2013-04-11 / Island History

Jamestown Historical Society Feature

General Washington marches down Narragansett Avenue
By Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden

During the 1770s, French support to the American Revolution was – despite French involvement in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778 – primarily monetary and maritime. In early 1780, King Louis XVI agreed to send both ships and land forces to the American colonies, and in July 1780, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, the French commander in chief, arrived in Newport with 5,800 French troops.

The French, both the men and transports, spent the summer recovering from a rough 69-day Atlantic crossing. Rochambeau met with Gen. George Washington in September in Hartford, but returned to Rhode Island for the winter without firm plans for coordinated French-American action. Washington was in favor of trying to recapture New York, but Rochambeau wanted to bypass the British stronghold and attack the British forces further south. Additional face-to-face talks were necessary and, on March 2, 1781, Washington left his headquarters at New Windsor on the Hudson River and traveled to Newport to plan the campaign for the approaching summer.

A George Washington equestrian statue was erected in 1856 in Richmond, Va. The bronze stature was cast in Germany by Thomas Crawford and arrived in Richmond late in 1857. A George Washington equestrian statue was erected in 1856 in Richmond, Va. The bronze stature was cast in Germany by Thomas Crawford and arrived in Richmond late in 1857. According to the record of expenditures for the trip, Gen. Washington was accompanied by his aides, Cols. Tench Tilghman and David Humphreys, and by Major Gen. Robert Howe. At least four other men also rode with them.

The distance from New Windsor to Newport is approximately 200 miles, and the group made good time, considering March weather and the colonial roads. Mishaps along the road delayed them a little: a horse had to be pulled out of the Housatonick River at Bull’s Falls and the rough roads forced stops to reshoe the horses. Nonetheless, Washington dined with his friend Jonathan Trumbull in Hartford on March 4, and continued across Connecticut, arriving at Little Rest – now Kingston – on March 5.

On March 6, Job Watson – who moved to Jamestown after the Revolution and became one of the largest landowners on the island – spotted Washington “with eight officers and aides as a body guard” from his watch tower on Tower Hill in South Kingstown as they rode from Kingston to Saunderstown. At Saunderstown, according to the expense account for the trip, they paid $288 to be ferried to “Connecticut,” a common misnaming of the island of Conanicut.

The cost of the ferry across the West Passage was almost double what they had paid to cross the Thames River at Norwich. Mrs. French Chadwick, who read a paper about the trip before the Newport Historical Society in December 1912, speculated that the cost meant no ferry was available and a private boat was used. However, the Continental money that Washington and his entourage paid their way was often accepted only at a deep discount, and the discount varied from place to place.

Nobody in Jamestown recorded Gen. Washington’s ride from the landing at West Ferry to East Ferry, so it is only common sense that suggests he followed Ferry Road – now called Narragansett Avenue – from one side of the island to the other. Washington was met, presumably at East Ferry, by a barge sent by Rochambeau. At a walk, a horse would have completed the 1-mile ride in about 15 minutes. Even allowing time for debarking and re-embarking, Washington’s time in Jamestown was probably less than an hour.

His arrival in Newport was recorded in the journal of Claude Blanchard, commissary of the French auxiliary army. “This day General Washington, who was expected, arrived about two o’clock. He first went to the Duc de Bourgogne (the flagship of the French fleet), where all our generals were. He then landed; all troops were under arms; I was presented to him. ... I mark, as a fortunate day, that in which I have been able to behold a man so truly great.”

Two days later, on March 8, the Duc de Bourgogne and the French fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Charles René Dominique Sochet, Chevalier Destouches, left Narragansett Bay for Virginia. The action was one that Washington had urged for some time, although his arrival in Newport probably had little to do with the preplanned action of the fleet.

Washington had evidently intended to return to East Windsor along the same route he had taken to Newport. However, during his meetings with Rochambeau, the French general had urged the necessity of Rhode Island providing more heavy guns to protect the lower bay. On March 12, Washington wrote to Rhode Island Governor William Greene asking that some cannon from Providence be sent to Newport. Perhaps feeling that a visit would encourage the governor to agree, Washington ended his letter with the postscript, “Since writing the foregoing letter, I have for particular reasons determined to return by the way of Providence and shall set out in the morning for that place.”

On March 13, Washington left Newport, going north to Providence and then across northern Connecticut to Hartford, where he dined with Jonathan Trumbull again on March 17. He arrived back in East Windsor on March 20, as he remarked in a letter, “in the forenoon ... after passing over very bad roads and riding through very foul weather without any damage.”

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