- Historic Sites
Captor Of The Barefoot General
In a bold plot, a young Rhode Island officer caught the British commander of Newport in his nightshirt
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
In dark homespun mufti, Barton scouted Prudence Island. From the brush along the southern shore he could distinctly see the large, gambrel-roofed house; a brook cut through the field beside it and emptied down a gulley into a tiny cove. A British frigate, the Emerald and a covey of guard boats lay just to seaward, so close that Barton could hear the watch. Another frigate was anchored in the wider passage between Prudence and the Narragansett mainland. At dusk, he observed through his spyglass a carriage, accompanied by a mounted escort, come down the road from Newport; it delivered two ofRcers at the Overing gate—presumably Prescott and his aide-de-camp.
Barton revealed his scheme for kidnapping Prescott to one man only, the commander of the provincial camp, Colonel Joseph Stanton. Barton admitted that he wasn’t overly confident of success, for as he wrote later, “The troops as well as myself were not long inured to service and never had attempted an enterprise of this sort.” But if Stanton would provide him with five whalcboats and allow him to collect volunteers, he would stake his life on an attempt.
Colonel Stanton agreed. In the several days required to bring the boats down to the Tiverton camp from Providence, Barton first selected four officers of whose courage and trustworthiness he was certain. When he asked them if they would take part in a secret mission that might well mean death, not one hesitated to accompany him.
Next Barton ordered his regiment to parade. He told the men that he was about to launch a perilous enterprise against the enemy, and called for some forty volunteers. He asked those who were willing to take the risk to advance two paces.
The entire regiment stepped forward.
Barton went down the line, picking the men who he knew from long familiarity would be reliable. He chose thirty-six, including the squat, hard-headed Negro, sometimes called Jack Sisson (in other accounts, his name is given as “Guy Watson” or simply, “Prince”), who was his servant.
The five whaleboats shoved off from the Tiverton fort on the night of July j. Barton’s, in the lead, carried nine men, and each of the other four, an officer and seven men. As they made their way across Mount Hope Bay, a thunderstorm scattered the boats. To stay out of sight of the British camps and warships, they were forced to row a circuitous route, and it took them until one o’clock in the morning to reach Bristol, on the mainland north of Aquidneck and Prudence islands.
The next evening, Barton took his four officers to little Hog Island, just oft the mainland; through the glass they could see the British tent encampments on Aquidneck and the men-of-war anchored in the bay. Only then did Barton reveal to them his plan to kidnap Major General Prescott from his own quarters.
The officers, “who knew nothing of my intentions,” Barton wrote, “seemed somewhat surprised.” But none demurred.
Swearing them to secrecy, Barton detailed his plan. To avoid the British, they would row to Warwick Neck, on the mainland opposite the northern tip of Prudence Island. From there they would head through the narrow passage between Prudence and a small island called Patience, and then hug the Prudence shore to its southern end. Finally, they would cut across the channel to Aquidneck, landing at the cove below the Overing house.
Foul weather set in after they reached Warwick Neck, and the skies did not clear until the tenth. That night Bartun gathered his men in a circle and told them his plan. Any who had misgivings could withdraw, he said, and he would not hold it against them. He wanted only those who were willing to take the full risk.
A shout went around the circle: “We will go!” There must be no talking, even in whispers, Barton warned. Plundering was strictly forbidden. No one was to fire his musket without orders. Anyone who had brought liquor to fortify his courage would have to get rid of it.
Undressed sheepskins were wrapped around the oars to muffle their sound, and at nine o’clock the five whaleboats slid into the dark bay. There was no moon. Barton, in the lead boat, carried a ten-foot pole with his handkerchief tied to it for identification.
It was almost midnight when they slipped between the frigate Emerald and the southern tip of Prudence Island. Close to the shore, they suddenly heard horses running. As his men weighed their oars, Barton had the chilling thought that he had been decoyed into a trap. But the sound died away; it was apparently nothing more sinister than a few horses frolicking in a pasture. Running ashore in the cove, Barton left a man to guard each boat while the five squads made their way up the gulley.
The Overing house had three doors. Barton’s squad was to attack the main one, which faced south; the second squad was to take the door on the east side; and the third squad, the western entrance. The fourth squad was to guard the road and grounds, while the fifth stood by for emergencies.
Crouching low, they followed the brook to the road in front of the house. As Barton’s group opened the gate, a sentry’s alarmed voice hailed them.
Concealed by the trees, the men crept closer. The sentry called again, “Who’s there?”
Barton walked toward him, answering, “Friends.”
“Friends advance and give the countersign.”
Barton had expected that. Edging his voice with exasperation, he answered, “We have no countersign. Have you seen any deserters?”