Kentish Guards history: Formation and the Revolutionary War


After the end of the Seven Years´s War in 1763, tension began to build between the British authorities and people living in British colonies in continental North America. Colonial rules regarding trade and taxation were especially tense subjects, and the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts passed in 1767 and 1768 made the situation worse. Opposition against the British authorities resulted in events such as the 1770 Boston Massacre and the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

In 1774, the British Parliament responded by passing a series of punitive laws meant to punish the Massachusetts colonists for their defiance. The acts took away self-governance and other rights that Massachusetts had enjoyed since its founding, and this triggered opposition not just in Massachusetts but in all the Thirteen Colonies.

On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress drafted a Petition to the King and organized a boycott of British goods.

Formation of the Kentish Guards

On September 24, 1774, the Kentish Guards were formed to protect East Greenwich from those who were loyal to the British Crown. East Greenwich is a town in Kent County, Rhose Island, founded in 1677 and named after Greenwich in England, UK.

On October 29, 1774, the Kentish Guards were chartered by the Colonial Assembly as an elite militia.

Understanding the context

Back in the early 1770s, pretty much every male East Greenwich resident between the ages 18 and 45 were considered a member of the local militia – ready to protect the town if need be. It was a rather casual organization, however, and several of the local merchants realized that in order to properly protect the town they would need to establish a more disciplined unit.

In 1774, the colony of Rhode Island had broke new ground by having a charter granted by its Colonial Assembly to a militia company being formed in East Greenwich, Kent County. Previously, militias had been chartered by either the British monarch or the British parliament, but the increasingly tense relationship between the British rulers and the American colonists had changed the dynamic. Rhode Island could take dangerous this step since the colony had a totally locally elected government. This made them different from the nearby colony of Massachusetts, who had a Royal Governer, appointed by the British king.

After a first tentative meeting on September 24, 1774, a second and more formal meeting for the Kentish Guards followed at Arnold´s Tavern on October 16. (Today, the spot where this tavern used to be is occupied by Greenwich Hotel.) On October 29, the Kentish Guards received their charter from the Colonial Assembly. The first Commander for the Kentish Guards was James Varnum.

As mentioned above, the Kentish Guards were formed to create a highly disciplined unit – an elite militia company. As a part of this, the admission requirements were set high. Among other things, each member who wished to be voted in was required to have sufficient funds for dues and pay for their own uniform and equipment.

One of the founders of the Kentish Guards was the Rhode Island-native Nathanel Greene, who would later become one of the most respected generals under Washington in the Revolutionary War. When the Kentish Guards militia was formed, Greene had no military experience, but he had studied a lot of litterature written by skilled military leaders. Due to a limp from childhood, Greene was not voted in as an officer of the Kentish Guards, since the physical requirements were so high. There were even talk that his limp would prevent him from being voted in as en enlisted member. His friend James Vernum encouraged him to pursue a position as enlisted member of the Guards depsite his limp, and he was accepted. Once in the Guards, he proved to be a skilled and valued member of the militia. Among other things, he managed to convince a British Drill Sergeant in Boston to desert, and train the Kentish Guards in proper military drill.

Before and during the Revolutionary War

The Kentish Guards used the Kent County Court as their armory, and were present when the Rhode Island Navy was enacted there in 1775. They were also present at the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, and General Washington remarked that the Kentish Guards were exceedingly well trained, equipped and disciplined. Eventually, 35 men from the Kentish Guards would serve as officers in the Continental Army, including Major General Nathanael Greene – also known as “Savior of the South”.

Fort Daniel

To protect Warwick Bay in Kent County from naval attacks, Fort Daniel was built at the entrance to Greenwich Cove in Cowesett, and nine cannons were placed there.

The British invasion of Newport

Until the British invasion of Newport, Rhode Island, the Kentish Guards had rotated state duty with other militia companies. The invasion changed things, and from then on the Kentish Guards were on continuous duty from May 1, 1776 to June 1, 1781.

Patrolling the coast

The Kentish Guards patrolled Warwick Neck, Prudence Island, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton, Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport. In the summer of 1776, they re-captured a ship that had been previously taken by the British Navy, and during this struggle, Edward Pearce of the Kentish Guards were shot in the arm. The injury was so serious, the arm had to be amputated.


The Kentish Guards were responsible for defending East Greenwich in 1777 and 1778, and they constantly kept a detachment at Fort Daniel. Several times, they had to fight off attacks against Greenwich Bay, e.g. against the Potowomut peninsula, Warwick Neck, and Quidnessett, and sometimes also against Wickford in the south.

In August 1778, the Kentish Guards Commander Colonel Richard Fry took command of a regiment of Independent Militia Companies at the Battle of Rhode Island in Portsmouth and Middletown.

The 1779 attack on Conanicut Island

In the summer of 1779, 26 members of the Kentish Guard successfully carried out a surprise attack on Conanicut Island and destroyed a British artillery battery.

The British leaves Newport in 1779

The British forces left Newport in November 1779, after which it became the responsibility of the Kentish Guards to protect Sachuest Beach as it was feared that the British might try to return through that route.

In 1780 and 1781, the Kentish Guards were sent to Newport to support the French Army there, and they were present when General Washington visited.

The aftermath of the Revolutionary War

Many militia companies were disbanded (or turned into volunteer fire departments) after the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, but the Kentish Guards continued to function as a militia responsible for defending the local area.