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General Prescott and the Yankee Boy by Benson J. Lossing


General Prescott, commanding the British forces on Rhode Island in 1777, was a petty tyrant, imperious, irascible, and cruel. He would command citizens of Newport who met him on the streets to take off their hats in deference to him, and if not obeyed, he would knock them off with his cane. If he saw a group of citizens talking together, he would shake his cane at them, and shout, "Disperse, you rebels!" For slight offenses citizens were imprisoned and otherwise ill-treated. This unworthy conduct made the people despise and hate him. His tyranny became unbearable.

Prescott's summer quarters were at Mr. Overing's house, on the borders of Narragansett Bay, a few miles from Newport. On a warm but showery night in July, 1777, Lieutenant-Colonel Barton, with a few resolute men, went down the bay from Providence, in a whale-boat, landed near Prescott's quarters at about midnight, secured the sentinels, entered the house, and ascended to the door of his bedroom in the second story. It was locked. A stout colored man who accompanied Barton, making a battering-ram of his head, burst open the door. The General, in affright, sprang from his bed, but was instantly seized, and without being allowed to dress himself, was conveyed to the boat, and taken quickly across the bay to Warwick. Thence he was sent, under guard, to Washington's head-quarters in New Jersey.

In the spring of 1778 Prescott was exchanged for General Charles Lee, and returned to Rhode Island. Soon afterward the British Admiral invited the General to dine with him and his officers on board his ship, then lying in front of Newport. Martial law yet prevailed on the Island, and men and boys were frequently sent by the authorities on shore to be confined in the ship as a punishment for slight offenses. There were several on board at that time.

After dinner the free use of wine made the company hilarious, and toasts and songs were frequently called for. A lieutenant remarked to the Admiral, "There is a Yankee lad confined below who can shame any of us in singing."

"Bring him up," said the Admiral.

"Yes, bring him up," said Prescott.

The boy was brought into the cabin. He was pale and slender, and about thirteen years of age. Abashed by the presence of great officers, with their glittering uniforms, he timidly approached, when the Admiral, seeing his embarrassment, spoke kindly to him, and asked him to sing a song.

"I can't sing any but Yankee songs," said the trembling boy.

"Come, my little fellow, don't be afraid," said the Admiral. "Sing one of your Yankee songs—any one you can recollect."

The boy still hesitated, when the brutal Prescott, who was a stranger to the lad, roared out,

"Give us a song, you little rebel, or I'll give you a dozen lashes."

This cruel salutation was innocently met most severely by the child, when, encouraged by kind words from the Admiral, he sang, with a sweet voice and modest manner, the following ballad, composed by a sailor of Newport:

"Twas on a dark and stormy night—
The wind and waves did roar—
Bold Barton then, with twenty men,
Went down upon the shore.

"And in a whale-boat they set off
To Rhode Island fair,
To catch a redcoat General
Who then resided there.

"Through British fleets and guard-boats strong
They held their dangerous way,
Till they arrived unto their port,
And then did not delay.

"A tawny son of Afric's race
Them through the ravine led,
And entering then the Overing house,
They found him in his bed.

"But to get in they had no means
Except poor Cuffee's head,
Who beat the door down, then rushed in,
And seized him in his bed.

"Stop! let me put my clothing on!"
The General then did pray;
'Your clothing, massa, I will take;
For dress we can not stay.'

"Then through rye stubble him they led,
With shoes and clothing none,
And placed him in their boat quite snug,
And from the shore were gone.

"Soon the alarm was sounded loud:
'The Yankees they have come,
And stolen Prescott from his bed,
And him have carried hum.'

"The drums were beat, sky-rockets flew,
The soldiers shouldered arms,
And marched around the grounds they knew,
Filled with most dire alarms.

"But through the fleet with muffled oars
They held their devious way,
And landed him on 'Gansett shores,
Where Britons held no sway.

"When unto land the captors came,
Where rescue there was none,
'A bold push this,' the General cried;
'Of prisoners I am one.'"

The boy was frequently interrupted by roars of laughter at Prescott's expense, which strengthened the child's nerves and voice; and when he had concluded his song, "I thought," wrote a gentleman who was present, "the deck would go through with the stamping." General Prescott joined heartily in the merriment produced by the song, and thrusting his hand into his pocket, he pulled out a coin, and handed it to the boy, saying,

"Here, you young dog, is a guinea for you."

The boy was set at liberty the next morning, and sent ashore.