August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
In a bold plot, a young Rhode Island officer caught the British commander of Newport in his nightshirt
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.
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?”
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?
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.