Danbury Raid, Connecticut

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Danbury Raid, Connecticut

DANBURY RAID, CONNECTICUT. 23-28 April 1777. After the successful Peekskill raid, in New York on 23 March 1777, General Howe sent Major General William Tryon (the royal governor of New York) to destroy the more important rebel depot at Danbury. The 2,000-man force was composed of the 4th, 5th, 23d, 27th, 44th, and 64th Foot; 300 men of the newly formed Prince of Wales's Volunteers (Loyalists); a dozen light dragoons; and six artillery pieces. Generals James Agnew and William Erskine accompanied Tryon. Escorted by two sloops of war, the expedition left New York on 23 April and landed near Norwalk, Connecticut, on the evening of the 25th. The next day they marched 23 miles unopposed and started burning Danbury at 3 p.m. The 150 Continentals stationed in the area had removed a small quantity of stores, but by the next morning the British had destroyed 19 dwellings and 22 barns and storehouses, together with provisions, clothing, and almost 1,700 tents.

Militia meanwhile assembled under Brigadier General Gold S. Silliman and started forward to harass the British as they withdrew. Continental Generals Benedict Arnold and David Wooster joined the pursuit with still more men at Redding, and the hunt was on. About 11 a.m. on the 27th, serious attacks began as the retreating column started slowing down because of rain. As in the retreat from Concord, the return trip to the safety of the ships in Long Island Sound became a living hell. Arnold maneuvered around to try blocking Tryon's van, while Wooster pressed against the rear until falling mortally wounded on the 28th. Wisely observing the principle of returning by a different route, the British withdrew through Ridgefield, where they halted for a few hours' rest around midnight.

Arnold and Silliman, meanwhile, had established a barricade astride the narrow road at Saugatuck Bridge. By the time Tryon approached in the rain in midmorning, the blocking force of five hundred men included three field pieces from Lamb's Second Continental Artillery Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Eleazer Oswald, while five hundred more men, now under Colonel Huntington, pressed against the rear guard. When his column drew fire, Tryon sent detachments out to envelop both enemy flanks, and Agnew brought enfilade fire to bear on the barricade from the American left. The fighting became general about 11 a.m. It took nearly an hour before the sheer weight of numbers pushed the Americans back. Arnold ordered a withdrawal, and he himself was fired on at a range of thirty yards by an enemy platoon that cut the road behind him. When his horse was killed under him, Arnold managed to escape after shooting a Tory who rushed forward demanding his surrender.

The Americans tried a second time to block the retreat, but a Loyalist guided Tryon's column to Compo Hill, where it could set up a secure perimeter. Erskine led four hundred men in a successful "spoiling attack" that enabled the raiders to embark in safety. Alexander McDougall was actually on the way from Peekskill with a strong Continental force to complete Tryon's destruction when he learned of the embarkation.

Although the Connecticut militia failed to prevent the raid, no one except later historians expected them to be able to stop such a strong column. More to the point, the citizen-soldiers, stiffened by some Continentals and under charismatic leaders, came close to annihilating the raiders after the damage to Danbury had been done.

The British in fact learned their lesson. While the raid was annoying, the material destroyed did not justify their losses nor was it worth the risk. This raid was the last the British attempted during the war against a target so far inland. As long as Washington kept his depots out of the reach of amphibious raids, he knew that the militia and the states' local defense troops could provide adequate security. Danbury provided him with convincing proof to cite to politicians when arguing that he needed to keep the Continentals concentrated.

Tryon and his officers deserve great credit for avoiding another Lexington and Concord. Arnold and Wooster showed splendid leadership, as did Colonel John Lamb, whose three guns made a valiant attempt to break up Erskine's bayonet attack. Congress finally recognized Arnold's service and made him a major general within a week (later predating his commission to give him seniority over the five officers promoted over his head; on 20 May, Congress gave him a horse, "properly caparisoned … as a token of their approbation of his gallant conduct … in which General Arnold had one horse killed under him and another wounded" (Heitman, Historical Register of Officers …).

American casualties were probably about 80 (not the 400 claimed by the British). Wooster died; this was the second (of three) times that Arnold would be shot in the same leg. Howe officially reported losses of 26 killed, 116 wounded, and 29 missing—about a 10 percent loss rate.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Peekskill Raid, New York; Tryon, William; Wooster, David.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Heitman, Francis Bernard. Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April 1775 to December 783. Washington: Rare Book Shop Pub. Co., 1914.

                         revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.