by John Williams Haley

A pause on the road to war.

This article was originally published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institution for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), February 8, 1932. The same year it was included with three other articles in an illustrated booklet entitled George Washington and Rhode Island, presented by the State Education Service. The texts were reprinted once again as a single chapter in The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Volume III (1939).

Nicholas Cooke was governor of Rhode Island at the time of Washington's second visit. Detail of painting, Rhode Island State House.

George Washington's second visit to Rhode Island was in 1776, the most eventful year of the century for the colonies, and twenty years had elapsed since the young Virginia colonel journeyed through Newport and possibly Providence on his way to Boston to discuss a matter with General William Shirley, then commander-in-chief of His Majesty's forces in America. Many things had transpired in the life of Washington during the two decades between his first and second visit. Through his fifteen years in the House of Burgesses his opinions were solidifying into fixed standards and settled convictions that were to hold him fast, and keep him true to the defense of the principles of representative government for the colonies. He had felt the spell of Patrick Henry's ringing challenge to the spirit of free-born Englishmen: "If this be treason, make the most of it—Give me liberty or give me death."

He had absorbed the ideals that prompted the protests, petitions, debates, and discussions, had a voice in the Resolves, in the denunciations of the Stamp Act and the Port Bill, and the call for a General Congress of the American Colonies to which he was a delegate. George Washington's power and personality must have been marked in his Congress, since Patrick Henry, on being asked to name the greatest man in the Congress, replied, "If you speak of eloquence, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina is by far the greatest orator; but if you speak of solid information and sound judgment, Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on the floor." In the Virginia Convention some time before, Washington had expressed his stand on the closing of Boston, thus: "I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston."

On April 19, 1775, Major Pitcairn of the British Army fired upon the American militia assembled on Lexington Common, shouting, "Disperse, ye rebels," and the American Revolution started. One of the first steps of the new Congress was to adopt the army gathered in the vicinity of Boston, calling it the Continental Army to distinguish it from that of England which they called the Ministerial Army. It then became necessary to give that army a leader, a commander-in-chief to direct it. Several were ambitious for the post, but opinions varied. The name of George Washington was proposed for the honor and the nomination was ably supported by John Adams, who spoke in laudatory terms of the skill and experience of the Virginia colonel. On June 15, 1775, Washington was elected commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and the following day he accepted, delivering a brief address from his place in the assembly.

He set out for Boston immediately, and on the way there learned details of the battle of Bunker Hill. On July 3, 1775, he took command of the Continental Army, relieving General Artemas Ward, who temporarily directed the forces. He sent Colonel Henry Knox in mid-winter to Fort Ticonderoga to procure cannon and supplies, and these were transported to Dorchester Heights, near Boston, on oxen-drawn sleds. The fortifications at that point compelled General Howe to evacuate Boston and take his British troops to Halifax. This first score for the Americans in putting the enemy to flight was a bitter blow to British pride and a great encouragement to the patriots, and it placed the war on a different basis.

Leaving behind a valuable supply of cannon, small arms, powder and other military stores, the British departed from Boston on March 17, 1776, and it was generally expected that the American forces would march for New York. The Rhode Island General Assembly, at its March session, sent a communication to General Washington requesting that he dispatch some of his troops to or through Rhode Island, so that there would be armed forces present should the enemy decide to invade by way of the sea, perhaps through Newport. The colony had an opportunity to discuss this matter and others of equal importance directly with General Washington, for the following month he journeyed from Boston to Providence, where he was received and entertained in a manner befitting his exalted position in the hearts and minds of his countrymen.

Governor Cooke of Rhode Island heard through Nathanael Greene that Washington contemplated visiting Providence and, on April 4, 1776, sent a note to the General welcoming him to Rhode Island and advised that accommodations in a private home had been provided for himself and his official party. On the following day, Friday, the whole town turned out en masse to welcome the man whom they prayed would lead them to victory in the struggle for independence. General Washington's route from Boston brought him through Dedham, Wrentham, Attleboro, and Pawtucket; therefore, a great procession of dignitaries and the general populace went out to meet him and his suite, and they awaited his appearance in the vicinity of the Sayles Tavern which is still standing on the east side of North Main Street near the Providence-Pawtucket city line. This tavern is now called the Pidge House; it was for many years the regular stopping place for the New York to Boston stages, and it is reputed to be the oldest house in Rhode Island.

The colorful assemblage that patiently anticipated the approach of Washington on that pleasant spring day included the local company of cadets under the command of Colonel Nightingale, and the company of light infantry under the command of Colonel Mathewson, both units being in their dress uniforms. Colonel Hitchcock's and Colonel Little's regiments under the command of Brigadier General Nathanael Greene were also ordered to march out and join the parade of honor, and the latter contingent met General Washington on his way into Providence. Then a procession was formed which lined up in the following order: Colonel Little's regiment, the company of light infantry, the cadets, the governor of the colony at whose right hand rode the distinguished visitor. Then followed a number of citizens on horseback, and in this order they proceeded into town and to the residence of Stephen Hopkins where Washington was to be entertained. The Hopkins home is still standing today, although it has been moved from its original site on South Main Street to its present location at the corner of Benefit and Hopkins Streets, in the shadow of the courthouse.

Stephen Hopkins was out of town when Washington came to Rhode Island on this visit. He was then attending, as a delegate from Rhode Island, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and thus it became the duty of Ruth, the step-daughter and also the daughter-in-law of Hopkins, to entertain the prominent guest. Times have changed but little since then. All the neighbors excitedly offered Ruth their assistance and freely tendered their services in anticipation of the great responsibility with which she was to be confronted. Friends and relatives alike offered the loan of China, glassware, table linen and other household articles, but Ruth appeared the least perturbed of all concerning the hospitality which the Hopkins home could offer. The house was small, the servants few, and Mr. Hopkins lived in a very plain and humble way. Therefore Ruth proudly refused all these well-meant proffers with the remark that "What was good enough for her father was good enough for General Washington."

People came from everywhere to catch a glimpse of General Washington. When the procession passed through the streets of the town, crowds of men, women and children cheered him, and all activity ceased in his honor. An old account of the occasion reads, "The houses through the street were full of women, the eminences covered with men." The balance of the day was probably taken up with receptions and private conferences with the governor, General Greene, and others in official capacities, and there is no documentary evidence to disprove the fact that he was thoroughly satisfied with the hospitality and home comforts afforded him under the capable direction of the hostess at the Hopkins house.

On the next day, Saturday, the guest of honor and several other officers of the Continental Army were entertained at an elaborate reception held in Hacker's Hall, where many speeches were made, compliments exchanged, and a number of patriotic toasts were drunk. This entertainment was provided by "The Gentlemen of the Town," and the affair was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant ever arranged in the history of the town up to that time. Hacker's Hall stood on the east side of South Main Street, between what are now Power and Planet Streets, and the structure was completely destroyed by fire in January 1801. Two of the actual candlesticks used to illuminate the reception hall on that historic occasion are today priceless treasures in the possession of the Rhode Island Historical Society. Washington remained in Providence until the following day, Sunday, and then departed for New York, visiting Norwich and New London on the way.

While in Providence it is evident that he conferred with Governor Cooke and the Council, since a letter to Washington from the Governor and dated April 23, 1776, says: "When I had the pleasure of seeing you here I laid before you very fully the distressed situation of the colony." Washington wrote to the president of Congress from New York on April 15, 1776, and stated: "On the 4th instant I set out from Cambridge, and arrived here on Saturday last. I came through Providence, Norwich, and New London, in order to see and expediate the embarkation of troops."

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John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes

According to Washington's Travels in New England by Charles Eugene Claghorn III, based on Washington's diaries, writings, and expense accounts, Washington was accompanied on his second trip to Rhode Island by General Horatio Gates and Washington's stepson, John Parke Custis, and his wife, Nelly. They dined at the home of Governor Nicholas Cooke on the evening of April 5, and on the sixth, only Washington and Gates are listed as having been present for the dinner at Hacker's Hall.

A note from Washington, sent on the morning of the sixth to Governor Cooke, probably refers to the Hacker's Hall event: "General Washington's Compliments to Governor Cooke and the Gentlemen of Providence, and acquaints them that he intended to have set out on his Journey this forenoon, had he not been prevented by their polite invitation which he will do himself the honor to accept."

The Mr. Rutledge who is mentioned is either John Rutledge (1739-1800) or his brother, Edward (1749-1800). Both were South Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress, and both were signers of the Declaration of Independence.

It is believed that Sayles Tavern (also known as Pidge House or Pidge Tavern) was built in 1641 and was located on the Pawtucket Road (now North Main Street) on the current Providence/Pawtucket line. According to History of Providence County, Rhode Island, edited by Richard M. Bayles (1891), "One John Foster was the possible owner, and after him came John Morey and Philip Esten (1769) and Jeremiah Sayles. From the latter the estate passed to his daughter, who was the wife of Ira Pidge, from whom the tavern seems to have derived its permanent name, although it is also known as the Jeremiah Sayles Tavern. James S. Pidge, a son, inherited it and conducted it. The tavern is particularly famed as having been the headquarters of Lafayette in Sayles' time, being situated hard by the 'French camping grounds'." A marker at the corner of Summit Avenue and Brewster Street, which can still be seen today, marks the location of these grounds.

Sayles Tavern is mentioned, in a letter from Joseph Curwin to Simon Orne, in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, as a landmark on the way from Salem, Massachusetts, to Providence.

Pidge House was demolished in the late 1960s. When he was a boy, according to vcrail.com, Pidge descendant Charles Clegg's "family moved to Providence, RI, to Pidge House located on North Main Street. The structure contained many false walls and secret passageways that Charles spent his idle time exploring. In the late 1960s Chuck was appalled when an unsentimental Uncle had the house razed to accommodate his expanding business. When learning of this affront to his beloved childhood home, Chuck declared the act, 'a damn shame!'"

Colonel Nightingale is probably Joseph Nightingale (1747-1797), a successful merchant in the China trade. He was one of eight merchants who signed a complaint against Lieutenant William Dudingston, captain of the Gaspee, after the Fortune, a Greene family ship, was seized as a smuggler in 1772. In 1791, he built the largest wood frame Federal-style mansion in Providence, the Nightingale Brown House.

We are so far unable to determine the identity of Colonel Mathewson.

Colonel Hitchcock is probably Daniel Hitchcock (1740-1777), a Providence lawyer. It's considered possible that he was one of the raiders who was present at the burning of the Gaspee on June 9, 1772, although he afterward denied it in a letter to the Gaspee Commission of Inquiry. In 1776 he was in command of the 11th Rhode Island Infantry. He died on January 13, 1777, shortly after the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey, of "peripneumony."

Colonel Little may have been Moses Little (1724-1798), who in 1776 was in command of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry.

Ruth Hopkins (1746–1812) was the daughter of Stephen Hopkins' second wife, Ann Smith, and she married Stephen's son, George. She would have been thirty years old at the time of Washington's second visit. She is buried in the Friend's Burial Ground on Smithfield Avenue in Lincoln. George was a sea captain who sailed out of Providence one day and was never heard from again.

The fire that destroyed Hacker's Hall on January 21, 1801, was known as The Great Fire. According to The Providence Directory (1844), "It commenced about ten o'clock, A.M., in John Corlis's store, rear of South Main-street, between Planet and Power-streets, and continued through the day. More than thirty buildings were destroyed, amongst which were some handsome dwellings and large stores. Hacker's Hall was one of the victims of the devouring element. This had, for many years, been occupied as a school room, but had, for a generation, then passed away, been the principal dancing hall or assembly room for the gay and fashionable men and women of Providence, and was elegantly finished with fluted pilasters and carved cornices. The damage by this fire was estimated at $300,000, or more, and it was then, and now is, designated as the Great Fire. On rebuilding, South Main-street was very considerably widened and improved, from Planet-street, to some distance south."

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This article last edited January 30, 2007

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