Capture of British General Richard Prescott July 10th 1777
A tawny son of Africa’s race
Them through the ravine led,
And entering then the Overing House,
They found him in his bed.
But to get in they had no means
Except poor Cuffee’s head,
Who beat the door down, then rushed in,
And seized him in his bed.
Anonymous ballad spread from camp to camp
Before the raid:
Jack Sisson was an African-American slave who gained notoriety during the Revolutionary War when he aided in the capture of British Brigadier General Richard Prescott on July 10th 1777. He, along with several other men who participated in the raid, were part of Crary’s Rhode Island regiment. A year later, he enlisted in the newly formed First Rhode Island Regiment, the only regiment of the American Army made up almost entirely of African American freemen and slaves. He remained for the duration of the war, having fought in the Battles of Rhode Island and Yorktown.
Almost nothing is known of Sisson’s early life except that he was a slave owned by Thomas Sisson (1707-1777) of Tiverton, Rhode Island. Sisson answered to several names: Tack Sisson, Guy Watson, and Prince (perhaps a nickname). Sisson was described as tall, stout, and muscular. He first appears in history as one who volunteered to assist Major William Barton in a daring plot to apprehend British Brigadier General Richard Prescott, Commander of the British forces in Newport, Rhode Island.
(Note: Most articles and many texts list Barton’s rank as Lt. Colonel at the time of the abduction; however, he was commissioned Lt. Colonel on November 10th 1777. His rank was major at the time of the raid. Confusion may result when Congress resolved on July 25th an act in his benefit for the raid. The recognition was recorded in December of that year and listed Barton’s rank as Lt. Colonel.)
Major Barton, a former hatter from Warren, Rhode Island was second in command to Colonel Joseph Stanton of the Rhode Island State Troops. It was a state militia that was garrisoned at a small fort (later known as Fort Barton) in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Tiverton is on the mainland northeast of Aquidneck Island (Newport is on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island) and is separated from the island by the Sakonnet River. Throughout the colonies, the rebellious populace despaired over the capture of General Charles Lee (second in command of the American Armies) which occurred at widow White’s tavern on the morning of December 13th 1776. The general was taken away by British dragoons while still in his nightshirt. It was common in those days to exchange officers of equal rank. The Americans had no such British officer to enact an exchange, so when a Newport citizen, Mr. Coffin, met with Major Barton and informed him that the commanding general of the British forces in Newport had left the city to escape the summer’s heat and was residing at a farm west of the city along the shore, his ears perked up.
The farmhouse was owned by Mr. Overing, a wealthy Quaker, who resided there with his son and servants. It lay on the West Road that ran north along the coast to Bristol. It was a large gable-roofed home set on high ground about three quarters of a mile from the shore. A brook cut through a field beside the house and emptied into a gully that lead to a tiny cove. A few days later a British deserter confirmed Coffin’s claims and gave details about security, which was minimal. Barton, who grew up in the area and knowing the waters and land thoroughly, developed a plan to abduct the general and presented it to his superior. Colonel Stanton approved and ordered five whale boats be sent down from Providence.
Forty volunteers from the militia stepped forward, including Jack Sisson, who would steer the lead boat containing Barton and nine other men. Four officers commanded the other four whalers that held eight men each. Scholars list numbers from forty to forty-eight men accompanying the mission, with eyewitness accounts varying; the accepted number is slightly over forty. Because General Prescott resided to the west of Newport, Barton decided to make a roundabout trip north from Tiverton into Mt. Hope Bay. The raiders would turn south into the Narragansett Bay and keep close to the shoreline of Aquidneck Island while skirting Patience and Prudence Islands. After the capture, they would head directly up the bay to Warwick Neck Battery that protected the approach to Providence, about a ten mile hard row.
They embarked from Tiverton at 9 PM on July 4th 1777. With Jack Sisson steering the lead boat, Barton tied a white handkerchief to the mast for the others to follow. Almost immediately they were hit by a terrific thunderstorm while in Mt. Hope Bay. The boats were scattered and each made their way across Mt. Hope Bay to Bristol, with the last boat arriving at 1AM the next day. That day Barton, with some of his officers, went to Hog Island where they could survey the British camps along the shore line of Aquidneck Island and the British shipping lying the bay. They remained there for a day, and left the evening of the sixth, but northeast winds prevented them from heading south. They rowed over to Warwick Neck and waited out the winds. Days later, on the evening of July 9th, they set off once more. With muffled oars, they hugged the western shore of Prudence Island. British gun boats and men-of-war slipped by so close that they could hear the cries of ‘alls well’ and even subtle conversations. When they rounded the southern tip of Prudence, Barton and Sisson knew that, had it been daylight, they could have seen their destination. Each man rowed the three quarters mile of open water as hard as they could. As they approached Aquidneck island, they were startled by the trampling of horses. Oars suspended in silence but for the distant rumble of hoofs and droplets running off the wrapped wood and tapping the water, they held until no other sounds were heard except their own breathing. One by one, the men dipped their oars back in the water and resumed rowing. They found the small cove they sought and moored their boats in a creek by a little bluff of sand shortly after midnight.
In five small divisions, they filed up through the gully while keeping close to the ridge for caution. They emerged from the gully at the back of Peleg Coggshall’s farm and having gained the road, they rapidly moved toward the Overing home. They passed the Redwood house on their left where General Smith, second in command, was housed. Since the British never bothered to build barracks, all troops were either stationed in the city or billeted in homes and farmhouses scattered throughout the southern portion of Aquidneck Island. Ahead of them on the right, or Newport side, was a building appropriated to a troop of light horse and twenty five yards past this gate was a sentinel.
To the soldier’s demand, ‘who comes there,’ the lead rebel answered, ‘friends, have you seen any deserters tonight?” While approaching to give the countersign, it is reported that Sisson rushed forward and seized him before he could get off a shot. The sentinel was bound and the house was silently surrounded. According to the Pennsylvania Evening Post, ‘The colonel went foremost, with a stout, active negro close behind him.” They slipped in through the entrance way and swiftly rounded up the occupants. Bounding the stairs, they found Prescott’s door locked. The Post went on to state that “the negro, with his head, at the second stroke forced a passage.” Other accounts have Sisson slamming his great bulk against the thick door until the latch shattered. Just like Lee, Prescott was not allowed to dress over his nightshirt for fear of time wasted. Barefoot, both Prescott and his aide-de-camp, Major Barrington, complained their feet were being cut. Supposedly, a large strapping man by the name of John Paul was courteous enough to let the general wear his ‘big, low shoes.’
The raiders rowed back to Warwick Neck battery without incident, arriving by morning. Prescott and his aide were housed at the Arnold Tavern as word spread. The kidnapping allowed for the eventual exchange of General Lee. It did much to encourage the rebellion’s morale. Congress offered Barton a sword and promotion, ballads were written and sung, and all praised the ‘sturdy negro’ who broke through into the general’s chamber, grabbing him and hauling him out the door.
To note, General Prescott was the only officer of major rank who was captured and exchanged twice. The first time he fell into American hands was at the capture of Montreal. He was then exchanged for General Sullivan, who had surrendered to British forces during the Battle of Long Island.
Within a year of Prescott’s capture, Jack Sisson enlisted in the newly-formed First Rhode Island, made up mostly of freemen and slaves for whom freedom was granted upon joining. He fought well on his own turf in the Battle of Rhode Island and served out his time until war’s end. Little more is recorded of Sisson’s life. He died at age 78 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
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