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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
Even England was amused. This was not the first time Prescott had been captured by the Americans. It had happened once before—in Canada in 1775—and he had not been returned to the Army for over a year, when he was exchanged for General Sullivan. The London Chronicle , noting that this time Prescott had been carried off “naked, unanointed, unanealed,” began to speculate, in verse, as to what he had been doing five miles from Newport:
What various lures there are to ruin man; Woman, the first and foremost all bewitches! A nymph thus spoiled a General’s mighty plan, And gave him to the foe—without his breeches.
But Henry Clinton, the British general in command at New York, was far from amused. Prescott’s capture meant he had to send General Robert Pigot, his top aide, to replace Prescott at Newport. Adjutant General Major Robert Baurmeister of the Hessian command in America remarked coldly that Prescott “seems to have selected poor quarters in Rhode Island.”
Barton’s daring was suitably recognized in a resolution passed by Congress on Christmas Eve, 1777: Resolved that Lieutenant Colonel William Barton, on account of his enterprising spirit, and his merit ,in taking Major General Prescott prisoner, be promoted to the rank and pay of a Colonel in the service of the United States: and that he be recommended to General Washington, to be employed in such services as he may deem best adapted to his genius.
Congress also voted Barton “an elegant sword,” but with a tardiness that should surprise no student of government red tape, failed to deliver it to the Colonel until August of 1786.
Meanwhile, two days after Congress’ resolution promoting Barton, General Charles Lee was permitted the freedom of New York on parole, and Prescott was given similar freedom in Connecticut, where Governor Jonathan Trumbull, in response to a request from Washington, had “genteely accommodated” him in jail. It was April of the following year before the final exchange was arranged.
Shortly afterward William Barton was wounded in the groin during a brush with a British patrol near Newport. His fighting days were ended. For a while Rhode Island plied its hero with honors. He was mad*e adjutant general of the state militia and elected to the House of Deputies. When the state ratified the Constitution in 1790, Barton was chosen to ride to New York and notify Washington.
Vermont, the newest state, had meanwhile offered tracts of wilderness free to Revolutionary veterans for settlement. A group headed by Barton acquired a township and named it Providence. In 1795 he left home to take part in its development. But it was not many years before dissension split the ex-soldier pioneers. The changing of the township’s name to Barton did not endear the Colonel to his opponents, who accused him of selling tracts he did not own.
A long tangle of court actions followed. Barton eventually lost and was assessed the costs. The verdict, he insisted, was unjust; and with his characteristic unbending determination, he refused to pay.
The area lacked a jail, but the court took care of that deficiency. It designated Danville, some miles to the south of Barton’s property, a debtors’ prison, marking its limits with a chain wrapped around a tree one mile out on each of the five roads into the village. Barton was moved into the village inn.
He was sixty-four now, and as stubborn as ever. Part of the assessment had been paid by his associates. Only $272 remained. Barton’s attorney said he could well afford to pay it; but since Barton considered the verdict wrong, he rigidly refused.
For thirteen years, Barton lived a voluntary prisoner in Danville. Occasionally one of his three sons came up from Providence to visit him, but the people of America, who had hailed Barton as one of their shining heroes, forgot him.
Then, in 1824, another hero returned to America: the Marquis de Lafayette, who as a French volunteer had fought so brilliantly under Washington. Crowds turned out to cheer him at every stop on his tour; his carriage was showered with flowers; dignitaries welcomed him with grandiose speeches.
Entering New England, Lafayette recalled the heroic Barton exploit that had electrified the hardpressed colonies the year he had joined the Revolution. He asked what had become of Barton. Told of the Colonel’s predicament, Lafayette sent the Vermont court his personal draft for the unpaid balance.
Barton, now seventy-seven, returned to his wife and sons in Providence. He lived to eighty-three, stubbornly insisting to the end that the court’s verdict had been unjust and he never—no, never!—would have paid.