The Fire That Backfired: The British Torching of Danbury, Connecticut, Did Not Produce the Desired Effect-Thanks in Part to the Midnight Ride of 16-Year-Old Sybil Ludington

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From the deck of the H.M.S. Senegal, Major General William Tryon surveyed the peaceful beach outside Fairfield, Connecticut, at sunset, on April 25, 1777. In the dying rays of the sun, the pastoral scene at the mouth of the Saugatuck River seemed at odds with the arrival of his 26 ships, carrying 2,000 of England's best soldiers and six pieces of artillery. There was no sign that the rebels intended to offer any resistance. Nonetheless, he intended to give Connecticut a lesson it wouldn't soon forget. He had, in fact, carried a grudge against the rebellious colony ever since Connecticut patriot Captain Isaac Sears descended upon New York with 75 dragoons, entered Tory publisher James Rivington's office, destroyed his press and--with unforgivable audacity--converted the iron type into bullets.

Tryon, the royal governor of New York, now commanded the invasion of Connecticut. At 52 years of age, Tryon was an officer in the regular British army as well as commander of the loyalist provincials in New York. With many successful military operations under his belt, he surely must have felt that this one would be no different.

The British landing was uneventful, and all were ashore by 10:00 p.m. The beach being a less than satisfactory bivouac spot, Tryon started his men marching inland in the bright moonlight, toward Redding, Connecticut. Tryon intended to castigate the Connecticut rebels, and to endear himself to Admiral Lord Richard Howe, by destroying the food and ammunition his Tory spies assured him lay in Danbury. Suddenly, there was a shout from the darkness ahead.

"Who goes there?"

"You will know soon," replied Tryon, scornfully.

Instead of continuing the conversation, the hidden challengers replied with rifle shots, killing several of Tryon's men and wounding others. The advancing British column returned fire, but their challengers melted away into the surrounding woods. Tryon paused his men long enough to load his dead and wounded into an oxcart, sending them back to the ships. Then he pushed on into the night. This encounter with the rebel Captain Disbrow and his "Gallant Seventeen" taught Tryon that marching in the dark through enemy territory wasn't without risks. He needed to find a secure spot in which to spend the night.

Tryon's March to Danbury

The next morning, while Tryon breakfasted royally in Redding at William Heron's house (a generous Tory), his men searched the town for prominent patriots. They seized three--Stephen Betts, James Rogers and Jeremiah Sanford. The latter was only 10 years old. Get the young boys, Tryon had instructed his men, for they "would very soon grow into rebels." (Young Jeremiah never had the opportunity to grow into a rebel. Though Betts and Rogers were released several days later, Jeremiah Sanford died on a prison ship after two months.)

Marching in broad daylight, Tryon expected no further trouble from the rebels. But as his force began the ascent of Hoyt's Hill outside Bethel, he was met with an extraordinary sight. Appearing at the top of the hill was a solitary man, waving his sword. Turning to those behind him, he shouted, "Halt! the whole Universe! Break off by Kingdoms!"

How had the rebels been able to amass a large force so quickly? Tryon expeditiously swung his troops into position, brought his cannon forward and prepared for the unexpected engagement. But then, as suddenly as the sword-waving man had appeared, he was gone--and when Tryon's scouts crested the hill, they found the countryside desserted, not a soldier in sight besides their own. Tryon kept his ranks deployed. Danbury wasn't far off, and he was not taking any more chances.

The main British target was Danbury, where the rebels had Stockpiled military supplies. In addition to capturing this cache, the British also hoped to establish a strategic military presence in the southwestern part of Connecticut. To understand why this area was so important, consider the placement of the major British armies at that time: General John Burgoyne was located in northeastern New York, to the northwest; and General William Howe was located near Philadelphia, to the south. …