In late 1776, the Continental Congress established a supply depot at Danbury, Connecticut to support American efforts to repel the inevitable British invasion down the Hudson Valley from Canada. After the capture of New York, the British learned of the depot from loyalists. With near complete command of the sea they sent a raiding force to destroy the cache, before the Americans massed too many troops in the area which would surely happen after the snows melted in New England. (In fact, MG David Wooster, and BGs Benedict Arnold and Gold Silliman were in the area to do just that.)
On 25 April 1777, a Royal Navy flotilla landed a British/loyalist raiding force which marched on Danbury, not unlike the march on Concord two years before. That evening, a wounded and exhausted messenger arrived at the house of COL Henry Ludington, the local militia commander. Ludington immediately began organizing his men but the messenger could not go on, and like Paul Revere’s and Williams Dawes’ ride in 1776, it was necessary to alert the countryside to fully assemble the militia.
The task fell to Ludington’s sixteen year old daughter, Sybil, who mounted a horse and rode off into the rainy night to warn of the British advance. She first alerted Danbury, and then rode through Putnam and Dutchess counties in New York. Unlike the rides to warn of the British advance on Concord, Sybil’s ride was made in the face of constant loyalist danger. In all she rode 40 miles over eight hours (twice as long as Paul Revere), rallied the militia, avoided loyalists, and in at least one instance fought them off as she did so. 400 minutemen responded to Sybil’s call to arms, and she alerted the Continental Army generals.
Wooster’s Continentals and Ludington’s militia arrived in Danbury too late to save the depot. On the 26th, the raiding force destroyed the giant cache, and to teach the rebels a lesson they fired the town, completely destroying it. This infuriated the countryside, and more men flocked to Wooster and Ludington, who vowed to destroy the redcoats or chase them out of Connecticut.
The next day, several small skirmishes were fought with the withdrawing British, as more men descended upon the coast. Wooster caught up with the rear guard outside the town of Ridgefield. As the 67 year old Wooster led the attack, he yelled the famous last words of “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!” and as fate would have it, was mortally wounded. The unsuccessful attack however, did slow the British enough for a flanking party led by Benedict Arnold to establish a road block in town. The redcoats scattered the defenders with cannon fire, but Arnold took up command and with his characteristic energy drove the British out in disorder with a running gun battle down Main Street. After sniping and probing the British march the entire way, Arnold made one last attempt to attack the British on the beach, but the waiting ships’ guns and a timely bayonet charge allowed the British to escape.
The British destruction of Danbury and the use of cannon on Ridgefield infuriated the citizens of Connecticut and upper New York, whose population was previously divided evenly between rebels, loyalists, and undecideds. The destruction of the depot was a blow to Continental efforts in the area, but was quickly replaced with donations by patriots and fence sitters who were now dedicated to the American cause, and stores confiscated by patriots as the loyalists were driven out. Over 3000 Connecticuters volunteered for service in the Continental Army in early 1777, more than three times what Arnold was expecting to recruit from the area for the upcoming Hudson Valley campaign. The redcoats would no longer be able to raid so far inland in Connecticut. Future raids would be confined to the coastal towns.
On the night of 18/19 April 1775, the British sent out patrols to stop the American early warning system of outriders rousing the countryside of an impending attack (usually French and Indian) that had been in use since at least Queen Anne’s War, 70 years before. But both Paul Revere and William Dawes avoided the patrols and reached Lexington just after midnight. They warned Sam Adams and John Hancock and every house they passed. They then departed for Concord and on the way Paul Revere was captured, but by then Adams and Hancock were safe, and Concord was warned by Dawes and another rider, Dr. Samuel Prescott. Soon more than forty riders spread out all over New England warning that, “The regulars are coming”.
In Lexington, CPT John Parker mustered his minuteman company (fully ¼ were his relatives) and sent out men to watch the road from Lechmere Point. After taking roll, they retired to Buckman’s Tavern to await word from the scouts. Five hours later at dawn, Maj. John Pitcairn with the advanced guard of Lieut. Col. Smith’s column entered the town. Parker formed his men in plain sight on Lexington Green but did not block the regulars’ passage to Concord. As Pitcairn turned off the road instead of continuing on, Parker said, “Hold your fire, but if they mean to have a war, let it start here.”
An officer rode up to Parker’s 70 man company and told them to disperse, as 180 regulars behind him fixed bayonets and continued to advance. Parker felt that their stand had shown the regulars that the Americans were serious, and wishing no unnecessary bloodshed, told his men to disperse. But during the tense standoff, a shot rang out from an unknown source. The British fired a volley followed by a bayonet charge which routed Parker’s men. Eight Americans were killed, ten wounded, and one British soldier was slightly wounded. Pitcairn’s men rejoined Smith’s column and continued on to Concord.
As the British moved towards Concord, they heard shots fired warning of their approach and observed the American minutemen watching them from outside of musket range. At 8 am, Smith’s column arrived at Concord. 400 Americans were formed up on the hill across the Concord River northwest of town but were not actually in the town. So the British searched it and found cannon and gun carriages, which they disabled and burned on the green. They also learned of vast stores of powder at Barrett’s Farm, the route to which was blocked by the Americans.
Smith decided to move on to the farm fully expecting to rout the rebels just as his men did at Lexington. But as they approached the Old North Bridge, the British noticed the Rebels also approached. The Americans saw the smoke and thought that the British were setting fire to Concord and were determined to stop it. Fire was exchanged and the British, faced by superior numbers of Americans, couldn’t force their way across the bridge.
Smith then realized the grave situation his exhausted men were in (they had been up all night and had already marched nearly 20 miles) and ordered a retreat back to Boston. But by then thousands of minutemen were streaming in from all over Massachusetts. They lined the road back to Boston (now known as “Battle Road”) shooting at the British from behind trees and stone walls as they passed. Only the aggressive nature of the troops he commanded saved Smith’s column from complete annihilation. The British light infantry and grenadiers that made up the raiding force were the best soldiers in General Gage’s army. Despite exhaustion, they continually sent out flanking patrols and conducted pulse charges to engage the Rebels and break up any concentrations along the route. Still, hundreds were killed and wounded.
At 3 pm Smith’s column reached Lexington where it met a much needed relief column from Boston. However, the British didn’t tarry long and after a brief respite outside of Munro’s Tavern to consolidate, reorganize and wait for stragglers, they continued on. More than four thousand American minutemen were in the area, and more on the way. The column arrived back in Boston at dusk, protected by the guns of the Royal Navy. The British marched 41 miles on 19 April and fought a running battle most of the time. It is estimated that some marched over 50 miles along the way trying to engage the Rebels.
Within days, 15,000 American militiamen surrounded and laid siege to the British inside Boston, some from as far away as Connecticut and New Hampshire. America had just picked a fight with the most powerful nation on the planet. The American Revolution had begun.
By 1775, the British Prime Minister, Lord North, had had enough. He and Parliament had made conciliatory gestures to the troublesome North American colonies twice already. The first by repealing the Stamp Act in 1766 and the second by repealing the Townsend Acts in 1770. He was not going to do the same with the Coercive Acts. In February 1775, Parliament and King George III declared the Massachusetts Colony in a State of Rebellion.
In April 1775, General Thomas Gage, the Governor General of Massachusetts and commander of the occupying army in Boston, correctly believed that the radical patriot group Sons of Liberty were behind most of the overt acts of rebellion and the nucleus of the shadow government, the Massachusetts Provincial Council, which controlled most of the colony outside of Boston. The council was raising rebel “minuteman companies” of militia (because they said they were ready to fight at a minute’s notice) to oppose the British.
On of 17 April 1775, Gage received intelligence that two of the Sons of Liberty’s most important leaders, Sam Adams and John Hancock, were in Lexington, 12 miles away. Also, there were cannon, gunpowder and muskets for the minuteman companies located further up the road at Concord. As he had several times before, Gage organized a column of troops to go and seize the stores from the rebels. But this time, he had the chance to seize the leadership of the Sons of Liberty. Every regiment he commanded wanted to take part in the raid. So he assembled the light and grenadier companies from the ten different regiments in his army. The next day, he received permission to seize the rebels and their stores.
At 9 pm on 18 April 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren informed two of the few remaining Sons of Liberty in Boston, William Dawes and Paul Revere, of the raid. Dr. Warren told them to watch the Old North Church and if they saw one lantern in steeple, the British raiding force was moving via the Boston Neck; if there were two lanterns, they moved by boat across the Charles River estuary. Revere and Dawes would then alert the countryside of the British Army’s movements and raise the minuteman companies.
At 10 pm, the 700 troops under Lieut. Col. Francis Smith and his executive officer, Major John Pitcairn, loaded barges off of the Boston Commons. Dr. Warren immediately had two lanterns placed in Old North Church, and Revere and Dawes departed for Lexington, rousing minute companies along the way. The British landed at Lechmere Point at 11pm and began their march on Lexington and Concord.
240 Years Ago Today. The Battle of Princeton. On 2 January 1777, Lord Cornwallis counterattacked after the loss of Trenton and his vanguard was repulsed by the Continental Army at Assunpink Creek. Washington, knowing he couldn’t hold against the main British force in the morning, faked camping for the night, and escaped just as he had done several times before. He marched around Cornwallis’ army. The next day, the Continental Army approached Princeton, hoping to destroy the British army from behind and seize Cornwallis’ war chest of 70,000 pounds sterling at New Brunswick.
But the British and Americans stumbled upon each other just south of the city and American BG Hugh Mercer immediately attacked. Both sides attempted to seize a small hill topped by an orchard, a position each thought they could hold until reinforcements arrived. The Americans occupied it first but after a single volley the British closed with bayonets. Most of Mercer’s men are woodsmen from central and western Pennsylvania, and their rifles, while accurate, lacked bayonets and were slow loading. In an attempt to inspire his men in the ensuing melee, Mercer took on nine redcoats with his saber before being stabbed to death. The rest of his broke.
Washington, who was just bit farther up the column arrived with the main body of the Continental army, and rallied Mercer’s men 30 meters from the advancing British. Volleys were exchanged but miraculously Washington was not hit. A tough battle ensued, but the Americans went straight from the march into the attack and overwhelmed the them. The British attempted to make a stand in the Nassau Hall inside the town but several round shot from Henry Knox’s guns (including one which legend says decapitated a painting of King George II, and gleefully fired by the battery commanded by a young CPT Alexander Hamilton, whose application was rejected by Princeton) dissuaded them. For the rest of the battle, the British couldn’t establish a defensive position, and were eventually routed off the field.
As Cornwallis approached from Trenton, Washington dismantled the bridge into the city over the fast moving and freezing Stony Brook. The exasperated Lord Cornwallis, who had been out maneuvered by Washington and out fought by the Continentals three times in the last ten days, returned to New York and abandoned New Jersey. The exhausted but intact Continental Army entered winter quarters in Morristown. Washington ended the otherwise disastrous 1776 campaign in the middle colonies on a high note, and now with all of southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania open to his victorious recruiters. Money, supplies, and promises of credit poured into the Continental Congress.
Gen Washington considered the Battle of Princeton one of his proudest moments.