The Saugatuck River rises in the Danbury Hills and runs for not much more than 20 miles before it reaches Long Island Sound. At its mouth, in present day Westport it is a wide river, but in colonial times there was a bridge a couple miles just upstream where the Old King's Highway crossed the Saugatuck. On the morning of April 28th, 1777, Benedict Arnold and the force which had opposed the British the previous afternoon at Ridgefield raced to hold this crossing and, they supposed, get between Tryon's raiders and their waiting ships and trap them on the wrong side of the river. In this belief Arnold was mistaken, as subsequent events would prove.
Tryon's force marched south on the Ridgefield Road into Wilton, where they took prisoners and looted several houses. Some of the Wilton militia under Lt. Seth Abbott (no relation) were with Arnold and had taken losses at Ridgefield, but others were gathering and more American militia were on the march to intercept the British including Col. Jedediah Huntington and the men who had relinquished Danbury to the invader and were now looking for vengeance.
Word came from area loyalists of a possible ambush being prepared at Wilton Center, so Tryon changed the direction of march and detoured down Old Mill Road and over to Old Danbury Rd. An online article of Wilton history reports;
"At the bridge over Comstock Brook, they found and destroyed 100 barrels of rum, several chests of arms, many cartridges (bullets and powder wrapped in paper), 300 tents, and the forge and bellows of Captain Clapp Raymond, a blacksmith. All of this had been hidden there for safekeeping, as the Americans did not expect the British to take this route. At Captain Raymond’s house (249 Danbury Road, moved to 224 Danbury Road in 2001), they attempted to set fire to his barn, but a Tory neighbor and her Indian slave put out the fire. Raymond later claimed damages of £34 3s. 10d.
Tryon then marched his troops up Dudley Road (Westport Road did not exist at the time), pausing to loot the home of Lieutenant Seth Abbott, to the extent of £55 7s. 3d. in damages."
These were not random acts of looting, but appear to have been targeted against local patriot militia leaders. It is clear that the British benefited from intelligence provided by area Tories, and perhaps from some of the 300 who served in the expedition in the loyalist Prince of Wales American Regiment. Such intelligence would be invaluable to Tryon as his column approached the Saugatuck.
One source claims Colonel Huntington attacked the British column at this point near the ridge of Chestnut Hill, which offered clear views toward the Sound. It also revealed that Arnold's force held the Old Kings Bridge over the river. With enemies gathering behind and the river between them and safety, Tryon was in a tight spot, but again he was served by those with local knowledge who knew of a nearby ford two miles upstream- though crucially, Arnold did not - where today it is even possible to bicycle across the stream. The British detoured again on what is now called RedCoat Rd. and crossed the river unopposed at the modern intersection of Ford and Clinton Rd. Arnold failed to shift his front to intercept and Tryon's column reached the beachhead at Compo Hill, but not for want of trying.
Colonel Hugh Hughes, Deputy Quartermaster of the Continental Army, was present with Arnold at the bridge and left a record of what he saw, quoted in Robert McDevitt's Connecticut Attacked: A British Viewpoint, Tryon's Raid on Danbury (1975):
"As soon as they were within reach of a six-pounder - he [Arnold] ordered a shot to be thrown among them which halted the whole first division, and the second [shot] put them into some disorder as it overset some of them. On which when, the second division came up, it was determined by them to take a left hand road which led over a fording place..."
McDevitt states that General Erskine made a show of force before the bridge, pushing two regiments forward while the rest wheeled to the left and made for the ford. Arnold could not shift to defend the ford without exposing his own flank. The British observed that Arnold attempted to cross the bridge but was not followed by his men. The 4th (King's Own) were left to hold the north side of the bridge while the rest of the British made for the shore, and were pressed so hard by the rebel troops that they were nearly cut off, but in the end they gained the shore.
There was still the challenge of reembarking, and the Americans had been reinforced and now possessed artillery of their own. In addition to a militia company from Fairfield with one cannon, there were four more under Lt. Colonel Eleazer Oswald - Arnold's former aide in his March to Quebec who was captured in the doomed assault of the lower City in December 1775 - now leading two companies of the 2nd Continental (Lamb's) Artillery. Colonel Lamb was also on hand, having ridden 60 miles from Southington when the alarm reached him. Certain DAR Lineage books place my ancestor Thadeus Thompson at Compo Hill with Lamb's Artillery, but I have come to believe this is wishful thinking. Young Thompson (and he was young, born in 1762) did indeed serve under Lamb from Valley Forge to Yorktown where he was maimed by a shell that struck the facines he was carrying, but his enlistment was not until 1778.
The American reinforcements now included 60 horsemen from the 1st Troop of the 3rd Connecticut Cavalry, Colonel Huntington's Danbury force, 3 additional companies from New Haven, and at least one tired rider from Sharon, CT - the previously mentioned and ill-fated Lt. Samuel Lawrence. With these troops and the defenders of Ridgefield, there were perhaps 1,200 Americans to contest the British evacuation at Compo Hill. Anticipating the need for assistance of his own, Tryon send his redoubtable second in command Sir William Erskine ahead of his column to secure the beachhead and some sources (but notably, not McDevitt) claim he brought cannon, sailors and marines from the ships to augment his force on land. McDevitt makes the case that the British held the shore with the force at hand.
On Compo Hill, the British placed four cannon to secure their right flank and defended themselves behind stone walls. It was a strong defensive position and Tryon now outnumbered his attackers three to one, but this did not stop the Americans from attempting to dislodge them. Colonel Lamb rallied those nearest the beach to assault the guns. He rode his horse up to the stone fence in a hail of grape shot and was struck down - it was thought mortally - as he mounted the wall. Lt. Colonel Oswald served his guns admirably in support of this assault and those that followed. Arnold's men kept up a heavy fire and the General had yet another hose shot from under him but emerged without a scratch. Others were not so fortunate. Lt. Elnathan Nichols of the 3rd Connecticut Horse was struck by cannister in the elbow Ebenezer How, Jr. and Benjamen Weed 3rd, both of the Stamford Militia, are listed in the surgeon's records with wounds to the hip and right side respectively after the fight at Compo Hill. Another man, Amos Gray, survived musket balls to the arm and breast, but many others did not. Among the slain was Lt. Elmore of Sharon, who it is reported:
"seeing that his men were disposed to retreat, leaped upon a stone wall and shouted ' for God's sake, men, don't retreat, don't run, let's march up the hill and drive them off.' At that instant he fell shot through the body saying to George Pardee who was near him ' Uncle George I am a dead man' and immediately expired."
Out of ammunition, the British counterattacked with the bayonet. Elements of the 4th, 15th, 23rd and 27th regiments took part in the charge, with Major Stewart and a dozen men reportedly leaping the wall and initiating a general charge by the rest. Whoever initiated it, the charge proved effective and compelled the patriots to withdraw. The embarkation then proceeded without further impediment,, again despite Arnold's efforts to rally the militia to oppose it.
The British losses among those who made the raid were about 150 casualties. The loyalist Prince of Wales American Regiment lost 1 drummer and 6 rank & file killed; 3 officers, 3 sergeants and 11 rank & file wounded; plus 3 rank & file missing. Its commander Montfort Browne was slightly wounded, though Captain Daniel Lyman of the regiment's Light Infantry Company was shot through the body and never fully recovered. The 64th Regiment of Foot had Captain Carter, Ensign Mercer, and eleven men of the 64th wounded.
American casualties are much harder to determine, though estimates range between 100-125 (plus more than 40 captured) and General Wooster and Lt. Colonel Gold slain. The American loss in personal property and war materiel was much greater, culminating in houses burned near the beach as they embarked and including the stores at Danbury, which amounted to 1,700 tents, 4,000 barrels of beef and pork, 1,000 barrels of flour, rice, hospital stores, engineering tools, 5,000 pairs of shoes and stockings, a printing press, rum, molasses, sugar, wheat, and Indian corn.
From a propaganda standpoint, both sides were quick to put their own spin on the affair, but in the beginning the American commander and Congress perceived the British raid as a mistake that they took steps not to repeat by moving depots much further inland. Washington himself did not learn of the raid until the evening of April 30 when he wrote the President of Congress;
"Sir: I have been waiting with much anxiety to hear the result of the expedition against Danbury, which I never was informed of 'till this minute. The inclosed Copy of a Letter from General MacDougall
and of Several Others, which he transmitted, will give Congress all the intelligence, I have upon the Subject. I have only to add and to lament, that this Enterprize has been attended but with too much success on the part of the Enemy."
As news of Arnold's heroics reached Congress, it acted to promote him to Major General, prompting Washington to write;
"General Arnolds promotion gives me much pleasure; he has certainly discovered, in every instance where he has had an opportunity, much bravery, activity and enterprize. But what will be done about his Rank? he will not act, most probably, under those he commanded but a few weeks ago."
Indeed, though they also awarded him a horse with all necessary equipment to replace the one lost at Ridgefield, Congress only dated Arnold's commission to that February when he was initially passed over for promotion, the resentment of which festered and contributed to his eventually turning traitor.
The martyred General Wooster was lauded in death as was not always the case in life - his handling of the invading forces in Canada was decried by Congressional observers. The Wooster School in Danbury where I spent the first two years of my life was named for him, and even Phillis Wheatley penned an unpublished poem in his honor:
From this the Muse rich consolation draws
He nobly perish'd in his Country's cause
His Country's Cause that ever fir'd his mind
Where martial flames, and Christian virtues join'd.
How shall my pen his warlike deeds proclaim
Or paint them fairer on the list of Fame—
Enough, great Chief-now wrapt in shades around,
Thy grateful Country shall thy praise resound—
Tho not with mortals' empty praise elate
That vainest vapour to the immortal State
Inly serene the expiring hero lies.
And thus (while heav'nward roll his swimming eyes):
Accolades and propotions were also forthcoming for Colonel Jedediah Huntington, who later that year commanded a brigade of Connecticut Continentals under Washington, and for Lt. Colonel Oswald, praised for his handling of the guns at Compo and lauded once again in 1778 for his service at Monmouth. As for the militia, their defense of Connecticut during Tryon's Danbury Raid would assume the proportions of myth - their own Lexington and Concord, giving the redcoats "ball for ball." The truth is that the milita and those continental units on hand fought well and were well lead. Not all of them arrived in time to fire on the British but all (save Arnold, who had reason to resent their conduct) had the sense that they had done what was required to see them off. The raid also showed that forces from neighboring states would rally to defend the other. While the British never again penetrated deep into the state, their subsequent coastal raids were probably more a reflection of the lack of suitable inland targets than the need for a quick getaway. Nonetheless, as long as the militia were willing to rise and swarm, though it took the British several more years to fully realize this, the royalists could raid but they could not hold the territory through which they marched.