We read about the Revolutionary War in school and with the romance of Paul Revere and others in Massachusetts, it is often believed the war took place up north. Well, it was here in Connecticut too, in fact, in West Haven! Not to confuse you, Orange and West Haven were connected in 1822 many years after the war. West Haven was just that West Haven or West Farms in the early days. We can start with New Haven with it being Connecticut’s largest seaport with a college that was considered largest in America at that time in 1765. British General Thomas Gage was suspicious of the college believing it to be “the seminary of Democracy.” New Haven was becoming a hot bed of civil disobedience.
During the hatred toward the stamp act where newspapers, wills, deeds, legal documents and the like required a tax stamp, Jared Ingersoll was the brunt of this anger pelting his home with rocks as he was the collector of the tax stamp. Not only was his home attacked but a threat to tear it down completely made officials increasingly nervous. Benedict Arnold, proprietor of an apothecary shop, was not using stamps and overheard one of his employees planning to turn him into British authorities. With haste Arnold led a mob against the man whipping him in the public square. He was arrested and found guilty of cruel and dangerous behavior. To that, fellow townspeople hung, in effigy, the two grand jurymen who convicted him. Not wanting a wholesale riot, Arnold was released.
When war broke out, the lawlessness escalated. Arnold, in his zealousness to support the colonists, had demanded the keys for the powder house on the Green. Six months later, the Reverend Samuel Seabury was kidnapped, parading him through town and with his pro British stance earned him six months in prison. Two other members of the British Loyalists were also kidnapped. The town had indeed become a hotbed with hotheaded colonials taking the law into their own hands, repeatedly. It was feared that Britain would answer these acts with a reprisal, as was Falmouth Maine for a lesser offense.
Many members of New Haven chose to join the British army while others rode both sides of the fence supplying the British troops in Long Island then turning around to join the Continental Army and there were those who played it in reverse. One Samuel Thomas was listed on paper for the Loyalist’s Queen’s Rangers while being pledged to serve in the CT 6th Regiment. Good thing the two groups didn’t engage each other. I think that would have made a good theme for a comedy routine, maybe a Laurel and Hardy take on war.
New Haven did join in the fight with almost 1000 men for the cause and lost 200 of them but not everyone was on “the same page.” In 1777, seventy men were charged with dereliction of duty and 600 did nothing to defend the town in the invasion of 1779. In fact, most of them were busy getting their families together and fleeing. Several prominent men, Loyalists to be sure, held high offices in the town and were on the surface instrumental in the political dealings of the town. Although some were under suspicion, they still were able to maintain their positions reason being that they were prominent, wealthy, educated and were smart enough to keep their Tory ideas to themselves, for the most part. Citizens were increasingly aware that they needed to find their own ways to survive as they distrusted authority and its ability to meet their needs. Merchants suspected of price gauging were boycotted, clergy were ousting parishioners for their Loyalist tendencies and Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, arbitrarily dismissed students who were loyal to the crown.
A true movie theme was created when in 1777, 300 local fishermen rowed across the Sound to Sag Harbor under cloak of darkness to raid upon the enemy with such success that 6 of the enemy were killed, 12 ships were burned and 90 men taken prisoner. Smuggling and privateering were rampant in New Haven with some offenders being tried and sent to New Gate Prison in Granby, a dismal place but not one that was too secure at times. Soon members of West Haven, growing tired of the mayhem joined in the raids but soon discovered that privateering was only another word for highway robbery.
To end this siege of anti-authority, Britain planned a rapid fired raid against the coastal towns of New London, New Haven, Milford, Fairfield and Norwalk staying long enough to give those towns the message that Britain was here to stay and it was not prudent to continue with the raids upon their ships that were being provided by the privateers, who were quite successful. Hearing of the impending attack, West Haven was not prepared and their coastline would become a target with its myriad of shore points. The state government had not seen it profitable to heed West Haven’s calls for help in the past, offering little assistance.
West Haveners constructd small groundworks in various places including West River, Oyster Point and Morris Cove in the hope that they could support the fort built at Black Rock on the eastern shore of New Haven. Illegal trafficking continued but for the most part the citizens of West Haven were fairly safe using a field gun to warn of British ships in the Sound, often going on the shore to watch as the fleet sailed passed. They may have watched as the fleet sailed by but it was not long before bullets were flying in their town.
July 4th, 1779 saw West Haveners celebrating daylong church services with prayers for the army that was struggling and New Haven’s first, public parade. As the breezes blew softly on that sultry, summer day, the thought of British ships passing by was doubtful. General David Wooster had gotten word that the British were on the move and pleaded to his friends in New Haven to evacuate but his words were ignored. Thomas Painter, a member of an artillery company stood watch through the night and persuading a few friends to accompany him awaited the possibility of British ships landing in West Haven. It was 2 a.m. when the Sound was full of sails, running close to shore. The British fleet had arrived as was told by General Wooster but unheeded. They dropped anchor not far from Savin Rock. British Major Tryon had planned to start with Black Rock Fort and move west along the shoreline. You see, they had been given landing sites, maps and defenses from local sympathizers so the attack could be swift and deadly but proving a point. However, the plan changed when two local brothers Stephen and Joseph Prindle assured Tryon that defenses were weak on both sides of the harbor.
Painter fired the alarm, going door to door but he was met with disdain and disbelief that any such raid was pending but by dawn some residents caught on and began to leave, some burying their valuables, others leaving without them. What we do know locally is that when colonial agents went to the Prindle home sometime earlier to give up their pewter* for bullets, they refused, hiding it in their well. By 5:00 A.M. dozens of boats, loaded with soldiers, were rowing toward the West Haven shore. Fifteen hundred troops were lined up on the West Haven beaches.
The steeple bell on the Green tolled endlessly with only a few dozen men answering the call. With so little help, Lieutenant Aziel Kimberly knew it would be futile to oppose the enemy directly but chose to go to higher ground and from what is now Savin Avenue would harass the advance guard. The British were unable to keep their ranks tight and the defenders were on the move toward the Green with the enemy close behind, plundering as they went.
As one of the bands of soldier sought refuge from the heat in the First Congregational Church, they saw the Reverend Noah Williston with arms full of documents running out the back door. Local Tories cheered for the soldiers to pursue him but attempting to jump over a stonewall, the Reverend fell breaking his leg. The soldiers jeered and pointed their bayonets at him. Hearing this commotion, British Adjutant William Campbell put an end to the taunting and ordered the regimental surgeon to set the minister’s leg. Campbell, a seasoned officer, was in charge of administration, organization and troop discipline in his late 30s from Scotland.
Although outmanned and poorly trained according to British standards, the West Haveners, then supported by 150 colonials forced the enemy to change its route which took them up Forest Road to the Derby Pike. One officer took to Milford Hill to see the oncoming colonials and was shot in the chest by a panicked militiaman. The officer was taken to a nearby home with him asking that his sash, plume and watch be sent to his wife. What personal effects he had were stolen by his aide along with his uniform as he was buried wrapped in a blanket. This officer’s name was Campbell. For his act of kindness, Adjutant Campbell was later honored by West Haveners naming their main roadway Campbell Avenue. His grave is located across from UNH marked and tended by local citizens.