On this day in 1777, British Major General Richard Prescott is captured. One author has called this event “the outstanding special operation of the Revolutionary War,” which “still ranks as one of the greatest in American military history.”
Once they had Prescott in custody, Americans were able to obtain the return of American Major General Charles Lee, who’d been captured at the end of 1776.
Prisoner exchanges were common during the American Revolution. Typically, the two armies would exchange officers of roughly equal rank. This system didn’t work out too well for Lee. When he was captured, he was second only to Washington in the American army. Who could Americans exchange for him? None of the British prisoners of war had such a high rank.
Fortunately for Lee, Major William Barton of Rhode Island had a plan. He would kidnap someone, then use that person in an exchange. His target? Major General Richard Prescott, who was in charge of the British troops then occupying portions of Rhode Island. Barton had received unexpected intel about Prescott’s location and weaknesses in its defense.
Interestingly, Prescott had been warned of these weaknesses. He “was frequently told of the impropriety of his situation, but despised advice,” according to one British officer.
Few men knew of Barton’s plan during its initial phases. In early July, he made an appeal to the 1st Rhode Island regiment for help. Even then, Barton gave few details except to say that he needed help with “an enterprise against the enemy.”
The entire regiment stepped forward to volunteer.
Close to 50 men joined Barton for the mission on July 4. They were headed for Bristol. Once there, Barton finally told his men the plan: They were going to kidnap General Prescott from a farmhouse where he was staying—and they would take this daring action under the noses of more than 3,000 British soldiers! The men were “surprised,” but they “readily consented to what [Barton] had proposed.”
The American spirit was born early, wasn’t it?!
The party left late on July 10, rowing in complete silence, so as not to be detected. Once ashore, Barton’s men disembarked and divided into five groups: three were to go to the farmhouse, one was to guard the road, and the final group was on alert to deal with unanticipated problems.
As the story goes, a sentinel detected the groups that were approaching the farmhouse. He called out to them, but Barton answered that they were “Friends.” The sentinel demanded a countersign. Barton responded: “We have no countersign to give; have you seen any deserters tonight?” At this, the Americans quickly seized the sentinel.
Just before midnight, Barton and his men simultaneously stormed all three farmhouse entrances. Barton demanded that Prescott be turned over immediately, or the farmhouse would be burned to the ground. The entire episode took about 7 minutes. One British soldier escaped and ran for help, but he could not raise an alarm in time.
In the meantime, the Americans raced back to the boats with their prisoner in tow. By the time an alarm was raised, Barton’s party was already leaving. Americans had escaped with their prize! It was the second time that Prescott was captured during the Revolution.
George Washington was thrilled. He wrote: “This is among the finest partizan exploits that have taken place in the course of the war on either side. It discovers so intrepid and enterprising a spirit as does the greatest honor to those who undertook and effected it.”
Yes! “Intrepid” and “enterprising”! THAT is the American spirit.
For more on this Revolutionary War special operation, I recommend this book,
which is cited in the text: Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture
Generals Charles Lee and Richard Prescott