Students complete “Siege of Newport” analysis for National Park Service
Photo: Closeup of the British outer line of defense as seen on Edward Fage’s 1778 plan of the works for the Siege of Newport. Courtesy of the Clements Library, University of Michigan.
Salve Regina students working in collaboration with the Middletown Historical Society have completed a 365-page investigative analysis of the Siege of Newport, a 1778 battle fought from opposing hills in Middletown that became one of the largest military operations of the Revolution. The historic effort to retake Newport – known as the Battle of Rhode Island – was the first joint military operation of the newly formed alliance between the French and the Colonials.
Printed at the University, “Siege of British Forces in Newport County by Colonial and French in August of 1778” is the first in-depth analysis of the battlefield that could very well have been the site where the Revolutionary War was won.
The document is available in public libraries and historical society archives throughout Aquidneck Island, as well as in electronic format via the University’s McKillop Library digital commons repository. The research was commissioned by the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, which awarded a $67,200 grant to the Middletown Historical Society in summer 2015.
The Salve Regina students, under the guidance of Dr. Jon Marcoux, assistant professor of cultural and historic preservation, and Dr. John Quinn, professor of history, conducted much of the work as part of the collaborative research team. Kenneth Walsh ’13 (Ph.D.), the Middletown Historical Society research team’s principal investigator, joined with University faculty, students and alumni Dec. 4 to formally present copies of the completed report to President Jane Gerety, RSM and Dr. Scott Zeman, provost/vice president for academic affairs.
“Ultimately a loss, the battle is largely overlooked in most history books, in part due to its outcome,” researchers wrote. “However, it is a significant moment, as it marks the beginning of French military involvement. It also underscores the turning point of the war, reached by a decisive American victory at Saratoga a year earlier. With such momentum behind the patriot cause and a newly formed alliance, the war could actually have been won in Newport had the outcome been different. Instead, the campaign put a severe strain on the new alliance as each side blamed the other for the loss.”
America would have to wait two more years before another French force under Lt. Gen. Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau would come to their aid and ultimately lead them to victory in Yorktown.
The comprehensive report was edited by alumna Christina Alvernas ’07, who served as editor, lead writer and researcher for the Middletown Historical Society team. Other contributors on the research team included Jessica Analoro, Allyson Boucher, Aaron Bradshaw, Drew Canfield, Mersina Christopher, Stephen Jordan, James Rehill and Ralph Weiss.
In addition to conducting historical research, the students generated computerized mapping using sophisticated software to overlay digital scans of historic maps onto modern aerial photos, and used ground penetrating radar surveys to map what lies beneath the ground. Using these tools, remnants of British and American defenses were identified, the effectiveness of the cannons (both in range and power) were studied, and the viability of the campaign was analyzed. The study also answers questions over the origins of remaining fortifications, gives accurate context for any future discoveries and provides a cannon study model that can be applied to other existing battlefields.
“There are a host of reasons the Siege failed,” researchers concluded. “The lack of deception, bad timing, a rocky collaboration with the French, the unexpected hurricane, the geography, and the available technology, led to a ‘perfect storm’ of events. These, combined with the impending arrival of British reinforcements, made for an insurmountable task and [Maj. Gen. John] Sullivan knew it. Had some of these circumstances been different, the Americans could have possibly won and ended the Revolutionary War in Newport.”
With the project wrapped up, the Middletown Historical Society is now exploring the concept of erecting a small museum on Valley Road dedicated to the action that took place there.