J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

“The Clamor made against him of Insanity”

Yesterday I noted how in early 1776 the Rhode Island legislature appointed Col. Henry Babcock, a veteran of the French & Indian War, to oversee the defense of Newport from the Royal Navy. (Click on the thumbnail to the right for a closer look at a 1776 map of the town, courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.)

Though Babcock was living across the border in Stonington, Connecticut, he was son of a former Rhode Island chief justice and speaker of the assembly, so he was well known in the colony. Col. Babcock had reportedly spent some time training at the Royal Artillery’s Woolwich Arsenal in the early 1760s, and therefore seemed like a good choice to strengthen and manage the town’s shore batteries.

The first obstacle to overcome was Babcock’s issues with his fellow officers. The Rhode Island legislative records indicate that he had a dispute with another colonel over seniority in February 1776. Then in March the assembly decided it was “highly expedient for restoring peace to the Brigade, and for the Public Good, to give the said Henry Babcock some Instructions and Directions for his Government.” Very specific instructions.

Finally, there were objections from Newport itself. The town didn’t particularly want to be defended, apparently preferring to remain neutral and busy trading with both sides of the war. But Rhode Island insisted, and in early April 1776 Babcock arrived with troops and cannons (perhaps the same cannons that had been pulled back to Providence in late 1774, to keep them out of royal government hands).

And none too soon. As the 19 Apr 1776 New London Gazette reported, on the evening of 11 April four ships under control of the Royal Navy entered Narragansett Bay:

  • the warship Scarborough, with twenty guns, coming north from Georgia.
  • a smaller transport ship called the Cimitar, with sixteen guns.
  • a brig and a sloop laden with provisions, captured along the coast.
The locals decided to take back those prizes and their cargoes.

Rhode Island had commissioned two “Row Gallies,” the Spitfire under Capt. John Grimes and the Washington under Capt. John Hyers. Powered by both sails and oars, they had top mobility within the bay. Hyers’s ship fired at the Scarborough while Grimes “boarded and sent off the Brig and Sloop.” Then the battery at Brenton’s Point, under Babcock’s command, fired on the Scarborough and forced her to move off. The newspaper declared:
This bold Action, of taking two Vessels close under the Stern of a 20 Gun Ship, may possibly convince our Enemies that the Yankies are not such Dastards, as the Tories in this Country have represented them.
The newspaper added this passage, supplied “by one who was present”:
We are bound in justice to say that the Disposition on Shore, made by Colonel Babcock, was very Soldierlike, and, notwithstanding his Indisposition, he was on Horseback great part of the Night, fired one of the 18 Pounders from the North Battery himself and hulled the Scarborough, and behaved in so cool and composed a manner as made even the Tories fear him.—

The Sons of Liberty take this Opportunity of returning Colonel Babcock their particular Thanks for the Discipline he has established in the Brigade under his Command. Notwithstanding the Clamor made against him of Insanity, we think him perfectly in his sober Senses.
“He who would free from Envy pass his Days,
Must live at Ease, & never merit Praise.”
That dispatch from Newport concluded by saying, “Our bay is now free from pirates,” and that on 14 April Col. Babcock and Col. William Richmond had “joined their two regiments and marched into this town.” Still, it’s never a good situation when your supporters have to publicly proclaim that you’re sane. Within six weeks, Babcock was removed from his position.

TOMORROW: What was Babcock’s problem?

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