Many thousands of men were gathered at Fort Barton in the summer and fall of 1777 for an October invasion of Aquidneck. However, because of the allowance of insufficient time for the amassing of materiel, the inexperience of the officer-in-charge, and the accompanying bad weather at the designated times of invasion, 2 half-hearted attempts to establish beachheads across Howland's Ferry were thwarted.
In the spring, Gen. George Washington selected Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to assume command of Fort Barton and to direct staging operations for a new invasion attempt of Aquidneck. The Marquis de Lafayette was to coordinate the participation of a French fleet and landing force, and a Grande Plan of a strike by land and sea was formulated.
On August 9, the Battle of Rhode Island began with the crossing at Howland's Ferry of 11,000 Continental line troops and militia. The French navy blocked Narragansett bay, forcing the British to scuttle their small naval force. The American army, under Sullivan, landed at Rhode Island and forced the smaller British/German force to withdraw behind fortifications built around the town of Newport.
Within a few days, a large British naval force arrived to challenge the French fleet. The French fleet sailed out of the bay to do battle in the open ocean. As the two fleets maneuvered, preparing for battle, a hurricane came upon them and scattered the fleets from August 13-14, causing severe damage to both sides. For the land forces, the high winds and rain also did great damage to both sides, but the British defenders faired better because they were behind prepared positions and in a town.
For the next week, elements of the scattered French fleet returned to the bay, but then all of the French ships sailed to Boston for repairs. Lafayette's disappointment at a reduced role of command, the French Adm. d'Estaing's failure to contribute landing troops, and the severe damage sustained by the French fleet brought the full force of the defending British, Hessian and Loyalist troops to bear on the hardy invaders from Tiverton's shores. Without the sea attack to draw the attention of many of the defenders away from the land attack, the British line held.
The American army, which was much larger than the British, was composed largely of short-term militia soldiers who had joined up just for this campaign. When the French fleet sailed away, they became very discouraged, knowing that they could not take the town and hold it without strong naval support. By the end of the month, the dishearted army began to withdrawal.
On August 29, the British perceived that the Americans were attempting to leave the island, and sallied out of their lines to attack, hoping to disrupt the retreat. The Americans were moving to the north end of the long, narrow island, and crossing the narrow water to the mainland. The Americans made a stand on Butt's Hill, 12 miles from Newport, which they had fortified.
The British tried to turn their right wing in the morning, when Greene, commanding it, changed front, assailed the pursuers vigorously, and drove them to their strong defence on Quaker Hill. A general engagement ensued, when the British line was broken and driven back in confusion to Turkey Hill. The day was very sultry, and many perished by the heat. The action ended at near 3:00 P.M., but a sluggish cannonade was kept up until sunset.
In this engagement the Americans lost about 200 men, and 260 British men. The 1st Rhode Island, the first black regiment in America's history, took part in the action. Located on the right (west) side of the American line, they defended their part of the hill against fierce attacks by German troops. Numbering 400 men, the First Rhode Island acquitted itself well, repulsing three separate and distinct charges from 1,500 Hessians under Count Donop. They beat them back with such tremendous loss that Count Donop at once applied for an exchange, fearing that his men would kill him if he went into battle with them again, for having exposed them to such slaughter.
After a siege of 12 days by the Americans dug in on Honeyman's Hill in Middletown, a weary and disappointed Sullivan realized the land attack alone could not penetrate the English line. With extreme regret, Sullivan was obliged to order withdrawal.
On August 30, near midnight, the last of the Continentals was removed from Aquidneck. The regular troops were sent to rejoin Washington, the militia returned home, and only a small force was left to man the guns of Fort Barton. The Battle of Rhode Island was over.
On August 31, Clinton arrived with a reinforcement of 4,000 men. He soon returned to New York, after sending Gen. Grey to destroy a large number of ships, with magazines, stores, wharves, warehouses, and other buildings at New Bedford, and mills and houses at Fair Haven. Property to the amount of over $300,000 was destroyed. Then the marauders proceeded to Martha's Vineyard, where they demanded of and received from the defenseless inhabitant's militia arms, public money, 300 oxen, and 10,000 sheep.
Four British infantry regiments 22nd, 38th 43rd, 54th
Six Hessian infantry regiments (Landgrave, Huyne, Ditforth, Bunau, Two Anspachs)
Three Loyalist infantry regiments Tory infantry: (Wightman, Brown, Fanning)
British, Hessian, and ship-based artillery
Eight Continental Army infantry regiments: (1st Rhode Island, 2nd Rhode Island, 4th Massachusetts, 13th Massachusetts, Webb's, Jackson's, Sherburne's, James Livingston's regiments)
Two regiments from the Rhode Island State Brigade
Six regiments from the Rhode Island state regiment