Thursday, January 21, 2021

I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today: Henry Beekman Livingston and the Battle of Rhode Island



Following the Battle of Monmouth Henry Beekman Livingston took a furlough and traveled to Rhode Island on personnel business. What that business was he never said but he must have known he would be heading into a potential battle zone, because Rhode Island is simply not that big.

Henry Beekman Livignston
            In 1776 a British force under the command of General Henry Clinton had invaded Rhode Island and taken control of the city of Newport. American General Joseph Spencer had been ordered to retake the city in 1777 but he chose not to attack. He was shortly there after replaced by General John Sullivan with the same mission.

            Sullivan had begun to cache military supplies for the attack but raids by British forces destroyed those supplies and Sullivan was forced to request further assistance. Washington sent him a couple of brigades of men including those of General John Glover. John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette and Nathaneal Greene were also sent to bolster Sullivan’s officer corps. The Rhode Island militia was called out as were units from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At some point during this bolstering of forces Henry Beekman Livingston showed up in camp and offered his services. He was given a brigade of light infantry to command.

            The attack on Newport was chosen to be the first coordinated operation between the French and the Americans since the French had joined the war on the American’s side. The French fleet under Comte D’Estaing would land 4,000 French troops near Newport allowing the allied forces to storm the city from two sides.


John Sullivan

When the attack on Newport seemed destined for success several officers led by Timothy Bigelow petitioned Sullivan to have Henry removed from command of his light infantry corps. The officers who signed the petition, including James and William Livingston, noted that Livingston was in Rhode Island on private business and had no business even being with the army. They wanted him removed from command. Sullivan shared this petition with Henry.[i]

            The French fleet encountered a British fleet at the beginning of storm that lasted two days. Following the storm and several skirmishes between individual ships the French took their troops and retreated to Boston.

            This caused a major loss of faith in the American forces of success in the campaign. The militia melted away. Sullivan had no choice but to retreat from the outskirts of Newport knowing he had no chance of success without the French and the militia.

            It should be noted that with the chances of success dwindling, the officers who had signed the petition against Henry withdrew their complaints. They wanted their names associated with success and not with failure. Henry, for his part, never wavered in his desire to command his light infantry corps. 

            On August 28, 1778 the American forces were split on two roads as they retreated, when the British decided to attack. Henry’s 500 light infantry men were a mile in front of the American left,

John Glover

which was commanded by John Glover. The British advanced until they were stopped by heavy fire from Henry’s men. It was not until they were reinforced that they were able to advance again. Henry and his men retreated to Quaker Hill, then back to the main American line.

            On the American right the British and the Americans were in a fierce battle and the Americans were in desperate need of help. Henry and his light infantry were sent from one side of the battlefield to the other where they were ordered into a hole in the enemy lines by General Nathaniel Greene. Henry ordered his men to fix bayonets and attack. They faced a regiment of Hessian mercenaries. They also came under fire from several British ships. A musket ball grazed Henry’s elbow. Nevertheless, the British forces were routed and driven up Turkey Hill.[ii]

            On August 30, 1778 American forces were able to retreat from Rhode Island without further interference from the British. The British would remain in Rhode Island for another year until they withdrew of their own accord.

            Henry found himself mentioned in orders both by John Sullivan and Nathaneal Greene. This

Nathaneal Greene

was a great honor which should have brought Henry more recognition, yet he remained unpromoted by Congress or New York State. Rhode Island was Henry’s last campaign with the army. After discharging some personal business in Boston he returned to the Army and attempted to surrender his commission. Washington would not accept it and told him if he wished to resign he would have to go to Congress, perhaps hoping that Congress would see their mistake and promote him. Henry sent his commission to Henry Laurens to turn into Congress for him. Congress made no attempt to promote him but instead accepted the resignation in January of 1779. Henry Beekman Livingston was done with the army. [iii]



[i] Bigelow, Timothy et al to John Sullivan. Robert R. Livingston Papers Reel #1

[ii] Henry Beekman Livingston to Robert R. Livingston, Robert R. Livingston Papers Reel #1

[iii] Henry Beekman Livingston to Henry Laurens, Robert R. Livingston Papers Reel #1

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