From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.
July 9. –This night, General Prescott, who has held the command of the British forces on Rhode Island, since the departure of Earl Percy, was taken prisoner at his quarters, and carried off by a party of Americans. The following particular account of the manner of his taking, is by a gentleman from Rhode Island: –Lieutenant-Colonel Barton,1 of Warren, in Rhode Island, is a young gentleman of about twenty-three or twenty-four years of age, of a martial and enterprising disposition, who has signalized himself on several occasions, particularly in attacking and driving the noted pirate, Wallace, and a party of his men, from an island near Newport, which they had been robbing and plundering; and in an expedition last fall, to Long Island, attacking a number of Tories, and bringing them prisoners to New Haven. He was then a captain, having refused a higher post till he had done more to deserve it; and in the body of forces lately raised by the State of Rhode Island for fifteen months, was appointed lieutenant-colonel in Colonel Stanton’s regiment, stationed at Howland’s ferry, on the west side of the river.
Hero Colonel Barton happening to see a deserter from the British army in Newport, who gave him a particular account of the place where General Prescott kept his head-quarters, formed a scheme to surprise and bring him off. It being communicated to and approved of by the commanding officer, Colonel Barton selected and engaged about forty men to go with him on a secret expedition by water in five batteaux. When they were prepared and got to the shore he told them his design, acknowledged it was hazardous, and probably could not be executed without the loss of life to some of those engaged in it; that for his part he was determined to risk his, which would be at least as much exposed as any of theirs; but if any of them were unwilling to engage in the enterprise, they were then at full liberty to decline it, and he should not have the worse opinion of any person for so doing; that he desired no man with him who did not go willingly, and would freely hazard his life to render his country an important service, and obtain honor to himself. On putting the matter to their choice, they unanimously resolved to go with him.
They then set off with muffled oars, crossed the bay, passed Bristol ferry, where the British have a fort, undiscovered, and went to Warwick Neck on Providence side, near the east side of the island, where the British have several forts but no ships, as they would be exposed to the guns in our forts. They passed the enemy’s redoubts on the east side, and when they came to the west, which is guarded all along by the enemy’s ships-of-war, they passed between them and the shore till they came opposite to the house where General Prescott kept his headquarters. Here they landed, about five miles from Newport, and three-quarters of a mile from the house, which they approached cautiously, avoiding the main guard, which was at some distance. The colonel went foremost, with a stout, active negro close behind him, and another at a small distance; the rest followed so as to be near, but not seen.
A single sentinel at the door saw and hailed the colonel; he answered by exclaiming against and inquiring for rebel prisoners, but kept slowly advancing. The sentinel again challenged him, and required the countersign; he said he had not the countersign, but amused the sentry by talking about rebel prisoners, and still advancing till he came within reach of the bayonet, which, he presenting, the colonel suddenly struck aside and seized him. He was immediately secured and ordered to be silent, on pain of instant death. Meanwhile, the rest of the men surrounding the house, the negro, with his head, at the second stroke forced a passage into it, and then into the landlord’s apartment. The landlord at first refused to give the necessary intelligence; but on the prospect of present death he pointed to the general’s chamber, which being instantly opened by the negro’s head, the colonel calling the general by name, told him he was a prisoner. He replied he knew it, and rising from his bed, desired time to put on his clothes. The colonel told him to put on his breeches, and the rest of his clothes should be earned with him, at the same time; handing his slippers from the bedside. Meanwhile the general’s aide-de-camp got out of the window in his shirt, but was there secured by some of the party, who all went off by the same way they came, carrying with them the general, his aide-de-camp, and the sentinel.
The general was desired to run, but he said he was an old man and could not. He was told that they would help him, and accordingly a stout man taking him under the arm on each side, enabled him to run. As they went through a field of barley, the stalks very much annoying the general’s naked legs, he exclaimed, “Gentlemen, do you mean to kill me?” One of them replied, “No, we do not intend to kill you, but to exchange you for General Lee, and after that we do not care how soon the devil has you.”
They all embarked in their boats, and rowing back the same way they came, passed all the enemy’s ships and forts undiscovered. When they passed the last fort, the general exclaimed, “And is it possible that I am a prisoner of war! Yes, I see I am; but when you set out with me, I had no doubt but that I should have been rescued, and you all have been made prisoners.”
When the boats had got almost to Warwick Neck, a sky rocket was sent off, and immediately alarm guns were fired from all the ships and forts on and about the island, and there appeared to be such a general confusion and consternation, that it was thought one thousand men could have taken them all prisoners. From Warwick Neck a flag was sent for the general’s clothes.
Thus was this general officer, in the midst of the British army and navy, where he was commander-in-chief, made prisoner, together with his aide-de-camp and the sentinel that guarded his door, by the bravery and judicious conduct of this young colonel and his gallant followers, without the loss of a man, or the fire of a gun, though they did not expect to have accomplished their design without resistance and a pursuit from the enemy, for both of which they were prepared. In the planning and execution of this enterprise, Colonel Barton has given a noble proof of his zeal and ability to render the most important services to his country. In comparison to this action, how contemptible was that of Colonel Harcourt, for which the King, his master, was in raptures, and lavished upon him such extravagant encomiums, –his surprisal, with a large force, of General Lee, unguarded, several miles distant from his army, and betrayed by an ungrateful wretch, on whom he had just before been conferring great and unmerited favors.2
1 William Barton, born May 26, 1748, died October 22, 1831.
2 Pennsylvania Evening Post, August 7: –A writer in Providence, Rhode Island, gives the following account of this expedition: July 12. –Thursday evening last, a party of thirty-eight men of the troops belonging to this State, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Barton, of this town, accompanied by Major Adams, of the train, Captain Phillips, Lieutenants Porter and Babcock, and Ensigns Stanton and Wilcox, went in five boats from Warwick Neck, with a view to take Major-General Prescott, commander-in-chief of the British and foreign troops on Rhode Island, whose head-quarters were then at a house about four miles from Newport. The colonel and his party, after passing the enemy’s ships and guard boats, landed about twelve at night, and with “infinite address and gallantry” got to Prescott’s quarters undiscovered. A sentinel at the door hailed but was immediately secured, and the party instantly breaking the doors and entering the house, took the general in bed. His aide-de camp leaped from a window in his shirt, but was taken a few rods from the house. The party soon after returned to their boats with the prisoners, and some time after they had put off, the enemy fired rockets from their several posts, as signals for an alarm, but too late, the bird had fled. The prisoners were landed about daybreak at Warwick Neck.
On receiving the intelligence at Providence, a coach was immediately sent, and the general; with his aide-de-camp, attended by Colonel Barton and some other officers, arrived in that town at twelve o’clock. This bold and important enterprise must reflect the highest honor on Colonel Barton and his little party. A lieutenant-colonel of the horse, with at least seventy light dragoons, took Major-General Lee, (betrayed by a Tory,) five miles from his troops. A lieutenant-colonel of foot, with only thirty-eight privates and six officers, has taken a chief commander, when almost encircled by an army and navy. —Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 29.