American Revolution: Battle of Rhode Island

Major General John Sullivan. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Rhode Island was fought August 29, 1778, during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and was an early attempt at a combined operation between American and French forces. In the summer of 1778, a French fleet led by Admiral Comte d'Estaing arrived on the American coast. It was decided this force would join with Major General John Sullivan's command to recapture Newport, RI. Due to intervention by the Royal Navy and damage sustained by a storm at sea, d'Estaing withdrew from the operation leaving Sullivan to confront the British alone. Unable to execute the operation without French support, he withdrew up Aquidneck Island with Newport's garrison in pursuit. Assuming a strong position, Sullivan fought a successful defensive battle on August 29 before his men departed the island.


With the signing of the Treaty of Alliance in February 1778, France formally entered the American Revolution on behalf of the United States. Two months later, Vice Admiral Charles Hector, comte d'Estaing departed France with twelve ships of the line and around 4,000 men. Crossing the Atlantic, he intended to blockade the British fleet in Delaware Bay. Leaving European waters, he was pursued by a British squadron of thirteen ships of the line commanded by Vice Admiral John Byron.

Comte d'Estaing
Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, comte d'Estaing. Public Domain

Arriving in early July, d'Estaing found that the British had abandoned Philadelphia and withdrawn to New York. Moving up the coast, the French ships assumed a position outside New York harbor and the French admiral contacted General George Washington who had established his headquarters at White Plains. As d'Estaing felt that his ships would be unable to cross the bar into to the harbor, the two commanders decided on joint strike against the British garrison at Newport, RI.

Fast Facts: Battle of Rhode Island

Situation on Aquidneck Island

Occupied by British forces since 1776, the garrison at Newport was led by Major General Sir Robert Pigot. Since that time, a standoff had ensued with British forces occupying the city and Aquidneck Island while the Americans held the mainland. In March 1778, Congress appointed Major General John Sullivan to oversee the Continental Army's efforts in the area.

Assessing the situation, Sullivan began stockpiling supplies with the goal of attacking the British that summer. These preparations were damaged in late May when Pigot conducted successful raids against Bristol and Warren. In mid-July, Sullivan received word from Washington to begin raising additional troops for a move against Newport. On the 24th, one of Washington's aides, Colonel John Laurens, arrived and informed Sullivan of d'Estaing's approach and that the city was to be the target of a combined operation.

To assist in the attack, Sullivan's command was soon augmented by brigades led by Brigadier Generals John Glover and James Varnum which had moved north under the guidance of the Marquis de Lafayette. Swiftly taking action, the call went out to New England for the militia. Heartened by news of the French assistance, militia units from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire began arriving at Sullivan's camp swelling the American ranks to around 10,000.

Major General Nathanael Greene. Photograph Source: Public Domain

As preparations moved forward, Washington dispatched Major General Nathanael Greene, a native of Rhode Island, north to aid Sullivan. To the south, Pigot worked to improve Newport's defenses and was reinforced in mid-July. Sent north from New York by General Sir Henry Clinton and Vice Admiral Lord Richard Howe, these additional troops increased to the garrison to around 6,700 men.

The Franco-American Plan

Arriving off Point Judith on July 29, d'Estaing met with the American commanders and the two sides began developing their plans for assaulting Newport. These called for Sullivan's army to cross from Tiverton to Aquidneck Island and advance south against British positions on Butts Hill. As this occurred, the French troops would disembark on Conanicut Island before crossing over to Aquidneck and cutting off the British forces facing Sullivan.

This done, the combined army would move against Newport's defenses. Anticipating an allied attack, Pigot began withdrawing his forces back to the city and abandoned Butts Hill. On August 8, d'Estaing pushed his fleet into Newport harbor and began landing his force on Conanicut the next day. As the French were landing, Sullivan, seeing that Butts Hill was vacant, crossed over and occupied the high ground.

The French Depart

As French troops were going ashore, a force of eight ships of the line, led by Howe, appeared off Point Judith. Possessing a numerical advantage, and concerned that Howe could be reinforced, d'Estaing re-embarked his troops on August 10 and sailed out to battle the British. As the two fleets jockeyed for position, the weather quickly deteriorated scattering the warships and badly damaging several.

While the French fleet regrouped off Delaware, Sullivan advanced on Newport and began siege operations on August 15. Five days later, d'Estaing returned and informed Sullivan that the fleet would be immediately departing for Boston to make repairs. Incensed, Sullivan, Greene, and Lafayette pleaded with the French admiral to remain, even for just two days to support an immediate attack. Though d'Estaing desired to assist them, he was overruled by his captains. Mysteriously, he proved unwilling to leave his ground forces which would be of little use in Boston.

Marquis de Lafayette. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The French actions provoked a flurry of irate and impolitic correspondence from Sullivan to other senior American leaders. In the ranks, d'Estaing's departure sparked outrage and led many of the militia to return home. As a result, Sullivan's ranks rapidly began to deplete. On August 24, he received word from Washington that the British were preparing a relief force for Newport.

The threat of additional British troops arriving eliminated the possibility of conducting a protracted siege. As many of his officers felt a direct assault against Newport's defenses was unfeasible, Sullivan elected to order a withdraw north with the hope that it could be conducted in a way that would draw Pigot out from his works. On August 28, the last American troops departed the siege lines and retreated to a new defensive position at the northern end of the island.

The Armies Meet

Anchoring his line on Butts Hill, Sullivan's position looked south across a small valley to Turkey and Quaker Hills. These were occupied by advance units and overlooked the East and West Roads which ran south to Newport. Alerted to the American withdrawal, Pigot ordered two columns, led by General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg and Major General Francis Smith, to push north to harry the enemy.

While the former's Hessians moved up the West Road towards Turkey Hill, the latter's infantry marched up the East Road in the direction of Quaker Hill. On August 29, Smith's forces came under fire from Lieutenant Colonel Henry B. Livingston's command near Quaker Hill. Mounting a stiff defense, the Americans forced Smith to request reinforcements. As these arrived, Livingston was joined by Colonel Edward Wigglesworth’s regiment.

Francis Smith
Major General Francis Smith. Public Domain

Renewing the attack, Smith began to push the Americans back. His efforts were aided by Hessian forces which flanked the enemy position. Falling back to the main American lines, Livingston and Wigglesworth's men passed through Glover's brigade. Probing forward, British troops came under artillery fire from Glover's position.

After their initial attacks were turned back, Smith elected to hold his position rather than mount a full assault. To the west, von Lossberg's column engaged Laurens' men in front of Turkey Hill. Slowly pushing them back, the Hessians began to gain the heights. Though reinforced, Laurens was ultimately forced to fall back across the valley and passed through Greene's lines on the American right.

John Laurens
Colonel John Laurens. Public Domain

As the morning progressed, the Hessian efforts were aided by three British frigates that moved up the bay and began firing on the American lines. Shifting artillery, Greene, with assistance from American batteries on Bristol Neck, was able to force them to withdraw. Around 2:00 PM, von Lossberg began an assault on Greene's position but was thrown back. Mounting a series of counterattacks, Greene was able to regain some ground and compelled the Hessians to fall back to the top of Turkey Hill. Though fighting began to subside, an artillery duel continued into the evening.


The fighting cost Sullivan 30 killed, 138 wounded, and 44 missing, while Pigot's forces sustained 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing. On the night of August 30/31, American forces departed Aquidneck Island and moved to new positions at Tiverton and Bristol. Arriving at Boston, d'Estaing was met with a cool reception by the city's residents as they had learned of the French departure through Sullivan's irate letters.

The situation was improved somewhat by Lafayette who had been sent north by the American commander in the hopes of securing the fleet's return. Though many in the leadership were angered by the French actions at Newport, Washington and Congress worked to calm passions with the goal of preserving the new alliance.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Rhode Island." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). American Revolution: Battle of Rhode Island. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Rhode Island." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).