This week in Newport’s history marks the 240th anniversary of the beginning of the British occupation of Newport, which lasted from 1776 until 1779. It was on December 8th of 1776 that the British warships arrived in Newport’s harbor, releasing its soldiers into the city. The threat of invasion had been building for some time and there were many who fled before the British even landed. In some reports by British soldiers, there was hardly anyone remaining in the city to fight them and they gained control of Newport with relative ease. During the Revolution, half of Newport’s population left the city and never returned, even after the British were gone.
Some of those who remained in Newport were supportive of the British side in the war. The Artillery Company of Newport, chartered in 1741, was split between loyalty and revolution. Shortly after the arrival of the British, half the company left to join rebels on the mainland, while the other half stayed behind. Many of those who stayed in Newport fought in the war as Loyalists. For all Newporters who remained, conditions steadily declined as the British took control of homes and city buildings, stole resources, and destroyed structures and trees for firewood to survive the particularly harsh winters. By the end of the occupation, even many of those who had continued to support the British cause had changed their allegiance due to the treatment by the British.
In 1778, there was a major attempt to remove the British forces from Newport with assistance from the French. The French had decided to formally recognize the United States of America after the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, doing so in February of 1778, and they were officially at war with the British by March of the same year. In their first major act of allegiance with the American forces, the French sent Admiral Comte d'Estaing with a fleet of ships to America.
Entry of the French squadron in Newport Bay Aug. 8, 1778. (Drawing by Pierre Ozanne, 1778)
Their target was the Delaware River, but when they arrived in America to find that the British had already left the area, they decided to turn their attentions to the British occupiers at Newport. On July 29, 1778, the French fleet sailed into Narragansett Bay to assist the Continental Army in expelling the British from Newport, but after the arrival of British reinforcements and a storm that damaged French ships, d’Estaing was forced to retreat and seek repairs. Without naval support, American forces on land attempted to maintain some control of the Island, leading to the Battle of Rhode Island, the only major action during the war to take place on Rhode Island land, on August 29, 1778. The Americans were defeated and they retreated, leaving the island, and Newport, entirely in British control until the British abandoned Newport in October of 1779.
The Newport left behind by the British was economically destroyed. Half of its population was gone, its businesses had been unable to function, and its buildings were in disrepair. The British made use of the Redwood Library as an Officer’s Club during their occupation and many of its books disappeared during this period. In 1806, there appeared a plea in the Newport Mercury for the books to be returned so that the library could once again prosper, but it was still a while before most of the books were found or before Newport truly began to thrive again. The recession created by the Revolution finally began to fade in the mid-1800s as Newport was developed for summer tourism by wealthy families who helped transform Newport with a new enterprise. While Newport and the Redwood Library both managed to survive the British occupation, it was not an easy battle and December 8, 1776 marks the beginning of the destruction and the eventual long, uphill climb back to prosperity.