The British occupation of Newport, R.I. in 1776 made a lot of sense. Newport was a wealthy town. Years of wide-ranging international trade had made it the fourth largest town in the colonies. And its harbor was large and sheltered.
In short, it was a logical place for the British General Henry Clinton to eye as a potential winter home after being repulsed from Charleston, S.C. that June.
Newport had seen its share of skirmishes in the spring of 1776, mostly over British demands for supplies. The patriots drove off a small British fleet. But Clinton had 8,000 to 10,000 men and a squadron of ships at his disposal.
As word spread of the British plans, the exodus from the city picked up its pace. Many of the wealthy families had already fled, and many more continued leaving until the city was at least half empty.
The Newport Mercury newspaper, sympathetic to the patriot cause, picked up and moved to Attleboro, Massachusetts. Other outspoken rebels moved inland. When the British arrived in December, there was no force to resist them.
“The troops . . . disembarked without the least opposition; when, being informed that the rebels had quitted the works in and about the town of Newport, and were retiring towards Bristol ferry, I detached Major-general Prescott, with the grenadiers and light infantry, to intercept them,” Clinton would write back home to England.
Richard Prescott could find few rebels to fight and settled for sending a few off the island and collecting up cannons that the rebels had been unable to take with them.
If the citizens of Newport had any doubts about what life under the British would be like, they didn’t last long. The British commandeered homes to house the soldiers and stole food and valuables. Prescott built for himself a long promenade in front of the house he’d seized made up of the doorsteps belonging to other houses. A petty tyrant, he took to the streets and bullied people, beating them with his cane and imprisoning them on a whim.
The British stayed in Newport for almost three years before they evacuated.
By the time they left, the town was in ruins. The soldiers looted and destroyed property and had chopped down all but one tree for use as firewood.
This story updated in 2022.