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
The sentry shook his head. By now Barton and his squad were up to him. Sei/ing his musket, they pinioned his arms.
“Make a noise,” said Barton, pressing his sword against the sentry’s throat, “and you are a dead man! Is General Prescott in the house?”
The sentry was too frightened to answer. Finally he waved his hand in the direction of the house and muttered a hoarse affirmative.
Leaving a man to guard him, the rest charged into the house. The downstairs was dark and deserted. They ran up a spiral staircase and burst into the first room on the second floor. There they found John Overing, the Quaker, seated in a chair, reading.
“Where is General Prescott?” Barton demanded.
The elderly Quaker stared at him in placid silence. Barton, his patience at an end, strode to the head of the stairs.
“Set the house on fire!” he shouted. “If we can’t have the General alive, we’ll have him dead!”
From a room in the rear, a voice called, “What is the matter?”
Barton tried the door and found it secured on the inside. He signaled to his servant, Sisson. The young Negro lowered his head and charged, splintering a panel; Barton reached in and lifted the latch.
A stocky, middle-aged man in a shirt and nightcap was sitting on the edge of the bed. Barton put his hand on his shoulder.
“Are you General Prescott?”
“You are my prisoner.”
“I acknowledge it, Sir.”
Barton let him put on his breeches and waistcoat over his nightshirt. When the General had trouble finding a stocking, Barton said, “Let it go and come along.”
He picked up the General’s bedroom slippers and took him by the arm.
Downstairs, his men had taken another prisoner, the General’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Barrington. Hearing the noise, he had jumped out the window, and had been apprehended wearing only his shirt and breeches.
Crossing the rye field to the brook, General Prescott faltered: the stalks were scratching his bare legs, he complained. Barton and another officer hooked the General’s arms around their shoulders and dragged him along at a run.
Prescott was put in the lead boat with Barton, Barrington and the sentry in the one behind it; they were warned that they would be killed if they so much as made a sound. As the boats slipped past the Emerald , her riding lights mirrored paths on the waves, and the Americans heard the watch call out, “All is well!” Suddenly, three rockets soared into the sky behind them. The men bent low over their oars, pulling with all their strength. A rattle of alarm guns drifted over the water, and torches appeared like moving stars against the darkness of the island. Barton was worried, for he knew that it would be a close race if the warships spread their guard boats over the bay. But as the first grayness of dawn appeared, they stroked safely into Warwick Neck.
“Sir, you have made a bold push tonight,” Prescott said as he was helped ashore.
Barton, still wondering why no guard boats had appeared, answered, “We have been fortunate.”
Back on Aquidneck, Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, adjutant of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was among the first to learn of his general’s abduction. He was sleeping in a house up the road when a guard galloped up, shouting the alarm. By the time Mackenzie reached the scene, precious minutes had already been lost.
A dragoon had been sleeping over the Overing kitchen when the rebels arrived. He waited until he was sure they were gone, then ran to alarm the guard. But when a sentry suddenly challenged him in the darkness, the frightened dragoon mistook him for one of Barton’s men. He ran across the fields to the stable, saddled his horse, and rode off to alarm the British camp at Fogland Ferry, on the eastern shore three miles away.
Meanwhile, a Negro boy sent by Overing brought word to the guard that something had happened at the house; the corporal hurried over and got the story from Overing. At first the search parties assumed that Prescott’s abductors had gone to the more lightly guarded eastern shore. They ran in every direction except the right one. The rockets and alarm guns were a signal to the men-of-war to watch for enemy sails. But since there was no wind, the men on the ships ignored the warning. They knew that ships couldn’t sail without wind.
Several hours later, a party led by Mackenzie found footprints in the cove and traced them up the gully to the house. Overing told him he had recognized the rebels’ leader as “one Barton, a hatter of Providence.” Mackenzie learned that the sentry’s gun had not been loaded, so that he couldn’t have fired an alarm if he had wanted to.
It was “most extraordinary,” Mackenzie thought, “that a general commanding a body of four thousand men, encamped on an island surrounded by a squadron of ships of war, should be carried off from his quarters in the night by a small party of the enemy from without and without a shot being fired.”
“They executed it in a masterly manner, and deserve credit,” he added.
The story of Barton’s achievement was a sensation in the provincial press: for the rebelling colonies it was the first bright news in months. How formidable were the British, after all, if a group of militiamen could walk into their camp and steal their commanding general from under their noses?