Sunday, February 9, 2020

Episode 135: The Danbury Raid

Danbury, Connecticut was a small inland village, about 25 miles from the shore.  The British had largely avoided Connecticut, which was filled with patriots and did not have any strategically valuable cities.  General Washington, always in need of towns near the action to serve as supply depots, thought Danbury would be a good choice.  Since it was not on the coast, it would not be subject to a naval attack. Its location was close enough to the expected fighting that would take place in upstate New York later that year.  It was more than a day’s march from the British lines around New York City area.

Once it became a depot of course, it became a target for the British.  As we’ve seen over the last two episodes, in the spring of 1777, British officers were restless to begin offensive operations again.  They had already raided Peekskill, NY and Bound Brook, NJ.  Now Danbury, Connecticut was in their sights.

Assembling the Expedition

Leading the expedition was General William Tryon. We, of course, have seen General Tryon many times in our story so far.  A quick refresher: although his father was not an aristocrat, Tryon had come from a good family with connections to aristocracy in Britain.  He purchased a commission in 1751 and served with distinction in the Seven Years War.  His wartime exploits allowed him to rise to lieutenant colonel by the end of the war.  After the war, he was able to get an appointment as lieutenant governor of North Carolina, thanks to family connections through is wife.  A year later, the governor died, leading to Tryon’s promotion to Royal Governor.  He almost immediately got into conflict with the colonists as he attempted to enforce the Stamp Act.  His conflicts with the colonists eventually led to the battle of Alamance that I discussed back in Episode 35.

Connecticut Militia rush to battle (from Today in CT History)
A few years later, Tryon got transferred to New York, where as Royal Governor of that colony, he got into more conflicts.  He took a hard line against the land dispute in the eastern part of the colony.  He attempted to capture and execute the Green Mountain Boys who were active in that region, as covered in Episode 38.  Tryon had to return to London in 1774.  When he came back to New York in 1775, he found politics had become so poisoned in the New York colony that he had to live aboard ship in New York Harbor.  Patriots had taken over New York City.

When the British recaptured New York in 1776, General Howe kept the city under martial law, leaving little for Tryon to do as governor.  Although he remained the nominal royal governor, Tryon returned to his military roots to be of more use.  He helped to raise a loyalist militia and received a temporary commission as brigadier general.  In spring 1777, Howe gave him a temporary commission as major general of the provincials in preparation for his new mission.

Along with Tryon, General Howe assigned two brigidier generals with more regular army experience to support the raid.  General James Agnew had arrived in Boston as a lieutenant colonel a few months after Lexington and Concord. I have not been able to find much information about Agnew before coming to America in 1775.  His grandfather was a baronet, but his father made the mistake of not being born first and did not inherit title or lands.  His father did get a military commission, rising to the rank of major.

James followed in his father’s path by joining the army.  As I said,I have not found his military records, but having risen to lieutenant colonel without having lots of family money or political connections must have meant he was an impressive officer.  Agnew did not get much chance for distinction in America until the Battle of Long Island a year after he arrived  Some time after that, he was promoted to brigadier general and assigned command of his own brigade.

The third general for this mission was William Erskine.  Like Agnew, his grandfather had a title, in this case a Scottish lord and peer.  Also like Agnew, his father had the problem of an older brother getting the family title and land.  Erskine’s father did manage to get a gig as deputy governor of Blackness Castle in Scotland.  He also had a military career, rising to colonel.

Erskine joined his father’s regiment at the age of fourteen, in time to serve in both the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.  For his service, Erskine also rose to lieutenant colonel by the end of the Seven Years War, and received a knighthood as well.   He shipped out to America as a staff officer with General Clinton in early 1776.

British Landing in Connecticut (from Westport)
After the Battle of Long Island, Erskine perhaps realized that Clinton’s feud with General Howe meant that serving under Clinton meant being sidelined in unimportant posts.  He got himself transferred to serve as Lord Cornwallis’ quartermaster.  Erskine accompanied Cornwallis to Trenton after the Americans captured the town.

He developed a reputation as a fierce fighter during the Forage War in New Jersey over the winter.  Erskine was not in agreement with General Howe’s view of treating rebels decently.  He developed a reputation of engaging in fierce combat and taking no prisoners.

In April 1777, about the same time General Cornwallis was preparing his raid on Bound Brook, Generals Tryon, Agnew, and Erskine prepared for their own raid against Connecticut.  Earlier, General Howe had received intelligence about the supply depot at Danbury from Indian Agent Guy Johnson.   It would take at least two or three days to march British soldiers from their lines at New York City and another two or three days to march back.  That would give the patriots too much time to react and organize an attack on the column.  Instead, they opted to cross Long Island Sound, land at Norwalk, Connecticut, and try to make a one day march to Danbury from there.

Although General Tryon was supposed to be the head of a provincial army, the British were not ready to trust provincial forces with this raid.  Howe deployed about 1500 regulars, drawn from seven different regiments.  Another 300 or so provincials from the Prince of Wales American Regiment led by Montfort Browne. You may recall Browne was the Governor of the Bahamas, captured during the naval raid there in March 1776.  He had recently been exchanged for captured Continental General Lord Stirling and was now a colonel commanding a regiment of loyalist provincials.  Overall though, Howe had probably 3000 provincials under his command at this time.  The fact that he only sent 300 on this raid to supplement 1500 regulars indicates the typical preference to rely on regulars as much as possible.

With support, the entire British contingent numbered over 2000.  They used twelve transport ships to bring the soldiers across Long Island Sound, along with a hospital ship and a number of smaller ships.

Long Island Sound

Long Island sound, the waterway between Long Island and Connecticut had been a problem for some time.  Patriots raids across the water from Connecticut had been a regular headache for the British.  Also, the British had fostered a black market trade across the sound, trading hard currency and manufactured goods for food and other raw materials.  This trade was not allowed by either side.  But since the British received much needed supplies, they tolerated it.  The trade also led to a group of outlaws and pirates in the area that controlled much of the coast.  Any British raid would have to be a large one, if only to prevent smaller groups of soldiers from getting attacked by criminal gangs.

On April 22, the fleet moved out of New York City.  The British sent another fleet up the Hudson River as a diversionary force to confuse the Americans.  If the British hoped the movement by sea would be faster than marching, they would be disappointed.  The fleet sailed up the East River to Hell Gate, on the edge of the Long Island Sound on the first day.  There, the troops waited aboard ship for two days for strong headwinds to shift.  They finally set sail again on April 25th, landing on the Connecticut coast between Norwalk and Fairfield at around 5PM.

March to Danbury

It took hours to disembark all the men and supplies, the troops finally began their night march at around 11PM.  By midday the following day, April 26th, the column was at Reading, about nine miles from Danbury.  The men were exhausted.  They had been aboard ship for nearly three days, where sleeping was difficult at best.  They then marched all night and all morning, meaning even those who had been able to sleep aboard ship had probably been awake more than 24 hours straight, and had marched about twenty miles already.  Some accounts indicate they may have rested for a short time during the night.  But if they did, it was only for a few hours.

British movements to Danbury
(from Wikimedia)
The speed and surprise of the night march paid off with the fact that they had only faced small scattered resistance from a few local militiamen, nothing that really even slowed down the column.

Danbury only had about fifty Continental soldiers and maybe one hundred militia in the area, no match for the column headed their way.  By late afternoon on the 26th, the British reached Danbury.

Alerted by a messenger, Sybil Ludington, the Americans had attempted to evacuate stores from Danbury ahead of the column’s arrival.  But given the short notice, large amount of supplies, and lack of manpower, they had removed little before the British got to the town. The British quickly scattered the Americans.  Seven riflemen inside a home attempted to hold off the British.  However, the regulars rushed the house and burned it down with the men still inside.  They then set about destroying whatever they could find.  In addition to buildings the British destroyed thousands of barrels of food, as well as tents, shoes, and other military supplies.  They burned at least 19 personal residences.

By late that night, the British had destroyed most of what they sought to destroy.  It was dark and raining.  The men were exhausted.  The army camped for the night, with plans to complete the destruction the following day.

Battle of Ridgefield

Word of the British column had spread quickly across the region.  Patriots attempted to respond.  But most were too far away.  Even in Peekskill, New York, General Alexander McDougall deployed his Continentals in case the British column attempted to march back overland to New York City.  For the most part, most Continentals and militia were too far away to react.

The largest group of soldiers nearby was at Fairfield, a few miles up the coast from where the British had landed.  The local commander, General Gold Selleck Silliman of the Connecticut militia, received word of the British landing during the night, hours after the British had begun their march inland. General Silliman quickly assembled a force of about five hundred militia and one hundred Continentals in pursuit of the column.

Militia Defenses at Ridgefield (from Conn History)
Later that same night, probably early in the morning of April 26, word reached New Haven where two generals received the news. General David Wooster, you may recall, had been a commander at the Quebec campaign.  His continual battling with Benedict Arnold, Philip Schuyler and other top officers had embittered him.  When Congress failed to promote him or grant him command, he had left Quebec to return to Connecticut as a major general of the militia.

Also in town was his old adversary, General Benedict Arnold.  Arnold was also embittered, having recently been passed over for promotion to major general as well by several officers who were his juniors.  Arnold had returned to Connecticut to deal with a few personal matters.  By most accounts, he was then on his way to Philadelphia to tender his resignation to Congress.

Whatever, resentment the two generals harbored against each other or the Continental Congress, on hearing of the invasion, both leaped on their horses and galloped toward the enemy.  The two generals caught up with Silliman and his soldiers some time on the evening of the 26th, about the same time that Tryon and his regulars were burning Danbury.  The Patriots reached Bethel at around 11:00 PM, about two miles south of Danbury.  There was a pouring rain.  The leaders decided not to attack that night, but planned a response for the following day.

Arnold and Sillman took about four hundred soldiers to Ridgefield.  There, they would set up a defensive position which the British would have to contend with on their march back.  Although they did not have enough men to defeat the 2000 British soldiers, they hoped at least to delay the column until more militia could reach the area  On their way to Ridgefield, they met up with another one hundred militia heading to the battle, giving them a total force of around five hundred.  Wooster took another two hundred soldiers to harass the enemy’s rear as they marched back to the coast.

Arnold's Defense at Ridgefield (from Hamlet Hub)
Back in Danbury, General Tryon received word of the patriot encampment and prepared to face them the following morning.  The British column got on the move early, knowing that delay only provided time for more patriot militia to join the fight.

After the column got underway, Wooster and his harassing force attacked the rear of the column.  They managed to capture about forty prisoners and escape back into the woods.  As the column approached Ridgefield, Wooster’s force struck the rear again.  This time, Tryon had supported his rear with three cannon the British had carried with the column.  The Connecticut militia took cover and were reluctant to charge cannons.  Wooster chastised them by saying  "Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!"  A few seconds later, Wooster took a random shot to the stomach.  He had to be carried from the field back to Danbury, where he died from his wounds five days later.

The British column pushed on to Ridgefield where they encountered Arnold’s defensive force.  Remember, the British still had more than three times as many soldiers as the Americans.   Tyron tried a direct assault on the the town, supported by artillery and with overwhelming force.  He had sufficient forces that he could also send flankers against both sides of the American lines.

Arnold remained on the front lines, encouraging the men to hold.  The British targeted Arnold. They could not hit him, but managed to shoot his horse nine times.  As the horse collapsed, Arnold found himself trapped underneath his dead or dying horse.  As he struggled to free himself, a British soldier rushed up and said Arnold was his prisoner.  Arnold responded “not yet” pulled a pistol and killed the soldier.  He then managed to free himself and escape

The Americans rallied again a few miles to the south, joined by two militia artillery units who just arrived on the scene.  The march became a smaller version of the return from Concord, where the British column was taking pot shots from behind every wall and tree.  More and more militia were arriving on scene and making it harder for Tryon’s column to continue its march.

When they got within a few miles of their ships, the naval commander waiting for them deployed a few hundred marines to assist with the withdrawal.  Arnold attempted to rally the militia to charge the marines.  His attempts once again made him a target. The British killed his new horse and also shot a hole through his jacket collar.  Miraculously, Arnold himself remained unhurt.  Seeing his horse fall though, convinced most of the militia to flee the field.  Arnold had to get away himself to avoid capture.

With the patriot militia scattered, the British column was able to reach the coast, board the ships and sail back to New York.


Although the raid successfully hit its target and returned, the British lost 154 killed and wounded as well as another 40 captured.  The Americans suffered an estimated 20 killed and 80 wounded.  The heated response was enough to convince Howe and his successors not to attempt any further inland raids into Connecticut.

Gen. David Wooster
(from Today CT Hist)
One of those American deaths, as I mentioned, was General Wooster, who died a few days after the battle.  His last words were allegedly  "I am dying, but with a strong hope and persuasion that my country will gain her independence."  He went from being an unpopular general to part of the honored dead.  In June, Congress voted to build a monument in his honor.  They never got around to building the monument though.  It would be nearly eighty years before the Freemasons of Connecticut got around to building one for him instead.

General Arnold’s performance also roused support for him in Congress.  They finally promoted him to major general.  While the honorific was nice, it didn’t mean much in terms of command.  Arnold went from being the most senior brigadier general to being the most junior major general. It did not change anything in the chain of command.  Congress also awarded Arnold a new horse.

On the British side, Tryon’s success led to a permanent command as major general in America, as well as a full colonelcy in the regular army.  He also took command of British troops on Long Island.  Generals Erskine and Agnew rejoined Howe’s main army and would ship off with the rest of the army as Howe began his Philadelphia campaign a few months later.

- - -

Next Episode 136 Franklin in Paris

Previous Episode 134 Battle of Bound Brook

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Further Reading


The Danbury Raid (Battle of Ridgefield)

The Burning of Danbury

McKay, Ian Danbury Raid:

The Danbury Raid

Dacus, Jeff “Again the Hero, David Wooster’s Final Battle” Journal of the American Revolution, June 19, 2018:

Was a son of Gen. Wooster slain at the Battle of Ridgefield?

“To George Washington from Major General Adam Stephen, 22 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives

“From George Washington to Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons, 23–25 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General Alexander McDougall, 25 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General Alexander McDougall, 27 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives:

“From George Washington to John Hancock, 28 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“John Adams to Abigail Adams, 2 May 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Case, James Royal An Account of Tryon's Raid on Danbury in April, 1777, Also the Battle of Ridgefield and the Career of Gen. David Wooster, Danbury Printing Co. 1927.

Dawson, Henry B. & Chappel, Alonzo Battles of the United States, by Sea and Land, Vol. 1, Johnson, Fry, & Co. 1858.

Deming, Henry C. An oration upon the life and services of Gen. David Wooster, Press of Case Tiffany & Co. 1854.

Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, E.O. Libby, 1858

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brumwell, Stephen Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty, Yale Univ. Press,  2018.

Darley, Stephen Call to Arms: The Patriot Militia in the 1777 British Raid on Danbury, Connecticut, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015 (book recommendation of the week).

Maxwell, Larry A. Sybil Rides: The True Story of Sybil Ludington the Female Paul Revere, the Burning of Danbury and Battle of Ridgefield, 1775 Productions, 2018

Martin, James Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero, New York: NYU Press, 1997.

McDevitt, Robert Connecticut Attacked: A British Viewpoint on Tryon’s Raid on Danbury, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 1974.

Nelson, Paul D. William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service,
Univ. of NC Press, 1990.

Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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