(This essay was originally published as “Dec. 8, 1776: Newport Invaded,” on December 8, 2016, by the Newport Daily News.)
Two hundred and forty years ago today, British and Hessian forces landed and occupied Aquidneck Island, beginning a nearly three-year occupation with devastating consequences for the island and its people.
After abandoning revolutionary and recalcitrant Boston in March, 1776, the British decided to seize and occupy Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay for several reasons. Both British Admiral Richard Howe and brother General William Howe agreed on the need for a base of operations in New England, so geographically the Island and the Bay were good solutions. Strategically, with Narragansett Bay as a base, British forces could launch operations to other parts of New England, e.g., to defend New York City merchant ships from revolutionary privateers operating from Boston. Politically, Newport was reported to be the home of many loyalists, Americans loyal to the British Crown. Many loyalist Newport merchants, for example, could be counted on to support British efforts so that the strained economic and social connections could be restored. They hoped that Newport could return to its golden age earlier in the 18th century.
When the British force arrived offshore on December 7, five months after the Declaration of Independence, Newport’s population had plummeted from a prewar high of about 9,000 to 5,000 or lower. Late that day the armada dropped anchor west of Weaver’s Cove (near Melville, Portsmouth) and near Dyer’s Island. The force consisted of seven ships of the line (warships), four frigates (lighter warships), and seventy transports. Onboard were about 6500 military personnel and about 1500 civilians. The military forces consisted of both British and Hessian (from the Germanic state of Hesse) mercenary soldiers, about equal in number, commanded by General Henry Clinton.
The entire body landed on December 8, and were unopposed by any patriot resistance. Certainly a good number of Newporters welcomed the arrival and shared the reaction of Hessian officer C. Wende, who recorded in his regimental journal: “One can hardly imagine how majestic the arriving fleet looked.”
Occupation forces coming ashore, December 8, 1776
(Painting of Robert Clevely, 1777)
The forces immediately spread throughout the island and occupied the high ground and existing entrenchments. A British regiment landed at Newport and moved into the city. Several prominent city officials met the leaders of the force and escorted them to the Colony House where they peacefully gave up authority. The island was now under British military rule.
While many locals may have viewed the British arrival calmly and with thanks, this was not the case regarding the Hessians, whose reputation for cruelty and abuse had preceded them. Newporters generally tried to keep their distance from the Hessians; however, not all relations were tense. Samuel Freebody, for example, relied for firewood on a Hessian officer who lodged with him, indicating the “greatest harmony” between them and had “no doubt of his kindness continuing.”
With such a dramatic increase in population, there was a dramatic impact physically and environmentally on Aquidneck Island and the surroundings lands, aggravated by the three very harsh winters during the occupation. Two days after the landing, Lieutenant Frederick MacKenzie recorded in his diary that there was a very hard frost with ice an inch and a half thick. Writing of the cold later in the month, MacKenzie noted that a bottle of water under his bed had frozen as had a bottle of ink inside a desk. The winter of 1778-79 was so cold that several Hessian soldiers froze to death in an unheated guard house, recorded by one observer as “standing in their sentry boxes frozen to death, each with his musket standing by his side.”
Social tensions rose as the temperatures dropped and wood became scarcer. A British officer recalled during one winter the British commander gave “orders for the Cutting Down of almost every tree on the Island for fuel,” as well as tearing down vacant houses and fences. It is estimated that a total of 200 buildings were torn down throughout the occupation.
Social tension also increased because of limited housing, even though many houses had been vacated by people who had fled rather than face the occupation. In the summer, many troops would disperse throughout the Island; however, in the winter most would return to Newport straining the resources. They moved into all public buildings (including the Colony House), taverns, and homes. Except for Trinity Church, all churches became barracks.
Men faced severe constraints on their movements and activities during the occupation. They had to obtain written permission to leave or return to the island, had to register their small boats with the authorities, and obtain written permission to fish or hunt fowl. People suspected of having sympathy for the rebel cause were punished. Newporter Fleet Greene recorded in his diary that one military commander “Abuses the Inhabitant Friends to Liberty in a Most shocking Manner. Not suffering them to talk in the street.”
Women could move more freely than men and so were helpful in obtaining needed supplies and news. Many claimed a greater degree of social independence and used their social and sexual leverage on lonely soldiers to their advantage. However, their relative ease of movement came with costs. As their public visibility increased, so did the chance of abuse by soldiers.
Mary Gould Almy was certainly not alone in the challenge she faced. While a loyalist at heart, her husband Benjamin joined the rebel ranks, and she was therefore forced to maintain connections to both sides. “I am for English government,” she wrote in her diary, “and an English fleet.”
Mary Gould Almy
During the occupation, she operated a boarding house on Thames Street. Benjamin survived the war and returned to operate the house with his wife afterward. When George Washington as president visited the city in 1790, he boarded at the house (razed in the 1920s). The Almys were so taken with the visit that they reportedly saved for decades the blanket he used.
(The author would like to thank Bert Lippincott of the Newport Historical Society and Sue Rousseau of the Portsmouth Free Public Library for their assistance.)
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.