(This essay, abridged, was originally published as “An Enterprise Against the Enemy,” by the Newport Daily News on July 8, 2017.)
Two hundred forty years ago, a band of American soldiers, led by Lt. Col. William Barton, conducted a daring raid on Aquidneck Island during the British occupation. On the night of July 10-11, 1777, they succeeded in capturing Maj. Gen. Richard Prescott, the hated general who commanded the British-Hessian forces occupying the island since December, 1776.
It is hard for us today to appreciate that this beautiful, fair, and peaceful isle of ours was once the scene of war: occupying forces—some speaking a foreign language, canon, fortifications, muskets, battleships, coercion, censorship, abuse, neighbors and even families split in their political loyalties. But so it was during the British occupation of Newport and Aquidneck Island, December 1776 to October 1779.
The British had decided to seize and occupy the island and Narragansett Bay to obtain a beneficial base of operations for all New England. Also, Newport was known to contain many loyalists, Americans loyal to the British Crown. Sympathy for the Crown was especially strong among the large merchant class, who sought the restoration of good relations between the colonies and Great Britain so that commerce might once again flourish.
The British and their Hessian (German) allies came ashore on December 8, 1776, with about 7,000 soldiers and 1500 civilians. In the face of this overwhelming force, patriot forces retreated from the island. The landing was therefore unopposed. The occupation forces quickly deployed throughout the island. A British regiment landed at Newport and moved into the city. Prominent city officials escorted them to the Colony House and peacefully gave up authority.
By the spring 1777, the British had built fortifications at numerous locations throughout the island, such as in Newport, on Goat Island, and at Fogland Ferry in Portsmouth.
American forces on the mainland launched small raids, shelled British positions, and sniped at and harassed the occupation forces; however, no major offensive was conducted due to the lack of sufficient forces and resources.
The more the occupation forces fortified their positions, the more conditions deteriorated on the island. Seasoned by anti-Semitism in earlier eras in Europe and concerned about disruptions from the imminent warfare, the majority of Newport’s Jewish community fled. The Royal Navy had depressed much of the once thriving commerce in Newport harbor. This had a rippling effect on the economy. Work became hard to find. The candle factories, warehouses, and distilleries all went into decline. Craftsmen and manufacturers sought new lives in Providence, which was safely in patriot hands. The decline in the population was dramatic. Newport’s population plummeted from 9,200 in 1774 to about 4,000 in 1777.
On May 5, 1777, Maj. Gen. Prescott took command of all occupation forces in Rhode Island. At the time, they controlled about one-quarter of the colony and had about 4,300 British and Hessian troops on Aquidneck Island.
Prescott was an arrogant tyrant who treated any colonists of questionable loyalty with contempt, considering them traitors to the British Crown. He yelled at the colonist Thomas Walker: “traitor and a villain you scoundrel, to betray your country,” as he had Walker’s wrist irons tightened.
Prescott treated captured patriots with abuse. Burrington Anthony, a captain in the Portsmouth militia was arrested and placed in the Newport jail. Prescott verbally abused him saying “damn him” and that he “would be hung.” In another incident involving a patriot privateer, Prescott swore at him and struck him several times.
He was also infamous for his treatment of civilians who did not show him proper deference. In passing each other, he would accost and even strike men for not doffing their hats to him. Under his iron-fisted rule, civilians were sent to filthy jails. He also allowed the destruction of unoccupied houses in Newport.
As summer 1777 broke, Lt. Col William Barton, of the 1st Rhode Island State Regiment stationed in Tiverton, sought a way to retaliate for the British capture in December 1776, of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, second in command of the Continental Army under George Washington. Barton later wrote: “”I used the greatest endeavors to get intelligence of some British officer of the same rank with Major General Lee whom I might surprise and thus effect an exchange of that great man.”
Lt. Col. William Barton
Paul Coffin, a civilian who had escaped from Aquidneck Island, gave Barton the information he needed. Barton learned that while Prescott had his headquarters in Newport at the Bannister house, he spent nights at the home of Henry John Overing in Middletown. A few days later, a British deserter confirmed this. Overing, a loyalist, was a successful merchant, distiller, and sugar refiner, and had bought the house and 55-acre farm in 1771. In January 1777, he had taken the loyalty oath to the British Crown.
Barton was familiar with the area because he had been quartered there earlier. However, he needed more precise information for the raid to be successful. This he obtained from a runaway slave named Quako Honeyman and British deserters. Each morning a detachment of eleven soldiers marched to Overing’s house to relieve the detachment of the previous day.
In late June, Col. Joseph Stanton, Barton’s superior, approved his plan. After asking five of his regimental officers and procuring five whale boats, he went to his regiment for volunteers. “Brother soldiers, I am about to undertake an enterprise against the enemy. I wish to have about forty volunteers and those who dare to risk their lives with me on this occasion will advance two paces to the front.” The entire regiment stepped forward. He then hand-picked men to make a total raiding part of 48.
Given the British defensive network on the island and the posting of the ships in Narragansett Bay, Barton decided to launch the raid from Warwick Neck area, not Tiverton or Bristol. He finally shared the details with his men: “The enterprise will be attended with danger and it is probable some of us may pass the shades of death before it is accomplished …. I will not ask you to encounter any hazard but what I shall be exposed to equally with you. I pledge my honor that in every difficulty and danger I will take the lead.”
The raiding party departed Warwick Neck about 9:00 pm, July 10. They navigated to the island without being discovered by the British warships and patrol boats. Once on land they moved eastward along Redwood Creek about one mile to the Overing House, just east of the West Road, and approached and disarmed the single sentinel on duty.
Raid to capture Maj. Gen. Prescott
Christian McBurney, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott (Westholme, 2014). Reprinted by permission.
They burst into the house from three different directions. Initially, they could not find Prescott. Some of the men called out for Prescott. Eventually Barton heard a voice from the second floor asking, “What is the matter?” Barton moved to the second floor and entered a bedroom to see a man sitting on the edge of his bed in nightclothes. Barton asked if he was Prescott. Prescott replied, “Yes. Sir.” Barton said, “You are my prisoner.” Prescott replied, “I acknowledge it, sir.” Also captured in the raid was his aide, Lt. William Barrington.
Prescott cooperated and said nothing throughout the return trip. Once the boats touched the shore at Warwick Neck at 3:30 am, Prescott said to Barton, “Sir, you have made a damn’d bold push tonight.” Barton replied, “We have been fortunate.”
George Washington received the news of the capture on July 16. He wrote to Col. Spencer: “The conduct of Colonel Barton … [and his raiding party] cannot be too highly applauded. This is among the finest partisan exploits that has taken place in the course of the war on either side.”
Finally in April 1778, after many months of negotiation, Maj. Gen. Prescott was exchanged for American Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Historian Christian McBurney in his book, Kidnapping the Enemy, states that the raid was “the most spectacular and successful special operation of the war.”
The Overing House is now owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation and is the residence of Admiral (ret.) James Hogg and Anne Hogg. While the house is not open to the public, the public is welcomed to visit the nearby grounds “Prescott Farm,” on West Main Road, Middletown.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News.