Politics and Military

British General Richard Prescott Gets Kidnapped from his R.I. Summer Home

In July of 1777, British general Richard Prescott was in charge of the troops occupying Newport, R.I. But unsatisfied with his house in the city, he also took over a farm in Middletown, R.I.

Prescott Farm in Middletown, R.I.

Richard Prescott

Prescott had no use for the rebels who had risen up against Britain, and perhaps too little respect for their abilities. He only took a tiny contingent of sentries with him to the farm. He stayed there with just a light guard — a practice that would earn him criticism back home very soon.

The Rhode Island militia’s major William Barton, stationed in Tiverton, learned about Richard Prescott’s lightly guarded summer home. An American soldier held by the British had managed to escape, and he revealed Prescott’s whereabouts. A deserter confirmed the intelligence.

An idea began taking shape in Barton’s mind. With Newport firmly under British control and the waters surrounding the peninsula thick with British ships, it would have been foolhardy to attempt to steal Prescott from the city. But his farm residence was a different matter.

Tit for Tat?

The British had embarrassed the patriots earlier that year when they captured Gen. Charles Lee upstairs at a tavern in New Jersey. Apparently his captors discovered him in dubious circumstances. The thought of returning the favor by swiping Prescott appealed to William Barton.

William Barton

Barton recruited a band of more than 30 men. The skills he needed most were a knowledge of the Newport peninsula and experience rowing in small boats. With his men selected, he began discreetly training, drilling them in small boats until he knew he had an able crew. On July 5, the small group left Tiverton. Two days later, the long boats proceeded to Warwick.

The details of the mission had only been completely explained to the men two days earlier. On the night of July 9, the weather conditions were right for their launch.

Causing barely a ripple, the party rowed their boats down the bay and landed near the farm where Richard Prescott stayed. None of the ships in the bay spotted them. After only a minor scuffle with a sentry, the men confronted Richard Prescott in his bedroom. Then they stole back into the night, bringing the general with them.

Richard Prescott, Captive

By the time British sentries raised an alarm, the boats had returned to the water. The trip back to Warwick Neck took more than six hours. Barton, in telling the story, recalled that Prescott had concerns about his treatment.  The party that captured him included a man who the general had sentenced to 300 lashes for failing to assist the British in moving a cannon.

Barton assured him, however, that he would be treated well, according to the custom of the times. Though Prescott had been hustled onto the boat with only slippers and limited clothing, it wasn’t long after he landed that a boat arrived under a flag of truce carrying the general’s clothing, wigs and perfumes.

As news of the capture spread, crowds gathered to gawp as Prescott was brought by coach to Providence and from there to Connecticut. He was eventually exchanged for General Lee, still cooling his heels in British custody.

This story was updated in 2021.

Images: Prescott Farm By The original uploader was Swampyank at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6189760.

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