The Sound separated American logistical bases in Connecticut from British bases on Long Island. It provided 2 forms of contact between belligerents -- contraband trade and supply raids. The mercantile aspect developed out of shared needs, and became known as "London trading"; American agricultural produce was exchanged for British finished goods. A fleet of oared 30-foot boats operated along the length of the Connecticut coast. They regularly darted across the Sound loaded with provisions. In fact the trade became so endemic that it fostered a parasitic colony of privateers who plundered friend and foe alike.
The Sound was also an avenue by which to launch raids on supply bases. Almost as soon as the British established control on Long Island, they were subject to whaleboat warfare, as it came to be known. Ambrose Serle reported that in October a party of men from New London, Connecticut, seized cattle provisions and forage on Long Island. The number of sheep taken alone exceeded 17.000. The raids necessitated constant protection by guards and sentries. This threat of intervention kept the British from developing the resources of the largest territory in America under their possession.
Brig. Gen. William Tryon, the deposed governor of New York, probably suggested the plan to attack the American supply base at Danbury. The 1777 plan was conceived as a punitive raid, despite the British shortage of fodder and foodstuffs. Brig. Gen. James Agnew was assigned co-leader with Tryon of the expedition, but the command seems to have devolved upon Brig. Gen. William Erskine. Earlier that winter, Erskine had led a foraging expedition to New Jersey in which "he routed the rebels with great slaughter; he took no prisoners."
Twelve transports, a hospital ship, and some small craft embarked on April 22 with about 2,000 troops, 300 of them Loyalists. Simultaneously, a diversionary force of frigates sailed up the Hudson. The ships on the expedition to Danbury were under the command of Capt. Henry Duncan. They passed into Long Island Sound and anchored for the night about 10 miles past Hell Gate. For 2 days the troops waited out a headwind in discomfort aboard ship before they could proceed the remaining 30 miles. Their destination was Cedar Point, a position on the Connecticut Shore about 4 miles East of Norwalk and 8 miles west of Fairfield. They landed at 5:00 P.M. on April 25th at a stretch of beach which Duncan called "exceedingly unfavorable," but they quickly took possession of Compo Hill and Bennet's Rocks. In a light rain the supplies were brought ashore and by 11:00 P.M. the troops were on the march by the Reading Road to Danbury.
The British column reached Reading 12 hours later--a distance of 20 miles. Moving through the uneven terrain and the passes at Gilbertown and Jump Hill, they encountered only scattered resistance. The fatigued troops reach Danbury at 5:00 P.M. and drove off 150 Continentals who had been attempting to remove supplies. Seven patriot snipers stayed behind and opened fire from a house in town. Two companies of regulars charged and put the dwelling to the torch with the men inside. The high ground around the town was secured.
Before their departure early the next morning, the British destroyed 4,000 to 5,000 barrels of pork, beef, and flour, 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents among other supplies. Nineteen houses were burned. The British left by the western road towards Ridgefield.
Meanwhile, a force of 500 militia and 100 Continentals was hurrying towards Danbury under Brig. Gen. Gold Selleck Silliman. He was joined by Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold. With 400 of the troops they reached Ridgefield after a forced march at 11:00 A.M. and cut off the British line of advance. Brig. Gen. David Wooster took the balance of the Americans and charged the British rearguard. In what was termed "smart skirmishing" near Ridgefield. Wooster was mortally wounded. Arnold held the front for about an hour against 3 cannon, had his horse shot out from under him, and killed a soldier who ran up to take him prisoner. The uncoordinated British attack in 3 waves under Erskine eventually dispersed the Americans. But the patriots regrouped 15 miles farther south at the bridge over the Saugatuck River and were joined by reinforcements. The British encamped on the battlefield that evening.
At daybreak on April 28, the British column set off again, but it was molested by irregular fire from rebels in the undergrowth beside the road. The British outflanked a group of Americans at the Norwalk River Bridge by crossing on a route father upstream as marked on the map. The same strategy was used again at the Saugatuck River. Arnold had collected 500 troops above the bridge to the South, but the British crossed 3 miles north and headed over Finch's Hill to their ships Silliman with another 500 troops and 2 cannon skirmished at the British rear guard until they reached Compo Hill. There the British turned on their pursuers, and with bayonets fixed, 4 regiments charged. Despite their exhaustion after the day's march, they drove back the Americans a mile and a half. Duncan prepared a defense for the reembarcation and loaded 1,000 troops in 10 minutes. The remainder soon followed and the fleet got underway at 6:00 P.M. for the voyage back to New York.
The British loss was 140 killed and wounded, with about 20 prisoners. A British officer claimed an American return showed 100 killed and 200 wounded, but American reports estimated between 60 and 100 casualties. Washington ordered supply depots moved beyond a 1 day march from the coast; the tents he had lost were virtually irreplaceable. Col. Jonathon Miegs crossed the Sound from New Haven in whaleboats on October 23. He burned ships and supplies in Sag Harbor, returning with 90 prisoners.
-Quote from "Connecticut" by Albert E. Van Dusen, 1961
The First British Raid: Danbury, April 1777
From the outbreak of the war the Patriots in exposed towns along the Sound lived in great fear of a British attack. In October 1775 came the first important act dealing with coastal protection, which involved stationing seventy men at New London, thirty at New Haven, fifteen at Lyme, and forty at Stonington - all men to be paid the same at those serving elsewhere. Those at New London were to occupy themselves with completing the fort and mounting cannon on it. Contingents of such size, too weak to repulse a major British attack, could repulse minor marauders or give the alarm in a major attack. After the British secured control of New York and Long Island, fear of invasion vastly increased. Not until April 1777, however, did the long-dreaded British attack eventuate.
General Howe, seeking a safe objective for a secondary raid, ordered Major General William Tryon, royal governor of New York, to attack Danbury and destory the Continental military stores located there. Howe gave Tryon about 2,000 troops, a few dragoons, and some fieldpieces. The expedition sailed from New York, put into the mouth of the Saugatuck River, and landed at Compo on the afternoon of April 25, 1777. Marching inland they spent the night in Weston. The appearance of so many soldiers sent Patriot messengers fanning out to warn the countryside. Some surmised that the Danbury supply depot would be the chief target, and at 3:00 A. M. on April 26 a courier rode into Danbury with a warning. Another arrived at 6:00 A. M. to confirm the likelihood of attack. When word reached General David Wooster at New Haven, he promptly called out the militia there. Benedict Arnold, sulking at his sister's home in New Haven and "itching to fight" as always, joined Wooster, and they hastened to Fairfield, where Wooster assumed command of counteroperations. Meanwhile, General Selleck Silliman, in command of Fairfield County militia, had called his men to arms.
On April 26 Tryon's little army marched unopposed to Danbury, where local forces amounting to only 150 men could do little but withdraw. Arriving in Danbury shortly before three that afternoon, Tryon set up his headquarters in Nehemiah Dibble's home on South Street. Six- and twelve-pounders sent cannon balls screaming through the town to intimidate any resisters, after which the British began a methodical destruction of all stores, though a few, including medical supplies, had just been removed to safety. The supplies in a barn belonging to Nehemiah Dibble were destroyed, but the barn was preserved because of Dibble's Tory inclinations. Those supplies in the Anglican Church were burned in the street, as the redcoats spared the church. A torch was applied to a large barn full of grain on Main Street, which burned furiously. Tryon ordered his men to destroy the rum strores, but soon hundreds of them were gloriously drunk! The inebriated bands, shouting, singing, and tumbling about, filled the town with terror as darkness fell. Luckily for Tryon, some of his men remained sober, and moved about marking crosses upon houses of known Tories so that these would not be burned.
Meanwhile General Tryon suddenly realized that he was in a precarious situation. Seeing the majority of his troops helplessly intoxicated, he suspected that Connecticut militia in unknown numbers were closing in upon him. Probably he had hoped to spend the Sabbath quietly in Danbury, but a little after midnight he received word that the militia had reached Bethel and might attack soon. Immediate orders went out to evacuate Danbury and, by means best known to hard-boiled noncoms, the drunken soldiers soon found themselves capable of marching again! Before departure, however, picked soldiers spent an hour or so setting fire to accessible homes of Patriots, so that some nineteen homes, plus twenty-two storehouses and barns, were consumed. Against this fiery backdrop the redcoats took their departure.
It soon became apparent that the return march of the British would be much more difficult. The Connecticut militia were displaying that "swarming" tendency which characterized American militia in all states when their own neighborhood was invaded. Tryon sought to outwit the Americans by swinging farther westward through Ridgebury and Ridgebury for his return to the Sound, but this maneuver was anticipated. In Bethel at 2:00 A. M. on Sunday, Wooster, Silliman, and Arnold considered how best to employ their force of about 500 militia and 100 Continentals. They decided that Arnold and Silliman, with 400 men, should proceed to Ridgefield for an attack upon the retreating British. Meanwhile, Wooster, with 200 men, was to harass the enemy's rear.
Wooster's men, knowing the country intimately, broke out from the woods up on a unsuspecting British rear regiment at breakfast and captured 40 men. Later that morning Wooster's men struck again. This time the British jarred the Americans with artillery fire which caused them to hesitate in the attack. Observing this, Wooster turned in the saddle and called out, "Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!" At that instant an enemy musket ball struck his back and fatally wounded him.
The British pushed on meanwhile and soon reached Arnold's roadblock in Ridgefield. Though outnumbered four to one, Arnold's men threw a heavy fire, but they were forced back when the British outflanked them. Arnold, the last man to retreat, suddenly spied a British platoon, charging down upon him from a ledge. As he turned his horse to flee, the platoon fired. No less than nine bullets struck his horse, but Arnold miraculously escaped. As he tried vainly to disentangle his feet from the stirrups a redcoat, bayonet drawn, rushed him and shouted, "Surrender! You are my prisoner." Arnold replied, "Not yet!" and calmly shot his pursuer dead. Then, extricating himself from the stirrups, he sprinted into a nearby swamp, followed by a harmless shower of bullets.
Determined to even the score with the British, who camped near Ridgefield that night, Arnold once more rounded up the militia. Artillery reinforcements under Colonel John Lamb and militia under Colonel Jedediah Huntington joined him. Monday's retreat proved to be a nightmare for Tryon's men. On a smaller scale it was another retreat from Concord to Boston. From behind the convenient stone walls, trees, and buildings the militia fired continually at the redcoats marching on the road. Arnold, in the meantime, had stationed his forces so that they commanded both roads by which Tryon might try to gain the safety of his ships. The exhausted British were now outnumbered and might indeed have been captured, but timely reinforcements of hard-hitting marines from the fleet broke up the incipient American attack. Arnold rode furiously about the field, pleading with his men to repulse the marines and close in on Tryon. Another horse was shot under him and a bullet ripped through his coat collar. Although Lamb's artillery also fought valiantly, the bulk of the American forces fled. In the confusion Tryon's men slipped aboard their boats. Tryon had achieved his mission, but at a cost which would discourage a return visit! British casualities ran close to two hundred, including ten officers. The Americans lost about twenty killed and forty wounded.
The Assembly's special committee upon personal damages in Danbury reported verified losses of over £16,000, and in May 1778 the Assembly appropriated one-third the amount of the losses for relief of the sufferers. In Ridgefield the selectmen noted that the British troops "did in their merciless rage consume with fire about six dwelling-houses .... a corn-mill and other buildings together with a large quantity of household goods, cloathing, provisions &c. . . . amounting to the sum of £2625.1.8." Again, the legislators voted one-third the damages. In view of such niggardly treatment, one can imagine that victims did not soon, if ever, recover financially from the losses, not to mention the terrors of the experience.