A daring and thrilling feat
During the Revolutionary War. real estate value in Warwick sank at least 25% in value according to nineteenth century historian, W.A. Greene. He tells us, "...since the blockade it had cost the inhabitants to live, on an average, three shillings per week more than their earnings ...Corn cost $20 per bushel; rye $25 per bushel . . . " Reports of the sad condition of Rhode Island troops in the Continental Army further demoralized the state. Soldiers were without shoes, and otherwise so poorly clad, that half were unfit for any duty. Despair and fear among the troops increased, and a near mutiny broke out in Colonel Christopher Greene's battalion.
It was in the midst of this suffering and dissatisfaction that Rhode Island's Major William Barton led a group of men into one of the most daring and thrilling accomplishments of the Revolutionary War. The feat was the capture of a British general from the island at a time when the enemy forces were very strong and seemingly infallible. Barton, a young officer from Warren, R.I., captured General Richard Prescott, the British officer in command of Newport, and brought him to Warwick Neck.
While Warwick enjoyed a brief period of high spirits following Major Barton's capture of the British General, Richard Prescott, there was a touch of gloom later in the year with the news of American defeats at Brandywine, Philadelphia, and Germantown.
It was during 1777, called "the time of mixed fortunes" and the "year of miracles," that the British had planned a three-pronged attack to cut the colonies in half along the line of Lake Champlain and the Hudson Valley. Three British armies were to meet at Albany and present an unmatched force that would have devastated the Continental Army. Fortunately for the American cause, poor communications and a series of blunders made this impossible. As a result, only the army under General John Burgoyne met the Americans at Saratoga, not far from Albany.
General Washington had sent many of his best troops to Saratoga to aid General Horatio Gates and his second in command, General Benedict Arnold. In addition, militia units from all over New England, possibly including the Pawtuxet Rangers, swelled the American ranks. Burgoyne ordered an attack on the Americans on Oct. 7, 1777. He advanced with 1,500 men and six pieces of artillery. The British might have been successful but Arnold, without orders and in defiance of Gates, (whom many believed was about to call for a retreat), pressed to the front and actually took command of the American forces. Led by Arnold, the Continentals turned a near defeat into a resounding victory. Burgoyne found himself surrounded, defeated and, with no hope of aid from other British forces, compelled to surrender on Oct. 17, 1777. The village of Pawtuxet maintains a very strong tradition regarding the Battle of Saratoga and has the belief that two cannon and a number of prisoners taken at the famous Oct. 1777 battle came to Pawtuxet.
The Battle of Rhode Island
The great American victory at Saratoga, plus the eloquence and persuasive powers of Benjamin Franklin, brought about the long desired Franco-American alliance against the British. When, in 1778, it became obvious that a large French fleet would be sent to America, Rhode Island hopes were high that the British could be driven from Aquidneck Island.
Word reached Warwick that the date for the invasion of Aquidneck Island was set for August 12th. Unfortunately, one of the area's most devastating hurricanes wreaked havoc at that time with American, French and British strategies. The storm struck the American troops on Aquidneck Island on the evening of August 11, 1778. It tore up tents and leveled the American camp on the island; filling trenches, destroying stores, and soaking powder and cartridges to uselessness. Without protection from the wind and rain, the men found sleep impossible. Lacking dry ammunition, the Americans' situation was desperate...Despite these setbacks, Sullivan, at 6:00 a.m. on August 15th, ordered the American army to move south. When the French fleet left Narragansett Bay to repair the damages received as a result of the hurricane, American forces became demoralized and many deserted. It was soon realized that it was impossible to drive the British from their positions in Newport.
After careful consideration, the decision was made to fall back to the fortifications near Butt's Hill on the north end of Aquidneck Island. On the 28th of August, the American Army began its strategic retreat with Nathanael Greene leading the troops from the trenches near the British lines. Many residents along Warwick's coast went to high hills to try to see what was happening. According to Horace Belcher, "Polly Rhodes, watching through a spy glass from an upper window of a ....Rhodes house on the Warwick side of Main St.... (in Pawtuxet saw) ...the dark clouds of smoke hovering over the waters of the lower bay..." Her husband, Robert Rhodes and many of her friends and neighbors of the Pawtuxet Rangers were engaged in this classic battle.
It was during this action that Col. Greene's Black Regiment, under Major Samuel Ward, Jr., won everlasting fame. The ex-slaves repulsed three Hessian attacks. This was accomplished with some of the most fierce hand-to-hand combat of the entire war as the American troops, many of them armed only with knives, repulsed the Hessian bayonet charges.
Within a short time, as the militia units returned to Pawtuxet and Warwick from their heroic efforts in the Battle of Rhode Island, their feeling of accomplishment was great. They agreed with Lafayette's comment that "this was the best fought action of the war," but the fact remained that it was not a great and total victory.
Col. Christopher Greene commanded the famous R.I. Black Regiment, composed of ex-slaves. Their heroic defense during the Battle of Rhode Island is one of the states’ greatest moments. (pg. 47 – City at the Crossroads)