2012-05-24 / News

JHS 100 years: The British occupation of Jamestown


The occupation of Jamestown by the British is remembered every other year at Battery Day in Conanicut Battery Historic Park. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY The occupation of Jamestown by the British is remembered every other year at Battery Day in Conanicut Battery Historic Park. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY Conanicut Island was strategically important during the American Revolution because of its location opposite entrance to Newport Harbor. The army that controlled it could control access to Newport, one of the best and busiest harbors in the rebellious colonies and could attack ships coming up the West Passage.

On Dec. 7, 1776, the British fleet under Sir Peter Parker took advantage of the screen the island provided and sailed up the West Passage. Lt. Frederick Mackenzie, adjutant of the Royal Welch fusiliers, recorded the voyage in his diary: “The Experiment ... took the lead and stood up the Western Channel between Conanicut and the Main. ... About two miles from the light house, the Rebels had a battery or redoubt with 4 embrazures toward the channel. But it appeared to be abandoned.”

The abandoned Jamestown position was Conanicut Battery on Prospect Hill, which the colonists had built earlier in 1776 but never manned.

The British – approximately 6,000 strong – landed in Middletown and entered Newport unopposed. “The 22nd Regiment went down on their transports to Newport, and finding the Rebels had abandoned it, they landed and took possession of it and the Batteries,” Mackenzie reported.

On Dec. 12, the British sent a detachment from their 54th Regiment to Conanicut Island “to take possession of it and protect the inhabitants.” A week later, the whole regiment was transported to the island where it was quartered for the winter. The following summer, a detachment of Hessians joined it.

The British and Hessian forces rebuilt the battery on Prospect Hill and constructed a smaller fortification on the East Passage on the spit of land south of Bull Point in the Dumplings. They also reaped hay – about 1,000 tons in 1777 – and cut trees for firewood. (The British army reportedly burned 300 cords of wood a day and quickly denuded the island of trees.)

The arrival of the French fleet in July 1778 did little to relieve the troubled Jamestown farmers. The British retreated to Newport, and the French landed 4,000 troops on Conanicut Island to be transferred to Aquidneck to prepare for the abortive attempt to remove the British from Newport that is known as the Battle of Rhode Island. When the British fleet appeared on Aug. 9, the French sailed down the East Passage through the cannon fire from Newport to confront it. Both fleets suffered greatly in the nor’easter that blew up almost immediately, and no decisive engagement occurred.

On Sept. 1, Sir Henry Clinton sailed into Newport with 72 ships and 4,500 troops, while the French limped to Boston to refit. For another year, the British occupied and despoiled the islands.

At last, on Oct. 25, 1779, the British and Hessian troops evacuated Newport and Jamestown to join the British forces in the southern colonies. The desolation they left behind was complete. Food and wood were scarce; money was almost nonexistent. Even the weather seemed to conspire against the islanders – for six weeks the bay was frozen solid. Spring brought little cheer to farmers with land and houses but little seed to plant and no livestock.

The French returned in July 1780. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, the French commander in chief, made Newport his headquarters.

Jamestown’s single moment in the sun arrived on March 6, 1781. Gen. George Washington with eight officers and aides took the old South Ferry from Saunderstown to Jamestown, landing at the West Ferry. They crossed the island along what is now Narragansett

Avenue and were met at East Ferry by a French barge that took them to meet with Rochambeau in Newport Harbor. Washington and his aides returned to his headquarters by way of Providence, so this short trip across the island is the only time he set foot in Jamestown.

Some of the French stayed in Jamestown until the British defeat at Yorktown in October 1781. They repaired and manned the Conanicut Battery and patrolled the island. The French presence was not always a boon. Over the year, the town council officially complained about the damage done to fences and walls and requested that soldiers “might not be Permitted to come on shore without some Good and Known officer over them.”

The Revolution left Jamestown with few inhabitants, no money, and no ready market for goods it might be able to produce. At the end of the war, the island settled into an era of no growth and limited expectations.

This is the ninth in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society

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