Captor Of The Barefoot General


It was July, 1777, the first anniversary of independence, but America’s patriots could find scant reason for celebration. George Washington and his raw little army of farmers and village tradesmen crouched behind the New Jersey hills, waiting for the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries to begin a summer offensive that well might end the colonial rebellion. New York and Long Island had been overrun by the enemy. Philadelphia, the colonial capital, sensed that it would fall next. On the northern frontier, the fortress of Ticonderoga was about to capitulate, and Newport, Rhode Island, one of the most strategic seaports on the New England coast, had just been occupied.

Since Washington’s audacious cai^ture of the Hessian garrison at Trenton and his victory at Princeton, six months earlier, there had been little to arouse the flagging morale of the Americans. But even as the brave little Independence Day cannon salutes echoed through patriot camjjs, a plot was being hatched in Rhode Island that would prove one of the boldest and most enterprising exploits of the Revolution.

Until recent years, with the discovery of new information, the whole story could not be told: how young Lieutenant Colonel William Barton of Rhode Island surprised clic British commander in chief at Newport, and kidnapped him ironi his own bedroom.

William Barton was a hatter in Providence when the Revolution began. He was a man of medium height, with shaggy brown hair that curled around his ears. His brown eyes, long nose and deeply-cleft chin gave him a look of hardy aggressiveness. As a corporal in the Rhode island militia, he had marched to the siege of Boston during the summer of 1975. By the following March, when Washington trained his cannon on the city and forced the British to evacuate, Barton had been promoted to captain.

Miraculously, Washington had fashioned an army from a disorganized and undisciplined rabble of patriot irregulars, and Barton soon developed a lasting admiration for the tall Virginian. Another member of the high command who won his respect was Major General Charles Lee. Trailed everywhere by his two hounds, the cocky, spindle-legged Lee was a familiar sight in the American camp. A professional soldier of fortune, Lee had a long and distinguished record of military service in both Europe and America. Retiring from the British Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel, he had fought in Poland and Turkey before coming to the colonies. He was later suspended from the service for his lackluster performance at the Battle of Monmouth, but in the early days of the Revolution Lee was regarded second only to Washington as a leader of proven ability.

Barton’s regiment had returned home to guard Newport when, in December of 1776, the British decided to seize the port. The provincial garrison was no match for royal warships and massed regulars, and four thousand redcoats and Hessians occupied the town without resistance.

The same month Barton learned of a catastrophe that in his mind equalled, if it did not overshadow, the fall of Newport. Washington’s right-hand man, General Lee, had been captured in the retreat through New Jersey, and the Americans had no officer of equal stature to exchange for him.

Now second in command of a little fort at Tiverton, I from which the Continentals were keeping watch on the British, the twenty-nine-year-old Barton had recently been promoted to lieutenant colonel. During this long, inactive stretch of garrison duty, he decided that what Washington needed more than anything else was a British general to swap for Lee. In his own words, “If ever an opportunity offered to surprise a major general,” he was going to make the most of it.

Such an opportunity presented itself late in June when a captive of the British named Coffin escaped from Newport and was brought to Barton’s quarters with some interesting information. Coffin told the young officer that Major General Richard Prescott, the despotic fifty-two-ycar-old commander in chief of the British garrison, had moved his sleeping quarters for the summer to the country house of a wealthy Quaker named John Overing, four and a half miles from the town.

The Quakers of Newport were grateful to have Prescott even this far away, said Mr. Coffin. It seemed that the arrogant general had an annoying habit of attacking them with his cane because they refused to dolt their hats when he passed. “Disperse, ye rcbelsl” he would shout. The fine houses in Newport had been stripped of their front stoops, because the General claimed that inebriated officers fell over them coming home nights. But the steps had been used to lay a walk in front of his downtown headquarters.

A few days later a British deserter was brought into camp. Barton questioned him in private. The deserter affirmed that General Prescott now lodged at Overing’s, and added further information: the house across the road had been taken over by the guard, a corporal and seven men, while the one next door was occupied by a detail of dragoons who carried messages for the General.

Barton spent the next week reconnoitering. Newport is at the southern end of the Rfteen-mile-long Aquidneck Island. The British, he found, had camps at all the strategic spots along the shore line; their men-of-war dotted Narragansett Bay from the har bor of Newport to the northern reaches of the island.

Born and reared in the area, Barton knew the Overing house well. Jt stood on high ground three-quarters ol a mile inland from the western shore. A mile across the bay was the southern tip of another large island, Prudence. Uninhabited, it was covered with scrub pine and brush.