Operations in Narragansett Bay (1775)

November 1774–December 1775

The Operations in Narragansett Bay were a series of military actions that took place on land and sea, on and around the waters and islands of the Province of Rhode Island. The operations took place during the Siege of Boston and contributed to the establishment of both the Rhode Island Navy and the Continental Navy. British threats to towns around Narragansett Bay also helped solidify Rhode Island’s support for independence.

USS Providence, 1776, Painting, Gilkerson

This painting by William Gilkerson depicts the USS Providence, formerly known as the Katy, during a battle with a British ship in 1776. Image Source: Scrimshaw Gallery.

Operations in Narragansett Bay Facts

Timeline

  • November 27, 1774 — Captain James Wallace and the HMS Rose arrived at Narragansett Bay.
  • April 19, 1775 — Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Siege of Boston started.
  • April 26, 1775 — Providence merchant John Brown was arrested.
  • June 12, 1775 — The Rhode Island Navy was established.
  • June 15, 1775 — The Rhode Island Navy captured the British ship, the Diana, in the first naval battle in Rhode Island.
  • August 17, 1775 — The Providence Beacon was tested.
  • August 24, 1775 — British forces started to raid islands in Narragansett Bay.
  • August 30, 1775 — British ships fired on Stonington, Connecticut.
  • October 7, 1775 — British ships fired on Bristol, Rhode Island.
  • October 13, 1775 — The Second Continental Congress authorized the purchase of John Brown’s ship, Katy, to be the first ship in the Continental Navy.
  • October 30, 1775 — Congress officially established the Continental Navy.
  • November 8–9, 1775 — The Rhode Island Navy battled with the HMS Bolton and other British ships near Newport.
  • November 9, 1775 — Nicholas Cooke was appointed Governor of Rhode Island, replacing Joseph Wanton.
  • December 3, 1775 — The Katy arrived in Philadelphia and was recommissioned as the Providence for service in the Continental Navy.
  • December 10-11, 1775 — British troops landed on Conanicut Island and burned houses and buildings in Jamestown.
  • December 25, 1775 — General Charles Lee issued the first Oath of Loyalty, requiring Loyalists to support the Patriot Cause.

Key People

Captain James Wallace — Wallace was a veteran of the Seven Years’ War who was given command of the 20-gun frigate HMS Rose in December 1771. He sailed to America in 1774 and Vice Admiral Samuel Graves sent him to Narragansett Bay to replace the HMS Gaspee, which had been destroyed in 1772. Wallace patrolled the bay and surrounding waterways with the Rose, and four other ships, including the HMS Swan and the HMS Glasgow

John Brown — Brown was a prominent merchant from Providence, Rhode Island. He was a member of the Providence Sons of Liberty and a strong supporter of the Patriot Cause. Brown was involved in the Gaspee Affair (1772) and is widely recognized as having generated his wealth via the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Reverend Ezra Stiles — Stiles was a Congregationalist minister in Newport, Rhode Island. During the American Revolution, Stiles kept a detailed diary that documented events that took place in Narragansett Bays, along with information about significant events that were taking place in the other colonies.

Ezra Stiles, Congregational Minister, Illustration
Reverend Ezra Stiles. Image Source: The History of Connecticut by G.H. Hollister, 1857.

Abraham Whipple — Commodore Whipple was a prominent naval officer during the American Revolutionary War. He first commanded the Katy for the Rhode Island Navy and then joined the Continental Navy. Whipple also played a role in the Gaspee Affair.

Esek Hopkins — Commodore Hopkins was the brother of Stephen Hopkins. In 1775, he led Rhode Island militia forces. He eventually joined the Continental Navy and rose to the rank of Commander-in-Chief.

Charles Lee — General Lee was a British-born military veteran and second-in-command of the Continental Army. In 1775, Lee helped design defensive fortifications in Rhode Island and he also issued the first Oath of Loyalty for Loyalists.

Joseph Wanton — Governor Wanton was the last Royal Governor of Rhode Island. Branded as a Loyalist in 1775, he was replaced by Nicholas Cook.

Nicholas Cooke — Cooke was a leading Patriot in Rhode Island and became the first Governor of the State of Rhode Island.

Significance

The Operations in Narragansett Bay are important to American History because they played an important role in developing the Continental Navy — America’s first naval force. Many of the men involved in the Operations in Narragansett Bay, including Esek Hopkins and Abraham Whipple, went on to play significant roles in the Continental Navy.

Operations in Narragansett Bay History

During the Siege of Boston, the British Garrison that was trapped in the city — soldiers, families, and livestock — needed food and supplies. Admiral Samuel Graves sent ships from the British fleet to gather what was needed from towns and farms along the coast of New England. Although they were instructed to buy the provisions, the British resorted to carrying out raids and bombarded towns when the people refused to comply with demands.

According to historian Edward Field, “Within the little state there was one hundred and thirty miles of coast and two navigable rivers; the British ships in the lower bay impeded navigation, and all of the seaport towns were subject to depredations by parties from these vessels. They landed all along the shore, drove off and killed the cattle belonging to the farmers, stole their produce, poultry, and other livestock, and when any resistance was offered even destroyed the homes of the country people.”

British Ships Threaten Narragansett Bay

Captain James Wallace and the HMS Rose arrived at Newport in Narragansett Bay on November 27, 1774. Soon after, he went on a 2-week expedition to the west, scouting in Long Island Sound. 

When he returned to Newport, he found the Patriots had removed the cannons from Fort George on Goat Island — also called Fort Island — and moved them to Providence, north of Narragansett Bay, on the mainland.

For the rest of the winter of 1774–1775 and into the spring of 1775, Captain Wallace and his small fleet harassed ships in Narragansett Bay and the waters along the coast of Rhode Island.

After a plot was uncovered that a group of Patriots intended to tar and feather Captain Wallace, Admiral Samuel Graves sent the HMS Swan, a 14-gun ship with a crew of 100 men, to help patrol Narragansett Bay. In February, the Providence Gazette reported the two ships were “very vigilant in searching almost every Vessel that arrives…”

This watercolor by Irwin John Bevan depicts British ships operating in Narragansett Bay. Image Source: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

War Begins and Wallace Threatens Newport

By the spring of 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly, like Massachusetts and the other New England Colonies, was concerned about the potential for hostilities and started to prepare for war with the British forces occupying America. 

By early 1775, artisans in Providence were making gun stocks, gun barrels, bayonets, and other military supplies. Then the Assembly voted to raise troops and commission officers, against the wishes of Governor Joseph Wanton, a Loyalist. His Deputy Governor, Nicholas Cooke, was a Patriot and worked with the Assembly.

On April 20, news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord spread through Rhode Island. Approximately 500 armed men gathered in Newport and waited for orders from the Governor. According to Reverend Ezra Stiles, Captain James Wallace threatened, “…fire upon the Town [Newport] & lay it in Ashes, if any march from hence…” Wallace’s threats did not deter the people of Rhode Island from joining Massachusetts in resisting British forces.

Arrest of John Brown, Prominent Merchant and Son of Liberty

As part of the preparations for war, the Rhode Island Assembly looked to gather food and supplies for the troops. John Brown, a prominent merchant who was a member of the Providence Sons of Liberty and had been involved in the Gaspee Affair, was tasked with gathering flour. 

Brown sailed down to Newport to purchase shipments of flour, which had been loaded onto two ships, the Diana, and the Abigail. As the ships sailed back to Providence on April 26, Captain James Wallace apprehended them and arrested Brown. The next day, Brown was sent to Boston, along with the Abigail. The Diana remained with Wallace and was added to his fleet.

Wallace was likely informed of Brown’s mission by Metcalf Bowler, the Speaker of the House and, publicly, a Patriot. After Bowler died, it was discovered that he had sold information to British officials.

On May 1, the Newport Mercury printed an account of the incident that criticized Wallace for seizing the ships and arresting Brown, and said, “Mr. Brown was…carried to Admiral Graves, at Boston, without having a single reason given for his being thus violently seized and carried out of this colony, contrary to all law, equity, and justice.”

Even Governor Joseph Wanton was disturbed by the arrest of one of the most prominent merchants in New England. Wanton tried to convince Wallace to free Brown, but he refused. Wallace wrote to General Thomas Gage in Boston and said, “…contrary to my Request for his dismission has sent him round to Boston, to the very great Distress of his Family and numerous connexions…”

Brown was such a prominent figure that Ethan Allen, who captured Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, offered to send prisoners to Massachusetts who could be exchanged for him. Allen wrote, “…I hope they may serve as ransoms for Some of our Friends at Boston and particularly Capt. Brown of Rhode Island.”

Meanwhile, Brown’s brothers, Moses and Joseph, traveled to Boston and asked to meet with General Gage and Admiral Graves. By the time the Abigail and Brown arrived, an agreement was made. Brown was taken to the HMS Preston where he met with Admiral Graves and signed a pledge to cooperate with British authorities and appeal to the Rhode Island General Assembly to do the same. Moses signed a similar pledge, with General Gage.

The Brown brothers were allowed to leave Boston. According to legend, they were provided with one horse, which they rode back to Providence together.

Reverend Stiles believed Wallace had set his sights on Brown because of his involvement in the Gaspee Affair. In his diary, Stiles wrote, “Capt. Wallace’s pretence for apprehending him was that he was concerned in burning the Gaspee Schooner. Application was made to Judge Oliver of the Commissioners that sat on the Affair at Newport and he testified that no Accusation was exhibited against Mr. Brown…”

Gage went so far as to pay for the flour and ordered Wallace to return the Abigail and Diana to their owners. Stiles said Gage, “…sent off a Reprimand to Cat. Wallace…A humbling stroke to the Tories! The General and Admiral treated Mr. Brown politely and dismissed him with Honor.”

On May 7, Brown appeared before the Rhode Island General Assembly and appealed for the members to negotiate with General Gage. The appeal was rejected.

Despite Gage’s orders, Captain Wallace refused to return the Abigail and the Diana, and both were armed and added to his fleet Admiral Graves likely approved this.

John Brown viewed this as Wallace breaking the agreement that had been made with Gage. Brown tried to sue Wallace, but the case was dismissed because Wallace had been acting under the authority given to him by the Navigation Acts.

On June 6, the Diana seized a ship that was carrying supplies to Nantucket that were said to be for “…70 poor men…and their families…” Afterward, Brown and others were determined to recapture the Diana and the Abigail.

Rhode Island Navy Established — June 12, 1775

John Brown outfitted one of his ships, the Katy, with guns, so it could be used to defend American ships and attack British ships. Captain Abraham Whipple, another veteran of the Gaspee Affair, commanded the Katy.

On June 12, 1775, Brown sent a private letter to Deputy Governor Cooke and asked him to provide more ships to join the Katy to help in retaking the Diana and the Abigail — through legal means and help guard the coast. Brown specifically asked Cooke to have the Sheriff of Newport County arrest Captain James Wallace for not following Gage’s orders and hold him until the ships were returned.

Brown informed Cooke that Captain Whipple and the Katy were preparing to sail to recapture the ships the next day, June 13. Brown also offered to sell the Katy to the Assembly and to pay for any repairs needed for the Diana and the Abigail.

That same day, Cooke presented a plan to the General Assembly, which passed the following resolutions, establishing the Rhode Island Navy:

  • Deputy Governor Cooke was instructed to write to Captain Wallace, ask him to explain his actions, and release the ships.
  • The Committee of Safety was instructed to secure two ships to be used to “protect the trade” of Rhode Island.
  • 1,500 men were to be raised to defend the colony, including crews for the two ships.
  • Abraham Whipple was appointed Commodore.

Afterward, orders were issued to Commodore Whipple, instructing him to take action against “…Armies of Enemies of the united American Colonies…”

AHC Note — At this time, Congress was still referring to the union of the 13 Colonies under the Continental Association as the “United Colonies.” The name United States was not used until September 1776. Also, the Rhode Island Navy was the first Colonial Navy in America.

Rhode Island Navy, Historical Marker, HMDB
This historical marker commemorates the establishment of the Rhode Island Navy. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Cooke’s Letter to Wallace

Per the Assembly’s instructions, Deputy Governor Nicholas Cooke wrote to Captain James Wallace and asked him to explain his actions and to release the ships he had captured. Cooke told him, “So long as you remain in the colony, and demean yourself as becomes your office, you may depend upon the protection of the laws, and every assistance for promoting the public service in my power. And you may also be assured that the whole power of the colony will be exerted to secure the persons and properties of the inhabitants against every lawless invader.”

On June 15, Wallace responded and ignored Cooke’s authority, saying, “Although I am unacquainted with you or what station you act in, suppose you write on behalf of some body of people; therefore, previous to my giving an answer, I must desire to know whether or not you, or the people on whose behalf you write, are not in open rebellion to your lawful sovereign and the acts of the British legislature!”

AHC Note — It was customary for British officials and commanders to ignore officials representing government bodies that were not associated with the British government.

First Naval Battle in Rhode Island — June 15, 1775

On June 15, 1775, Commodore Abraham Whipple sailed down the Providence River toward Narragansett Bay. The Katy was accompanied by the second ship in the Navy, the Washington, which was commanded by Lieutenant John Grimes. The goal of their mission was to recapture the Diana and the Abigail.

Captain James Wallace was informed the Rhode Island ships were on the water so he sent the Diana, commanded by Master Savage Gardner, to scout near Conanicut Island. The Diana was between Conanicut Island and Gould Island when the American ships approached.

When the Katy was close enough, Commodore Whipple told Gardner to surrender the Diana, or he would fire on the ship. The Katy fired a shot at the Diana, and Gardner ordered his men to return fire with their small arms and the ship’s swivel guns. 

The firefight between the two ships lasted for approximately 30 minutes when a chest on the Diana, full of ammunition, exploded. Because of this, the crew of the Diana was running low on ammunition when the Washington came up and also started firing on them.

With the Diana caught in a crossfire, Gardner ordered his men to sail the ship toward Conanicut Island and run it aground. The ship landed on the north end of the island and the crew disembarked while the Americans kept firing on them. Whipple sent some of his men to the island via whaleboats, and they continued their pursuit of the British, who split up and hid across the island. 

Meanwhile, the Washington dragged the Diana back to sea. When the Americans returned to the ships, they sailed back to Providence and took the Diana with them. The next day, June 16, Gardner and the former crew of the Diana seized a ferry and went to Newport. 

When Wallace was informed of the loss, he sent a letter to Whipple and said, “You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th June, 1772, burned his majesty’s vessel, the ‘Gaspee,’ and I will hang you at the yard-arm.”

Whipple responded by saying, “Always catch a man before you hang him.”

AHC Note — Some accounts identify this engagement as the first naval battle of the war, but the Battle off Fairhaven (May 11, 1775) or the Battle of Machias (June 11–12, 1775) are generally given that distinction. However, the engagement between the Rhode Island Navy and the Diana was the first time a British vessel was captured by an armed American vessel in the American Revolutionary War.

Narragansett Bay, Map, NYPL
This map shows Narragansett Bay. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

The British Fleet Harrasses Narragansett Bay

On June 17, 1775, Captain James Wallace learned the Rhode Island ships were 12 miles from his position, so he sailed out of Newport with the Rose and Swan. Although his operation was supposed to be a secret, the Americans found out and warned the Rhode Island Navy. 

Commodore Abraham Whipple responded by sailing north to shallow waters in the Providence River where the large British ships could not follow.

When Wallace sailed after the Rhode Island Navy, he left five ships behind in Newport Harbor. Each of them had been captured and filled with supplies to send to Boston. While he was gone, the townspeople unloaded the ships and dismantled them.

Despite the losses and the presence of the Rhode Island Navy, Captain Wallace and his fleet continued to harass American ships in the region. On July 18, Deputy Governor Nicholas Cooke wrote a letter to Samuel Ward and Stephen Hopkins in Philadelphia, where they were participating in the Second Continental Congress. Cooke said, ”We have three men of War…” along with another ship, constantly raiding “…almost all the Vessels…Especially those that belong to providence…”

Meanwhile, Commodore Whipple continued to harass the British fleet and return to the safety of the shallow waters in the Providence River.

June 22 — Wallace captured another of John Brown’s ships, which he loaded with rum and sent to Boston for British troops.

July 22 — Wallace threatened Newport, accusing the townspeople of holding some of his sailors as prisoners. After two days, he withdrew, but the threat to return put the townspeople on alert.

The Providence Beacon

On June 28, 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly instructed the port towns to fortify themselves. On July 3, Providence voted to build a beacon and selected a committee to oversee the project. The members of the committee were Joseph Brown, Joseph Bucklin, and Benjamin Thurber. 

On July 29, the Providence Gazette reported the beacon had been placed “…on a very high hill in the town by order of the Honorable General Assembly. A watch is likewise kept on Tower Hill in case of any attempt by water from our savage enemies.”

The Beacon itself was fairly simple. It was an 80-foot-tall mast, secured by wooden pegs. There was a kettle hanging at the top, filled with flammable materials. At the bottom of the beacon was a small building or shed, that was used to store materials.

According to the Gazette, the Providence Beacon “…was observed over a wide area of country, extending from Cambridge Hill to New London and Norwich, and from Newport to Pomfret.” Similar beacons were built in other places in Rhode Island, including Tonomy Hill on Aquidneck Island, Beacon Pole Hill in Cumberland, and Chopmist Hill in Scituate.

Fox Hill Fort

A month later, on July 31, 1775, Providence approved the construction of fortifications on Fox Hill and Fox Point, and between “Field’s and Sassafras points of sufficient capacity to cover a body of men ordered there on any emergency.” Captain Nicholas Power was in charge of overseeing construction, and he was advised by a committee that included Esek Hopkins. Artillery batteries were planned for the fort on Fox Hill.

Esek Hopkins, Commodore, Continental Navy, NYPL
Esek Hopkins. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

August 10 — The Katy sailed to Goat Island, removed the last cannons from Fort George, and transported them to Providence.

The British Fleet Expands in Narragansett Bay

On August 14, 1775, another British ship, the HMS Glasgow, joined the British fleet at Newport Harbor. The Newport Mercury commented on the situation, and jokingly said, “We are now protected by two ships of 20 guns and one of 16, which is very lucky, as a Spanish war seems to very near, we having never before had any ship stationed here, for our protection, in a time of war.”

Testing the Providence Beacon

When the Providence Beacon was completed the committee overseeing the project needed to test it out. August 17, 1775, was chosen as the date and handbills were distributed to explain the purpose of the Beacon and also not to be alarmed by the test.

“In case of an alarm we intend to fire the Beacon, and also discharge cannon to notify all to look out for the Beacon…whenever you see said Beacon on fire you immediately and without delay, with the best accoutrements, warlike weapons, and stores you have by you, repair to the town of Providence, there to receive from the military officers present…on Thursday, the 17th inst., at sunset, when the Beacon will be fired not as an alarm, but that all may ascertain its bearings and fix such ranges as may secure them from a false alarm, and that they may know where to look for it hereafter.”

The Beacon was successfully tested, however, many people in the countryside, never seeing the handbill, “…hurriedly left their homes and promptly repaired to Providence all armed and equipped, imagining that the town was about to be attacked by the enemy.”

Providence Engages the British Fleet

On August 22, 1775, Captain James Wallace sailed to Providence with the Rose, Swan, and Glasgow. According to a report that appeared in the New York Journal on August 31:

“We hear from Providence, that on Tuesday the 22nd instant his Majesty’s ships the Rose, Swan, and Glasgow, attempted to go to Providence, and got within 8 miles of the town, when two of them ran ashore and the other came to an anchor. 

Soon after arrived a brig and a sloop inward bound from the West-Indies, these were immediately chased by the men of war’s barges and 3 cutters, till they ran ashore at Warwick, where they were boarded by the man of war’s men in sight of a great number of people who had assembled on the shore. There were in the harbour 2 armed schooners fitted out by the town of Providence for the protection of their trade, and were going to convoy a small fleet down the river. 

A smart engagement then began and lasted 3 hours and an half, during which, an incessant fire was kept up between the 2 schooners and the brig and sloop, which the people on board often attempted to get off, but as often were driven from the windlasses. But at last they cut the brig’s cable and carried her off, with the Captain on board, who refused to quit her; the sloop we retook and brought into the harbour, tho’ fired upon by the man of war as we passed them. We had not a man killed or wounded, which is surprising. Upwards of 30 cannon ball were picked up on the shore. It is supposed many of the enemy are killed.”

The Provision War Starts in Narragansett Bay

The Rhode Island Assembly had already issued orders prohibiting merchants and towns from selling provisions to the British. As the Siege of Boston carried on, the British fleet was ordered to secure provisions from towns and islands along the coast. Captain James Wallace set his sights on securing as much of the livestock and provisions as possible from the islands in Narragansett Bay as he could before the Americans could remove them. 

On August 24, 1775, around 100 British troops raided the farm of John Allin on Prudence Island. The supplies were loaded onto the Swan and taken to Boston.

Two days later, on August 26, the Rhode Island Assembly responded by ordering all livestock to be removed from Block Island and three islands in Narragansett Bay — Prudence, Patience, and Conanicut — and transported to the mainland.  The Rhode Island Navy was ordered to assist with the mission.

In protest, Wallace wrote to Governor Joseph Wanton. He accused the General Assembly of “extraordinary Treasonalbe Acts” and threatened to “destroy every Vessel and Craft…upon the Water…” if they continued removing the livestock from the islands.

Joseph Wanton, Governor, Rhode Island, American Revolution
Governor Joseph Wanton. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Bombardment of Stonington — August 30

On August 30, 1775, one of the smaller ships from the British fleet chased two American ships into Stonington Harbor in Connecticut, where it fired on the town. The ship left and returned later, accompanied by the Rose

When Wallace arrived, he demanded the townspeople turn over livestock that had been removed from Block Island, along with other supplies. The people refused and the Rose bombarded the town. When the Rose tried to land troops onshore, Captain Oliver Smith and Captain William Smith gathered men and fired on the British, forcing them to withdraw.

On September 11, the New York Gazette described the Bombardment of Stonington.

“August 31 — Yesterday morning a tender chased into Stonington Harbor two small sloops, which had a number of people on board bound to Block Island. They had but just time to get on shore before the tender came in, which after making a tack came close alongside of Captain Denison’s wharf, discharged a full broadside into the stores and houses, and sailing out again, in a little time returned with the Rose man-of-war and another tender. 

As soon as the Rose could get her broadside to bear on the town, she began a very heavy fire, also the tenders, who were under sail, and continued firing the whole day, with very little intermission. 

During the time a flag was sent off from the shore, desiring Captain Wallace, commander of the Rose, to let them know what he meant by firing on the town. His answer was, that he did it in his own defence. 

We have one man mortally wounded, and the houses, stores, etc., very much shattered. This morning they sailed out and anchored at the north side of the west end of Fisher’s Island, where they remain. 

There were five or six people killed on board the tenders, by the inhabitants, who assembled, and were under arms the whole day. They have earned off a schooner loaded with molasses, belonging to Patuxet, near Providence, from the West Indies, and the two small sloops that landed the people.”

Gunpowder in Bermuda

While the operations in Narragansett Bay continued, General George Washington needed gunpowder for the Continental Army that was stationed around Boston. On August 4, 1775, Washington sent a letter to Deputy Governor Cooke, informing him there was a considerable amount of gunpowder stored at forts on the island of Bermuda. Washington asked if the Rhode Island ships were available to go to Bermuda, raid the forts, and seize the gunpowder.

On August 8, Cooke replied to Washington and said he had been informed that two ships carrying gunpowder were already on the way to New England. One was headed to Providence and the other to Cambridge. Cooke also told Washington the British fleet in Narragansett Bay was aware of the ships and was patrolling the waters off of the Rhode Island coast, searching for them. 

Because of this, Cooke told Washington that neither of Rhode Island’s ships was available. The Washington had been sent to help protect the two ships carrying the gunpowder, and the Katy was needed to protect the rest of Narragansett Bay. Washington and Cooke continued to trade letters, but Cooke felt he was unable to grant Washington’s request.

By August 30, Rhode Island established a permanent Committee of Safety — known as the Recess Committee — to oversee military affairs when the General Assembly was not in session. This included oversight of the Rhode Island Navy. Cooke wrote to Washington and told him about the Recess Committee, and also that the Washington had found one of the ships carrying gunpowder and successfully escorted it to Norwich, Connecticut. 

Still, more gunpowder was needed. Cooke presented Washington’s request to send ships to Bermuda to the Recess Committee. The members discussed it with Commodore Abraham Whipple, who agreed to carry out the mission. 

Abraham Whipple, Commodore, Continental Navy
This painting by Edward Savage depicts Commodore Abraham Whipple. Image Source: Wikimedia.

While Washington was grateful, he asked for the mission to be extended. Washington told Cooke there was a British ship carrying mail from Britain that was expected to arrive near Sandy Hook, New York. Washington asked for the Katy to spend a few days in the area to see if it could capture the mail ship and send him the letters. Washington hoped to find some hint of British military plans in the correspondence.

Whipple agreed to the plan and received his orders on September 12. Soon after, the Katy set sail for Sandy Hook. However, soon after he arrived near New York Harbor, Whipple found out the mail ship had already passed through Long Island Sound and landed.

Meanwhile, back in Rhode Island, Deputy Governor Cooke received intelligence from New York informing him that “…100 Barrels of Powder had been taken out of the Magazine…” in Bermuda by ships from Philadephia and South Carolina. Cooke quickly wrote to Washington, told him the gunpowder had already been seized, and asked if the Katy could return to Rhode Island.

Washington replied on September 18 and said he had seen the report of the gunpowder from Bermuda in one of the newspapers. Washington said he was “…inclined…to suspend Capn. Whipples Voyage…” When Cooke received the letter, he sent the Washington to find the Katy, but it was too late. Whipple was already on his way to Bermuda.

Rhode Island Proposes a Continental Navy

While the Katy was on its way to Bermuda, events were taking place in Philadelphia to establish the Continental Navy, and Rhode Island led the way. On August 26, 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly instructed Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward to present the establishment of an “American fleet…for the protection of these colonies…” to the Second Continental Congress.

Another British Ship in Narragansett Bay

Admiral Samuel Graves issued new orders to Captain James Wallace on September 17, 1775, instructing him to take action against American ships “infesting the Coast of America” and harbor towns that were helping them. He also sent another ship, the Bolton, to join the British fleet operating in Narragansett Bay.

Wallace Demands Provisions from Newport

In late September, the townspeople in Newport learned that Captain James Wallace planned to raid farms on the south end of Aquidneck Island. The Recess Committee organized an expedition to travel to the island and remove as much livestock as possible. 

General Esek Hopkins led the mission, which consisted of 300-400 militiamen. Hopkins and his force sailed to the island on the Washington and removed livestock. Accounts vary as to how many animals were removed. Some say 50-70 cattle and as many as 1,000 sheep, along with an unidentified number of hogs.

Captain Wallace was outraged and demanded that Newport supply his fleet with provisions. To force compliance, some of his men occupied the town. On October 4, 1775, he threatened to bombard Newport. He also cut off vessels carrying supplies to the island. Approximately half the townspeople, including most of the merchants and their families, abandoned Newport, fearing an attack. 

General Hopkins and his men tried to sail to Newport but were likely delayed by a storm that took place on October 5 and 6.

Bombardment of Bristol — October 7

While he waited on the Newport Town Council to respond to his demands, Captain James Wallace sailed north to Bristol. When he arrived on October 7, 1775, he demanded 200 sheep and 30 cattle from the town. However, the townspeople refused to meet with Wallace or comply with his demands. Around 8:00 p.m., Wallace’s fleet opened fire on Bristol. The Bombardment of Bristol lasted for roughly an hour and a half.

Bristol Neck, 1765, Illustration, LOC
This 1765 illustration depicts a small ship anchored in the water near Bristol, Rhode Island, a port town on Narragansett Bay. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Wallace landed some men who raided the town, taking everything of value they could find. One account says the women “…had their clothes taken, all that were deemed of sufficient value to carry away, and their rings forced from their fingers.”

During the bombardment, Colonel Simeon Potter, a member of the Bristol Town Council who had been involved in the Gaspee Affair, went down to a wharf and hailed one of the ships. When he caught the attention of the crew, he yelled, “For God’s sake, stop firing!”

A boat was sent to retrieve Potter and some other town leaders and carry them to the Rose, where they met with Captain Wallace, and negotiated an agreement. Newport offered the British 40 sheep and asked Wallace to depart Bristol. Wallace agreed, the bombardment ended, and the sheep were delivered the next morning. Afterward, the fleet left and sailed toward Portsmouth.

One of the Rhode Island militiamen at Newport, 18-year-old John Howland, said:

“I saw Wallace with his fleet when they got under way…

…and as he sailed slowly up the river we commenced our march in range with him. As it was our business to attack any men he might attempt to land, we kept even pace with him till we arrived at Bristol Ferry, where one of his fleet grounded on the extreme northwest point of the island. Wallace, with the rest of his squadron, came to, waiting for the tide to rise to float the grounded one. 

…It was dark when the vessel floated, and Wallace stood with all his fleet for Bristol harbor. 

We stood on the high ground near the ferry, and saw the flash of his guns, which appeared to be mostly discharged in broadsides; but such was the state of the air we could hear none of the report though only four miles off…

…Governor Bradford, Simeon Potter, Benjamin Bosworth, and others repaired to the head of the wharf to confer with Wallace, to induce him to cease his attack. He agreed for some sheep and oxen to be sent on board in the morning, which was complied with, and the fray was over.”

Accounts of the incident vary on the destruction that was caused. Some say very little damage was done, but another says nearly 20 buildings were burned, including the Meeting House and the home of Deputy Governor William Bradford. 

According to Howland, “No houses were burnt by Wallace, as he did not land any men, but kept up a severe cannonade; and from his bomb brig threw several shells among the houses, which did but little damage.”

On October 8, news of the attack reached Reverend Ezra Stiles, who wrote: 

“This Morning we heard that Captain Wallace with his Fleet fired on the Town of Bristol last Night. An inhuman Wretch! This Evening hear that the Reverend Mr. [John] Burt of Bristol was this forenoon found dead in a Cornfield about 25 Rods from his House. After sending away his Wife & family he was escaping himself, & it is supposed he was seized by a fit & expired instantly. He had been sick of the Dysentery & was still confined with it. The Surprize & hasty flight from the savage Canonade of Wallace undoubtedly occasion his Death.”

Following the Bombardment of Bristol, defensive works were built at Kettle Point and Pawtuxet. Artillery batteries were built along the coast, and men were assigned to garrison the forts.

The British Fleet Terrorizes Narragansett Bay

On October 9, Reverend Ezra Stiles documented the movements of the British fleet in Narragansett Bay, and provided more details about the Bombardment of Bristol:

“The infernal Wallace with 3 Men o’ War, 2 or 3 more armed Vessels of which one Bomb with several Transports — a fleet of perhaps 8 sail is fireing away to the Northward & spreading or aim to spread Terror through the Bay. 

He anchored at Bristol on Saturday Evening & ordered the Magistrates to come aboard & bring 300 sheep in one hour, else he would fire upon the Town — where near 100 persons lye sick of the Dysentery & some lie dead. 

Instead of complying the people set about remove the sick. At IX o’clock at Night he began & continued a Canonade of the Town for an hour. At length upon a promise of 40 sheep he desisted & promised he would fire no more. But…he turned to Popasquash a part of Bristol & canonaded that. 

And now this day at XI A M. he is cannonaded Portsmouth on this Island, i.e. the Houses at Bristol Ferry. And in the Afternoon some of his ships came down the Bay firing as if they would fill the Heavens with Thunder; & some went round the North End of the Island towards Tiverton. 

At length one went over to Canonicut & fired away upon Jamestown, where the Governor had sent Men to guard the stock. The Evacuation of this Town still continues. It is judged that Two Thirds of the Inhabitants are removed up the Island. No passing Bristol Ferry to day.”

On October 11, Wallace returned to Newport. According to Stiles, the mission “…of taking stock from the Island…” had “…little Effect.”

Quebec and Hessian Mercenaries

On October 11, Reverend Ezra Stiles mentioned two important events in the early days of the war that would play significant roles:

  1. The Invasion of Quebec — “It is reported that the Enterprizes in Canada are likely to prove successful.”
  2. Britain Hiring European Mercenaries — “But the News from Europe is that the Court of Great Britain are hiring 4000 Hanoverians & a Body of Russians to come to America; & that the Ministry continue obstinately fixed for prosecuting their plan of subjugating America.”

AHC Note — The Stiles Diary is interesting because it includes important details about events that were going on outside of Newport and Rhode Island. It shows how quickly information was able to spread, especially through New England.

Newport Negotiates with Wallace

After Captain James Wallace returned to Newport, he resumed negotiations with the Town Council. Wallace offered to allow supply ships to sail to Newport but demanded:

  1. Fresh provisions for his men.
  2. That he and his men should be allowed to go ashore.
  3. That New Hampshire forces leave Aquidneck Island.

Eventually, a treaty was agreed to, with the following terms:

  • Newport was to provide a weekly supply of beef and beer for the fleet, which Wallace agreed to pay for.
  • Wallace agreed not to bombard the town.
  • Wallace agreed to allow “ferry boats, wood boats, and their passengers, etc., to pass and repass unmolested with the common supplies for the town of the common and usual necessaries of life.”
  • Rhode Island troops were prohibited from entering Newport.

Despite the agreement, it was not formally adopted, and hostilities continued in Narragansett Bay. According to Reverend Stiles, the Town Council asked the Committee of Safety in Providence for help.

Congress Authorizes the Purchase of the Katy

By early October, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia had received intelligence that British ships carrying weapons and military supplies were headed to America. The debate over the establishment of an American Navy carried on in Congress and was, according to John Adams, ‘loud and vehement.” 

John Adams, 2nd President, Portrait, Trumbull
John Adams. Image Source: White House Historical Collection.

A Naval Committee was formed to review the intelligence that had been gathered. The committee included Silas Dean (Connecticut), John Langdon (New Hampshire), and Christopher Gadsden (South Carolina). After reviewing the information, the committee recommended sending ships from Massachusetts and Rhode Island to intercept the British vessels carrying military supplies.

John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress (see Presidents of Congress), sent letters to General Washington, Deputy Governor Cooke, and Governor John Trumbull of Connecticut, asking for ships. Cooke received his letter on October 10, but had to inform General Washington and Congress that the Katy had not yet returned from Bermuda and the Washington was “unfit for service.”

Despite Rhode Island’s inability to provide ships at the time, Congress worked toward establishing the Continental Navy. On October 13, 1775, the following resolutions were passed:

“The Congress, taking into consideration the report of the Committee appointed to prepare a plan, for intercepting vessels coming out with stores and ammunition, and after some debate 

Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct. 

That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel. 

Resolved, That another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.”

That same day, Congress authorized the purchase of the Katy from Rhode Island and the Minerva from Connecticut to be the first two ships in the Navy. Unfortunately, the Katy’s absence kept it from happening.

AHC Note — Despite the Katy’s absence, the resolution passed on October 13, 1775, made it the first ship assigned to the Continental Navy.

The Katy Returns to Providence

Commodore Abraham Whipple and the Katy arrived in Bermuda in October. Soon after, British ships were seen in the area. Whipple was able to avoid them and met with Patriot leaders on the island, who told him the gunpowder had already been removed. Whipple resupplied his ship and set sail for Rhode Island on October 14, 1775, arriving in Providence on October 20. When he returned, Whipple informed General Washington that the Patriots on the island were being treated poorly by the Governor, so Washington asked Congress to send them supplies.

The Jamestown Watch

On October 16, 1775, the Jamestown Town Council on Conanicut Island decided to keep a night watch from 6 p.m. to sunrise every morning. Four men were assigned to posts along the coast and tasked with watching the movements of British ships near the island. Around this time, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to send reinforcements to Jamestown. This resulted in the formation of an artillery company with two 4-pound guns being sent to the island.

Eldred’s One-Gun Battery on Conanicut Island

One of the men on Conanicut Island, John Eldred, fired on the ships with a small cannon he had at his farm on Potter’s Cove. After one of his shots tore through a sail, the British landed and spiked his gun. According to Edward Field:

“On the Eldred farm on the east side of Conanicut lived Farmer Eldred, a patriot of the purest type. On his farm there was a great rock on the high land overlooking the water; here Farmer Eldred planted one of the guns taken from the fort on the island. From time to time the patriotic old farmer would amuse himself by firing a shot at the British vessels as they passed up and down the east passage.

One day he was fortunate enough to put a ball through the mainsail of one of the enemy’s ships. This little pleasantry, on the part of Farmer Eldred, was not relished by the Britisher; a boat was lowered, and a force sent ashore to dislodge the company, which it was supposed occupied the station, and spike the gun. 

Upon seeing the boat lowered, Mr. Eldred quickly hid himself in the swamp on his farm, and when the boat’s party arrived on the spot nothing was found but the gun mounted in the cleft of the rock. This they spiked, but the company they expected to capture had vanished as completely as though swallowed up by the earth. This was Eldred’s one-gun battery.”

Evacuation of Aquidneck Island Continues

On October 18, 1775, a group of men met with Reverend Ezra Stiles and started moving him off Aquidneck Island, even though 30 of the 130 families from his congregation remained. Meanwhile, the remaining townspeople were preparing for hostilities, and the New Hampshire troops were digging trenches on the northeast corner of the island. 

By the 19th, approximately 75% of the townspeople had left Newport, but the Rhode Island Militia forces continued to occupy Aquidneck Island. Esek Hopkins estimated there were 5,000 head of cattle on the island, along with sheep and other livestock. Hopkins intended to remain on the island to keep the British from taking them. The Rhode Island Militia was busy mounting as many as 36 cannons on carriages.

The next day, October 20, a handful of Loyalists were arrested by Hopkins and his men for providing provisions to the British.

Congress Instructs Newport to Provision the British Fleet

On October 23, a message arrived from the Second Continental Congress that instructed the Newport Town Council to finalize an agreement with the British. According to Reverend Stiles, Wallace was to be supplied with provisions, as long as he allowed ferries and boats to pass freely.  However, Congress insisted the Rhode Island troops should remain on the island but outside of Newport. This demand contributed to the continuation of hostilities in Narragansett Bay.

Burning of Falmouth

Reverend Ezra Stiles recorded on the 24th that the newspapers were reporting a British attack on Falmouth (see Burning of Falmouth, October 18, 1775), which left “two Thirds of Falmouth in Flames.” Two days later, Esek Hopkins received a letter from General Washington, confirming that “…Falmouth was half burnt down & still in flames…” Soon after, a letter came from General Nathanael Greene, who was stationed at Prospect Hill in Boston. Green informed Hopkins that “…it is judged the Burning of the seaports is by fresh Orders from Engld in Ships arrived at Boston…”

October 26 — In Providence, a committee was formed to oversee the construction of a new fort “upon the hill to the southward of the house of William Field.” This fort was known as Fort Independence. Captain John Updike oversaw the construction of the fort.

Establishment of the Continental Navy — October 30

On October 30, 1775, the Second Continental Congress officially passed a resolution, establishing the Continental Navy.

Resolved. That the second vessel ordered to be fitted out on the 13th Inst, do carry 14 guns, with a proportionate number of swivels and men.

That a Committee be appointed to carry into execution with all possible expedition the resolution of Congress of the 13th Inst, the one of ten and the other of 14 guns, and

That two other armed vessels be fitted out with all expedition; the one to carry not exceeding 20 Guns, and the other not exceeding 36 Guns, with a proportionate number of swivels and men, to be employed in such manner, for the protection and defence of the united Colonies, as the Congress shall hereinafter direct.”

British Attacks Continue

Reverend Ezra Stiles reported on November 2, 1775, that the British fleet had fired on Conanicut Island. Then on November 3, he said “…Men of War are firing on Martha’s Vineyard…” and the Rhode Island General Assembly had ordered 500 troops for Aquidneck Island. On November 4, 1775, Reverend Stiles made note of some key events:

  • Around 7:00 a.m., a man stood at the end of one of the wharfs and ‘insulted the Men of War which lay a few Rods” away. The ships responded by firing at him. They missed but damaged some buildings. The man was arrested and held in the town jail.
  • Word arrived from Philadelphia that Peyton Randolph, President of Congress, had died at the age of 53.

Update on the Invasion of Quebec

On November 6, 1775, Reverend Stiles learned the Northern Army, led by General Richard Montgomery, had captured Fort Chambly (October 18, 1775), and seized a significant amount of provisions, including gunpowder.

The next day, Stiles reported on the progress of Colonel Benedict Arnold and his expedition, which was attempting to approach Quebec from the east. Earlier, Stiles believed the Invasion of Quebec had a chance for success, but his opinion was starting to waver. Stiles wrote, “I am doubtful of Success at Quebec of Colonel Arnold & his 1400 Troops, which marched about 18 or 20 Sept. and on 2nd October were at Norridgewocc” 

Still, he believed there was hope for the conquest of Quebec because General Montgomery was laying siege to Fort St. John with 3,000-4,000 troops.

The Rhode Island Fleet vs. the Bolton — November 8

On November 8, 1775, the HMS Bolton fired at some townspeople digging clams near Newport. The next day, the Katy and the Washington engaged the Bolton. The Newport Mercury reported:

“Last Thursday about noon, the bomb brig, schooner, and 3 tenders, part of the ministerial navy in this harbour, weighed anchor and went up the Bay, near Warwick Neck, where they met two Provincial sloops, who engaged them warmly for a short time, when night coming on, and the wind blowing excessively hard at S. E. they parted; and the next morning the brig, schooner, &c. came down again. 

‘Tis said two of the tenders were hull’d, and received some considerable damage in their sails and rigging; the Provincial sloops, we hear, received scarcely any injury at all.”

Soon after, the Rhode Island General Assembly officially bought the Katy from John Brown. On November 12, new orders were issued to Commodore Abraham Whipple. He was instructed to sail between Nanducket and Halifax for six weeks and to attack ships carrying men or supplies for the British Army or Navy.

Unfortunately for Whipple and the Katy, the orders were rescinded. With the establishment of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins was offered command, and men from Rhode Island volunteered to serve under him in the new fleet, which was raising two battalions of Marines.

Stiles referred to this incident in his diary, saying, “This Day the Ships fired two Shot upon this Town; one struck a house at the North End of the Town upon the Point: the other struck a house on the lower end of the Town. I do not certainly find the Occasion. It is said to have been on account of the taking a Boat.”

The ships engaged each other again on the 9th. Stiles said, “This forenoon the Bomb Brig & 2 or 3 Tenders sailed up the Bay to attack the 2 Rhode Island Privateers. Between XII & I they were seen engaged & firing at one another near Hope Island.”

Cooke Replaces Wanton as Governor — November 9

On November 9, 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly declared Governor Wanton had vacated his position, and replaced him with Deputy Governor Nicholas Cooke. Wanton was declared an “Enemy to His Country” on November 10. Cooke was appointed Governor and William Bradford was appointed Deputy Governor.

Benjamin Franklin Visits Narragansett Bay

On November 10, 1775, Reverend Ezra Stiles reported that Benjamin Franklin had returned to America and visited Providence, Rhode Island. While there, he was asked if Congress was negotiating an alliance with France. Franklin replied, “How could such a thing be before Independency was declared?” Stiles noted that nations on the European Continent were “ripening for Independency.”

Soon after, a letter from Franklin appeared in the newspapers, in which he insisted Britain’s efforts to retain America would be expensive — and futile:

“America is determined & unanimous, a very few Tories excepted, who will probably soon export themselves. Britain at the Expence of three Millions has killed 150 Yankees this Campaign, which is £20,000 a head: and at Bunkers Hill she gained a Mile of Ground, half of which she has since lost again by not taking Post on Ploughed Hill. During the same Time 60,000 Children have been born in America. From these Data his excellent Mathematical Head, will easily calculate the Time & expence requisite to kill us all & conquer our whole Territory.”

November 11 — British ships fired on American troops in Newport around 8:00 a.m. The shells missed the troops but hit a house.

November 13–17 — Reverend Stiles traveled to Boston, where he met with Rhode Island troops at Prospect Hill and Winter Hill. He also traveled to Roxbury and met with General John Thomas. While he was there, news arrived about the surrender of Fort St. John (November 2, 1775) to General Richard Montgomery and the Northern Army.

November 17 — Captain Wallace conducted a second raid on Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay. His men raided two homes and carried off clothing and livestock, along with a large desk.

New Orders for the Katy — November 21

By November 21, 1775, Governor Nicholas Cooke issued orders for Commodore Abraham Whipple to use the Katy to transport the volunteers for the Continental Navy to Philadelphia. Cooke also instructed Whipple to remain at Philadephia and assist the Navy in operations along the coast. Within a few days, the Katy sailed for Philadelphia, filled with passengers. However, it quickly encountered a British ship carrying supplies for the Rose. The British ship was captured and taken to Providence while the crewmen were taken to Philadelphia as prisoners.

Continental Congress and the Question of Independence

On November 24, 1775, Reverend Ezra Stiles recorded that he had visited William Goddard, the Surveyor General of the Post Office. Together, they discussed the members of Congress and where each of them stood on the question of independence. Stiles surmised that 10 colonies favored independence, while New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were opposed.

The Swan Returns to Narragansett Bay

Two days later, on November 26, 1775, Reverend Stiles noted that more British ships had arrived in Narragansett Bay. He said, “This day came in here the Swan Sloop of War Captain Ascough with 2 other armed Vessels & a large Transport from Boston. There are now here the Rose & Glasgow (twenty Gun ships) a Bomb Brig 12 Guns & 3 other armed Vessels, besides those above — making Eight armed Vessels in all.”

November 27 — Reverend Stiles was informed that British troops had occupied Fort George on Goat Island.

November 28 — News arrived in Newport that the Quakers in Philadelphia were against paying taxes if the money would be used to fund the American war effort. Stiles said this outraged “…the Friends of Liberty.” The Pennsylvania Assembly also sent instructions to its delegates to Congress instructing them to “dissent from, & utterly reject, any propositions, should such be made, that may cause, or lead to, a Separation from our Mother Country, or a Change of the Form of this Government.”

Manchester Merchants Support the King

On November 28, Stiles reported that merchants from the town of Manchester had expressed their support for King George III, having said, “…we behold the Standard of Rebellion erected in some of the American Provinces…” and suggested, “as force has become necessary to bring them to a sense of their Allegiance, we think ourselves bound in duty to assist your Majesty in the Execution of the legislative Authority.”

The merchants continued, making it clear they believed they were able to work around the trade embargo that had been established by the Continental Association

“We are not intimidated at the Prohibition laid by the Americans on the Export & Import of goods &c our extensive Trade happily flows in so many different Channels, that the Obstruction of one can but little distress, much less deter us from our Duty to our King & Country. But whatever Check on Manufactures may receive by a necessary War, we shall cheerfully submit to a temporary inconvenience rather than continue subject to lawless Depradations from a deluded & unhappy People.”

November 30 — Six men deserted the British fleet and made their way to Newport. Two officers went into Newport, where they were arrested and taken to the headquarters of the Rode Island forces.

November 30 — News arrived at Newport that American forces had captured Montreal (November 13, 1775).

December 1 — A British transport, full of artillery, small arms, and other military supplies, was captured and taken to Cape Ann.

December 2 — Reverend Stiles learned that General Guy Carleton escaped from Montreal and was on his way to Quebec. He also found out that Benedict Arnold and his men had arrived at Point Levi, on the St. Lawrence River, just downriver from Quebec.

December 4 — Stiles reported another transport had been captured and taken to Cape Ann on November 28.

December 5 — Stiles reported that British ships fired on Jamestown, Virginia on December 1, and Hampton, Virginia, on December 2.

December 6 — The Rhode Island Navy captured more British ships.

December 9 — Rumors reached Newport that American forces had captured Quebec (these rumors were false).

The Glasgow Fires on Newport — December 9

On December 9, 1775, around 1:00 in the afternoon, an American ship approached Newport Harbor, and the HMS Glasgow fired on it. The ship refused to stop, and several shots from the Glasgow sailed over the ship and into Newport. Reverend Ezra Stiles was an eyewitness to the incident and said:

“I was standing on a Wharf, when a Nine pound shot came & struck the Stores just North of me. As I turned about to come off the Wharf, there came two shot, one a Nine pounder within a few feet of me, & passed a few feet right over the heads of about 20 Men standing on the next Wharf, & struck & went thro’ the adjoining Stores into the contiguous houses, & another lesser Ball struck & fell in the Dock next the Wharfe where I stood, & within a few feet of me. But thro’ a merciful & gracious Providence we all escaped untoutched — nor was any killed or wounded…Divine Protection!”

Battle of Conanicut Island and the Burning of Jamestown — December 10-11

Around midnight on December 10, 1775, Captain James Wallace landed 200 Marines on Conanicut Island. The British were engaged by Rhode Island Militia forces but were able to push through and proceeded to burn at least 16 buildings and seize livestock. 

Reverend Stiles said, “This Morning we were awaked with the Conflagration of Jamestown on Conanicott. An awful Sight! The Bomb Brigg & several Tenders full of MIarines went over last Night, & about o’clock or a little before day landed and set fire to the Houses. The men continued ravaging & firing till about Noon & returned.”

The next day, Stiles recorded the return of British ships:

“About I o’clock yesterday morning a Bomb Brig, 1 schooner & 2 or 3 armed sloops went to Conanicott & landed upwards of Two hundred Marines Sailors & Negroes at the East Ferry; and marched in 3 Divisions over to the West Ferry, & set the several houses on fire there, then retreated back setting fire to almost every house on each side of the road, & several Houses & Barns some distance on the North & South side of the Rode, driving out Women & Children &c.

A Company of Minute Men had left Conanicut the Afternoon before so that there were but 40 or 50 soldiers on the Island, of 22 were well equipped. At the Cross Rodes there was a Skirmish our people killed one Officer of Marines & wounded 7 or 8. 

Not one Colonist was killed or hurt in the Skirmish. The Kings forces fired on Mr. John Martin, 80 standing unarmed at his Door & wounded him badly. Mr. Fowler had above 30 Head Cattle: these the Regulars carried off & perhaps a dozen Head more, about 30 Sheep & as many Turkeys, & some Hogs, Beds Furniture & other plunder. They returned on board at X & XI o’Clock & came to this Harbor about Noon.

The Alarm spread, & I am told there are this day Three hundred Men on Conanicutt, & Eight hundred upon this Island. The Town in great Consternation.”

Following the battle, another 400 people, mostly the poor, abandoned Newport and took refuge in Providence. According to Stiles, many of them were sure that Captain Wallace intended to burn Newport, just as he had done to Jamestown.

The Providence Gazette reported on the Burning of Jamestown on December 16:

“Sunday morning last, the bomb brig, a schooner, and two or three armed sloops left the harbor of Newport and landed about two hundred marines, sailors and Negroes on the Ferry on the east side of Conanicut, from whence they immediately marched across in three divisions to the West Ferry, and after burning all the houses near the Ferry-Place, returned towards their vessels, setting fire to almost every house on each side of the road, from the West to the East Ferry, and several houses and barns some distance on the North and South side of the road, driving out the women and children, swearing they should be burnt in the houses, if they did not instantly turn out. Captain Wallace commanded. Mr. John Martin, standing unarmed in his own door, was shot. Fifty cows and six oxen, a few sheep and hogs were taken. All were plundered of beds, wearing apparel and household furniture. They left Conanicut the same morning and got back to Newport at Noon.”

The Rhode Island Assembly responded by fortifying several locations throughout Narragansett Bay, including Conanicut Island. On December 12, the Assembly voted to make “…intrenchments…near the harbor…” in Bristol.

AHC Note — 80-year-old John Martin, who was standing in the doorway of his house, watching the battle unfold, was mortally wounded by the British. He is believed to have been a Loyalist.

Newport Town Meeting

A Town Meeting was held on December 13, 1775, to determine if Newport was going to agree to provide supplies for the British fleet, as it had been instructed to do by the Second Continental Congress. 

During the meeting, the participants were informed that Captain James Wallace had told one of his prisoners that he would “…soon serve Newport as he had done Conanicott..” He also boasted he would land 200 of his troops on the island and would be joined by 250 Loyalists from Newport.

On the 14th, a committee went to meet with Captain Wallace and agreed to provide supplies. Meanwhile, a letter arrived from the Committee of Safety in Providence, instructing Newport to refrain from providing supplies or communicating with Wallace.

In the confusion, another Town Meeting was called and a committee was formed to go to Providence to ask the Committee of Safety to rescind its order. According to Reverend Stiles, Captain Wallace agreed to “…wait for the Return of the Committee: and Expresses his Desire to save the Town.”

December 16 — At 10:00 a.m., Captain Wallace sent ships to Brenton’s Point on Aquidneck Island. Troops landed, intending to seize some hay. Two companies of the Rhode Island Militia marched there and joined another contingent. Altogether, 120 Americans fired on the British as they tried to remove the hay. The British were forced to withdraw.

December 17 — Stiles said the Rose “sailed northward in hostile manner” around noon.

December 18 — The Rose took hay from Dyers Island, burned some hay, and killed two horses. Meanwhile, Americans burned two stacks of oats on Hog Island.

December 19 — Two companies of Rhode Island Minutemen arrived in Newport. Stiles also recorded that Lord Dunmore had issued a proclamation in Virginia, “inviting all Whites & Negroes to the Kings Standard” and that 1,200 men had volunteered.

December 20General Charles Lee left Boston for Providence. It is believed Lee only had 30 men with him, but some of them were Virginia Riflemen.

December 22 — Stiles learned that General Lee was in Providence, and was planning to visit Newport. The next day, Stiles was told that Lee was on his way to Newport with 75 men.

December 23 — Stiles learned that Colonel Arnold had been stopped at Quebec and was waiting for General Montgomery to join him.

December 25 — On Christmas Day, 1775, General Charles Lee arrived in Newport. Captain Wallace threatened to fire on the town but did not. Lee advised the people to evacuate the town within 10 days.

Charles Lee’s Oath of Loyalty

While General Charles Lee was in Providence, he met with the Recess Committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly. The Committee called up members of the Rhode Island Minutemen and placed Lee in charge of troops on Aquidneck Island.

The day General Lee arrived in Newport, he looked to remove Loyalists from the city. To do this, he had some prominent Newport Loyalists brought in to meet with him, including:

  1. Colonel Joseph Wanton
  2. Reverend George Bissett
  3. Dr. William Hunter
  4. John Nicholl, Comptroller of Newport Customs
  5. Nicholas Lechmere, Customs Officer
  6. Richard Beale, Customs Officer
  7. John Bours, Newport merchant

Lee demanded that each of them agree to an Oath of Loyalty that he had written — on his own, without the approval of his commanding officer, General George Washington, or the Second Continental Congress. The key points of the oath, which Lee wrote, were:

  • Do not furnish provisions to British forces unless authorized by the Rhode Island Assembly or the Continental Congress.
  • Do not pass any intelligence to British forces.
  • Pass any intelligence, immediately, to the Committee of Safety.
  • Take up arms if called upon by the Rhode Island Assembly or the Continental Congress.

Lee decided Revend Bissett and Dr. Hunter did not need to agree to the Oath, and they were released. John Nicholl and John Bours agreed to the Oath, and they were also released.

Wanton, Lechmere, and Beale refused, but Lee gave them some time to reconsider. When Lee checked with them on the morning of the 26th, they still refused, so he had them arrested. All three were sent to Providence and held there for a week.

Later that day, Captain Andrew Christie was found sending communications to Captain Wallace on the Rose and arrested. Christie was also sent to Providence.

Lee and Putnam Organize Newport Defenses

For the next two days, General Charles Lee looked around Newport with one of his men, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Putnam, an engineer. Together, they planned the defensive works that were needed for Aquidneck Island. On the 27th, Lee and his men left Newport. Lee returned to Providence, where the Recess Committee praised him for his effort.

Around the same time, the British fleet withdrew. According to Stiles, they were afraid of Lee’s Virginia Riflemen, who were deadly accurate, even at a long range. Captain James Wallace was unaware that Lee and his men had left the island.

Controversy Over Lee’s Oath of Loyalty

General Washington sent a copy of Lee’s Oath of Loyalty to the Second Continental Congress and said:

“General Lee has just returned from his excursion to Rhode Island. He has pointed out the best method the island would admit for its defense. He has endeavored, all in his power, to make friends of those that were our enemies. You have, enclosed, a specimen of his abilities in that way, for your perusal. I am of the opinion that if the same plan was pursued through every province, it would have a very good effect.”

Despite Washington’s recommendation, Congress was hesitant to start forcing Loyalists to agree to an Oath. Some members of Congress were upset over Lee’s actions, which were taken without their approval. Lee defended his actions in a letter to Congress:

“At Newport, I took the liberty, without any authority, but the conviction of the necessity, to administer a very strong oath to some of the leading Tories, for which liberty I humbly ask pardon of Congress.”

1775 Concludes in Narragansett Bay

The year came to an end with Reverend Ezra Stiles baptizing new members of his congregation, including William Stevens’ servant, a Negro woman.

Stiles also said the prisoners who refused to accept Lee’s oath had changed their minds: “It is said that Col. Wanton &c are likely to be dismissed as ready to comply with the Oath at Providence.”

Finally, on a somber note, he paid tribute to the inhabitants of Newport who lost their lives in 1775, including his wife”:

“There have died in Newport 196, the year past; and among the rest, my dear Wife. This year has been the most afflictive & destressing year of my Life. May God sanctify all the afflictive Dispensations & Visitations of his holy Providence to me especially the Death of my Wife, the Breaking up & Dispersion of my Church & Congregation, and the present Civil War.”

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy.
  • Field, Edward. Revolutionary Defences in Rhode Island.
  • Rider, Hope S. Valour Fore & Aft: Being the Adventures of the Continental Sloop Providence, 1775–1779, Formerly Flagship Katy of Rhode Island’s Navy.
  • Stiles, Ezra. The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles.
  • Watson, Walter Leon. History of Jamestown on Conanicut Island in the State of Rhode Island.

Citation Information

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

  • Article Title Operations in Narragansett Bay (1775)
  • Date November 1774–December 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Narragansett Bay, Captain James Wallace, John Brown, Ezra Stiles, Providence Beacon, Rhode Island Navy, Continental Navy, Abraham Whipple, Esek Hopkins, Charles Lee, Joseph Wanton, Nicholas Cooke
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 24, 2024

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