This month, we mark the 240th anniversary of the infamous Burning of Jamestown by British and Hessian troops, a story we’ll share on these pages in the future. In this issue, we’ll take a look at another location not far from the destructive track taken by forces of the Crown on December 10-11, 1775. Our story is about the Conanicut Battery, one of a handful of primitive Rhode Island defenses at which you can still take a step back in time to one of the few remaining Revolutionary War era forts.
During the Revolution, colonial forces built as many as 90 fortifications around Rhode Island. These ranged from simple earthworks providing basic protection to men and their cannon to more elaborate fortifications. Today, seven earthwork sites are located on public land. The remaining are on private property and are not accessible.
In May 1776, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered that a fort be built “at Beaver Tail, on Conanicut, to contain six or eight heavy cannon.” It was part of a group of defensive positions round the mouth of Narragansett Bay that would offer some protection against marauding British warships. Close to the opening of the West Passage is the highest point on the Beavertail peninsula, Prospect Hill. It was here that a lozenge-shaped earthwork battery was constructed, some 150 feet long and about 75 feet wide on a 22-acre site. The fortification was 90 feet above sea level and about 500 feet from the shoreline below, offering an ideal view of any incoming ships. The works were surrounded by a ditch and contained bastions at each end. Infantry, from an elevated position, could fire down on invaders working their way up from the shoreline.
Two other fortifications were also erected on the southern end of the island. All three were later occupied by the British from the time they came in force to Newport in December of 1776 until August 6, 1778.
There are no records of the exact type of weapons placed at the Battery, although documents suggest there were six to eight in number and heavy enough to reach Saunderstown, about a mile across the West Passage (although with no guarantee of accuracy). Although gunfire was frequently exchanged on the East Passage between British and colonial forces, there are no records of the cannon at the Conanicut Battery ever being fired by colonial troops. By the time the British fleet sailed up the west passage in December of 1776, the colonials had withdrawn their cannon to safety off the island. The British then manned and re-armed Conanicut, improving the earthworks to the configuration that is visible today. In August of 1777, some 200 Americans returned via rowboats from North Kingstown and briefly skirmished with the British at the Battery. But that is the only such encounter on record.
When the French in arrived in 1778, the British were ready. They opened fire on the Sagittaire, a 50-gun ship that had been sent up the West Passage to work its way around the northern tip of the island. The French fired back, but apparently no damage was done to either side. According to documents in the Jamestown Historical Society, at that time the British had placed powerful 24-pound cannon in the Battery. Almost immediately after the French arrived, the British removed their cannons from fortifications on Conanicut, relocating some to the East Passage for defensive purposes around Aquidneck Island and spiking others, tossing them into the Bay. After British and Hessian forces pulled out of Newport in October of 1779, French Marines briefly occupied the fortification in 1780-1781.
After the Revolution, the land reverted to peaceful use as farmland. It remained as such until just before the U.S. entry into World War I, when the government purchased 16 acres of land (later buying another 5 acres) to construct an underground observation post in support of the artillery batteries in Jamestown and both entrances to Narragansett Bay. These heavy-gun emplacements, known as Endicott Forts, were never fired against an enemy in either World War.
By 1963, the military had no further use for the property and deeded the entire site to the Town of Jamestown. In 1998 the National Park Service developed a well-researched report and preservation treatment plan for the site supporting the fact that the Revolutionary War earthworks and the WW I and II military elements had long-term historic importance to the defense of Narragansett Bay over the centuries. By that time, though, the property was choked with invasive vegetation and the landmarks overgrown. A government grant enabled development of detailed guidelines for vegetation clearing, site restoration and plantings. Community volunteers and contractors created a series of nature trails and interpretive signs. The Town of Jamestown re-dedicated the restored site with great fanfare in June of 2002. Today, the Conanicut Battery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is maintained by the Friends of the Conanicut Battery. In June on alternating years, the Town of Jamestown celebrates the Battery’s historic role with a Battery Day observation.
If you head down to Beavertail, it is well worth a small detour down Battery Lane (marked by a simple sign just past Mackerel Cove and the entrance road to Fort Getty). Enjoy an easy walk down the quiet trails and pause here and there to read the narrative, illustrated plaques revealing a wealth of history across two centuries. Imagine for a moment taking your place as a militia member in the earthworks, armed with a musket or standing beside a cannon, or perhaps in a later century, manning the contemporary observation posts and awaiting the first sight of the enemy.
Photos in this article courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society.
Written By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin.