The Lives of the Enslaved in Colonial Newport

(Note: This essay was originally published on February 28, 2019, in the Newport Daily News. It is the fourth essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.”)

Enslaved African Americans of colonial Newport lived and worked, and even sometimes prayed and played next to their white masters; however, without basic human and civil rights, without ownership of their own bodies and destinies, their lives were always less than whole.

It is a challenge to obtain a genuine understanding of the lives of any enslaved people because of the sparseness of original documents. Slave masters certainly did not see any value in documenting the lives of their property and most of the enslaved did not have the education, wealth or certainly the luxury of time to create documents and images of themselves for posterity.

Of the 10-15 million slaves taken to the New World, Richard Youngken, in his book African Americans in Newport, estimates that only about 2% were actually brought to Newport and sold to Newporters. The rest were sold in the West Indies (Caribbean) and southern American ports.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, summarizes data from several sources on the black population in 18th century Newport. In 1730, the African American population represented 14% of the city’s population (1649 individuals) and in 1748, 17% (1105 individuals). The African American population peaked in 1755, representing 18% of Newport’s population (1,234 individuals). By the time of the first census in 1774, which was the first to give data on both enslaved and free blacks, it dropped to 14% of the population (1,246 individuals). Of these, 145 individuals, approximately nine percent, were listed as “Free.”

In colonial Newport, the enslaved—generally referred to as “servants” rather than “slaves”—lived and worked probably throughout the city. Whites and enslaved blacks must have lived near each other, with the enslaved living primarily in the attics, kitchens, or perhaps out-buildings of their masters.

It was primarily enslaved women, children, and elderly who worked as domestic servants. The males worked in rum production, barrel-making, wharf-warehousing, and ship-building and all its associated trades. In the maritime trades the enslaved worked as pilots, sailors, divers, linguists, porters, stewards, cooks, cabin boys, and riggers. Males were also employed in animal care, teamster and livery services, blacksmithing and silversmithing, candle-making, masonry, wood-working, furniture-making, and printing. It is tragic irony that many of the enslaved worked in trades connected to the very business system responsible for their enslavement.

Enslaved men were regularly “rented out.” Newport merchant John Banister regularly did this. In 1747 “Negro Mingo” and “Negro Toney” were rented out to help prepare the Swan for a voyage to the West Indies. “Negro Anthony” was rented six times in a two-year period to help outfit merchant ships.

Slavery corrupted and distorted the marriage and family life of the enslaved. Marriages of course had to be approved by both masters, and married slaves only rarely resided together. As property of their masters, husbands and wives could not live the normal lives of married couples by Western or African standards. The reality of slavery laced through their marriage vows. This can be seen in the “Form of a Negro Marriage” used by Rev. Samuel Phillips of Andover, Massachusetts. The vow was made contingent: “so far as shall be consistent with ye Releations [sic] which you now sustain, as a Servant.” It also included a warning: “…both of you, bear in mind, that you Remain Still as really and truly ever, your Master’s Property….”

Caesar Lyndon, the secretary and purchasing agent of Gov. Josiah Lyndon, was the rare enslaved person who kept a journal which is available to us. He was certainly well off compared to other enslaved. A successful businessman, he bought and sold items to whites and blacks, lent money, and had enough leisure time and means to go on a “pleasant ride out to Portsmouth” with friends on August 12, 1766. Their picnic included roast pig, wine, bread, rum, green corn, limes for punch, sugar, butter, tea, and coffee. Upon his death in 1826, his obituary in the Newport Mercury praised him as “well known in this town as a man of color of remarkable attainments.”

Headstone cut by Pompe Stevens for brother Cuff Gibbs

(Fred Zilian, 3-14-19)

Pompe Stevens was a slave of John Stevens, who owned a stone carving and masonry shop on Thames Street. Pompe would have laid bricks and built foundations, chimneys, steps and walks. In Newport’s Common Burying Ground stands the headstone he carved and signed for his brother, Cuff Gibbs, who died in 1768.

The enslaved Newport Gardiner, originally Occramer Marycoo, arrived in Newport in 1760 from the African coast. His master’s wife urged him to learn English, French, and western music. Oral history on him indicates he taught music in a rented room on Division Avenue in the late 1700s. He eventually became a leader of the African-American community, and founded and became first president of the African Union Society.

Two local organizations now exist to raise our level of awareness of slave history in Rhode Island, making it more complex and comprehensive. The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project seeks to remember, honor and commemorate the contributions of those Africans who perished in the middle passage journey and to acknowledge those survivors who helped build Newport and the nation economically and culturally. (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org )

The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (RISHM.org)

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The Business of Slavery in Colonial Newport

(Note: This is the third essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 26, 2019.)

The histories of colonial Newport and of slavery in the New World are intimately connected.

The first slaves in the colony of Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the two major Indian wars in southern New England in the 17th century—the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s/Metacom’s War (1675-76).

Sometime after 1638, the first African slaves entered Rhode Island. They were sparse in the colony throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total slaves in 1680. The first record of Rhode Islanders buying slaves directly from Africa came on May 30, 1696, when 14 enslaved Africans were bought from the ship Seaflower in Newport “for betwixt 30£ and 35£” (British pounds).

From this beginning, Rhode Island slave traders by 1730 came to dominate the American trade in slaves, and Newport became the most important slave-trading port of departure in North America, according to historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work. Slaves were one commodity in the greater Atlantic trading system. Newport, Bristol, and Providence merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, engaged in commerce with West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, beef, pork, salt cod, butter, cheese, onions, cider, candles, horses and rum; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, ginger, indigo, linen, woolen clothes, Spanish iron and slaves.

In his 1740 report to the British Board of Trade, Rhode Island colonial governor Samuel Ward described the many goods Rhode Island ships provided to “neighboring governments” and also the West Indies—rum, sugar, molasses, lumber, beef, pork, flour, horses, “and our African trade often furnishes them with slaves for their plantations.”

Newport today is dotted with the names of many of the merchants who took part in this commerce: Malbone, Banister, Gardner, Wanton, Brenton, Collins, Vernon, Channing, Champlin, and Lopez.

Between 1761 and 1774, Aaron Lopez and father-in-law Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, among the many ships they launched, sent 14 slave ships to the west coast of Africa. Their first voyage contained flour from Philadelphia, beef from New York, and 15,281 gallons of rum from Newport distilleries. Over the 14 year period it is estimated that their ships brought over 1100 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the southern colonies of America. The trade with the West Indies was key because this is where the molasses was acquired for the Newport rum distilleries. Lopez personally owned five slaves, and Rivera owned twelve.

The sloop Adventure, owned by Christopher and George Champlin, sailed from Newport in 1773, outfitted with slave shackles, vinegar, pork, beef, sugar, molasses, wine, beans, tobacco, butter, bread, flour, and 24,380 gallons of rum for the purchase of slaves. Enslaved women cost at the time an average of 190 gallons of rum, while men averaged 220 gallons.

Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, Philip Greenwood circa 1750. Public domain. Depicts various notable Rhode Islanders, including (all seated at the table): Nicholas Cooke, Esek Hopkins, Stephen Hopkins, and Joseph Wanton (passed out, being doused with vomit and punch).

Many of the trades and occupations in Rhode Island during this period were somehow related to slavery. Slave traders kept busy shipbuilders, sailors, caulkers, sailmakers, carpenters, rope-makers, painters, barrel-makers, and dock workers. Clerks and warehouse managers administered the system. In addition to these tradesmen, additional crew members were needed to control the enslaved during the voyages.

In his book, African Americans in Newport, Richard Youngken reports that Newporters prior to the Revolution took a total of 59,067 individuals from the West Coast of Africa, a small number compared to the total 10-15 million slaves taken to the New World. He estimates that only about 2% were actually brought to Newport and sold to Newporters. The rest were sold in the West Indies and southern American ports.

Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, summarizes data from several sources on the black population in 18th century Newport. In 1730, the African American population represented 14% of the population (1649 individuals) and in 1748, African Americans represented 17% of the population (1105 individuals). The African American population peaked in 1755, representing 18% of Newport’s population (1,234 individuals). The population dropped to 14% of the population (1,246 individuals) by the time of the first census (1774) that gave figures for both enslaved and free African Americans. Of the 1,246 African Americans in the census that year, 145 individuals, approximately nine percent, were listed as “Free”.

Youngken indicates that during the middle decades of the 18th century about 30% of white families in the city owned slaves. Clearly slave auctions must have been normal in Newport, and enslaved people must have been common throughout the city.

In Newport, enslaved women worked primarily as domestic servants while the men worked in candle-making, rum distillery, husbandry, metal-smithing, sailing, whaling, and manual labor. It is tragic irony that many of the enslaved worked in the very business of slavery.

Merchants from Newport paid significant taxes and duties to the city, which allowed public works projects. Clark-Pujara concludes: “The streets of Newport were paved and its bridges and country roads mended through the duties collected on slave imports. In many ways, the business of slavery literally built Rhode Island.”

Two projects now exist to raise our level of awareness of slave history in Rhode Island, making it more complex and comprehensive. The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project, led by Victoria Johnson, seeks to remember, honor and commemorate the contributions of those Africans who perished in the middle passage journey and to acknowledge those survivors who helped build Newport and the Nation economically and culturally. (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org )

The Rhode Island Slave History Project, led by Charles Roberts, has as its mission increasing public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University and is a monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

(This essay was originally published as “Remembering the Great Influenza Pandemic” by the Newport Daily News on December 17, 2018.)

One hundred years ago this month the world was celebrating the end of World War I; however, it was still contending with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claim was “the most severe pandemic in recent history,” the 1918 influenza pandemic.
It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes originating in birds. A total of about 500 million people worldwide were infected with the virus, one-third of the world’s population. At least 50 million people died, with some estimates as high as 100 million; indeed, far more deaths than the fallen in World War I.

The sickness was first identified in the United States in the spring 1918 among military personnel, and it eventually claimed 675,000 lives in the US. It was so severe that in the period 1917-1918, the life expectancy in the US declined about 12 years, to 36.6 for men and to 42.2 for women, according to the CDC. It struck most age groups; however, it was unique in that it hit the 20-40 year age group especially hard.

Treatment facility in large warehouse
(cdc.gov)

There were three phases of the pandemic in the U.S. It first broke out in military camps and some cities in the spring 1918. Because of the desire to keep wartime morale high, officials suppressed information on the sickness. It is commonly known as the Spanish Flu Pandemic, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was neutral during WW I and had no reason to censor information on its impact.

The second wave, the most lethal, hit in September 1918. It began in Fort Devens, an Army post west of Boston, and also at a naval facility in Boston. About 100,000 Americans died in October alone. The third wave came in early 1919 and lasted through the spring. The pandemic finally subsided during the summer 1919.

At a symposium on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in May, 2018, historian John M. Barry explained the progression of the disease. He repeated the words of a military doctor at the time: “…they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission, they have the mahogany spots over the cheekbones, and a few hours later, you see the cyanosis extending from the ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the [black] men from the white. It’s only a matter of a few hours, then, until death comes.”

In a 1986 interview, Navy nurse Josie Mabel Brown, who survived the influenza, said, “The morgues were packed almost to the ceiling with bodies stacked one on top of another.”
The influenza pandemic inspired great fear. Barry quoted one person who lived through it, saying: “It kept people apart. You couldn’t play with your playmates, your classmates, your neighbors. The fear was so great, people were afraid to leave their homes. You had no school life, no church life, nothing. It destroyed all family and community life. People were afraid to kiss one another, afraid to eat with one another. Constantly afraid.”

It must be remembered that at this time there were no vaccines for protection against the infection, no antiviral drugs for treatment, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. Efforts to control the pandemic were limited to such things as the promotion of good personal hygiene, isolation and quarantine, and the closure of public places, such as schools and theaters. Some cities passed ordinances requiring face masks in public. New York City enacted an ordinance which fined or jailed people who did not cover their coughs.

The CDC maintains that for “more than 60 years, [the] CDC has worked to address the continuing threat of flu and prepare for the next pandemic.” There now exists a “global influenza surveillance system” which includes 114 World Health Organization member states. The Center’s Influenza Division is one of six global influenza centers which monitor and track flu activity worldwide.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News

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The Armistice Ends the “Great War”

(This essay was originally published by The Newport Daily News on November 10, 2018.)

One hundred years ago, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, the armistice—the cessation of fighting—took effect, ending the First World War.
The first global war, fought with the massive means of the Industrial Revolution and involving close to two dozen countries, had many effects on the maps of Europe and Asia and the states which participated. Politically, four European-Asian empires fell: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman. In terms of population, a generation of men was essentially killed or maimed in France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. About nine million combatants died and about seven to ten million civilians perished as a direct result of the war. Financially, the war brought Great Britain to her knees and allowed the United States to emerge as the financial capital of the world. Domestically, the principal states became more centralized war machines in search of victory.

The war had begun in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary, following the assassination of its heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared war on Serbia. Within two weeks the two major alliance systems of Europe were at war. The principal belligerents stemmed from the two pre-war alliances. The Triple Alliance consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary (without Italy) was arrayed against the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria eventually joined the former alliance and were called the “Central Powers.” Italy, Japan, and the United States eventually joined the Entente powers and were called the “Allies.”

By 1914, the Industrial Revolution had magnified the means of warfare tremendously, contributing to the lethality of the war. War materials—not simply rifles, but also machine guns, entrenching tools, artillery pieces, grenades, mortars, boots, and barbed wire—could now be mass-produced. On the Western Front in Europe, this enabled the contending armies to build trench lines from the English Channel far southeast toward the Alps.

The war saw many firsts: modern chemical warfare and gas masks, flamethrowers, steel helmets, tanks, aerial warfare, IQ tests, guide dogs, propaganda film, the military use of X-rays, and wireless radio communication.

Two key factors led the US to enter the war in April 1917: first, the decision by Germany to resume unrestricted submarine warfare and second, the Zimmermann telegram, indicating Germany’s efforts to induce Mexico to join the war against the United States.

With German submarines sinking American ships at will, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the Congress on April 2. Using high, moral language, he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Congress responded with rousing emotion and applause, and on April 6, passed a joint resolution declaring war on Germany.

American “doughboys,” as they were called, marched off to war to what became an anthem for Americans during the war: Over There, by George M. Cohan, born in Providence RI. The chorus:
Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming
Everywhere
So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word to beware
We’ll be over, we’re coming over
And we won’t come back till it’s over
Over there

American soldiers of the 23rd Regiment, 2nd Division, firing a 37 mm machine gun in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
(U.S. Army Signal Corps/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

While Americans saw action only for the closing months of the war, 117,000 soldiers were killed and 202,000 were wounded. Nonetheless the Americans provided essential military and psychological support to the faltering Allies on the Western Front. Historian Geoffrey Wawro states categorically that the “Doughboys won the war by trapping the German army in France and Belgium and severing its lifeline [in the Meuse-Argonne campaign].”
About 53,000 Rhode Islanders enlisted during the war and 612 died. The First Battalion of the 103rd Field Artillery Regiment was composed almost entirely of Rhode Islanders and served gallantly in the war. The citizens of Rhode Island also helped the war effort by creating “war gardens,” volunteering with the Red cross, and fundraising. The Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company in Providence, a major manufacturer of machine tools, contributed significantly to the industrial war effort.

Historian Jackson Spielvogel calls World War I the “defining event of the 20th century.” The superiority of Europe was gone; the United States was ascendant. An unstable peace settled on Eurasia which would last only two decades. After its revolution in 1917, Russia now became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with rising power and an ideology contrary to the democratic, capitalistic Western countries. Within many countries, government had projected itself into new areas of the economy and society. Many women had taken new jobs and had acquired the right to vote. Intellectually and psychologically, World War I was a jarring and disillusioning experience. With so much death and destruction, the faith in our leaders and in the idea of progress was shattered.

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News.

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Can I Really Be 70!?

(This essay was originally published by The Newport Daily News on October 11, 2018.)

Dear Readers, I am stunned to look at my calendar and realize I shall this month reach the distinguished age of 70. Tell me how this can be.

I have seen so many things: the sunrise over rice paddies in South Korea, horses running wild in the high desert in New Mexico, the majestic, soaring cathedral in Cologne, sting rays off the Grand Cayman Islands, Trafalgar Square in London, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the church where Martin Luther protested against the Roman Catholic Church, the chambers at Dachau, the statue of David in Florence, and the Swiss Alps.

I have ridden on the wonderful, winding Rhine River in Germany, Lake Winnipesauke, NH, the canals in Venice, the Caribbean, the battleship Iowa, and the canals of Amsterdam.

I have experienced so many thrills: the birth of three children and the pleasure of watching all three have their own children. I have wrestled with all my grandsons and bounced all my granddaughters on my knee. I have served our country at home and for seven years abroad—for six in Germany and for one in South Korea. Here at home I have lived with and have come to know the people of Virginia, Georgia, New York state, and Washington, DC. Because of my time abroad, I have been immersed in two other cultures and came to know them. This has given me great perspective on our American culture, the strong points but also its weak points. One can gain great insight in to one’s own country by living in another.

I have learned that in the grand choice we must all face between people and things, I have taken the former and it has served me well. In my experience a focus on things and stuff leads to the desire for more stuff, and more stuff. One can launch into infinite comparisons between one’s own stuff and the stuff of others. There is no future in this. Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea was correct: human relationships are most important.

The ancient Greeks were correct in seeking balance. One of the two most frequent responses from their authoritative oracle at Delphi was meden agan: nothing too much. And then there are the immortal words of Miss Piggy: Never eat more than you can lift.
Speaking of eating, I have eaten eggs, grits, and biscuits in Georgia, ribs in St. Louis, kimchee in Korea, shrimp and grits in New Orleans, Schnitzel mit pommes frites und ein Bier in Germany, pasta in Positano, Italy, and Johnny Cakes and Macoun apples here in New England.

I thank the American citizen and system for providing not only my undergraduate education at West Point, but also my graduate education at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College. West Point changed me not only from a young citizen to a soldier but also from a boy to a man.

I thank my immediate and extended family—mostly deceased—and community in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, for the support, nurture, and examples they provided me. I believe that solid families and communities are the incubators not only for men and women of character but also for good citizens—the lifeblood of a successful civilization. If America is to sustain itself it must restore more of our broken families and communities. As a country then, we shall have the foundation, character, and courage to make the right decisions about our future.

I thank my undergraduate students at Salve Regina University for their attention and eagerness to learn, for keeping me young, and for still laughing at my jokes.
I thank you, my readers, also for your attention, your faith, and your kind words about my essays these past seven years of writing for this newspaper. I hope it shall continue for another hundred.

As a citizen, I still believe in duty, honor, country and in America as an exceptional country. I agree with Senator John McCain in his final letter to us all: “Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people….” “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history….”

He ended with words of inspiration: “Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News.

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Real Heroes and Fake Heroes

(Note: This essay was originally published as “A Missed Opportunity to Celebrate True Heroes,” by The Hill on September 7, 2018. http://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/405404-a-missed-opportunity-to-celebrate-true-heroes )

In his reaction to the passing of John McCain, a true American hero, President Trump regrettably has missed a genuine opportunity to bring divided America together in mourning and reflection.

At a rally in Indiana on August 30, several days after McCain’s death, the president did not mention McCain. Rather he spoke again of his 2016 election win. He railed against the media, using again the anti-democratic phrase “enemy of the people.” Once again he stirred hatred and fear by labeling Hispanic gang members as sub-human, using the word “animals.” He invited his crowd to imagine “if Crooked Hillary Clinton had won.” He sowed division rather than unity.

Almost 2,450 years ago in ancient Greece, Athenian statesman Pericles did not pass up such an opportunity. To honor those fallen in battle during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, he gave one of the most famous speeches in Western history. Not only honoring the dead, he also reminded his fellow Athenians of their common democratic ideals and of their greatness. “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” … “everyone is equal before the law.” What counts in public positions is not class, “but the actual ability which the man possesses.” “We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.” We respect especially those laws which protect the oppressed. “Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece….”

It is ironic that neither our president nor Vice President Mike Pence, who did attend the McCain funeral and spoke, took the occasion to remind us of our ideals and to inspire us. It was John McCain himself who did this eloquently in his final letter. “Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people….” “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history….”


He ended with words of inspiration: “Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”
About twenty years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of the famous 17th century philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon. I learned much about him, but the greatest insight I gleaned was during a coffee break. I was speaking with a woman from Canada, a professor, who said, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would move to the US.” Quite surprised, I ask: “Why?” She replied: “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes.” Canadians, she explained, seemed bent on cutting down all their heroes, except for some star athletes.

Coming of age in the 1950s and early 60s and watching TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Superman,” and “Gunsmoke,” my early baby-boomer generation believed in heroes. Men had their weaknesses; however, they sought to do right, to seek justice, to be driven by moral principles. They spoke a moral vocabulary. They possessed a moral compass. In that age, presidents didn’t lie, at least they did not lie for vanity or personal gain. If they did, we took it as an exception and continued our faith in them. They never made statements like President Bill Clinton, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” They did not portray themselves as absolute monarchs like Richard Nixon did when he said: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” They, and other American heroes, did not seem obsessed with celebrity but rather with serving as exemplary citizens of our country. They had served honorably in World War II and Korea and had even led large invasion fleets to free captive continents from totalitarianism.

Heroes and stories of the heroic, real and mythical, are essential to the health and sustainability of a civilization. America’s culture wars are, in part, about our heroes—which ones are genuine, worthy of an honored place in America’s Story and worthy of holding up to our children as role models.

Because of his 60 years—five and one half as a POW—of honorable service to our country as a naval aviator and then senator, John McCain has earned the label of “American hero.” By not taking the high road—putting past differences aside and honoring McCain—President Trump has missed an easy opportunity to elevate himself and to elevate Americans together.

Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter@Fred Zilian,

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The Battle of Rhode Island (Part II)

(This essay was originally published as “Recounting the Battle of Rhode Island,” by the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2018.)

(Note: This is the second of two essays, celebrating the 240th anniversary of the battle.)

The American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (NY) in October, 1777, had a strategic impact on the Revolutionary War. It convinced the French to ally with us. In February, 1778, France signed a treaty of commerce and friendship and also a treaty of alliance with the fledgling United States. Great Britain now faced a much different threat. The US was hopeful and emboldened.

On July 29, the French fleet arrived off Pt. Judith. Under the command of Charles Henri Théodat, Comte d’Estaing, it consisted of 16 ships, with 12 ships of the line and about 4,000 army troops. The British naval forces were clearly overmatched so they took defensive measures. They withdrew their forces spread throughout the island to defensive positions near and in Newport. They also scuttled about 10 ships to prevent them from falling into French hands.

On August 8, d’Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport harbor. However, the next day British Admiral Howe and his fleet, a relief force, were spotted off Pt. Judith. On August 10, the fleets were maneuvering for position in the Atlantic south of the bay; however, Mother Nature stepped in. A tremendous hurricane arrived and raged for two days, disabling both fleets.

During this same time, the American forces, led by Maj Gen John Sullivan, had launched an offensive from Tiverton across Howland’s Ferry and landed unopposed in Portsmouth. They quickly occupied the fortifications which the British had evacuated, most prominently, Fort Butts, where the Portsmouth town wind turbine now stands. Gen Sullivan decided on a siege of Newport to try to strangle the British until the French fleet returned to the bay. American forces advanced in the east as far as the high ground east of Valley Rd. (Honeyman’s Hill), in the west as far as the high ground north of Miantonomi Ave.

Worried about the British relief force enroute, Adm d’Estaing informed Gen Sullivan that he was taking his fleet to Boston for repairs. The Americans were stunned and angry; Gen. Sullivan was indignant.

Thus began the unraveling of the allied offensive operation. To make matters worse, the terms of enlistment for several of the militia units were expiring. They wanted to get back to their farms and families. Lastly, sickness, especially dysentery, began to take its toll. On August 24, the siege ended and American forces began a retreat. British commander, Gen Robert Pigot, sensed an opportunity.

By August 29, the American force had declined to about 7,800 men; British-Hessian forces totaled about 6,000 soldiers and marines. The enemy line ran from Quaker Hill to Turkey Hill to Almy Hill. The forces on the western flank were mostly German regiments and they faced, among other units, the 1st RI Regiment, called the “Black Regiment” because of its many black and mixed-race soldiers.

Commanded on this day by Maj Samuel Ward, the regiment was situated behind a “thicket in the valley,” which gave them a strong defensive position. They also used the stone walls in this area as defensive positions from which to fire on the advancing troops. The Regiment had the primary responsibility for holding an important fortification on Durfee’s Hill, now called Lehigh Hill.

Disposition of British, French, and American Forces, Aquidneck Island, French Map, August 1778

(Library of Congress)

Three full assaults by Hessian forces failed to break the line. All the while Hessian cannon were firing on them from Turkey Hill. In his diary, one of the Hessian commanders, Captain Friedrich von der Malsburg, noted that during these assaults, “they found large bodies of troops behind the works and at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirt sleeves, and among them many Negroes.”
In seven hours of combat that day, the American line held. This allowed for the successful retreat and evacuation of General Sullivan’s Army to Tiverton across the Sakonnet River. Regarding casualties, Gen Pigot’s official report stated combined British, Hessian, Loyalist casualties of 260 with 38 killed. Gen Sullivan reported casualties of 211, with 30 killed.

Tactically, the battle is considered a draw. Neither commander wanted a full-scale battle. British Gen Pigot was happy to get the American force off the island. He had no desire to risk his military force or Newport for a chance to gain a decisive victory. Gen Sullivan was happy to get his force off the island before the British reinforcements arrived.

Strategically, most historians would call the entire campaign a win for the British. They were not captured or pushed off the island. They remained another 14 months until they decided to end the occupation in October 1779.

Nonetheless, this was the first time that American and French forces had planned an allied military operation, one they would have executed, but for the hurricane. Finally, it was the largest battle of the war in New England and the last significant battle in the northern theater, one which unfortunately has never made the US history texts.

A monument to the Black Regiment now stands in Patriots’ Park, Portsmouth, and is dedicated to the “first black slaves and freemen who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island as members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, writes for The Hill and the History News Network, and is a monthly columnist.

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