A daring feat in a time of need
The morale in Rhode Island in July l777 was very low. Newport had been occupied by the British since December 1716 and the colony had undergone a miserable winter with serious food and fuel shortages. British General Richard Prescott insulted Newport residents in every way possible. Soldiers were allowed to get drunk, break into homes and steal. Quakers who refused to take off their hats for any authority were accosted in the streets by soldiers and their hats were knocked off. Anyone, male or female, venturing out after dark was liable to be accosted by drunken soldiers and brutalized.
The news outside of Rhode Island was gloom-ridden. Our troops were just beginning to recuperate from the terrible winter at Valley Forge. General Washington, fearful of weakening his small army, refused to release troops to rid Rhode Island of the British.
Rhode Island privateers were having difficulties, the navy was bottled up in Providence, and the powerful British fleet seemed fully in control. The more pessimistic were already beginning to emphasize the hopelessness of the situation and there was talk of surrender. The colony desperately needed some action that would lift up her spirits and give her the confidence to strike a blow for independence.
Fortunately for Rhode Island on July 9, 1777, Major William Barton performed a deed so daring and against such odds that Rhode Island again felt free and undefeated. Barton heard a number of rumors from British troops in Newport who were very dissatisfied with their pompous commander. The soldiers charged that Prescott was secretly having an affair with the wife of a prosperous Tory named Overing. Prescott often visited Mrs. Overing at her home in Middletown, about five miles north of Newport, and remained there in the cool, comfortable house overnight while his troops remained in their hot, crowded quarters in Newport. Prescott held the colonists in such low esteem that he took but few guards with him on his visits.
Major Barton gathered a few men from Tiverton and Portsmouth and rowed across the bay to Warwick. Their plan was to capture the British general and to keep him at Daniel Arnold's Tavern on West Shore Road. In the middle of the night on July 8, five whaleboats left Warwick Neck in the dark and carefully made their way past the British patrol boats. Years of clandestine smuggling operations gave them the knowledge of the waters in the bay and the necessary skills to land undetected at Middletown without benefit of lights.
Powerful John Hunt of Portsmouth quietly came upon the lone sentry guarding the house and overpowered him before he could make a sound. Within minutes the colonists were in Prescott's bedroom. The general had never been more startled in his life than on that morning when he awoke to stare into the pistols of Barton and his men. One sound, he was told, and he would be a dead man. The confused Prescott wasn't even allowed to dress as he was seized and rushed from the house in the early dawn. The men departed as silently as they had entered.
With Prescott unceremoniously dumped in the bottom of a whaleboat, they rowed silently across the bay to Warwick Neck once more. British sentries on board the patrol boats never noticed them and probably wouldn't have believed that a British general was a prisoner in one of the small boats had they even been told.
Once back in Warwick, Prescott remained a prisoner at Daniel Arnold's Tavern for the remainder of July 9 while Barton awaited orders for the delivery of his high-ranking prisoner. The news spread throughout the colonies and was applauded everywhere. There was almost as much joy among the British troops in Newport as among the townsmen when they received the news. General Prescott's officers even enjoyed a laugh or two at his expense. It was not very often that a man like Prescott, who inconvenienced and humiliated others, was so treated and Barton became an American hero overnight.
The Americans were taking no chances of having their captive freed by Tories or by a raid in Warwick, however, and quickly took him to Providence, where he was held until he could later be exchanged for Charles Lee, an American general.
The Rhode Island General Assembly was so pleased with the feat that Barton and Hunt were given a bounty of over $1,000, and later the Continental Congress bestowed honors upon the major and his Rhode Islanders.
In due time, Prescott was exchanged and returned to command in Newport, where he inflicted even more hardships on British soldiers and residents alike. He especially mistreated his Hessian troops and, except for the Tories who flattered him and received favors from him, Prescott was regarded as one of the most hated men in Rhode Island.
As a further reward for his daring, William Barton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and put in command of 200 foot soldiers and 200 horsemen. When General Robert Pigot attacked Warren and Bristol with a large force, Barton nearly gave Rhode Island another spectacular accomplishment by attacking the British at Bristol Ferry. Unfortunately, the American commander, whose job it was to hold the British in Bristol until Barton arrived, felt that his force was too small and retreated. This allowed the British to burn 70 flatboats gathered for an invasion of Newport and part of the town as well. Even more damage might have been inflicted had not Barton arrived when he did and attacked the large British force. The Americans fought so well that the British were nearly overcome, but when Barton was shot in the leg the British were able to make good their retreat.
Barton recovered from his wound and went on to become one of Rhode Island's favorite heroes. At the turn of the century, his prestige and influence was felt in helping to establish the textile industry in Rhode Island. In later life, the Rhode Islander who captured a general moved to Vermont, where he purchased land and founded the town that still bears his name.
While the capture of Prescott had little strategic importance in the war, the daring and the bravery of the Rhode Islanders served to keep up morale and was an example of the will, ingenuity and determination that would keep the colonies going throughout the struggle.