George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 29 August 1778

From Major General John Sullivan

Head Qrs Augt 29th [1778]
on the North end of R. Isl.

Dear General,

A Retreat to the North End of the Island1 having been deemd adviseable (from our great diminution of Numbers) by the determination of a Council of War held the 26th Instant—I last evening gave the necessary orders for and effected a well timed & regular retreat without losing any part of my Baggage, Stores, or heavy Ordinance. The Enemy was apprizd of the Movement sometime in the Night—they had I suppose concluded that I had retreated in confusion & with Precipitation and no doubt with an expectation of my having crossd part of my Army and that the remainder wou’d become an easy Victory. In this belief, they advancd in two Columns, on the east and west roads; and vigorously attackd Colonels Livingstone and Lawrence, whose Corps were disposd of between the two Roads in front of the Army. They were warmly recievd by both those Gentlemen, whom I reinforcd occasionally, to prevent the Contests being too unequal, tho at the same time they were directed to retreat regularly and at their leisure. They strictly complyd with the order; for I scarcely remember any thing of the kind more regular—The Enemy were naturally led on to the Neighbourhood—they took post on Commanding Ground in our Front, and immediately attempted to turn our right flank—To prevent this, I detachd considerable Bodies of Infantry—Our Artillery was well servd did great execution, and contributed not a little to the Honor of the day—Skirmishing prevaild during the day & the Success of it, was determind by a warm action which lasted near an hour. The Enemy were obligd to retire in great disorder, leaving us in full possession of the Field of Action2—Our Loss in killd and wounded is not yet ascertaind by Returns, but is very considerable—Among the latter I have the mortification to find many valuable officers, whose Names and Rank shall be transmitted to your Excellency in my next—The Loss of the Enemy must be great3 two of the Enemys Frigates endeavourd to enfilade our Lines; but did us no Injury4—I shall make it my Business to inform your Excellency as soon as possible, of such Corps and Officers who had an Opportunity of distinguishing themselves in the Action—for my whole Army only seem’d to want an Opportunity of doing themselves & Country honor—I am sorry I can not at present be more particular. I am Dr General, Yr Excellencys, most obedient and very hble servt

Jno. Sullivan

LS, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 160; copy, MiU-C: Clinton Papers; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; copy (extract), PHi: Wayne Papers. The copy in DNA:PCC was enclosed with GW’s letter to Henry Laurens of 1 September. Congress read the letter on 4 Sept., and it was published by their authority the next day ( JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 12:880; Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser [Philadelphia], 5 Sept.). The copy in the Clinton Papers is misdated 1777.

1Sullivan inserted the preceding seven words on the LS.

2The British commander at Newport, Maj. Gen. Robert Pigot, gave his report of these events in a letter to Gen. Henry Clinton of 31 Aug.: “The twenty-ninth at Break of Day it was perceived that the Enemy had retreated during the Night, upon which Major General Prescott was ordered to detach a Regiment from the Second Line under his Command over Easton’s Beach towards the left Flank of the Enemy’s Encampment, and a part of Brown’s Corps was directed to take Possession of their Works. At the same time Brigadier General Smith was detached with the 22d & 43d Regiments, and the Flank Companies of the 38th and 54th by the East Road, Major General Lossberg marching by the West Road with the Hessian Chasseurs and the two Ansbach Regiments of Voit and Seyboth, in order if possible to annoy them in their Retreat, and upon receiving a Report from General Smith that the Rebels made a Stand and were in Force upon Quaker’s Hill, I ordered the 54th, & Hessian Regiment of Huyn with Part of Brown’s Corps to sustain him, but before they could arrive the perseverance of General Smith and the spirited Behaviour of the Troops had gained Possession of the strong Post on Quaker’s Hill, and obliged the Enemy to retire to their Works at the North End of the Island. On hearing a smart Fire from the Chasseurs engaged on the West Road, I dispatched Colonel Fanning’s Corps of Provincials to join General Lossberg, who obliged the Rebels to quit two Redoubts made to cover their Retreat, drove them before him and took possession of Turkey Hill. Towards Evening an Attempt being made by the Rebels to surround and cut off the Chasseurs who were advanced on the Left, the Regiments of Fanning & Huyn were ordered up to their Support, and after a smart Engagement with the Enemy obliged them to retreat to their Main Body on Windmill Hill. … After these Actions the Enemy took Post in great Numbers on Windmill Hill, and employed themselves in strengthening that advantageous Situation” (P.R.O., Colonial Office, 5/96, Military Correspondence of the British Generals; see also Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 15:191–92). For other British and Hessian accounts of the day, see Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 2:380–85; Döhla, Hessian Diary description begins Johann Conrad Döhla. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution. Translated and edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne. Norman, Okla., and London, 1990. description ends , 87–88; and Prechtel, Diary description begins Johann Ernst Prechtel. A Hessian Officer’s Diary of the American Revolution. Translated and edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne. Bowie, Md., 1994. description ends , 26, 149. For American accounts of the battle, see Thomas Crafts to William Heath, 30 Aug. 1778, MHi: Heath Papers; “Wild Journal,” description begins “The Journal of Ebenezer Wild (1776–1781), who served as Corporal, Sergeant, Ensign, and Lieutenant in the American Army of the Revolution.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 6 (1890–91): 78–160. description ends 116; Field, Angell Diary description begins Edward Field, ed. Diary of Colonel Israel Angell, Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment during the American Revolution, 1778–1781. Providence, 1899. description ends , 8–9; Ward, “Colonel Samuel Ward,” description begins John Ward. “Lieut-Colonel Samuel Ward, of the Revolutionary War.” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 6 (July 1875): 113–23. description ends 121; Gibbs diary, 5–30 Aug., Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 6:736; Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser (Boston), 7 Sept.; and Connecticut Courant, and the Weekly Intelligencer (Hartford), 8 September.

3Pigot’s official report of British casualties listed 38 killed, 210 wounded, and 12 missing for a total of 260 (P.R.O., Colonial Office, 5/96, Military Correspondence of the British Generals; see also Remembrancer description begins The Remembrancer; or, Impartial Repository of Public Events. 17 vols. London, 1775–84. description ends , 7:35–36).

4In the account of the battle that Capt. Frederick Mackenzie of the Royal Welch Fusiliers wrote in his diary for 29 Aug., he stated that “As soon as the Troops marched out in pursuit of the Rebels, The Sphynx, and Vigilant, with the Spitfire Galley and the Privateer Brig, got under way … and worked up the passage between Rhode-Island and Prudence, in order to annoy the Enemy’s right if there should be an opportunity. The Vigilant got up in time to have some shots at the right of the Rebels when drawn up in front of the Artillery Redoubt, but they turning some 18 prs against her from thence and from Arnold’s point, she dropt lower down, and anchored with the other vessels opposite Slocum’s. We were of opinion that had The Vigilant continued in the position she had gained and persisted in cannonading the Enemy’s right with her 24 prs she would have galled them exceedingly, and possibly have enabled us to turn that flank. ’Tis certain there was no necessity for her moving back so soon as she did” ( Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 2:383).

The captain’s log of the Vigilant recorded that at 7:30 a.m. he “received orders to Weigh & try to cut off the Retreat of the Rebels at Bristol Ferry.” While “working up” toward the ferry, at 10 a.m. he “Observed the British and Hessian Troops engaged with the Rebels who had posted themselves on Quaker and Windmill hills,” and at 11:30 the ship “Stood close in & fired Several Shot to facilitate the operations of the Hessians who were by this time driveing the Rebels out of the Wood.” Then, observing the Americans “turning a Work up” at Portsmouth Point, he “Stood close in and fired Several Guns with Round & Grape among those people which only disturbed them for the time. … At 1 P.M. Stood up as far towards Bristol Ferry as the Pilot would take Charge of the Ship the Rebels kept a Constant fire … from a Battery above the Ferry most of which Shot fell close on board and the rest passed over between the Mast Hd and kept fireing Shot at the Rebels posted on Wind Mill and Quaker hills.” At 2 the ship again “Stood Close in” to support the Hessians, “but … the Rebels began a Cannonade from three 24 pounders the three first Shot hulled the Ship and the others fell all round her, received orders … to move.” Thereafter the ship was “employed Standing off and on frequently exchangeing Shot with the Enemy. … At 6 the Cannonade on shore began to abate D[itt]o received orders … to Anchor on the Flank of the British Army during the Night with the Reprisal Brig and the Sphynx with the other two Armed Vessels stood over and Anchored under the No. end of Prudence Island” (P.R.O., Adm. 51/1037).

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