to take shelter in the trees and his men would have a clear line of sight.

The French fleet entered Newport Harbor on August 8 and Admiral d’Estaing landed his ground forces on the north end of Aquidneck Island, as planned. When Sullivan found that Butt’s Hill had been evacuated, he seized it, upsetting the French officers. Admiral d’Estaing responded by ordering the French troops to return to the ships.

Soon after, another British fleet, under the command of Admiral Richard Howe, arrived off the coast. From August 10 to 11, during a violent storm, the two navies engaged each other. Both fleets suffered damage from the battle and the storm. 

In the aftermath of the naval battle, d’Estaing decided to sail to Boston, where his ships could undergo repairs, leaving Sullivan without French support.

Sullivan planned to withdraw on August 28 and had his forces take defensive positions. The next morning, August 29, Pigot decided to attack the American positions. The battle raged throughout the day, but ended with most of the forces entrenched in their positions, unable to break through.

During the night of August 30–31, American forces withdrew to the mainland, leaving Rhode Island under British control.

Battle of Rhode Island, 1778, Siege, LOC
This illustration, published in February 1779, depicts American troops advancing on Newport on August 25, during the siege. Image Source: Library of Congress.

History of the Battle of Rhode Island

British Forces Take Control of Rhode Island

On December 8, 1776, British forces under the command of General Henry Clinton left New York City and made their way to Rhode Island. Upon arrival, land forces disembarked on Aquidneck Island and took control of Newport.  The town was occupied by General Richard Prescott and several Hessian infantry regiments.

France Joins the American Revolutionary War

In 1777, Britain launched a campaign that was intended to isolate the New England Colonies from the others and bring an end to the war. 

The campaign, which was designed by General John Burgoyne, started in the spring and was successful early, but ran low on supplies and men following a string of battles. 

By the end of summer, Burgoyne’s army was near Saratoga, New York, facing a portion of the Continental Army, under the command of General Horatia Gates.

Following the Second Battle of Saratoga at Bemis Heights, Burgoyne was forced to retreat toward Canada. American forces pursued Burgoyne, surrounded him, and forced him to surrender. The incident marked the first time in history a British army surrendered in the field.

When news of Burgoyne’s surrender reached Europe, France agreed to recognize the United States as an independent nation and agreed to an alliance that included military support.

Battles of Saratoga, Burgoyne's Surrender, Trumbull
This painting by John Trumbull depicts the British surrender at Saratoga. Image Source: Wikipedia.

A French Fleet Dispatched to America

In March 1778, war was declared between Britain and France. The next month, a fleet of French ships, under the command of Admiral Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, Comte d’Estaing, set sail for America. 

The French fleet consisted of 12 ships and carried 4,000 troops. d’Estaing was given orders to blockade the British Fleet that was on the Delaware River, following the British capture of Philadelphia in 1777.

British officials learned of the French fleet but failed to take action in time, allowing d’Estaing to sail through the Straits of Gibraltar.

In June, a British fleet consisting of 13 ships was sent in pursuit of the French. It was under the command of Vice Admiral John Byron.

The French made the crossing in three months, arriving in July, but the British were delayed by bad weather and did not arrive at New York City until the middle of August.

British Evacuation of Philadelphia

Meanwhile, General William Howe abandoned Philadelphia. He marched his army north, back to New York. The British fleet on the Delaware River, under the command of Admiral Richard Howe, also sailed to New York. 

The French Fleet is Redirected to Rhode Island

When d’Estaing found the British fleet was gone, he decided to sail to New York as well. However, American and French military leaders knew they would have trouble penetrating New York Harbor, which was a well-defended British stronghold. They were also unsure if the larger French ships would be able to pass through the areas where the waters were more shallow.

Instead of New York City, the Allied leaders decided to target Newport, Rhode Island, which is where d’Estaing sailed. While the French fleet sat outside the harbor, off the coast, General Clinton and Admiral Howe sent a fleet of transport ships, carrying roughly 2,000 men, to reinforce the garrison at Newport, which was under the command of General Rober Pigot.

The reinforcements arrived on Aquidneck Island on July 14, giving Pigot roughly 6,7000 men under his command.

Admiral Comte d'Estaing, Le Brun, Painting
Admiral Comte d’Estaing. Image Source: Wikipedia.

John Sullivan Takes Command in Rhode Island 

Following the British occupation of the city, General George Washington wanted to retake the city. In 1777, he ordered General Joseph Spencer of Rhode Island to conduct the operation, but Spencer failed to carry out his orders and was removed from command. He was replaced by John Sullivan in March 1778.

Sullivan traveled to Rhode Island to assess the situation and prepare an expedition to retake Newport. He even went so far as to purchase supplies that he stored on the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay and along the Taunton River, at Bristol, Warren, and Freetown.

Pigot discovered what Sullivan was doing and sent troops to carry out raids. The expedition, which started on May 25, raided the towns and destroyed the military supplies.

Sullivan Gathers His Army

On July 17, Washington wrote orders for Sullivan to raise a force of 5,000 men, who would be used in an operation against the British at Newport. Five days later, on July 22, Washington sent a column of Continental troops to join Sullivan. The column was under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette and included the brigades of John Glover and James Mitchelle Varnum.

Washington’s orders arrived at Sullivan’s camp on July 23. Colonel John Laurens rode out ahead of the column and arrived at Sullivan’s camp on July 24.

Meanwhile, news of the arrival of the French fleet spread through Rhode Island. As a result, Sullivan’s army of 1,600 soldiers received reinforcements. General William West called up half of the Rhode Island Militia, and militiamen from Massachusetts and New Hampshire marched to join Sullivan. By the first week of August, Sullivan’s army was in place.

Washington also provided Sullivan was some additional leadership by sending Rhode Island native General Nathanael Greene to join the army.

John Laurens, Illustration
John Laurens. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The French Fleet Arrives at Newport

The French fleet sailed away from New York on July 22. Soon after, a fleet of British ships, under the command of Admiral Howe, sailed out of New York in pursuit.

On July 29, d’Estaing arrived off Point Judith. Sullivan called a Council of War and proposed his plan to take Newport.

  • American forces would gather at Tiverton and cross over to the eastern shore of Aquidneck Island.
  • French forces would gather at Conanicut Island and cross over to the western shore of the island. The French movement was intended to cut off the British troops stationed at Butt’s Hill on the north end of the island.

The following day, July 30, d’Estaing deployed ships around Newport to transfer the troops.

Pigot Responds

Pigot responded by placing his men in defensive positions. He withdrew the men from Conanicut Island and Butt’s Hill. He took further precautions as well, including moving all the livestock on the island into the city, cutting down the orchards in front of the city, and destroying excess wagons and carriages.

As the French ships made their way closer to Newport, Pigot also had unused ships burned to avoid having them captured by American or French forces.

Allied Forces Move Into Position

On August 8, d’Estaing moved his fleet into Newport Harbor. The next day, he landed a portion of the 4,000 French troops on Conanicut Island.

Sullivan Angers the French

Meanwhile, Sullivan found out Pigot had abandoned Butt’s Hill and decided to take action — which went against the plan that had been agreed upon with d’Estaing. Sullivan sent men to take control of the hill, because it was high ground, and he was concerned the British might reoccupy it. According to John Laurens, the move “gave much umbrage to the French officers.”

British Fleet Arrives

Admiral Howe and the British fleet arrived off Port Judith on August 9. The next day, d’Estaing sailed out to engage Howe.

As the two fleets prepared for battle, a violent storm broke out, scattering both fleets. Some of the ships, including d’Estaing’s, were damaged.

Sullivan Lays Siege to Newport

Sullivan started siege operations on August 11, even though the French ships were scattered and he was without their support. While he waited for them to return, he dug trenches northeast of the British line at Newport.

Sea Battles

As both fleets tried to regroup, a few small sea battles took place. Two French ships, including d’Estaing’s main ship, suffered significant damage. Afterward, the French fleet gathered near Delaware. At the same time, the British fleet regrouped and returned to New York.

The French Fleet Withdraws from Rhode Island

Under pressure from his captains, Admiral d’Estaing had to make a decision. They wanted him to sail to Boston for ship repairs, but instead, he headed for Newport to inform the Americans that he couldn’t assist them. 

When he arrived on August 20, he spoke with Sullivan, who argued that if the French stayed to help, they could force the British to quickly surrender — within one or two days. 

However, d’Estaing disagreed, believing it would take much longer to defeat about six thousand well-entrenched British soldiers with a fort and trenches. Ultimately, d’Estaing decided to leave and the French fleet set sail for Boston on August 22.

Effects of the French Withdrawal

The Americans were outraged, referring to the French decision as a “desertion” and arguing the French forces had left them in a cowardly fashion.

The departure of the French fleet led to a large number of American militiamen leaving, significantly reducing the size of Sullivan’s army. Many of the men had only signed up for a short 20-day term of service and appeared to agree with d’Estaing that it would take more than a couple of days to retake Newport. 

On August 24, General Washington informed Sullivan that General Clinton was gathering a relief force in New York to send to Newport. That night, Sullivan and his council decided to retreat to positions on the northern part of Aquidneck Island. Despite this retreat, Sullivan continued his efforts to secure French assistance. He sent Lafayette to Boston to negotiate further with d’Estaing, but the effort failed.

Washington Before the Battle of Trenton, Painting, Trumbull
General George Washington. Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

British Reinforcements

Meanwhile, Admiral Howe received reinforcements when some of the ships in Admiral Byron’s fleet arrived. He sailed in pursuit of d’Estaing. At the same time, Clinton organized a force of 4,000 men, under the command of General Charles Grey. The expedition, accompanied by Clinton, sailed for Newport on August 26.

The Battle of Rhode Island Begins

Although American artillery continued to bombard the British, Sullivan started making plans to end the siege and withdraw and had some of his men start removing equipment from the siege lines. 

General Pigot had become aware of the American intentions to withdraw on August 26 due to deserters, so he was prepared to take action when the Americans began their withdrawal. 

On the morning of August 28, Sullivan and his officers decided to evacuate the siege lines. The Americans set up a defensive line that stretched across Aquidneck Island. The purpose of the line was to prevent the British from occupying the high ground on the north end. Sullivans divided his forces into two sections:

  1. On the island’s west side, General Greene gathered his troops near Turkey Hill. However, he also dispatched the 1st Rhode Island Regiment to set up advanced positions about half a mile to the south. These advanced positions were under the command of Brigadier General James Varnum.
  2. On the east side, General John Glover positioned his forces behind a stone wall overlooking Quaker Hill.

On the morning of the 29th, Pigot sent two columns marching toward the American line. He sent General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg marching on the west road, while General Francis Smith led a contingent up the east road. Each of them had two regiments under their command, and Pigot ordered them to avoid a significant engagement with the Americans — even though they were marching directly at the American line.

Battle of Rhode Island, 1778, Map Detail
This map, drawn by Charles Mielatz in 1883, depicts the military operations during the Battle of Rhode Island. Image Source: University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

Smith Attacks the Left of the American Line

Smith’s advance up the east road stopped when it encountered heavy fire from troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Brockholst Livingston, who was positioned near a windmill near Quaker Hill. 

Pigot sent a message to General Richard Prescott, instructing him to send reinforcements to help Smith. After the reinforcements arrived, Smith was able to resume his offensive and launched an attack on Livingston and his men.

Sullivan sent Colonel Edward Wigglesworth and the 13th Massachusetts Regiment to aid Livingston. However, the British assault proved to be too strong and the Americans were pushed back to Quaker Hill. Livingston and Wigglesworth quickly realized they were in danger of being flanked by the enemy and fell back even further, joining Glover’s troops behind the stone wall overlooking Quaker Hill.

Smith stopped his advance, realizing the Americans were in a strong defensive position. When Smith ended the advance, the battle ended on the left side of the American line.

Lossberg Attacks the Right of the American Line

Around 7:30 a.m., General Lossberg moved forward and engaged Americans under the command of Colonel John Laurens. Like Glover, Laurens had his men positioned behind stone walls south of the Redwood House. Lossberg’s forces pushed the Americans away from the wall, forcing them to fall back to Turkey Hill.

Sullivan sent reinforcements to Laurens, but it was not enough. Lossberg captured Turkey Hill and forced Laurens to fall back far enough to join with Greene’s troops. Once he was in control of Turkey Hill, Lossberg placed his artillery and started to bombard Greene. 

Around 10 a.m., three British ships joined in the bombardment of Greene. As they opened fire, Lossberg sent men to assault the right wing of the American line. Lossberg’s men were met by the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, who successfully repelled the first assault. Lossberg’s men tried two more times and were pushed back each time. As Lossberg’s men withdrew — who were mostly Hessians and Loyalists — they bayoneted wounded American soldiers.

Meanwhile, Greene’s artillery and an American battery stationed at Bristol Neck fired on the three British ships. The American bombardment was successful and forced the ships to withdraw.

General Nathanael Greene, Portrait, Illustration
General Nathanael Greene. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Battle of Rhode Island Ends

Around 2 p.m., Lossberg sent another assault on General Greene’s position. It also failed, but this time, Greene responded with a counterattack that included:

  • The 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, under the command of Colonel Israel Angell.
  • Brigadier General Solomon Lovell and his brigade of Massachusetts Militia.
  • Livingston and his men.

Greene’s men could not break Lossberg’s line, so he tried to flank the right side of the line. Lossberg was outnumbered, so he fell back to the top of Turkey Hill. By 3 p.m., Greene’s men made their way to a stone wall at the base of Turkey Hill but were unable to advance further or dislodge Lossberg’s forces.

Artillery fire continued through the night, but the battle essentially came to an end and both armies prepared to withdraw.

Battle of Rhode Island Outcome

During the night of August 30, the Continental forces withdrew to the towns of Bristol and Tiverton, leaving Aquidneck Island under British control. 

In Boston, the initial criticism of Admiral d’Estaing escalated as politicians worked to diffuse the situation. There was violence against some French soldiers and sailors, and several soldiers were killed during a riot in Charlestown.

The expedition under the command of Clinton and Grey reached Newport on September 1. With the threat to Newport over, Clinton dispatched Grey to carry out raids on towns along the coast.

Admiral Howe, who failed to catch up to the French fleet before it reached Boston, stopped at the Nantasket Roads on August 30. Howe, who had already resigned his commission, turned command of the fleet over to Admiral Byron.

Byron tried to engage the French fleet when it left Boston and sailed to the West Indies, but Byron’s fleet was scattered by a storm. 

After escaping to the West Indies, Admiral d’Estaing soon attempted to make up for what happened at Newport by helping American forces lay Siege to Savannah. However, that operation also failed. Admiral d’Estaing was eventually replaced by General Rochambeau.

Pigot was criticized by Clinton for not waiting for him to arrive with Grey’s force. Had he done so, they might have been able to destroy or capture Sullivan’s army.

In October 1779, the British decided to abandon Newport.

Battle of Rhode Island Interesting Facts

  • The 1st Rhode Island Regiment fought in the Battle of Rhode Island. The brigade is notable because it included black men and Native American Indians, fighting for the Patriot Cause.
  • The actual battle took place after American forces decided to end their siege of Newport.
  • Key leaders of the American forces were John Sullivan, Nathanael Greene, John Glover, John Laurens, James Mitchell Varnum, Christopher Greene, and Samuel Ward Jr.
  • Comte d’Estaing commanded French forces.
  • British forces were commanded by General Robert Pigot. Other leaders included Francis Smith, Richard Prescott, and Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg.
  • The battle was the first attempt by American and French forces to work together during the war.
  • The battle was also notable for the participation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment under the command of Colonel Christopher Greene, which consisted of Africans, American Indians, and white colonists.

Battle of Rhode Island Significance

The Battle of Rhode Island is important to United States history for the role it played in the American Revolutionary War. Although the outcome of the battle is considered inconclusive, it was the first time American and French forces worked together in the war. The battle also featured the heroic efforts of Rhode Island’s “Black Regiment” — the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, who repelled several assaults by British forces during the battle.

Battle of Rhode Island Legacy

In February 2021, the Portsmouth Historical Society led an effort to restore Butts Hill Fort, the largest earthwork still remaining from the American Revolutionary War in southeastern New England. The effort led to the establishment of the Battle of Rhode Island Association. One of the goals of the Association is to enhance history education by broadening recognition of Rhode Island’s unique Revolutionary War experiences, particularly those pertaining to the Rhode Island Campaign, the British Occupation, the arrival of the French, and their departure

Battle of Rhode Island APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Battle of Rhode Island, the American Revolutionary War, and the 13 Original Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Battle of Rhode Island APUSH Definition

The Battle of Rhode Island, fought on August 29, 1778, during the American Revolutionary War, was a significant engagement between American and British forces. It took place on Aquidneck Island, where American troops, under the command of General John Sullivan, attempted to dislodge British forces occupying Newport. Although the Americans failed to take Newport, the battle is notable for being the first time American forces coordinated efforts with allied French forces. The battle also featured the heroic efforts of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which was made up primarily of minorities.

1st Rhode Island Regiment and Black Soldiers of the Revolutionary War Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the American Battlefield Trust discusses the role of black soldiers in the American Revolutionary War, including the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which played an important role in the Battle of Rhode Island.

Battle of Rhode Island Suggested Reading

From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution by Robert A. Geake. The following is from Amazon.com’s review of the book:

Known as the “Black” Regiment, the Story of the First Continental Army Unit Composed of African American and Native American Enlisted Men. In December 1777, the Continental Army was encamped at Valley Forge and faced weeks of cold and hunger, as well as the prospect of many troops leaving as their terms expired in the coming months. 

If the winter were especially cruel, large numbers of soldiers would face death or contemplate desertion. Plans were made to enlist more men, but as the states struggled to fill quotas for enlistment, Rhode Island general James Mitchell Varnum proposed the historic plan that a regiment of slaves might be recruited from his own state, the smallest in the union, but holding the largest population of slaves in New England. 

The commander-in-chief’s approval of the plan would set in motion the forming of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. The “black regiment,” as it came to be known, was composed of indentured servants, Narragansett Indians, and former slaves.

Advertisement

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of Rhode Island
  • Date August 29, 1778
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Rhode Island, Battle of Rhode Island date, Battle of Rhode Island winner, Who won the Battle of Rhode Island, What happened at the Battle of Rhode Island, When was the Battle of Rhode Island, Where was the Battle of Rhode Island, How did the Battle of Rhode Island affect the American Revolutionary War, 1st Rhode Island Regiment
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 21, 2024

Taxonomies