Butting in the Revolutionary War

For Independence Day, I thought the following account would be an appropriate choice. It is an excerpt from a butting article I am working on (I have collected dozens of these types of accounts) that took place during the Revolutionary War. Butting, in its broadest sense, was headbutting. It was predominantly practiced by African-Americans, and was, I argue, practiced as play, sport, spectacle, and combat.

People were not the only participants in butting encounters; both animals and certain inanimate objects ended up on the business end of butting heads. Butting’s closest brush with fame came with the Revolutionary War heroics of slave Jack Sisson. On the night of July 9, 1777, a daring raid, consisting of an all-volunteer commando or forty-one men, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Barton, made its way in whaling boats through enemy waters to land on the northern end of Rhode Island. The group proceeded to the Overing House, which British Major General Richard Prescott used as his headquarters, and subdued the sentry at the gate.

Accounts differ, but either the front door or the general’s bedroom door was locked and, on the second try, the smallish Sisson butted through the door panel with his head and the door was opened. The general was quickly captured and rushed out of the house in a state of undress. The group captured the general, his aide-de-camp, and the sentry, and slipped back to their own lines. (Field, Edward (ed.). State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History, Vol I)

The ignominious elements of Prescott’s capture were immortalized in a ballad that circulated after the affair:

A tawney 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 breeches on,
The general then did pray.
Your breeches, massa, I will take,
For dress we cannot stay.

(Kaplan, Sydney. Black Presence in Era of American Revolution).

Unfortunately for Sisson, the one thing he continued to regret, according to Barton biographer Catherine Williams, was that his name never appeared in any accounts of the action. (Kaplan). As well as being unnamed, he has been variously called Jack Sisson, Tack Sisson, Prince, Quaco (a different person altogether), and as seen in the ballad above, Cuffee.

Barton’s own account neglected mention of the butting completely, but Sisson’s obituary finally included an account of the incident. (Providence Gazette, November 3, 1821).

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