The three-year occupation of Rhode Island by British forces is largely overlooked in histories of the war because it did not have any obvious effect on the overall course of the conflict. An abortive Anglo-French attempt to retake the island sometimes gets attention because it culminated in the 29 August 1778 battle that was among the largest of the war in terms of numbers of troops involved. Otherwise one could easily get the impression that Rhode Island was a sleepy backwater bypassed by the war raging in other regions.
For the soldiers serving in the Rhode Island garrison, this was hardly the case. The British, German and Loyalist soldiers on the island were separated from their adversaries by waterways that were quite narrow in some places, and the sea-savvy New England soldiers manning the mainland posts were able to make frequent night time raids on the island. The active petit guerre caused frequent alarms and small engagements that forced the garrison to be in a constant state of vigilance.
On 21 February 1777, an American galley called the Spitfire supported a party of American troops that landed on the island, the second landing that week. The Spitfire exchanged fire with British artillery for some six hours before drawing away heavily damaged. The raiders secured a quantity of oats and hay, forage that sounds insignificant but which was important for the British garrison that was unable to receive provisions from mainland farms.
Three weeks later on the night of 13-14 March, the Spitfire was passing through the narrows at Bristol Ferry, today the site of the Mount Hope Bridge. Movements like these were usually done at nice to minimize the danger of detection by British sentries, but nighttime navigation was itself hazardous. The Spitfire ran aground. British artillery crews, supported by soldiers on temporary service with the gunners, were highly adept at rapid deployment of their field artillery pieces and had strategically positioned them where they could be moved to repel landings. The immobilized American galley presented an excellent opportunity to use this capability, and field pieces were moved to the shore to engage the Spitfire.
Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, the crew of the galley abandoned it and made for the safety of the Bristol shore. Although the vessel was now defenseless against the British artillery, the solid iron ball and shot fired by these guns could damage the ship but not destroy it completely. Being aground already, it could not be sunk. It was essential to deprive the Americans of a valuable hull that could be refitted, so complete destruction was essential. The galley had to be burned.
Rather than wait for boats to be brought to the scene (boats were scare along the shoreline, because they could too easily be used for clandestine activities), a British private soldier took action. Henry Pickles went into the water and swam to the galley. The exact location of the grounded vessel is not known, but this swim could have been as much as a half-mile in an area with significant currents. We also do not know whether Pickles set fire to the galley himself, or brought a line that was used to haul it closer to the British shore. Either way, the Spitfire was consumed by fire and completely destroyed.
The next day, general orders given to the garrison read as follows:
Lord Percy thanks Captain Brady and the British Artillery that destroyed the Rebel Galley yesterday. He also desires that Henry Pickles, Private soldier in his Majestys 43d Regiment may be informed that he is extreamly pleased with his spirited conduct, in Swiming on Board the Galley
For a soldier to be named in orders promulgated to the entire garrison was extremely unusual. It did not, however, mean that Henry Pickles' was destined for a remarkable future in the army; in fact, we know very little more about him except what the muster rolls tell us.
He was transferred to the light infantry company of the 43rd Regiment at the end of 1777, which shows that he was a spirited and active soldier. For reasons unknown, he was soon transferred back to the battalion, so soon that he never actually appears on the rolls of the light company. This could have been for health reasons, or because the battalion wished to retain him for some reason (at this time, the light infantry company was in Philadelphia while the battalion was in Rhode Island). At the end of 1779, after Rhode Island was evacuated and the entirety of the 43rd Regiment was in the New York area, Pickles was again transferred to the light infantry. This assignment took him on several expeditions to the southward including the siege of Charleston, South Carolina and the campaign led by Benedict Arnold around Petersburg, Virginia. It also took him to Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 where he became a prisoner of war along with the rest of the British forces under General Cornwallis.
The final annotation concerning Henry Pickles is deceptive; he is listed as having deserted on 1 July 1783. A peace treaty had been signed, and prisoners of war were repatriated. British prisoners were given the opportunity to join the British garrison in New York, but many failed to arrive. As an administrative expedient, all of the prisoners whose fate was unknown were written off on the muster rolls as deserters. Henry Pickles may have settled in America, he may died in captivity or as a escapee, or he could have made his way to a British garrison in Canada or the West Indies and joined another regiment without this information having made its way back to New York. The actual fate of this soldier who had one day of distinction remains unknown.