William Barton (1748–1831), of Warren and Providence, was a Revolutionary army colonel whose most notable exploit was leading a daring raid in July 1777 to seize General Richard Prescott, the commander of the British forces occupying Aquidneck Island.
Born in the town of Warren, the son of Benjamin and Lydia Barton, William Barton received a common-school education. He then embarked on the trade of hat making, married Rhoda Carver and moved to Providence, where he acquired the lot on which the Industrial Trust/Fleet Bank Building now stands.
In 1775, Barton joined the Rhode Island militia and rose rapidly to the rank of major. Two years later, he developed and carried out a scheme to capture British general Richard Prescott, whose occupation of Newport from December 1776 onward had been characterized by arrogance and harshness. On the evening of July 9, 1777, his small, handpicked force of forty volunteers glided in five whaleboats from Warwick Neck past three British frigates and landed near the Portsmouth-Middletown line. With the aid of Portsmouth’s John Hunt, Barton and his men advanced inland from the western shore of Aquidneck to the Overing House, where Prescott slept, presumably with mistress Overing, the owner of the farm. After subduing the sentries, Barton snatched the partially clothed general and transported him across the bay to Warwick. In accordance with Barton’s original plan, Prescott’s freedom was later purchased in exchange for the captured American general Charles Lee. The site of the raid, now known as the Prescott Farm, is a major state historical site owned and administered by the Newport Restoration Foundation.
The spectacular foray by Barton even earned the admiration of British officer and diarist Captain Frederick Mackenzie, who observed that the raid was “executed in a masterly manner.”
“It is certainly a most extraordinary circumstance,” said Mackenzie, “that a General commanding a body of 4,000 men, encamped on an island surrounded by a Squadron of Ships of War, should be carried off from his quarters in the night by a small party of the enemy from without and without a shot being fired.” London newspapers had little sympathy for Prescott and printed the following rhyme of ridicule:
What various lures there are to ruin man,
Women, the first and foremost, all bewitches,
A nymph thus spoiled a general’s mighty plan,
And gave him to the foe without his breeches.
For his exploit, Barton was promoted to colonel by the Continental Congress. In May 1778, he was seriously wounded near Bristol Ferry while chasing a British and Hessian force, under Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, that had just raided Warren and Bristol. The injury prevented Barton from engaging in the siege of Newport and the ensuing Battle of Rhode Island (August 29, 1778), but the staging area in Tiverton for the July-August siege was named Fort Barton in his honor. When Barton recovered in 1779, he was appointed commander of a light corps consisting of four companies that had been authorized by the Rhode Island General Assembly. He served actively for the remainder of the war.
From 1788 through 1790, Barton campaigned vigorously for the adoption of the federal Constitution. He was a leading delegate to the abortive March 1790 South Kingstown convention, serving as its “monitor,” and in May 1790 he cast one of the four Providence votes for ratification. He was then dispatched to New York to notify President Washington of Rhode Island’s belated entrance to the Union.
Later in life, Barton became involved in a dispute over land in Barton, Vermont, a town he helped to found. In a legal contest over ownership, a judgment was assessed against him, which, in principle, he refused to pay. As a result, Barton spent nearly fourteen years confined to the Green Mountain State as a debtor. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited America in 1824–25 for a triumphal tour, he learned of his old ally’s financial plight and paid Barton’s obligation, thereby securing the aged hero’s release. Barton returned in honor to Providence, where he died in 1831.
Patrick T. Conley
For Further Reading:
Patrick T. Conley. Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood. Charlestown, SC: The History Press, 2010.