Butts Hill Fort is the largest remaining Revolutionary War fortification in southeastern New England. In 1776, when the Americans built a small battery there, the area was also known as Windmill Hill after a succession of mills, beginning in 1668, that took advantage of the high and windy location. In December of 1776, British and Hessian troops occupied the existing fort. In September of 1777, British General Robert Pigot ordered the residents of Portsmouth to aid in the construction of earthworks, and by December the British had completed barracks for 200 men just south of Butts Hill Fort.
During the summer of 1778, American troops began massing at Fort Barton in Tiverton, and on July 26, the British received word that a fleet of French ships had sailed from New York and was likely headed for Rhode Island to reinforce the Americans. In response, the British army abandoned its fortifications in the northern portions of the island and began to reinforce defensive lines around Newport.
By August 11, American troops were camped around Butts Hill, and on August 15, they moved south toward Newport. The American dug trenches opposite the British defenses and the two sides exchanged cannon fire while the Americans awaited the expected arrival of French reinforcements. After more than a week of cannonading, the Americans received news that the French fleet had sailed to Boston to make repairs inflicted by a storm, and that the British fleet was returning.
On August 28, 1778, the American forces began an orderly retreat, but were soon pursued by the British. During the ensuing Battle of Rhode Island, the largest military engagement of the war within the former colony, Butts Hill Fort served as the American headquarters. From its heights, American commanders could easily see the battlefield between Butts Hill, Quaker Hill, and Turkey Hill.
In the early morning hours of August 31, the last members of the American army left Aquidneck Island. Fort Butts had protected the initial retreat, and the guns of Fort Barton in Tiverton and a battery on Gould Island in the Sakonnet River protected the troops as they crossed to the mainland. The Americans held Butts Hill Fort for only seventeen days in 1778. Despite that short time, the earthwork had been the center of the American line during the Battle of Rhode Island. When the British abandoned Rhode Island in October 1779, the Americans again occupied Fort Butts, and in the summer of 1780 they connected the redoubt and the former British barracks into one structure.
Following the war, Butts Hill Fort remained virtually intact, largely due to the land’s unsuitability for farming. A great deal of the structure remained in 1848 when Benson Lossing visited Butts Hill Fort and made a sketch of the battle ground. However, by 1907 the fort and the surrounding property had been platted for 200 house lots. Local preservationists worked to save the earthwork, and in 1923 the fort opened as a park with a series of tablets to mark the lines of the fortification. Unfortunately, by 1934 the earthwork at Butts Hill was overgrown with low vegetation and trees. By 1968, the State of Rhode Island had taken possession of the fort and conveyed it to the town of Portsmouth.
Today the Butts Hill Fort earthworks are overgrown and abandoned, and most of the earlier signage has disappeared, although the main granite marker at the entrance to the Fort remains. Although the trees and heavy undergrowth that cover the earthwork provide some protection from vandalism, this vegetation is also a major threat to the physical integrity of the structure and impedes the ability to monitor the site.
Fortunately, the fort's dramatic features are clearly identifiable, and because of its importance in the Battle of Rhode Island, Butts Hill Fort is the only Revolutionary War fort in Rhode Island named a National Historic Landmark. The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), in partnership with the Town of Portsmouth, plans to create an interpretive center to deter further damage to Rhode Island's most important Revolutionary War site.