East Haven was preparing to join neighboring New Haven to celebrate Independence Day on July 5, 1779, when the British fleet appeared.
In New Haven, the Governor’s Second Foot Guard had polished their buttons; the bunting was up; and the opening ceremonies had been held on Sunday night, July 4, when the signal cannon went off. After that, there was only time to hide the women and children; send word to neighboring militias; and assemble on the shore to meet a force totaling 5,000 invaders.
Today, we have reminders all over our area of the Revolutionary War. We have cannon on the Village Green; a reconstructed fort over in Morris Cove; markers indicating Lafayette’s army camped in town; and various other bits and pieces. We know something happened in East Haven, but what?
Before ‘what’ comes the question ‘why.’ Why did the British come out of New York to the East Shore in the first place? It is believed that General Clinton, commanding in New York, was getting tired of the war. He thought he might be able to lure Washington into sending forces to help reinforce towns under attack in Connecticut – especially East Haven where Lafayette had quartered. Washington did not fall for the trap.
East Haven was to suffer greatly because, unlike West Haven or New Haven, where other segments of the British landed, East Haven was attacked by forces led by General William Tryon. As a former governor of both North Carolina and New York, he had developed an antipathy for the rebels bordering on hatred.
When Tryon’s forces landed at Lighthouse Point and Morris Cove, he had 1,500 soldiers from the British 23rd regiment, the Hessian Landgrave, and the King’s American regiment, filled with Tories. Among this number were two sons of Joshua Chandler, a New Haven attorney. Tom Chandler was familiar with the area and its people. He had hunted and dined with the Morris, Tuttle and Bradley families. He knew the land and the defenses. His presence with Tryon made for a dangerous combination.
On hand to meet the enemy at Lighthouse Point at 8 a.m. on July 5, was a hastily gathered group of 50 militiamen and farmers, along with one cannon they had dragged up to the beach. When a young officer in a British boat called on them to disperse, someone shot him and killed him. He would be buried on the spot and today his grave is covered by Lighthouse Park. It is thought that this death further enraged Tryon.
In Morris Cove, near where Amarante’s Sea Cliff stands today, another contingent came ashore led by Tryon. They used the jutting outcrop of the Palisades to shield them from Black Rock Fort where 19 men and three cannon were firing on the landing force and the anchored ships.
Tryon took over the high ground of the Palisades, across from the present day Myron Street/Townsend Avenue intersection. Eventually, the fort’s defenders ran out of ammunition; spiked the cannons; and tried to join militia further north, but were captured.
Tryon’s force then met up with the troops coming from the South End. After joining about where the Pardee-Morris House stands, they fired the house and all its outbuildings and fields. Captain Amos Morris had evacuated his people and was just leaving by the back door when the British reach his home. He joined with others in the woods as they kept pace with the British regulars and fired on them from behind the stone walls, rail fences, and trees.
The running battle continued down what is now Townsend Avenue. It was then about 11 yards wide, but allowed the British to march several abreast as they moved down the road. They made ready targets for the excellent marksmen among the militia who fired Queen Anne muskets they used every day for hunting.
About where Raynham Road intersects with Townsend Avenue was the Joseph Tuttle farm. It stretched from Black Rock to Beacon Hill (Fort Wooster). Joseph and his elder son had already gone to help fortify Black Rock Fort, so Mrs. Tuttle was loading her family of six, including a baby, and what valuables she could manage, into an ox cart. Her cart slipped into the forest just as the fighting came to her property.
As the enemy approached the Tuttle house, Tory Tom Chandler identified Joseph Tuttle among the prisoners captured at the fort. The officer commanding the squadron offered to spare the house if he promised not to continue fighting. Tuttle refused and watched as the house was burned. Then he and the other prisoners were sent to the prison ships in the harbor.
The story would be the same as the British fought their way north to the present-day Fair Haven area. They burned every house, outbuilding and field they came to; took every animal they found. Most of these were butchered on the spot and sent back to provision the ships in the harbor.
By the time they British got to Beacon Hill (now Fort Wooster in the 700 block of Townsend Avenue), the defenders numbered somewhere around a thousand. Men had come in from North Haven, Hamden, Cheshire and Wallingford.
One eager young man from North Haven, Adam Thorp, refused to leave the hedge rows to take refuge on the hill. (He stood about where the northern end of the hedge on the present-day Townshend home, Raynham Hall, is located.) He said he didn’t come to run from the British, fired his gun, and was promptly shot. He was the first fatality on the East Haven side. A stone marker at the edge of the road memorialized the spot for many years. After this death, the fighting became more intense.
(When Townsend Avenue was widened in 1870, the remains of several Hessian soldiers were found just outside the fence line of the Townshend property.)
Eventually, the Beacon Hill defenders had to give way before the larger force armed with cannon. When they left the hill, they moved toward the center of town, taking up new vantage points on the Foxon Heights and on what they called the Saltonstall Mountains, with some outposts left around the Green.
The British doggedly pursued them down Burr Street, which was then called Hall’s Cartway and was the only road from the Cove to East Haven. They pursued the militia until they got to the Old Stone Church on Main Street. They ransacked that, but the church fathers had tunneled out a hiding place under the belfry with a trap door that housed the church silver.
The shooting continued, with the stiffest fighting going on around a hill just west of the present intersection of Main Street and Bradley Avenue. Existing homes would carry the bullet holes until they were replaced decades later.
At this point, the British began to pull back. They had suffered heavy losses, while only two or three militiamen had been killed. Tryon had left for a meeting in New Haven, but gave orders to a detachment to march from Grannis Corners to the shore. On this sweep, they found homes belonging to John Woodward and his son (located around the present day Woodward and Main Street intersection) that had escaped the carnage. They burned both homes to the ground.
Tryon had ordered his men to burn every building in East Haven from the Qunnipiac River to Thompson Avenue. However, saner heads prevailed in New Haven and it escaped with less damage. This may have been due to the intervention of Colonel Edmund Fanning, commander of the King’s American regiment, who was a graduate of Yale and had friends in the area. In any case, New Haven was not burned.
Since they had encountered much stiffer resistance than expected and darkness was falling, the British called a halt and let the troops get drunk, while they pillaged and destroyed as much of New Haven as they liked. They were so drunk that the officers weren’t sure they could get them back on the ships without being attacked by the militia. Troops were hurriedly loaded in the early hours of July 6, taking with them 40 Tory Loyalists, including the Chandler family.
East Haven had suffered greatly. Eleven homes had been burned, along with 9 barns and other outbuildings. Gurdon Bradley had a sloop burned at the dock near Ferry Street. Countless cattle, pigs, chickens and geese were carried off, and the fields were destroyed.
The estimate of the total damage was around $15,000. Today that would equal about $400,000. The state did offer some land to residents in compensation after the war, but since it was in Ohio, there were few takers. A total of 23 men were killed, 15 wounded and 12 sent to the prison ships.
For neighbors living today on Beacon Street, Hillside Avenue, Townsend Avenue, Cove Street, Lighthouse Road, Gerrish Avenue and Burr Street, the knowledge that the land under their flower gardens and backyard barbeques was once such a ferocious battle ground has come as a startling surprise.