BH&PS Action News Coverage: The Burning of Bristol, 1778

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A photo of Revolutionary War-era artifacts housed at the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society in Bristol, RI. Objects include a cannonball, a bayonet, and a horn. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom of the image, featuring the text "Rhody Radio" and an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Kristin: [00:00:00] You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.

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Hello, Rhody Radio listeners. I'm your guest host Kristin Amaral from the Rogers Free Library in Bristol, Rhode Island. For this episode, we are joined by the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society for a retelling of the British invasion of Bristol on May 27th, 1778, an important event that changed the town forever.

Speaker 2: Ladies and gentlemen, we take you now to Bristol, Rhode Island, the Bristol, Rhode Island of Monday, May 25th, 1778. The day dawned much like any other early spring day with a cool morning breeze being warmed by the bright sunshine and with the occasional drifting large billowy cloud in the blue sky. The birds were twittering in the treetops, and yet there was somehow an uneasy feeling in the air. You see, the American colonies had been at war for the past three years, fighting for independence from Britain. Little did anyone realize that this tranquil sylvan scene was about to be interrupted by an invading regiment of British and Hessian soldiers, 500 strong.

Town Crier: 12 o'clock at the noon hour and all is well. 12 o'clock at the noon hour and all is well.

William: Ladies and gentlemen, this is William J. Bell with the BH and PS Action News Team. We are standing here at the corner of Hope and Franklin Streets, and there seems to be some sort of commotion in the distance. It's a woman shouting something. She seems to be terribly upset. Could there have been an accident?

Speaker 5: Soldiers, British soldiers coming from the direction of Warren, from up on Bristol Neck. Run, hide, save yourselves. Lord, save us.

William: Yes. [00:02:00] I see lines of brilliant red coats in the distance coming this way. People are beginning to gather in the streets and the soldiers are about to pass. Let's walk along with them as they go down Hope Street, and try to find out what this is all about. Sir, sir, can you give us your name please? What is happening?

Colonel James: I'm Lieutenant Colonel James Campbell of the 22nd Regiment on foot. It has been reported to us by a reliable source that the rebel forces have been planning an attack against the British on the Island of Aquidneck. We have just destroyed 58 of their flat bottom boats in the neighboring town of Warren that were hidden along the shoreline of the Kickamuit River and were being gathered for a planned raid of the British forces stationed on the Island of Aquidneck.

Now, we are acting on information received that there are rebel forces here in Bristol. Excuse me, I must get back to my duties. Halt. Two men with torches set fire to this house here on Franklin Street. It is the home of the Right Reverend John Burt, who has been preaching sedition and making treasonous speeches against the king and the British empire.

William: Don't you know Reverend Burt has been dead these three years passed.

Colonel James: Then let this be a warning to those whose lips utter treasonable offense to king and country, surely play with fire. Traitorous rebel.

Speaker 5: No, sir, neither traitor nor rebel, but a true Patriot.

William: I see that a soldier with a torch has been sent into the home of Mr. William Christopher, a member of the local militia. I've just been informed by one of the spectators that Mr. Christopher's wife has recently died, and that he is presently not at home. However, his four young daughters are there alone. The youngest, just a babe. Wait, a soldier is coming out. I don't see any smoke, so the house [00:04:00] hasn't been set aflame. I guess he had compassion for the four motherless young girls left alone.

Colonel James: Forward march.

William: The British troops have taken some locals prisoner, I am told. The several people in the crowd recognize John Kummer, Jonathan Peck and his enslaved servant Nero, Peter Church, and the elderly Mr. Joseph Reynolds, all who have farms and live up on Bristol Neck. I have also been informed that Mr. Reynolds has not been well for the past few days and his friends fear for his health.

Two barns have now been set ablaze on the east side of the street, just south of Franklin Street, as the soldiers march south along Hope Street, and the owners, with help of friends and neighbors, are trying to remove any livestock.

The troops have now torched the houses of both Dr. Richmond and Dr. Aaron Bourne. Both houses are also on the east side of Hope Street. We are told by those in the crowd that Dr. Bourne had secreted a great deal of continental paper money in the garrett of his house, which has now been lost with the rest of the contents in his home. Continuing south along Hope Street, the troops have now halted in front of the house of Mrs. Woodbury, a widow, which is here on the west side of Hope Street.

The two soldiers with torches have now exited, and the troops are moving further down the street. Mrs. Woodbury is coming out of her house. Let's see if we can speak with her. Mrs. Woodbury, Mrs. Woodbury, may we speak with you? How is it that your house isn't burning?

Mrs. Woodbury: Well, managing to keep my wits about me, when the soldiers left, I picked up the pale of milk on the kitchen table and threw it on the flames, which hadn't been able to increase by much at that point.

William: You put out the fire by yourself?

Mrs. Woodbury: With help from the cow. With help from the cow. Praise be to my Eleanor.

William: But why would the soldiers want to set your house on fire? Are you in favor of separation from England?

Mrs. Woodbury: Well, if I wasn't before, I certainly am now, and so will many others [00:06:00] be after today, I dare say.

William: Mrs. Woodbury, why do you suppose the soldiers are only burning selected houses?

Mrs. Woodbury: Well, sir, if I had to hazard a guess, it seems the soldiers have been targeting the homes where members of the militia live or where members of the militia have been recently housed, and of course, the homes of those who have been openly professing separation from England. In my opinion, someone has been wagging their tongue to the authorities. If you follow me, it seems a wagging tongue is by far the sharpest weapon.

William: Thank you, Mrs. Woodbury, for that interesting analysis. While we've been talking to Mrs. Woodbury, a blacksmith's shop, carriage house, and a storehouse all on the west side of Hope Street have been set on fire by the British and Hessian soldiers, and now they are entering the homes of Mr. William Cox and Mr. Steven Smith to ignite them as well. Across the street, standing on the east side of Hope Street, at the Southwest corner of State Street, the soldiers are entering the home of Deputy Governor William Bradford. Mr. Bradford, may we have a few words from you regarding what is happening?

Mr. Bradford: Well, I find the conduct of these soldiers outrageous, especially the result of being under orders to arrest the citizenry of our town in this matter. Now, the majority of us are not military soldiers but private citizens. To burn the houses of defenseless widows and arrest elderly men taken from off their sick beds, that's certainly not producing much if any support for the continued loyalty of the crowd, in my estimation. First, that raid and bombardment of the town three years ago this October, and now this.

William: Thank you, Deputy Governor Bradford. Ladies and gentlemen, there seems to be something developing just across State Street at the home of Mr. Hezekiah Usher. Let's go over and see what is going on. Ladies and gentlemen, the soldiers have arrested Mr. Usher and are now emptying the house of the women and children who took refuge in his home. Mr. Usher is a known [00:08:00] loyalist, and makes no bones about the issue of remaining faithful to King George III and the English parliament.

Evidently, Mr. Usher brought out a bowl of punch and has offered the passing officers at least a refreshing libation of some sort. As a result of this loyalist gesture, the bowl has been torn from his arms and smashed on the ground, and he is being arrested. Wait, Mr. Usher is speaking.

Mr. Usher: But I'm a friend to the king.

Colonel James: Then you're just the man we are looking for.

William: They have placed Mr. Usher with the prisoners and have removed all the women and children and are now setting the house on fire. I can't believe they are burning the home of a known loyalist. Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, how can you be doing this? Hezekiah Usher is the greatest local proponent for loyalty to the crown in Bristol.

Colonel James: I'll ask you to not to interfere or I'll have no choice but to arrest you as well. Now, stand aside.

William: Ladies and gentlemen, the house of Mr. James Smith on the southwest corner of Hope and State Street, directly opposite of Mr. Usher's is now in flames.

Colonel James: Forward march.

William: It appears that all the houses on the east side of Hope Street between State Street and Church Street have been set on fire, including those of Nathaniel Smith, John Waldren, the late William Wardwell, Hopestill Potter, and William Ox. The soldiers are now stopped in front of Saint Michael's Church and the officers seem to be having a discussion amongst themselves, and one of them is shaking his head. It appears he is in disagreement.

Lieutenant Colonel Campbell is sending him back to the ranks.

Colonel James: You two men with torches, set fire to the church.

William: Ladies and gentlemen, I can't believe my eyes. They are burning the church, the English church, the mission church founded by the English Society for the propagation of the gospel in foreign parts. In other words, they are burning the representative church [00:10:00] of England.

William: Lieutenant Campbell, why the church?

Colonel James: Our most reliable sources have told us that the rebel forces are hiding their arms, munitions, and powder in the basement of this church, so we are making sure they will never be used against Great Britain. Foolish rebels. How do they dare think they can defeat the greatest army in the world today? What a misplaced display of hubris. Forward march.

William: The House of Jonathan Fields, just a little way east on Church Street from Hope Street has just been set on fire, as has Captain Simeon Potter's on the southeast corner of Hope and Chuch Street. Thomas Martin's house on the south corner of Byfield and Hope Street and that of Samuel Listom a little further south on the east side of Hope Street were the next to perish and were also set aflame.

I see that the House of William Monroe on the west side of Hope Street somewhat south of Constitution Street has been burned. The House of Marc Anthony DeWolf on the east side of Hope Street just south of Bourbon Street has also been set on fire. It is not surprising for DeWolf's house to have been burned as it was serving as headquarters of the artillery company.

It looks like the soldiers are now moving out of town. What a relief. It looks like Monroe's and DeWolf's houses will be the last ones burned. I can't believe this has happened to Bristol. What a travesty. How will the town recover?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is William J. Bell with the BH and PS Action News Team signing off from Bristol, Rhode Island.

Speaker 2: On the morning of the British raid, after the British had entered Warren, a rider had been dispatched to Providence for help. On hearing the news, Colonel Barton led 20 horsemen and several of his troops from Providence to Bristol, gathering about 200 volunteers along the way. Colonel Barton and his men came along the back road now known as [00:12:00] Metacom Avenue and confronted Lieutenant Colonel Campbell and his British and Hessian troops as they were marching along Ferry Road.

There they were joined by an artillery company who arrived at Bristol Ferry with two cannons to aid Colonel Barton and his troops. A skirmish ensued, and the British placed their captive prisoners to their rear and use them as a human shield as they made their way to the Bristol Ferry. There they embarked on their waiting ships and returned to Newport. One ship, however, was grounded on Mussel Shoals near where the lighthouse is today. Even though they were out of range, the ship exchanged cannon volleys with the American forces until the tide came in and they could sail away.

In the end, the British took 30 men captive including Joseph Reynolds and Hezekiah Usher. William Gladding, who had come out of his mill at Walley Street to see what the commotion was all about was the last to be taken prisoner and might not have been had he stayed inside. 19 homes, the Church of England, and about 10 outbuildings and farms were set aflame.

Colonel Barton was wounded in the hip along with four American patriots. It is not known how many British and Hessian soldiers died but firsthand accounts tell of a trail of blood all along the road to the Bristol Ferry.

The prisoners were taken by ship to Newport, where they spent a number of days on a prison ship in Newport Harbor. Hezekiah Usher and the elderly Mr. Reynolds were released the day following the burning. Mr. Usher returned to find his house a smoldering ruin. Till the day he died, Usher prayed for a reconciliation of the former colonies with England. Today, a Citizens Bank sits on the corner of State and Hope Streets where his house once stood.

The Church of England was rebuilt three more times, and today is St. Michael's Episcopal Church. Of the houses that were burned, only two were saved; that of Mrs. Woodbury and the house of William Ox who also extinguished his house fire. Neither survived today.

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Kristin: On behalf of Rhody Radio and the Rogers Free Library, thanks for listening. The script for The Burning of Bristol was written by the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society [00:14:00] historian, Ray Batcher. Ray also read the part of town crier and Lieutenant Colonel James Campbell. Sarah Reed read the parts of Washerwoman and Mrs. Woodbury. Katherine Zip served as the announcer.

A very special thanks goes to Christopher Lane for voicing the reporter William Bradford, and Hezekiah Usher. The Bristol Historical and Preservation Society also thanks Barrington Public Library and Rhody Radio. To learn more about Bristol's history, become a member, or donate to the cause, please visit www.bhpsri.org.

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Rhody Radio is a project of the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services.

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