Manuscript Collection: Mrs. Almy's Account

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 3:39pm -- mfarias

On this same weekend at the end of the summer of 1778, Mrs. Mary Almy (1735-1808) set down her own account of the cannonading of the French Fleet led by the Comte De’Estaing (1729-1794) for her husband, Captain Benjamin Almy (1724-1818). The top of the first page, which bears her greeting and introduction to the contents, reads: “Newport September 2, 1778.” Throughout the journal, Mrs. Almy takes her husband through the events of the assault that began on July 29, 1778 and lasted until August 24. At that time, the British had been occupying Newport for two years already, since the fall of 1776, and would remain there a year more, until October 1779.

 

Mrs. Almy's account of the cannonading of the French Fleet in Newport, 1778, 1878
Gift of Conrad C. Ellery, 1878 Aug 17. From the Collection of the Redwood Library.
 

 

From the beginning it is clear that there is a significant conflict of interests between the Almys; Mrs. Almy remained loyal to the crown during the war while Capt. Almy supported and joined the Revolution. Benjamin Almy volunteered in General John Sullivan's (1740-1795) Army and was away from Newport during the Battle of Rhode Island (1778). To keep him apprised of events happening at home, Mrs. Almy wrote him letters recording the events that happened as was “his desire and her own inclination.” This account discusses their differing loyalties from the onset:

“Once more my dear Mr. Almy, I am permitted to write you - great has been your disappointment and great has been my sorrow - grievous to me because it came from my friends - but I beg not to dispute at so great a distance… I am to give you an account of what passed during the siege, but first let me tell you it will be done with spirit - for my dislike to the Nation that you call your friends is the same as when you knew me - knowing there is no confidence to be placed in them; and I foresee that the whole will end as the maneuvers did in taking this Island, to the discredit of the Americans.”

 

Plan de Rhode Island, 1778. Gift of Mrs. James Laurens Van Alen.
From the Collection of the Redwood Library.

 

Her loyalty to England was clearly not kept a secret from her husband. Instead, it actively informs how she viewed the events of the siege. When ships were first seen in the distance on the morning of July 29th, those in town believed it to be the arrival of Lord Howe. Then, “one half hour more threw us in the greatest consternation, the word rang through the streets: it’s a French fleet!” As they dropped anchor, Mrs. Almy notes that they were “supposed to wait till the people of your side of the water were ready to attack the lower part of the island. Heavens, with what spirit the Army undertook the old Gallerys, with what amazing quickness did they throw up new ones.” The British in Newport prepared as best they could for the beginning of the attack by the French while the people worried and waited for what would happen, “trembling, crying, hiding, to take the true comfort of a trouble that had no remedy.” The preparations continued and while some eagerly awaited a chance to defend the city, Mrs. Almy “lay down earnestly praying that they would never come any nearer.”

 

Mrs. Almy's account of the cannonading of the French Fleet in Newport, 1778, 1878
Gift of Conrad C. Ellery, 1878 Aug 17. From the Collection of the Redwood Library.

 

As the attack officially began and continued through the days, the danger for Mrs. Almy and her children rose. There were days of great fear, days when they needed to seek shelter or were witness to horrors that “will never be quite out of [their] remembrance.” Following that line, written on August 22nd, Mrs. Almy wrote, “I quitted company and hid myself to mourn in silence for the wickedness of my country. Never was a heart more differently agitated than mine, some of my good friends in the front of the battle here and heaven only knows how many on the other side.” She did not ask anyone how Capt. Almy faired for fear of learning that he had been slain or imprisoned during battle. Fortunately for her, she did not have much longer to wait. When the danger ended on August 24, Capt. Almy had a friend let her know that he would be home the following Monday by daylight. The French had failed and the British were victorious.To this end, Mrs. Almy ends her missive with comfort for her husband:

“Oh! Mr. Almy, what a shocking disappointment to you - can you keep up your spirits - heaven I hope will support you - so positive, so assured of success - and remember in all your difficulties and trials of life - that when the all-wise disposer of human events thinks we have been sufficiently tried - then our patience in waiting will be amply repaid by a joyful meeting.”

 

Mrs. Almy's account of the cannonading of the French Fleet in Newport, 1778, 1878
Gift of Conrad C. Ellery, 1878 Aug 17. From the Collection of the Redwood Library.

 

This account was passed from Mrs. Almy to her eldest daughter Susannah Lightbourn (1765-1825) with a note: “Sukey for your life take care of this, let no other eyes peruse it but your and Mrs. Carr” (who was Mrs. Almy’s sister). Upon her death in 1825 it was given to Mrs. Katherine Ellery (1771-1863), her younger daughter, who then gave it to her own son, Conrad Ellery (1807-1884). In 1878, Mr. Ellery transcribed the account his grandmother had written for his grandfather and donated both it and the original to the Redwood Library, one hundred years after first being written. In his letter of donation, he notes the contrast between his grandparents: “He was ever a true, determined and positive patriot. She, a conscientious adherent for English government.” Yet their differences did not keep them apart and they were reunited and lived with to raise their eight children until the death of Mrs. Almy in 1808. To honor them and the history of Newport, Mr. Ellery presented this account to the Redwood Library for “further preservation for time to come” and here it still remains.