Last week I discussed the fighting at Stony Point, New York in July 1779. At the same time the British and Continentals were struggling over New York, the British also launched a series of coastal raids against Connecticut towns. Part of the reason was to attack towns that supported the privateer ships that continually harassed British shipping in and out of New York, and throughout the region.
Germain had promised to send Clinton another 6000 reinforcements in the summer of 1779, but those were still just promises. Clinton had to make due with the force he had, the majority of which were Hessians and local loyalist regiments.
While Clinton was focused on Stony Point, he left Major General William Tryon in command of the force that would be raiding Connecticut. Tryon, who we have discussed before, had been a colonial governor before the war, and remained the governor of New York, although martial law left him little to do in that capacity. As an experienced regular officer he received a commission as major general in America to command troops.
Ever since then, Tryon had been pushing for additional raids into New England, particularly nearby Connecticut. Tryon had been a firm believer in the use of brutal force against civilians who dared to defy royal authority. It had led him to fight the Battle of Alamance, before the war, in 1771 when he was still governor of North Carolina. He had also used similar tactics against the Green Mountain Boys before the war, because they refused to accept New York’s control of the land that later became the State of Vermont.
Tryon was a firm believer that the only way to crush the rebellion was to burn rebel towns and make these people suffer. This put Tryon at odds with the military commanders, first General William Howe, and now General Henry Clinton, both of whom wanted to focus on military targets and not go after civilians.
Like many British officers, Tryon complained to officials in London that the commanders were not aggressive enough to win the war. Tryon also wanted to resign as governor of New York and to get a commission as a major general in the regular army, not just a general in America. In 1779, the king had approved his commission as major general in America, but had not allowed him to resign as governor and did not grant him the permanent commission in the regular army that he desired.
As part of his efforts to resign, Tryon also requested permission to return to England. He cited various health and family reasons for wanting to do so. Finally, in early 1779, Germain informed Tryon that General James Robertson would replace him in New York, allowing Tryon to return to England. Tryon then changed his mind and asked to remain in America for a few more months. His health and family issues suddenly evaporated, as the 1779 military campaign had begun to take focus.
The reason for Tryon’s change of attitude was that General Clinton seemed to have come around to the idea of raising civilian towns. In February, 1779, Clinton approved Tryon’s raid on Horseneck Landing, Connecticut, which I discussed back in Episode 211. By summer Clinton had approved Tryon’s proposals to take a larger force against the Connecticut coast.
Tryon’s 1779 attack would be a larger raid, with more men and hitting more towns. He assembled a force of 2600 soldiers, a mix of regulars, Hessians and loyalists for the coastal raids. Commodore George Collier, recently returned from his Chesapeake Raid (see Episode 221) commanded the fleet which carried the soldiers across the Long Island Sound to the Connecticut shore.
General Tryon divided his force into two divisions. One, primarily made up of British regulars and some Hessian Jaegers came under the command of Brigadier General George Garth. Tryon personally commanded the other division, primarily consisting of loyalist regiments and supported by Hessians. The fleet departed New York on July 3.
The fleet took over a day to reach its first destination, New Haven Connecticut. The locals in New Haven were preparing to celebrate independence day on July 5, the 4th having been a Sunday. The British fleet arrived on the evening of the 4th. A signal gun fired at 10 PM, at first sight of the British fleet. By midnight, the fleet was at anchor.
|Map of attack on New Haven
At around 5:00 AM on July 5th, the British disembarked about 1500 men under General Garth on the western shore of New Haven Harbor. They also landed four field pieces and then marched unopposed to West New Haven Green. A few locals, including a Yale professor, took a few pot shots at the soldiers, but nothing that really led to a full battle. That same day, the other half of the force under General Tryon landed on the eastern shore of the harbor.
Yale University President Ezra Stiles observed the landings through a telescope from the steeple of the University chapel. He began ordering the removal of some valuables from the school. He also noted that some people turned out to oppose the British, some stayed home, and some Tories even turned out to join with the British. Still others fled to other nearby towns.
By the afternoon, the British forces began plundering New Haven. The soldiers plundered both patriots and loyalist houses. There were stories of soldiers cutting the necklaces off of women’s necks, and stealing anything of value. They also burned homes and engaged in general destruction.
According to General Garth, he had orders from Tryon to destroy the town, but said that he only burned a few public buildings, sparing most of the private homes. He also seized six cannons from a privateer ship in the harbor.
The following day, July 6, both divisions continued to plunder New Haven. Again, there was no large-scale organized militia resistance, only a few pot shots from buildings, which were promptly burned. By the end of the day, the British returned to their ships and sailed away.
On the morning of July 7, the fort near Black Rock in Fairfield, Connecticut fired its warning at the sight of the British fleet offshore. The British disembarked and began the march toward the center of town. The militia around Fairfield turned out to resist. Given their small numbers, the militia could not pose much defense to the thousands of invading forces. They tore up bridges and fired on the column from behind fences, but did not really slow down the British column. The British took some casualties, chased off the attackers, and continued the march into Fairfield.
The destruction continued well into the night, with most of the town’s inhabitants having fled or in hiding. The attackers got a few hours of rest. The following morning, hearing rumors that a larger militia brigade was marching to confront them. Tryon put his men back aboard their ships and sailed away.
According to Tryon’s records, they burned 83 houses, 54 barns, 47 storehouses, 2 churches, 2 schools, the courthouse and the jail. From Fairfield, the British sailed back across Long Island Sound to Huntington, New York on Long Island.
The Burning of Fairfield had taken less than 24 hours, but was the end of six days and nights of sailing and raiding the coasts. Tryon gave his men two days to rest and recover at Huntington on Long Island. With the troops rested and ready for another attack, Collier ferried the army back across the sound, this time to Norwalk, Connecticut.
As with the raids of the two prior towns, the British landing met relatively little resistance. A group of about 50 Continentals and militia under the command of Captain Stephen Betts made a stand on Grumman Hill, but had no real chance against more than 1000 attackers. The Americans withdrew after a few volleys since they were in danger of being surrounded.
During his march, British General Garth commented on constant harassment from enemy fire by local militia. The locals took shots at the column and then fled. It was an annoyance, but did not really slow down the column. The two British columns converged near the town green, and then faced another firefight from the north, where a group of Americans fired on them from an area simply known as “the Rocks”.
Having dispatched the enemy, the British began to plunder and burn the town. Reports indicate they burned 80 houses, 87 barns, 17 shops, 4 mills, and 2 churches. The British also seized or sank several ships in the harbor and took prisoners of some of the locals, most of whom would later die in New York prison ships.
The British did not linger in Norwalk. Washington had deployed General Samuel Holden Parsons to Connecticut to challenge the British raids. Parsons had assembled nearly 1000 Continentals and militia and was marching to Norwalk to challenge the British. Although the British still outnumbered this force by about 3-1, Tryon had no real interest in doing battle. His mission, as he saw it, was simply to wreak havoc on the towns along the coasts. His men completed their destruction within a few hours then returned to their boats and sailed away that same day.
Return to New York
Tryon had avoided a major confrontation, but the presence of General Parson made clear that the Continentals were preparing to confront further raids along the Connecticut coast. Even so, after Tryon returned to his base at Huntington on Long Island, he prepared to launch an attack on a fourth town. Before he could do so, he received orders from General Clinton to return with his men to New York City.
Tryon considered his raids to be a great success. On July 14, he reported the destruction that he had inflicted on the rebel towns. He also reported that his force had suffered relatively few casualties: 26 killed, 90 wounded, and 32 missing.
General Clinton, however, was not pleased. He saw the raids as primarily attacking civilians, something he termed as “making war on women and children.” Not only did the commander find such raids dishonorable, he also believed that they harmed the overall war effort since regaining the support of the general population was critical to reasserting British governance over the colonies.
General Tryon supported the alternative view. The only way the British would ever be able to reassert authority was to show the populace what life was like when they rejected the protection of the King’s peace. Rebellious colonies needed to suffer in order to understand the power of the British government and understand why they needed to submit.
Clinton told Tryon that he had disobeyed orders by burning towns. This does not seem to be the case though. There is no record of Clinton giving any specific orders not to engage in such pillaging. In fact, Tryon recounts Clinton telling him that Clinton knew that Tryon would burn towns unless Clinton gave him explicit instructions not to do so, and that he never gave any such instructions. Tryon seemed to take this as turning a blind eye to what had to be done. Tryon apologized for burning churches, which he characterized as “inadvertent.” He also used the excuse that his soldiers had received gunfire from the buildings that they destroyed. While this may have been true in a few cases, it does not seem plausible that nearly every building in Fairfield and Norwalk was used for enemy attacks. Tryon and Clinton simply had very different views on how to prosecute the war.
In fact, Tryon’s position seemed to have more support from the ministry in London. Secretary of State Lord George Germain voiced regular support for wreaking destruction along the coasts. Since Britain could not secure territory in New England, they could at least use the Navy to blockade their trade, and use the army to destroy coastal towns, just as Tryon had done.
This strategy, backed by Lord Sandwich and the Board of Admiralty, believed that after years of misery and suffering the colonists would eventually break and would sue for peace and the return of royal authority, if only to bring an end to the destruction. There were certainly many moderates who disagreed with this strategy, but most of them were not in the ministry by this time. The ministry had largely purged any moderates and was composed of hardliners. When Germain heard about the raids, he praised Tryon’s actions.
Given the support of officials in London, Clinton could not take any actions or even formally reprimand Tryon for his actions. Clinton, however, also did not trust Tryon with another independent command after the raids. When General Cornwallis returned from England later in the year, Clinton favored him for command, while Tryon criticized Cornwallis for being too constricted to prosecute the war in a way necessary to win. In other words, Tryon believed Cornwallis also opposed waging war on the civilian population.
Months later, when Clinton and Cornwallis left for South Carolina, Tryon was the senior British officer. However, Clinton left Hessian General Knyphausen in overall command, with Tryon only responsible for the few regulars who remained in New York. Clinton simply did not trust Tryon in a position where Tryon had any discretion.
Of course, the patriots widely condemned the raids as proof that the British were unfit to govern. They were no better than barbarians who cared nothing for the citizens. They were not trying to rule by consent, but rather by military force, the mark of a tyrant. Patriot newspapers across the continent used the event as a way to encourage enlistments
The reason that General Clinton had supported the raids at all, even if not the level of destruction levied, was that he had hoped that the Continentals would be forced to deploy troops from the mountains around West Point to protect the Connecticut coast. This would give Clinton a better opportunity to bring about a general action on favorable territory, or perhaps even allow him to capture West Point if Washington left it without too many defenders.
Washington had been under great pressure to deploy part of his army to Connecticut during and after these raids. Governor Trumbull sent Washington a series of letters imploring him to do just that. Washington, however, refused to do so. In early July, the British still held Stony Point. He recognized that weakening his defenses around West Point would make him vulnerable there. Washington did send General Parsons, but he mostly relied on Parsons to recruit local militia to provide any defense to the coastal raids.
Washington was also more focused on retaking Stony Point, which I discussed last week. The British had deployed thousands to capture Stony Point in May. After doing so, they mostly pulled back to New York City, leaving only a few hundred men to defend the area. Days after Tryon completed his Connecticut raids, Washington unleashed General Wayne and his forces to recapture Stony Point, which I also discussed last week.
In short, Washington had failed to walk into the trap that Clinton had hoped to set for him. He sacrificed the Connecticut towns in order to keep the British in check along the Hudson River. He even surprised the British by capturing Stony Point, albeit temporarily. Although the Continentals did not hold it, the loss of the British outpost was cause for great celebration in America. It meant that the attempts to use the coastal raids to crush American morale had little impact. For the British, the lack of any strategic success did not convince them to give up entirely on the New England coast.
Next Week, the British continue their efforts along the New England coast with the Penobscot Expedition.
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The Burning of Fairfield: https://www.fairfieldct.org/content/10724/12146/12165.aspx
“To George Washington from Norwalk, Conn., Officials and Lieutenant Colonel Stephen St. John, 9 July 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0331
“To George Washington from Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons, 31 July 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0602
The Burning on Norwalk During the American Revolution: http://westnorwalk.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Burning-of-Norwalk-During-the-Revolutionary-War.pdf
Video: Prof. J. Freedman lectures on the invasion of New Haven. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oDyFepSjng
(from archive.org unless noted)
Hoadly, Charles (ed) The public records of the state of Connecticut, with the journal of the Council of safety and an appendix, From May 1778 to April, 1780 inclusive, Hartford, The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co. 1895.
Rankin, Edward E; Lombard, James K; Osgood, Samuel & Power, Horatio Centennial commemoration of the burning of Fairfield, Connecticut, by the British troops under Governor Tryon, July 8th, 1779, New York, A. S. Barnes & Co. 1879.
Townshend, Charles H. The British Invasion of New Haven, Connecticut, together with some account of their landing and burning the towns of Fairfield and Norwalk, July, 1779, New Haven: Tuttle, Moorehouse, & Taylor, 1879.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
McDevitt, Robert Connecticut Attacked: A British Viewpoint, Tryon’s Raid on Danbury, Globe Pequot Classics, 2017.
Nelson, Paul D. William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service, Univ. of NC Press, 1990.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.