By Ian McKay
The Sound separated American logistical bases in Connecticut from British bases on Long Island. It provided two forms of contact between belligerents — contraband trade and supply raids. The mercantile aspect developed out of shared needs, and became known as “London trading”; American agricultural produce was exchanged for British finished goods. a fleet of oared 30-foot boats operated along the length of the Connecticut coast. They regularly darted across the Sound loaded with provisions. In fact the trade became so endemic that it fostered a parasitic colony of privateers who plundered friend and foe alike.
The Sound was also an avenue by which to launch raids on supply bases. Almost as soon as the British established control on Long Island, they were subject to whaleboat warfare, as it came to be known. Ambrose Serle reported that in October a party of men from New London, Conn. seized cattle provisions and forage on Long Island. The number of sheep taken alone exceeded 17.000. The raids necessitated constant protection by guards and sentries. This threat of intervention kept the British from developing the resources of the largest territory in America under their possession.
Brig. General William Tryon, the deposed governor of New York, probably suggested the plan to attack the American supply base at Danbury. The 1777 plan was conceived as a punitive raid, despite the British shortage of fodder and foodstuffs. Brig. General James Agnew was assigned co-leader with Tryon of the expedition, but the command seems to have devolved upon Brig. General Sir William Erskine. Earlier that winter, Erskine had led a foraging expedition to New Jersey in which “he routed the rebels with great slaughter; he took no prisoners.”
Twelve transports, a hospital ship, and some small craft embarked on April 22 with about 2,000 troops, 300 of them Loyalists. Simultaneously, a diversionary force of frigates sailed up the Hudson. The ships on the expedition to Danbury were under the command of Capt. Henry Duncan. They passed into Long Island Sound and anchored for the night about 10 miles past Hell Gate. For two days the troops waited out a headwind in discomfort aboard ship before they could proceed the remaining 30 miles. Their destination was Cedar Point, a position on the Connecticut Shore about 4 miles East of Norwalk and 8 miles west of Fairfield. They landed at 5:00 P.M. on April 25th at a stretch of beach which Duncan called “exceedingly unfavorable,” but they quickly took possession of Compo Hill and Bennet’s Rocks. In a light rain the supplies were brought ashore and by 11:00 P.M. the troops were on the march by the Reading Road to Danbury.
The British column reached Reading 12 hours later–a distance of 20 miles. Moving through the uneven terrain and the passes at Gilbertown and Jump Hill, they encountered only scattered resistance. The fatigued troops reach Danbury at 5:00 P.M. and drove off 150 Continentals who had been attempting to remove supplies. Seven patriot snipers stayed behind and opened fire from a house in town. Two companies of regulars charged and put the dwelling to the torch with the men inside. The high ground around the town was secured.
Before their departure early the next morning, the British destroyed 4,000 to 5,000 barrels of pork, beef, and flour, 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents among other supplies. Nineteen houses were burned. The British left by the western road towards Ridgefield.
Meanwhile, a force of 500 militia and 100 Continentals was hurrying towards Danbury under Brig. General Gold Selleck Silliman. He was joined by Brig. General Benedict Arnold. With 400 of the troops they reached Ridgefield after a forced march at 11:00 A.M. and cut off the British line of advance. Brig. General David Wooster took the balance of the Americans and charged the British rearguard. In what was termed “smart skirmishing” near Ridgefield. Wooster was mortally wounded. Arnold held the front for about an hour against three cannon, had his horse shot out from under him, and killed a soldier who ran up to take him prisoner. The uncoordinated British attack in three waves under Erskine eventually dispersed the Americans. But the patriots regrouped 15 miles farther south at the bridge over the Saugatuck River and were joined by reinforcements. The British encamped on the battlefield that evening.
At daybreak on April 28 the British column set off again, but it was molested by irregular fire from rebels in the undergrowth beside the road. The British outflanked a group of Americans at the Norwalk River Bridge by crossing on a route father upstream as marked on the map. The same strategy was used again at the Saugatuck River. Arnold had collected 500 troops above the bridge to the South, but the British crossed 3 miles north and headed over Finch’s Hill to their ships Silliman with another 500 troops and two cannon skirmished at the British rear guard until they reached Compo Hill. There the British turned on their pursuers, and with bayonets fixed, four regiments charged. Despite their exhaustion after the day’s march, they drove back the Americans a mile and a half. Duncan prepared a defense for the reembarcation and loaded 1000 troops in ten minutes. The remainder soon followed and the fleet got underway at 6:00 P.M. for the voyage back to New York.
The British loss was 140 killed and wounded, with about 20 prisoners. A British officer claimed an American return showed 100 killed and 200 wounded, but American reports estimated between 60 and 100 casualties. Washington ordered supply depots moved beyond a one-day march from the coast; the tents he had lost were virtually irreplaceable. Colonel Return Jonathon Miegs crossed the Sound from New Haven in whaleboats on October 23. He burned ships and supplies in Sag Harbor, returning with 90 prisoners. The map corresponds precisely to the account in Capt. Lt. Archibald Robertson’s diary. It may be assumed that Capt. Montressor made this copy of it.
“Campaigns of the American Revolution (An Atlas of Manuscript Maps)”, D. Marshall & H. Peckham, University of Michigan Press, at Ann Arbor Mich., 1976, Pages 40-41