The past six months or so have largely been spent in transcribing the journals of Noah Robinson, a young man of Attleboro who initially listed in Capt. Caleb Richardson’s company of Keye’s Regiment, and would go on to serve in other companies in the Massachusetts militia for the next two years.
Many Rhode Islanders may not know that in crucial times of defense, Attleboro men, as well as others from Rehobeth and Taunton, were “sent on the alarm” into Rhode Island to “hold the line”, and defend the coast until reinforcements could be gathered.
In January 1776, the Rhode Island General Assembly had resolved that “a number of men, not exceeding fifty, be stationed at Warwick Neck, including the Artillery company in Warwick; the remainder to be minutemen”.
Such service could last from twenty, to a hundred and twenty days, and were initially manned by men from the Kentish Guards under Col. John Waterman, as well as men from the Pawtuxet Rangers. A large redoubt was constructed, as well as entrenchments on the northern side of the the coast road from Old Warwick to Apponaug. During the course of the war, the Neck and these entrenchments were manned by militiamen from Scituate, North Providence, and Massachuseets militia from Taunton, Rehobeth, and Attleborough.
After Noah Robinson returned from a tour of duty-stationed in Tiverton, he was then paid forty-seven dollars by one J. Damon, to serve in his place, and on the 9th of January 1778, set off to join Col. John Daggetts regiment from Attleboro.
Robinson, then eighteen, was a private, and well-educated, at least well-enough to be offered a job as a school teacher, and to serve as scribe, or secretary to the officers of his company. He quickly obtained the promise of the same job with Col. Daggett, and on the 13th, set off to follow the regiment to Warwick, where they were to serve three months. The scribe missed his regiment’s departure, and so kept company with Capt. Moses Willmarth, and the next morning marched to Pawtuxet where they drank cider, and then another four miles into Warwick where Robinson “unflung my pack and Dined”.
As a private, Robinson was required to serve guard duty, participate in musters and “parading for exercise,” all within the routine of a soldier’s life. But as a scribe, he also kept the company of the Officers, and often shared in the benefits they received, of a roof over one’s head, rather than a tent, sharing the wines and other liquor procured for them, as well as the visiting ladies that frequented the Officers quarters. The night after his arrival, the eighteen-year old Robinson would record
“Afternoon three younger ladys come to Col. Daggetts Quar(ters) and two there was before which made up a pretty handsome sett. Towards Night I went to Capt. Willmarth’s Company & drank cyder (Girls-2 more) Returned back and the Ladys drank coffee”.
The two great houses that stood at the entrance to Warwick Neck, the Wickes-Gardiner House, and the Lippit Homestead, were taken for use by the militia. The former initially housing Col. John Waterman and his officers, while the Lippit House was used by a host of successive officers from Scituate, Attleboro, and North Providence companies. As was common, family members remained in the Lippit household, and young Robinson writes often during his time there, of visiting Mrs Lippit and having tea with the ladies in the rooms that were reserved for them.
The Neck then was mostly farmland. Noah Robinson had encountered its fields and pastures when he first marched to the Neck in his first term of service, where his company crossed the Bay to Warren. He was assigned to stay with the baggage, and when the wind turned unfair on a second ferry, he spent the night in a hay-stack until he could cross in the morning.
I have conferred with Henry A.L. Brown and other Warwick historians, and all of us concur that the site of the ferry which crossed the troops was likely in the vicinity of where the great dock for Rocky Point was built. His destination was an area located north of Papasquash Point, in a location that is now part of Colt State Park.
In January of 1778, he was there for three months, and though he may have found the Officer’s quarters confining, he likely missed them after carpenters were called in to construct crude wooden shelters with plank beds for the soldiers.
Robinson soon settled in to the routine of writing, and often delivering orders, parading for exercise, and “making the Rounds”, of the guards along the Neck, usually in the company of Lt. Colonel Hathaway. At the close of those first weeks of in the dead of winter, Robinson would often close his journal entries of daily routine with the phrase “Nothing More Remarkable Happened”. In spite of private Robinson’s casual air, the threat of the British attacking Warwick or Providence remained very real to residents. Governor Nicholas Cooke would write to the President of Congress on January 6, 1778, “The harbour of Newport is filled with the enemy’s ships of war, frigates, transports, etc., to the amount of nearly two hundred sail, and we hear that a descent upon the main land is in contemplation by the enemy from Rhode Island”.
In fact it would be an eventful three months for the young soldier.
On January 20, 1778, Robinson first records a mention of a “Court Martial at Capt. Willmarth’s headquarters”. He later mentions two soldiers who were charged, one J. Eddy, and Bn. Bowers. The latter was Bemenuel Bowers, of Swansea and Rehobeth who had enlisted as gunner in Capt. Thomas Carlisle’s company of Col. Robert Elliot’s Rhode Island Regiment of Artillery.
I have not yet found the documents of this particular court martial to learn the specific charges against these men, but a possible clue may be gathered from a penciled statement written in the orderly book of Carlile’s regiment during that year, which reads as follows:
“In the whole history of war there is not a single instance of soldiers having taken(,) discharged or converted to their own use the ammunition or implements of war destined for his own defense against the enemy and which they dare (?) secure.
The Gen(eral) is sorry to say that the folly and infamy of such conduct was because for the soldiers of Glovers(?) Brigade who have not only in the most villanous manner stolen the ammunition in all the redoubts(,) the (powder?) of the cannon(.) the ladles & plungers & those implements which they ware set to guard but have made it their constant practice to steal as suffer other persons to steal everything that was put under their charge. Ever since they have been stationed here they have now brought…..”
February dawned bright and sunny, and in a rare morning entry, Robinson wrote:
“A very Pleasant morning this Sunday may it be a memorable Day to me & a prosperous Life led from it through or Lord & Savior &c”.
The day ended memorably, with a sing that included some of the younger ladies from town, but the next weeks would prove to be among the darkest of the young soldiers life.
On February 5th, he was given furlough and after buying a few trinkets in Providence, headed home to Attleborough. The next few days he “walked around the neighborhood” visiting relatives, friends, and acquaintances. On the following Sunday however, “
“It being very snowy walking I stayed at home & did not go to Meeting so I spent some time in reading the Bible”
The following day he turned out, and visited more relatives, spending the night at his Uncle J. Stanley’s. When he returned home on Tuesday morning, he found that his mother had suddenly taken ill, and rushed out to find a doctor. He first tried the home of Dr. Bezallel Mann, but the eminent physician was not there, He next tried the home of Dr. James Bliss with the same result. As a result, a doctor did not arrive in the household until evening, and after a fitful night, Deborah Stanley Robinson died around eleven the next morning.
A family friend was quickly dispatched to Warwick to give Noah’s brother Phillip the news. That night relatives came and sat with the body while Noah copied the verses from a hymn by Dr. Watts in his journal, the last of which could only have echoed his own thoughts about returning to war:
“Let heavenly love prepare my soul
and call her to the skies
Where years of long salvation call
and glory never dies”.
On Friday, Noah would record that
“A Day of Weeping is now at hand when the Neighbors & Friends are gathering together to bury the corpse of my poor Mother….”
The family mourning continued through the weekend, but by Monday morning, though once again snowy, Robinson records that he
‘…got Breakfast & packd up & then marched to Warwick to join my Regt. Saw nothing singular in my march however stopped at Pawtuxet and eat some victuals and drank some cyder”.
On his return he learned that the ship Warren had slipped away from Providence past the British blockade. Under command of Capt. John B. Hopkins, the frigate would make its way into southern waters and capture two prizes on their way to Bermuda.
Robinson resettled into the routine of camp life, though his job as a scribe did provide some diversions. On February 23rd, he records that
“Afternoon a flag of truce came up from ye enemy to Warwick Neck with a letter to Gov. Cook & left at night. I sett off (for) Providence and delivered the letter to ye Gov. about eight o’clock and heard him read ‘em and found them to be from the Comp. Genl. of the American prisoners concerning them & c”.
I have not found the specific letter Robinson mentions, but in Benjamin Cowell’s “spirit of ‘76”, we find the state’s response:
“In the spring of this year (1778), some attempts were made to ameliorate the condition of the prisoners on board the British prison ships in the harbor of Newport; great complaints had been made that the prisoners were not properly treated, that suitable provisions were not made for their accommodations, and moreover, they were half starved; this abuse called up the attention of the Council of war, who empowered Col. Barton ‘to proceed to Newport, with supplies and necessaries for the prisoners on board the ships, in the jail and hospital at Newport’, and that ‘he inform himself particularly, of their state, treatment, and wants, and procure and bring an exact list of them”.
That winter was a hard one for the militia, as a good number fell ill at one time or another, including Phillip Robinson, Noah’s brother, who served in Capt. Caleb Richardson’s company from Attleboro. After his bout with food poisoning, he and others in the companies stationed in Warwick contracted measles. Many of these men would not recover until the end of the month. Noah, despite his own bout with “a flux”, avoided the disease.
Those healthy kept guard and paraded for exercise. They passed the evenings with a sing-a kind of sing-a-along around a campfire or indoors as weather dictated, or playing chess, or with visits from the ladies.
On March 1, 1778, a singular event would occur which Noah would record as “a memorable day” on which
“a black fellow came, and made his complaint of Corporal Coles’ striking him”.
Corporal Isaiah Cole was Corporal in Capt. Peleg Peck’s company of Col. John Daggett’s regiment. The Colonel’s initial response was to place the man in irons, however a number in the company protested and rescued him, which, Robinson records, “caused a fluster in the regiment”.
The protest and action taken by the men caused Lieutenant Timothy Merry, and a number of others to be confined. The black man who made the complaint was also made a prisoner once again.
The name of the black man who complained of Cole’s violent behavior was not recorded by Robinson. He is one of eight blacks who served in Peck’s company, most likely as “waiters” or servants to the officers. The black man may have been emboldened to make his complaint, as the General Assembly, less than a month before had issued an act offering any slave that was fit to serve the opportunity to enlist in the Continental Army and earn their freedom. This historic act would lead to the formation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, a regiment comprised of companies of former slaves, indigenous men, and indentured servants of European origin.
The next morning, the prisoners were brought before General Ezekial Cornell, and Colonel John Daggett as well as another unnamed Colonel.
The end result was that “those that went to rescue the boy out were all confined & the two Corp(orals) put in irons. Those that pled ignorant in the affair were dismissed from under guard”.
The affair simmered for another day when accusations of scuttling supplies seem to have arisen between Col. Daggett and Captain Peck. That day orders also arrived from Brigadier General Joseph Spencer, an attorney from Connecticut who was serving under Sullivan as they planned the Rhode Island campaign.
Robinson and others visited the prisoners that snowy night, and the next morning the entire company paraded out for General Cornell’s inspection, and the orders were given that “the prisoners be discharged from further confinement & their handcuffs be taken off. This was accordingly performed”.
Spencer’s orders seem to have diffused the controversy. There is no record of what punishment was doled ot to Corporal Coles for his act, if any, nor what became of the black man who had the courage to step forward and defend himself against such behavior.
Captain Peck would be among others who in June 1778 would petition General Sullivan for a new set of officers.
The remainder of March passed with little activity beyond the daily routines of camp life. He and the other soldiers heard the grisly tale of the murder of Joshua Spooner, a prominent Brookfield farmer by his wife Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner, daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles of Worchester, Massachusetts.
In brief, the Spooners had been married for eleven years and had four children by the spring of 1777, when a sixteen year old soldier named Ezra Ross fell ill on his way home to Ipswich, and was invited into the spooner home, where Bathsheba nursed him back to health. The soldier visited the home several more times during furloughs from duty that year and befriended the husband, often accompanying him on business trips. But by December 1777, Ross and Bathsheba were in the throes of an affair, with Ross staying over the holiday into the New Year. By January 1778, Mrs. Spooner confronted her lover with the news that she was pregnant, and encouraged him in several methods of disposing of her husband. The next month, when Ross accompanied Spooner on another trip, he brought along a bottle of nitric acid, provided by Bathsheba, to poison her husband. In the end, Ross lacked the nerve to commit murder and returned home.
Bathsheba Ruggles must have suspected that her lover lacked the nerve, and while the men were away, encountered two British runaways-one Seargent James Buchanan, and Pvt. William Brooks, and invited them into her home; and the plot to kill her husband. The pair willingly obliged, and Brooks killed Mr. Spooner as he returned from a nearby tavern. Summoned by Bathsheba, Ezra Ross helped Buchanan to hide the body of Mr. Spooner in a well. Bathsheba paid the men with money from her husband’s lockbox, and gave them a horse to ride to Worcester. Brooks and Buchanan drank the night away in a tavern, where the paper money the men used to pay for drinks and the shiny shoe buckles on Brooks worn boots drew attention. Once word of the murder arrived from Brookfield, just fourteen miles away, the three men were quickly arrested and revealed the tale of Bathseba Spooner’s plots of homicide. The three men and Bathsheba Spooner, who had pled for leniency for her unborn child, were hung before a crowd of five-thousand spectators on July 2, 1778 in Worcester’s Washington Square.
Life resumed to normalcy in camp, and by the middle of March, it was warm enough that “ye Colonel, the staff officers and waiters went a clamming”, though Robinson stayed behind, nursing a bad cold. The remainder of the month passed as dully as the grey metal sky as the weather turned cold and “lousy”, though Robinson found diversions in visiting with “Mrs Lippit and the ladys”, as well as playing cards and checkers. He also attended “sings” and prayers and services performed by Rev. Thatcher, the Chaplin of Daggett’s regiment
Before the long winter was out, he would record the death of his uncle Thomas Daggett as well as one of their own regiment who would die from illness; the young David Barrows, whose body was carried back home by brothers and fellow militiamen Aaron and William Barrows.
On the 28th of February, a letter arrived from Providence requesting that the regiment “tarry fifteen days from the 1st of April”. The request was read at the morning muster and caused much dispute. As the men had not been paid. Col. Daggett ordered them to prepare to go home.
On the 1st of April, , Robinson would write
“This memorable day being come about we arose very early and packed up & got Breakfast… and about eight o’clock we left Old Warwick & ye kind inhabitants and marched for home…”
Noah Robinson’s journal of his days on Warwick Neck and other places of Rhode Island bear witness to the typical day-to-day life of a militiaman during wartime. While not facing the head to head battles that the Continental troops encountered, they were a vital backdrop of defense within those battles, and a constant presence of defense along the more than seventy miles of Rhode Island coastline.