“In 1779 at the British invasion Roger Sherman’s house was among the first to be entered and ransacked by the redcoats who appropriated every portable article of value in the building.”
-excerpt courtesy of, “Yale and the City of Elms,” by William Emery Decrow, 1882. (top) Image courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, “Map of the Invasion of New Haven, July 5, 1779,” by Ezra Stiles, 1779
“Nine large blocks comprised the center of New Haven, where four churches, a courthouse, a prison and the buildings of Yale College surrounded the center block of New Haven Green. Residents lived in about 300 houses, many beautifully constructed with colonial-style architecture.
The year 1779 was the first that residents of New Haven decided to publicly celebrate the independence of the United States, but since July 4 fell on a Sunday, out of respect for the Sabbath the Puritan-descended citizenry planned to hold their gala, complete with a militia parade, on the following day. Collier’s Royal Navy squadron appeared on the horizon on the afternoon of July 4 but was still headed east, and, to the militia observing from the coast, the ships appeared to be bound for another destination.
Yale president Ezra Stiles observed, ‘A lethargy seemed to have seized the inhabitants, who would believe the fleet would pass by in the morning.’ The milita shore patrols continued while residents slept, relieved that the fleet was gone.
On duty in the early morning hours of July 5 was twenty-year-old Thomas Painter, who had been a militiaman for only three months. Painter recalled that at about 2:00 A.M., ‘as it was a starlight night,’ he saw the Royal Navy squadron turn and head towards the shore. Painter fired an alarm gun to alert the town and then ran to his uncle’s house to tell him about the landing. The ships came in close and dropped anchor near Savin Rock at the western mouth of New Haven Harbor.
The boom of the signal gun led to the ringing of church bells and the long roll of militia drums, which woke Yale president Ezra Stile, who had an inquisitive mind. A short list of his interests includes meteorology, astronomy, physics, silk cultures, horticulture, political science, philosophy, and languages. Now awakened, Stiles climbed the steeple of the college chapel as soon as there was enough daylight to see more than a few hundred yards, looked towards the coast, and was shocked to see dozens of British ships anchored off the harbor. ‘All then knew our fate,’ he wrote later.
He quickly left his perch and sent his four daughters to the nearby town of Carmel. With his youngest son, Stiles gathered the college records, his silver tableware, and important belongings and sent them out of town on a cart. Then he dismissed the college students.
The landings near Savin Rock at the New Haven harbor was a spectacle of the military might of the British Empire. The masts of Collier’s fifty-three ships crowded the horizon. Red, white and blue British ensigns flew from every vessel. To cover the landings the warships Camilla, Greyhound, Scorpion, and Virginia anchored as close to shore as their draughts allowed, and their black cannon pointed menacingly toward the beach. Flat-bottomed landing barges, each packed with up to sixty soldiers and rowed by twenty blue-jacketed sailors, were lowered from each transport and then turned their bows toward the shore. As the boats touched the beach the soldiers poured out and formed their long ranks.
North of West Haven Green the American militia gathered, summoned by the church bells, alarm guns, and drum rolls. The American militia was outnumbered ten to one, so Capt. Hillhouse concealed his men behind a stone wall and watched as Gen. Garth’s soldiers marched north from West Haven in neat ranks. When the advance guard of the Redcoats came within musket range, the Yankee militiamen rose and fired.
Yale student Elizur Goodrich wrote later about the action: ‘We fired on them several times, then chased them the length of three or four fields as they retreated.’ The main body of the British column immediately formed a line of battle, counterattacked, covered the ground quickly and nearly surrounded the Yankees. Goodrich continued: ‘It was now our turn to run, and we did for our lives.’
Retreating with the militia, Thomas Painter wrote that he ran through the fields ‘at the top of my speed, and the bullets after me like a shower of hail, which seemed to prostrate the grass around me.’
After he took care of his family and Yale college, Ezra Stiles rode around the New Haven area observing the action. He saw the scrape between the militiamen and Garth’s soldiers and said that as a result of the Yankee musket fire the Redcoats ‘marched in a huddled confusion.’
Ezra Stiles remembered: ‘The northern militia and those from Darby by this time crowded in and pressed on all side – and some behaved with amazing intrepidity. One captain drew up and threw himself and his whole company directly before the enemy’s column and gave and received the fire… The battle became very severe and bloody for a short time, when a number was killed on both sides.’
Gen. Tryon reported that Garth’s men were ‘under a continuous fire,’ but the American militia was outgunned and fought a fighting retreat to the northwest corner of New Haven, where Garth finally entered the town at about 1:00 P.M., ‘not without opposition, loss, and fatigue,’ as Tryon recorded. The column reached New Haven Green. Gen. Garth sent a message to Tryon that recommended immediately burning the town. ‘This place is almost entirely deserted,’ he reported, ‘and therefore merits the flames.’
Gen. Tryon was experiencing his own troubles with rebel resistance when he received Garth’s message about burning the town. Tryon’s division had landed on the east side of New Haven Harbor at about 10:00 A.M., after Garth’s division was ashore. Just as with Garth’s earlier landings, the barges rowed in 1,500 men. A fifty-man company of East Haven militia led by Captains Josiah Bradley and Amos Morris took position on the shore with three field guns and opened fire. An officer of the King’s American Regiment stood up in his boat and shouted, ‘Disperse, ye rebels!’ – and a militia sharpshooter killed him with a single musket shot.
Tyron reported that that militia’s field guns ‘annoyed’ his soldiers, and Commodore Collier disclosed a bit of the British fear of American sharpshooters when he wrote that the the landing was opposed ‘by some companies of riflemen,’ whom he described as ‘excellent marksmen, with rifle-barreled guns’ who ‘concealed themselves in the bushes.’
A deadly routine developed as the invading troops moved further inland. The American militia concealed themselves behind the fences that ran along the roads and when the British column came close, the Yankees rose from behind their cover, fired, and then fell back. Each volley forced the British to stop, deploy into a line of battle, counterattack, and re-form into a column formation to march down the road. Militia Capt. Josiah Bradley hid his men along one road and told them, ‘Wait until you can see their eyes and then fire and run.’
The pursuit of militiamen frustrated and exhausted the Redcoats. New England militiamen had used these classic guerrilla tactics at the opening battles of the war outside Boston on April 19, 1775, when they decimated the British ranks and shocked the king’s officers with the intensity of their resistance. The methods were equally effective at New Haven.
By early afternoon the British column advanced barely three miles from its landing beach. Tryon still had another two miles to go before he could cross the Quinnipiac River and unite with Gen. Garth’s division in New Haven. Unable to advance further, Tryon held his position south of the Quinnipiac and set up headquarters on Beacon Hill.
The message bearing Gen. Garth’s note that recommended burning New Haven probably reached Tryon on Beacon Hill. In response, Tryon took Leavenworth’s Ferry across the Quinnipiac to New Haven and convened a council of war with Garth, Commodore Collier, and Col. Fanning of the King’s American Regiment to decide how to proceed with the raid at New Haven. Musket shots still cracked sporadically and the officers agreed that strong rebel forces remained outside the town.
At some point during the conference Tryon and Garth decided not to burn New Haven. Legend states that Loyalist leaders, including Col. Fanning, asked the British commanders to spare the town, and that Garth consented, saying, ‘Tis too pretty a place to burn.’
But in his report to Gen. Clinton, Tryon attributed the decision to their belief that the gathering rebel militia would soon outnumber the British force as well as outgun them with heavy cannon. The officers agreed that, for the evening, Garth’s division would occupy New Haven while Tryon’s division held Beacon Hill. Tryon also remembered that Gen. Clinton’s orders had emphasized that it was ‘not advisable to stay any time… Your business must be done in 24 or 48 hours.’ With the rebel militia gathering and his commander’s orders in mind, Tryon decided his force would depart the next morning.
Before the soldiers settled in for the evening, one of Garth’s officers walked onto New Haven Green and read aloud from an open address from Tryon and Collier to the residents of Connecticut. ‘Your town, your property, yourselves, lie within the grasp of the power whose forbearance you have ungenerously construed into fear. Can the strength of your whole province cope with the force which might at any time be poured through every district in your country? You are conscious it cannot. Why, then, will you persist in a ruinous and ill-judged resistance? We hoped that you would recover from the frenzy which has distracted this unhappy country; and we believe the day to be near come when the greater part of this continent will begin to blush at their delusion.’
Tryon and Collier were overly optimistic in their expectations for the residents of New Haven to repudiate the rebellion. Collier recalled, ‘Such inhabitants that remained in their homes had a sentinel at their doors granted them, to prevent any irregularities. But even this mark of indulgence was treated with baseness and treachery inherent in these people. The very sentinels placed as their safeguards were villainously shot and murdered from the upper windows!’ Several balls whistled past Collier as he surveyed the town with a party of officers.
Some unknown citizens left casks of West Indian rum out near the Green, possibly in an effort to curry favor from the Redcoats. Exhausted from the day’s combat in the sweltering heat, frustrated by fighting the elusive American militia, and fueled by free rum, British soldiers vented their anger on the civilian population, as a contemporary newspaper recounted: ‘New Haven was delivered up… to promiscuous plunder; in which, besides robbing the inhabitants of their watches, money, plate, buckles, clothing, bedding, and provisions, etc., they broke and destroyed househould furniture and other property to a very great amount.’
At dawn on July 6 the British raiding force set fire to six port buildings and seven vessels suspected to be privateers and then marched to the New Haven wharf and Black Rock Fort to embark for their ships. A dense fog covered the area and the British movements caught most American militiamen off guard. Gen Tryon reported that ‘there was not a shot fired to molest the retreat,’ but a few militiamen, like Capt. Jedediah Andrews, sniped at the Redcoats as they departed. The last British vessel slipped its cable from the wharf in the afternoon.
Yale College president Ezra Stiles returned to New Haven soon after the British departure. He had ‘a mixt sense of joy and sorrow’ because the Redcoats left the college buildings relatively undamaged but the rest of the town was a scene of ‘plunder, rapes, murder, bayoneting, indelicacies towards the sex, insolence and abuse and insult towards the inhabitants in general.'”
-excerpt courtesy of, “George Washington and the Final British Campaign for the Hudson River, 1779,” by Michael Schellhammer, 2012. (above) Image courtesy of Library of Congress, “George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: George Collier and William Tryon, July 4, 1779, Broadside of Address to Connecticut Citizens,” 1779