Today we return to British occupied Long Island. The British, you will recall, occupied Long Island along with the New York City in late 1776 when General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe led an invasion force.
The British put most of their forces in New York City itself, and spent most of 1777 focused on New Jersey and the expansion of more colonial territory brought back under the authority of the King.
Occupied Long Island
Before there were any bridges between Manhattan Island and Long Island, the two communities were not as tied together. There were a great many who lived in western Long Island who regularly interacted with New York City via a ferry. Most of Long Island, at least the part that had been settled, was used for farming and grazing. I’ve not seen an authoritative census from the time, but I’d guess the population of the entire island was between 15,000 and 20,000, compared to around 3 million today.
|Long Island Sound, 1776 (from Journal of Am Rev)|
Not all was back to normal though. The island remained under martial law. Tory regiments recruited young men for the King’s service. Across Long Island Sound in Connecticut, a patriot stronghold threatened to challenge British occupation at some point. Many patriots from Long Island had joined regiments in Connecticut and were eager to bring Long Island under patriot control again.
Refuge in Connecticut
In Connecticut, many refugees from Long Island found themselves with little more than what they could carry. Most farmers had little cash and relied on their land to grow crops for trade. Since they had to abandon most of their property, they came to Connecticut destitute, relying on the charity of others.
Some wanted to return to Long Island to collect some of their property. A few were able to get permission to return temporarily, but most could not. Even for those who did get permission, the risk of robbery on the roads was high. Over the winter of 1776-77, the Forage War was occupying the two armies. Because the British could not collect forage in New Jersey, collecting forage on Long Island became more critical.
Connecticut remained a patriot stronghold and Long Island a loyalist stronghold, with only the relatively narrow waters of Long Island Sound separating these two enemies.
In command of the Continental forces in Connecticut was General Samuel Parsons. I’ve mentioned him a few times, but just as a reminder: Parsons started the war as a Connecticut patriot politician and militia officer. Way back in Episode 59, Colonel Parsons had met with Captain Benedict Arnold on the road to Cambridge just after Lexington and Concord. Arnold told Parsons about the importance of the cannons at Fort Ticonderoga. Parsons, after leaving Arnold, decided to organize and provide colonial funds for the mission to take Fort Ticonderoga, using Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
|Samusel Holden Parson|
Colonel Parsons participated in the Siege of Boston and took a commission in the Continental Army. Some sources say he fought at Bunker Hill, but as far as I can tell, he never made it onto the battlefield. It appears he was part of the reserve forces that were held back during the battle. Colonel Parsons moved to New York with the rest of the army after the British evacuated Boston. In August, 1776 Congress commissioned him as a brigadier general. He was the Connecticut candidate who prevented Colonel Arnold from being promoted in that round.
General Parsons oversaw the failed mission of the Turtle submarine to blow up the British fleet in New York Harbor. He fought at White Plains and also joined the raid on Fort Independence in January 1777. Following the Danbury Raid, which I discussed in Episode 135, Washington gave him an independent command in Connecticut, concerned about another British invasion of the State. Parsons was eager to do more than simply wait for another raid, he was wanted a counter-raid.
Return Jonathan Meigs
To prepare for a raid on Long Island, General Parsons tapped Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs. I have to pause here for a moment to explain how this guy got a name like "Return Jonathan." According to family lore, when his father was courting his mother, she refused his proposal of marriage, so he got on his horse and rode off. Either she had a change of heart or had just been playing hard to get, but he ran after him shouting “Return Jonathan.” The couple did get married and thought it would be fun to name their son Return Jonathan in remembrance of the event. So, this wasn’t some nickname that he picked up during his life. His parents actually saddled him with the name at his birth.
|Return Jonathan Meigs|
Meigs, Sr. had served in the colonial militia before the war. He had a thriving mercantile business and married his second wife in 1774, following the death of his first wife a year earlier.
After Lexington and Concord, Captain Meigs had led a company of militiamen to participate in the Siege of Boston. After the Continental Army formed, Meigs became a major in the Second Continental Regiment. He volunteered to cross the wilderness under Colonel Benedict Arnold to attack Quebec in 1775 and was among the minority who made it through to the Battle of Quebec. There, he was captured and held prisoner for several months. Despite the many hardships of this campaign, Meigs kept a journal of his mission, which is a wonderful primary source for the events of Arnold’s march and the battle of Quebec.
In May 1776, the British paroled Meigs and allowed him to return home via Halifax. However, under the conditions of his parole, he could not rejoin the war until exchanged for a captured British officer. It was not until January 1777 that he was formally exchanged and could rejoin the war effort. In February, Meigs received promotion to lieutenant colonel, and in May got bumped up to full colonel to take command of the sixth Connecticut regiment. Upon taking command, he was tasked with launching the retaliatory raid against Long Island.
Long Island’s Sag Harbor had been under British occupation since just after the British seized Long Island in August 1776. A force of 200 Continentals was originally sent to Sag Harbor to prevent British control of the entire island. When the British sent a larger force out to occupy the area in September, the small and isolated 200 Continentals fled across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut without a fight. The British required all civilians to take an oath of loyalty to the King. Of the thirty-five families living in Sag Harbor at the time, twenty-one took the oath. The other fourteen fled to Connecticut.
Because it was a port on the eastern end of Long Island where men or supplies could be taken in or out, the regulars kept a presence there, along with British patrol ships in the sound to make sure the patriots could not make use of it. You have to remember though, Long Island is really, well, long. It was over a hundred miles from New York City where the main British garrison was located, to the outpost at Sag Harbor. That was several days’ march at the time.
|Peconic Bay, Sag Harbor (from RevWar Journal)|
By May, there were only about seventy loyalist militia occupying Sag Harbor under the command of Captain James Raymond. The loyalists had an earthen works defensive line at the edge of town to use in the event of an attack. They built housing for the garrison on nearby Meeting House Hill, which also gave a good view of the area, including the bay to the north of them. According to later accounts, the British who had originally built the defensive works on Meeting House Hill, had dug their entrenchments in the Meeting House’s graveyard, resulting the desecration of many graves.
The loyalists also had a twelve gun schooner and a dozen smaller gunboats manned by about forty loyalist sailors. Their main purpose was to prevent smugglers from moving anything across Long Island Sound. These ships supplemented the British Navy, which patrolled the sound, on the lookout for any unauthorized ships.
Sag Harbor served as a depot for British forage and other supplies. Remember, this was near the end of the forage war in New Jersey, when patriots had been trying to deny forage and food for the army’s horses and men. There were tons of hay, grain, and other supplies stockpiled at Sag Harbor.
In preparation for the raid, Colonel Meigs hand-selected the soldiers from various units. Meigs picked 234 officers and men to assemble as a temporary unit for this one operation. Among those selected was a local so that Meigs was able to get intelligence about the area. Sergeant Elnathan Jennings of the first Connecticut told Meigs that he had grown up in Sag Harbor. He was intimately familiar with the area. Jennings had been among the many patriots who had fled Long Island rather than take the oath of loyalty to the King once the British arrived. The 23 year old had signed up with the Continental army and was eager to assist. He provided details about the best places for landing and about paths into the village that avoided main roads.
On May 21, the men selected for the mission moved from New Haven to nearby Guilford, Connecticut as the launch point for crossing the sound. There, they waited for two days until the weather calmed down enough to make the crossing. Finally, on the afternoon of May 23, the stormy weather had subsided. The assault force crossed Long Island Sound in thirteen whaleboats, which are large rowboats. They were also accompanied by three small sloops with sails.
|Whaleboat (from Rev War Journal)|
Instead they carried eleven of the whaleboats overland to Peconic Bay. They rowed across the bay and landed on the south fork, about four miles from Sag Harbor, around midnight. The raiders had to leave some of the men with the ships at Southold, and more with the whaleboats that were tied up a few miles from town. Only 170 men of the original 234 continued on to the Sag Harbor to engage the enemy.
After landing, it took the soldiers about two hours to form up and make the night march to Sag Harbor, arriving around 2:00 AM on the morning of the 24th.
Meigs divided his force into two groups. The main force of about 130 men would assault the defenses at Meeting House Hill. The other 40 man team led by Captain Troop moved down to the harbor and destroy all the ships and supplies there. Meigs led the main assault on Meeting House Hill. He ordered his men to attack the guards with bayonets and avoid any gunfire that might awaken the main loyalist garrison.
According to a report compiled later by the Sag Harbor village historian, the raiders first captured a guard house, which has been the town schoolhouse before the occupation, and took prisoner the guards there. They next occupied the barracks where they surprised the sleeping soldiers and captured them without firing a shot. From there they moved on to capture the loyalist garrison commander, Captain Raymond and his staff, who were sleeping in a commandeered home on Main Street. It was only after capturing Raymond that the Continentals assaulted the main defenses on Meeting House Hill. That is where the fighting resulted in the death of six loyalists who resisted in hand to hand fighting.
|Porting Whaleboats (from Rev War Journal)|
Colonel Meigs, having secured the garrison on Meeting House Hill, deployed some of his soldiers to return fire on the frigate in order to give some cover to the men in the harbor. There is no record of any British casualties on the ship. Given the distance, it is unlikely they hit anyone that far away. We know the British cannons were ineffective as none of the men at the harbor were killed or wounded while going about their work. Firing into the dark from a distance was probably more an effort to scare off the enemy rather than do any actual damage.
Meigs reported killing a total of six of the enemy. It is not clear if all of those happened while capturing Meeting House Hill, or whether some or all of the casualties took place at the harbor. Given the sketchy details,we only know that there was some hand to hand fighting that night, resulting in enemy deaths. The Continentals, apparently made with through with none of their own killed or wounded.
|Meigs Raid (from Wikimedia)|
Whatever the exact number, the raiders and their prisoners rowed back to the north fork, then across Long Island Sound, reaching the Connecticut shore safely at around 2:00 PM. The entire raid and return, which covered about 90 miles of land and water, took about 24 hours.
The Continentals captured almost all of the enemy stationed there and made it back to their whaleboats without any casualties. I guess those whaleboats were pretty large since the full contingent of raiders plus the prisoners rode back to Connecticut in them.
The Patriots deemed the raid was a success. The Meigs Raid was more of a psychological victory than anything else. Loyalists on Long Island were unnerved by the raid and felt less secure. It’s not entirely clear from contemporary records, but it does not appear that the British re-occupied Sag Harbor after the raid, or put any outpost so far east that could be an isolated target for another raid.
|Long Island Forts (NY State Military Museum)|
By all appearances, the British abandoned any permanent garrison out near the eastern tip of Long Island.
Back in Connecticut, Colonel Meigs became a hero. Congress awarded him a ceremonial sword as thanks for his efforts, one of only fifteen awarded during the war.
Next Week: General Howe attempts to provoke another fight with General Washington, in Northern New Jersey, resulting in the Battle of Short Hills.
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Next Episode 140 The Battle of Short Hills
Previous Episode 138 The Battle of Thomas Creek
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Virgintino, Mike The Battle of Sag Harbor In The War For Independence: https://classicnewyorkhistory.com/the-battle-of-sag-harbor-in-the-war-for-independence
Battle of Long Island: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Battle_of_Long_Island
Rattiner, Dan Meigs Raid: Following Patriots’ Route to Attack the British in Sag Harbor:
Minty, Christopher “A List of Persons on Long Island”: Biography, Voluntarism, and Suffolk County’s 1778 Oath of Allegiance: https://lihj.cc.stonybrook.edu/2015/articles/a-list-of-persons-on-long-island-biography-voluntarism-and-suffolk-countys-1778-oath-of-allegiance
Schenawolf, Harry “Sag Harbor Raid, Special Ops of the American Revolution” Revolutionary War Journal, Dec 27, 2018: http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/sag-harbor-raid-incredibly-successful-special-ops-of-the-american-revolutionary-war
Meigs Raid https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1777/meigs-raid
Mann, Frank Paul, "The British Occupation of Southern New York during the American Revolution and the Failure to Restore Civilian Government" 2013. Syracuse Univ History - Dissertations (PDF): https://surface.syr.edu/hst_etd/100
Welch, Richard “Fort Franklin: Tory Bastion on Long Island Sound” Journal of the American Revolution, March 19, 2015: https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/03/fort-franklin-tory-bastion-on-long-island-sound
(from archive.org unless noted)
Hall, Charles S. Life and letters of Samuel Holden Parsons, Binghamton: Otsening Publishing, 1905.
Hedges, Henry P. A History of the Town of East-Hampton, N. Y. Sag Harbor, NY: J. H. Hunt, 1897.
Lossing, Benson J. The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, Vol. 2, New York: Harper Brothers, 1852.
Mather, Frederic The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut. Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1913.
Onderdonk, Henry Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties. Leavitt & Co. 1849.
Trumbull, Jonathan The Trumbull Papers, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society 1888.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Grasso, Joanne S. The American Revolution on Long Island, Heritage Books, 2016.
Griffin, David M. Lost British Forts of Long Island, History Press, 2017.
Mason, Richard A. The Quiet Patriot, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, Heritage Books, 2010 (book recommendation of the week).
Ward, Christopher War of the Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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