Thursday, June 18, 2009

Saybrook, CT in the Revolution

Saybrook in the Revolution

“Saybrook’s Quadrimillenial, Commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Settlement of Saybrook, November 27, 1885,” Hartford, Published by, Press of Clark & Smith, 1886. Pages 46 – 54.
The Rev. John Edward Bushnell, Pastor of the Congregational Church in Fairfield, Conn., also a native of Saybrook, then spoke on “Saybrook in the Revolution.”

The distinguished part borne by Connecticut in the Revolution needs no praise to-day. Her honors are safe, woven into the life of the nation’s history. Enough to say that it was hers to give a Governor, Trumbull, to Washington’s right hand- his “Brother Jonathan” – in counsel; that she advanced her millions for the “sinew” of that war, and sent with this sinew a soul to quicken it, in the persons of 32,000 out of her total 40,000 fighting men-sent out of her own borders, leaving her own precious homes defenseless, that they might of to the continental army. She was the first of the colonies to instruct delegates to the continental Congress to strike for liberty. Her sleepless devotion had ready at hand for the battle of Bunker Hill, 3,000 men, and of those whom Washington commanded at the beginning of the conflicts about New York, more than one-half were from her valiant yeomanry. While then Connecticut was a small star among those that shone upon the old flag that led the Revolutionary forces, she was light up- as it seems to her always modest children-with a luster that was shadowed by none.
My theme is Saybrook’s portion of her lion-share.
But that we wish to-day to honor the details of history, it would be safe and sufficient to say that she bore her share along with her sister towns in the patient, devoted service of that generation. In looking for eminent distinctions in her pages we do not find them. Never did I so earnestly crave a battle-field for the old town, with an honored list of killed or captured, and thrilling adventures by land and sea, and then to be able to take from their sacred resting-place the old war –scarred banners and wave them here, and say to the blooming generation of the present hour; “These are the standards that your fathers held when they drove the British invader from their gates.” And to think that if they had only been quick enough, they might have started the battle of Lexington among the reeds and bulrushes of our own fair streams!
We can wish all this, but it could not be. The war was not here. The plan of it was New York- north and south – cutting off New England from the rest of the continent on the one side and preventing such a division on the other. Except for excursions for booty or malice, there was no motive to bring the enemy to our towns. But while such was the plan and sphere of the war, there remained always the possibility of a change, and the consequent danger felt for Saybrook, so favorably situated for strategic purposes. The British boats hovered about Long Island and menaced coast and river. For their own reasons they did not attempt to possess the river. Perhaps they preferred to have us keep her bar. There is an abundant reason to believe that the people of Saybrook were thoroughly alive to the spirit of the Revolution; the constant view of British patrols passing up the Sound was a daily reminder, if they needed any.
In the record of the colony we find that among the companies which went to the relief of Boston during the Lexington alarms, April 1775, was one of fifty-nine men from Saybrook. In July of the same year the Point was further aroused by the entrance of a British sloop chasing a Colony schooner and examining her, while the militia, drawn by the excitement to the shore, made a few exchanges of shot with them-the first of those grim courtesies of the war.
In the following year, (1776), Gov. Trumbull issued proclamation requesting all persons who were exempt from active military service to organize companies to keep up the war spirit at home. Saybrook was one of the towns to respond heartily.
In August, 1776, a ship was built at Saybrook and passed over the bar; the largest with which this old Neptunian rib had ever had the honor of trying conclusions. In the same season, Saybrook with three other towns raised the seventh regiment for the continental army. In the May previous so zealous were they that an appeal was made to the Legislature, and granted, for building a fort on the site of the old one, to contain six carriage-guns for the defense of the town and river interests. To encourage them the more in this patriotic action, twenty men were sent to their assistance out of the regular army. Needless to say, this defensive enterprise took time, labor, and expense. It was watched with anxious interest by all the colony. With the work of ship-building and fort-raising, in addition to the sending of men away to the frontier lines of service, the eventful year of 1776 was filled for them with sacrifice and the true spirit of the Revolution. The State records are a sufficient witness to the fidelity of her citizens. She has her share of names in the roll of private soldiers who laid down their lives in battle, and of those who were discharged with honorable wounds. A just proportion of them, too, bore the title of Adjutant, Quartermaster, Ensign, Lieutenant, Captain, and if they failed to attain to a Generalship it was because the old wolf-hunter from Pomfret could not spare them from their trusty flint-locks for the idle business of wearing the gilt. We may add incidentally to our previous mention, that the building of the ship at Saybrook seems to have been made a matter of universal concern. Beginning with January, 1776, the records are replete with solicitude about that boat. Capt. X. is appointed to build it. At another date, Capt. Y. is sent to supervise and hasten him. Then follows frequent mention of acts about rigging and duck for that boat at Saybrook, not to speak of moneys sent to lubricate the machinery of progress still more. I am not sure but that it was the cackling of the whole roost full over that one egg which frightened the British fleet from our river. The trouble did not end till the “Oliver Cromwell” was safely over the bar, and certain of the builders were brought to trial for alleged abuse of the building money. Whether she, on the high seas, kept up the notoriety begun on the stays I cannot report, but as Azariah Whittlesey, of Saybrook, was her master, it is safe to say that she never ran from the enemy’s fire.
In the same month that this naval thunderer went out of the river, wafted on full sail by the acclamations of soldiers at the fort and the jubilees of her citizens along the shore, another of the town’s sea-princes, Capt. Seth Warner, received commission and money to raise a crew of 110 seamen for duty on the northern lakes. For the few months following, the life of the town is varied by excitements attending watch on British patrol-boats, the going and coming of companies, and the perfecting of the fort.
Letters of 1776 are in the possession of our townsmen, Mr. Tully, written by valiant soldiers of the place, far off in the Massachusetts camps, filled with the exciting news from the very front line of war. Her sons were not to be drawn into the war reluctantly; they were in an even line with the foremost on land and sea.
The year 1777 opened, as we may imagine, with increased fever in the veins of Revolution. In April, the town receives peculiar renown through the scientific genius of one of her sons, David Bushnell, who was born in the Westbrook parish. This man appears before Governor and Council to exhibit a torpedo arrangement for naval warfare. The acute minds of Brother Jonathan and Gen. Putnam were not slow to see the merits of his idea, and the furnished him with the requisite provision, that he might put it to an immediate trial. Making his headquarters at our ferry, then went to work to construct the famous” American Turtle,” by which one Yankee expected to sink the whole British navy. He inventor began with a in the alphabet of the science. His first labor was to prove that gunpowder would explode under water. Then he built the boat. It outwardly resembled tow tortoise shells in contact, seven and one-half feet long, with just room for the captain, who was also the crew in this case, and with air enough to last thirty minutes. Most of the ballast was attached to the keel and could be lowered to the bottom for anchorage. The boat was so arranged with a paddle system that it could be moved in either direction, the paddles being operated by the feet. He had a barometer in the boat by which he could estimate his distance from the surface, and also a compass by which to direct his course. He was especially troubled about the use of light. A flame would consume the air in a short time. A kind of wood was found that was suitable for his purpose except when it was injured by frost, and he wrote to Dr. Franklin to inquire about the use of phosphorus, which he was finally able to substitute.
Gen. Putnam himself was down to see the first experiment, which was unsuccessful, in not grappling the magazine to the enemy’s ship. Other attempts were made, but, alas for human hopes? The British tar still rode the main. The good frigate Cerverus came very near destruction off New London. The torpedo, however, was so stupid as to grapple an inoffensive Colony schooner near her, and demolished it instead. After this blunder “the Turtle” was excused and allowed to put its head within its shell, but not until it had succeeded in alarming the enemy and making them extremely cautious about their naval demonstrations. The inventor then used the same principle in the employment of kegs of powder, which were to explode by a system of machinery, on contact with the hostile ships. A fleet of them was set afloat on the Delaware River and commissioned to drift down the stream and destroy the enemy. But this time it was the ice, (was ever an inventor so beset as ours?) and the kegs, having just as much feeling against the ice as against the British fleet, went bravely to work and cleared the river of it, leaving the English-excepting one unfortunate vessel which went up with the ice-wondering what manner of country it could be where water, and ice, and sometimes schooners, floated up-hill. They were forthwith thrown into a panic, for they ranged the shores along, and fired mercilessly at the floating kegs till they were glad to hide their heads. To-day every American school-lad knows where the “Battle of the Kegs” was contested, when the valley of the Delaware was shadowed throughout by the grim visage of war. As showing the shamefacedness of the English over this event, it may be mentioned that they offered a reward for Bushnell, living or dead. But he escaped to serve his country to the end of the war. This submarine science thus begun, though not as apparently successful as it seemed to deserve, was the beginning of great things. It established forever the principle of submarine explosives and set a whole school of successors (notably Robert Fulton) at work on the same idea; and to-day our government with its thousands of miles of open sea-coast, and without a single ship for the defense of it, worthy of the flag it carries, is rendered almost impregnable against the costliest iron-clad fleets of modern Europe, by that deadly little scourge which works out of sight and brings death and destruction out of the depths of the sea. If then, as seems to be just, the greatest war-defense of our nation, the American torpedo, is the youngest child of the genius which had the “American Turtle” for its first-born, then to Yale College which schooled that genius, which eclipses every other in Revolutionary annals, for the science which was then rudely shapen, at present promises to change every principle of naval equipment and warfare for all nations. During the rest of the war as they began, the people of this town went on, doing their share of the work; sending out men; on guard at home.
Owing to the location of the town, there was frequent contact with that subtle kind of foe which works without sword, by stealth and in the darkness-the enemy within the gates. The British on the Sound were glad of the Tory aid which brought them contraband supplies from up the river. We are proud to learn that in their passage down the river, they found a sleepless watch at the Point. And this brings us to the only sanguinary battle of the Revolution fought on Saybrook soil. A mass of contraband articles had been taken from the Tories, and a young man- William Tully- was set to watch it, in the house formerly owned by Capt. John Whittlesey, still standing at the Point.
On a certain night eight Tories came to the house and demanded entrance. Tully begged to be excused from opening the door. They broke in without further parley and rushed forward. Tully’s flint was faithful to the trip of the hammer and struck fire. The musket ball passed through the first man, and to Tully’s surprise he still advanced, but the man directly back of him dropped dead. Tully then surrounded the other six men and would have incontinentally put them all to the bayonet (and did wound one of them), had they not contrived to escape by the windows. The first man whom Tully shot finally discovered that the ball had passed through him, and dropped dead with one hand on the window and the other grasping a chest of tea. The retreating forces left a quarter of their number dead on the field-or floor- and a quarter of the remaining were carried away wounded in their arms. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the continental army did not lose a man.
About the same time a Mr. Charles Williams of the Point also constituted himself a continental army, and hearing one night the rubbing of boat-keels on the beach, ran out and cried to the passing winds; “Turn out, guards! Turn out!”and the enemy fled, pursued by imaginary legions of the adversary. This man’s name takes us gracefully over to Groton. His son, Daniel Williams, he allowed to go as substitute for another man at Fort Griswold, receiving in payment a hogshead of cider, the legal tender for debts in those days. Young Daniel reached the fort on the day before the massacre, and was killed while passing powder to the soldiers in the fort. He was the youngest member of the garrison. Of Saybrook men killed at Fort Griswold, there were in all five; several others were wounded. Among those taken prisoners was a Saybrook man, Lieutenant Jabez Stowe, who seems to have been a valiant soldier. The government afterward remunerated him for the losses and hardships endured by him in the service, and it was even proposed to give him a medal of honor.
It is, I may add, a tradition in my own family circle that there was also a brother of this Lieut. Stowe present at the attack on Fort Griswold, who escaped death by concealment among the bodies of the slain, and after the slaughter walked to this town, to his own home, bringing the first intelligence of the disaster.
Such are the fragments of history which make up the story of our town in the fevered days of the Revolution.
If that part were not a conspicuous one it was certainly a faithful: heroic, in that they did all that God or man could ask of them.
To know what the town was then, we must divest our fancies of those colorings which make it now to us the fairest corner of the globe. They fought for homes, humbler far than those which adorn its streets to-day, but they were homes as precious to them. Perhaps a dozen of the dwellings then standing are standing yet- those changed, and all else how changed! Suppose the homes that make the town for us all gone; remove both church edifices now standing; put the predecessor of this one, where we now are met, across the street on the public green; gather by fancy into that plain meeting-house for weekly devotion all the people of the town, and at the head of that Christian fold put that venerable and illustrious man, Rev William Hart, for fifty-two years the honored and honoring pastor, who through his long and useful ministry was known as one of the very foremost thinkers, scholars and debaters of his day; form our streets remove those stately trees which are now our pride; take the paint from most of the dwellings, and on the remaining substitute the plain, not costly, red of that day; destroy the fences and abridge the walks to narrow unkept paths; think of the men as walking about in homely garment, spun by the hands of their good wives and ruddy daughters, and earning their living by their own hard industrious tilling of the soil where God had ordered it; ascribe unto them the princely spirit of the sons and daughters of God, who scorned the fear of man, with whom liberty was synonymous with life, and who were willing to do and die for the sweet sake of that liberty; and we have Saybrook in the Revolution.


  1. Thank you for sharing a bit of Saybrook's history in our country's fight for independence. Noteworthy [in my opinion] is in the attempt to gain back the stolen contraband,what the dying Tory grasped just before dying: a chest of tea...


  2. Glad that you noticed that chest of tea as well. I love the way that Bushnell paints a picture of the town of Saybrook and its people during that time. Thank you.