By Thomas D'Agostino
During the American Revolution, the British employed German mercenaries to assist them in battle. These fearless Hessian soldiers were well-trained crack shots and sided with the English in large numbers. The Americans were well aware of the expert training the Hessians received and were ready for their worst.
On August 29, 1778, a battle was fought in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The skirmish was the largest battle of the Revolution in New England, and, according to Lafayette, the action of the Americans was "the best fought action of the war." Portsmouth's Historic and Architectural Resource report states:
"British troops, supported by three Hessian regiments, marched against the American troops at the north end of Aquidneck Island under the command of General John Sullivan. The first fighting occurred on Union Street and in nearby fields, but the Americans withdrew to the north, took up defensive positions at Butts Hill and Lehigh Hill and the major battle took place in a broad valley between Lehigh Hill to the north and Almy Hill and Turkey Hill to the south. Two assaults upon Lehigh Hill by the British and Hessians were repulsed by the Americans. A Colonial Black Regiment drove back three more Hessian attacks. When the battle ended, by midafternoon, the enemy had lost many men while General Sullivan’s forces suffered fewer casualties."
It is an important part of our heritage because African -American soldiers, part of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, successfully counteracted several furious Hessian charges. The fight took place near Barker's Brook. The number of dead was so much so that the brook ran red with blood for several days, thus being renamed "Barker's Bloody Brook."
Although the Hessian soldiers fought valiantly, they still lost thirty to sixty men. Another account stated several hundred lost. The exact number varies with the person recounting the incident. The dead were buried in a large pit beside a willow tree. The tree is long gone but the large depression in the ground still marks where the remains of the soldiers are said to repose. There bones may be at rest, but their souls are not.
On foggy nights the ghosts of the soldiers rise from their graves and solemnly march toward the western skies. The exact location of the grave is lost to antiquity. Some claim it is on the Abby grounds near Barker's Brook where the Carnegie Golf Course now sits. A report from the Providence Journal Almanac written over one hundred years ago places the Hessian Hole in the Lehigh State Picnic Grove just off Route 114. A Works Progress and Administration Guide To Rhode Island And Massachusetts places the hole somewhere closer to Route 114.
The exact location, if it is any one of these three, are within close proximity of each other so there is no need to worry about witnessing the spectral soldiers making their eternal march. During the writing of our book, Haunted Rhode Island, Arlene and I attempted to locate the exact spot of the Hessian Hole. The area has obviously changed over the centuries, making it difficult to pinpoint the site. The only way to find it would be to hold a vigil on a foggy night and wait for the soldiers to rise from their grave.
If you are in the area and happen to get caught up in a fog, look for the picnic area and golf course, you just may see a ghostly squad of tall soldiers rising from the ground in an attempt to finish the mission they were paid to assist in.