Showdown Over a Schooner: The Battle of East Guilford, the Final Engagement in Connecticut

The War Years (1775-1783)

June 14, 2021
by Matthew Reardon Also by this Author

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At dawn, on Sunday, May 19, 1782, “a large new schooner” moved steadily eastward across Long Island Sound. At the helm was Capt. James Hovey. Born about 1743, Hovey was a native of Stratford, Connecticut, and mercantile captain by trade.[1] He remained in the trade throughout most of the war, frequently running merchant vessels, except in 1780 when he briefly entered the privateer trade. After partially financing the Connecticut armed schooner Swallow, Hovey was commissioned as its commander when it set sail in March 1780. The Swallow remained without a prize for over six months. In November, it made its first capture, the British sloop Polly, and sent her into Boston. Within a month, Hovey and the Swallow were themselves captured. Sent to Nova Scotia, they remained imprisoned there for several months before returning home.[2]

Hovey and his crew set sail aboard the schooner about a day before May 19, 1782. On board their unarmed merchant vessel they had, according to one witness, about “400 Barrels of Flour.” Sailing down the Housatonic River, they turned the schooner into Long Island Sound and headed eastward in the direction of Rhode Island. Their final destination has unfortunately been lost to history, but as the sun began to rise, the crew prepared to pass in sight of Guilford on the Connecticut coast.

Established in 1644, the coastal town was the seventh oldest settlement in Connecticut. Located about halfway between New Haven and Saybrook, in 1782 Guilford had a population of just over 2,900 people.[3] The community was primarily known for farming, but some of its citizens dabbled in shipbuilding. These vessels were primarily smaller schooners involved in the West Indies trade. Throughout most of its history, Guilford was much larger than it is today. Up until 1826, it included the present-day town of Madison, which was then known as the parish of East Guilford.

As Hovey neared East Guilford, his schooner was spotted by crew members aboard two armed British brigs, Sir Henry Clinton and Keppel. Both vessels were part of a small British squadron, made up of four vessels that had been seen for the last several days roaming Long Island. The other two were the armed sloop Association and a row galley.[4] Sir Henry Clinton and Association served under the Board of Associated Loyalists based out of Fort Franklin on Long Island. Accompanying the two vessels were a number of loyalist militia in barges. These loyalists were irregular forces operating independently of the regular British army in New York City. Their ranks were made up of displaced New England loyalists, many of whom were from Connecticut. They armed and equipped themselves and had their own armed naval vessels. Beginning in 1776, they routinely launched raids against coastal Connecticut towns or preyed on vulnerable enemy shipping.

Keppel was a former Connecticut privateer that had been captured in 1778. It was refitted and served in the regular British navy. For most of the latter part of the war it was based at Hart’s Island and served primarily in Long Island Sound. The identity of the galley remains unknown. Some evidence suggests it might be Hussar, a British naval vessel also based out of Hart’s Island, or another vessel under the authority of the Associated Loyalists.[5]

Sir Henry Clinton, under Capt. Gad Wells, a loyalist and native of New Haven, ordered his crew to give chase to Hovey’s schooner. Hovey quickly realized he was in trouble. Outnumbered and outgunned, Hovey ordered his crew to turn the vessel towards the shore. They eventually ran aground off East Guilford, near present-day East Wharf Park in Madison. There Hovey and his crew appear to have abandoned ship and escaped on shore.[6]

East Wharf Park in Madison, Connecticut. View of the battle site today. Note the visible rocks sticking above the water. This is where the merchant vessel was likely run aground. (Author)

Assigned to the protection of East Guilford’s shore against illicit trade and enemy incursions was a detachment of a coast guard company, under twenty-six-year-old Ens. Jonathan Todd Jr. Known by his superiors as “A Young Gentleman of Sence and very great Ambition,” Todd’s command was part of a company under Capt. Peter Vail. In addition to holding overall command, Vail oversaw two other detachments in the main part of Guilford, while Todd covered East Guilford. The detachment consisted of twenty-seven men, including Todd, mainly enlisted militia from the immediate area along the coastline.[7]

Though Todd lived not far from shore, he was not on duty that night. Each evening, small parties of his command were dispersed and patrolled the coastline all throughout the night. Sgt. Timothy Todd, his younger brother and second-in-command, was in charge of the night patrol. Sergeant Todd spotted Hovey’s schooner, and suspecting it to be a British vessel decided to sound the alarm. With loaded musket, Sergeant Todd discharged his gun into the air which alerted the area.[8]

Hearing the alarm sounded, the men of Ensign Todd’s command emerged from nearby homes and farms and assembled along the beach to protect the now-recognized American schooner from the pursuing British. This included Ensign Todd who assumed overall command on his arrival, and volunteers including Jehiel Munger, who was working in the nearby salt works, and 74-year-old Phineas Meigs.[9]

The elder Meigs left his home accompanied by his fourteen-year-old grandson, also named Phineas Meigs. Both were armed and equipped for battle and initially headed for the beach together. At some point the older Meigs realized the danger he was taking his grandson into and told him to give his musket and accouterments to Elias Willard, another volunteer who was without them. He then ordered his grandson to get to a place of safety while he and Willard continued onward to the beach.[10]

After driving Hovey’s schooner aground, due to circumstances which are not fully known, Captain Wells halted his armed brig. The fourteen-gun Keppel and ten-gun Association also remained inactive but within view. Neither vessel used their guns in the coming action. Instead, the galley, which appears to have been unarmed, accompanied by several barges, headed towards the abandoned schooner. The barges were, according to one witness, loaded with sixty armed loyalist soldiers.[11]

The British plan appears to have been to send the loyalist soldiers to board the schooner. From there they could defend it from the coast guards and other militia. Then the galley would come in and be hooked up to the schooner and rowed out into the Sound. There seemed to be no attempt to land the loyalists directly on shore.

As the barges headed towards the schooner, they were watched by the coast guard and other militia dispersed on the beach. Musket fire quickly erupted. Two barges containing twenty to thirty loyalist soldiers reached the schooner, boarded it, and easily took possession of the abandoned vessel. Some instantly searched the schooner for any lingering crew members, but instead discovered its immense and valuable cargo. Others took cover behind the deck railing and kept up a steady fire on those on shore. They were supported by others in nearby barges who also kept up their fire on those on the beach. In order to drag the schooner away, one of two things had to be accomplished. The militia on shore had to be driven away long enough to get the schooner off, or, they had to somehow get the schooner off while under fire.The former option was chosen.[12]

According to the Providence Gazette, the battle lasted for almost two hours as the two opposing sides, one from the land, the other from the sea, exchanged fire intent with driving the other away. The fight only ended upon the arrival of an American fieldpiece, likely a 4-pounder. Earlier in the action, Sergeant Todd had ordered John Bishop and Curtiss Murray to go back to the village, get the fieldpiece and drag it down to the beach. Once on the scene, the gun was wheeled into action. It was clearly seen by the Refugees offshore. The cannon was fired at least a couple of times, as British accounts cite its presence as to the reason they failed to take off the schooner.[13]

Once the cannon was fired, the loyalist soldiers made a hasty retreat. Abandoning the schooner, they loaded themselves into their boats and set off back towards the British flotilla. They retreated under the scattering fire and cheers from the coast guards and militia on shore, who saved the schooner.

The retreat was a good tactical decision for the loyalists, as one well-aimed shot from the fieldpiece could have inflicted heavy casualties on the soldiers in the barges, as well as destroy or severely damage the schooner, making their entire effort to get it off irrelevant and impractical.

The modern grave of Captain Phineas Meigs in West Cemetery in Madison, Connecticut. (Author)

At least one Refugee was killed during the action. He was found by the coast guards, left abandoned on the deck of the schooner. According to several contemporary newspapers, “three others of their numbers were supposed to be killed, as [they] were seen to be thrown into a boat and carried off” with them towards the flotilla.[14] The militia suffered only one known casualty. Phineas Meigs, the oldest volunteer, was struck by a musket ball in the head and killed instantly. According to a witness, the fatal shot was fired by a Refugee on one of the barges. As Meigs fell, he fell into and nearly toppled John Grave, a member of the coast guard company who stood near him.[15]

Dozens of engagements had been fought across the state during the last seven years, and the Battle of East Guilford was the last. Hundreds of men had become casualties in the defense of Connecticut—Meigs was the final one.

 


[1]Connecticut Journal (New Haven, CT), March 14, 1805. Hovey appears to have lived in present-day Shelton, Connecticut near the Housatonic River. An advertisement in the Journal places him there in 1805, as does his burial site. But during the war, Shelton was part of the town of Stratford.

[2]New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, May 27, 1782; Connecticut Herald, July 14, 1829; Independent Chronicle (Boston, MA), November 1, 1781. Hovey was released by November when he appeared in Boston before the Maritime Court to claim Pollyas his crew’s prize.

[3]“General Return of the Number of Inhabitants in the State of Connecticut and also of the Indians and Negroes, Febry 1782,” Governor Jonathan Trumbull Papers, Connecticut State Library, 24: 178.

[4]New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury, May 27, 1782. The name of the schooner remains unknown, as does its final intended destination and its fate after the battle.

[5]Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons Major General in the Continental Army and Chief Justice of the Northwestern Territory 1737-1789, Charles S. Hall, ed. (Binghamton, NY: Otseningo Publishing Co., 1905), 396-397.

[6]The area was also known, according to several militiamen, as Serpent’s Rocks. On the tag placed with his grandfather’s hat, which was worn during the action and donated to the Connecticut Historical Society in 1850, Phineas Meigs placed the action “a little east of the East Wharf.” Its location is often exaggerated in the newspapers as being up to a mile out in the sound.

[7]Adam Shapley to William Ledyard, July 4, 1781, Governor Trumbull Papers, 14:323a-d, CSL. The guard house used by Todd’s detachment was located directly opposite Tuxis Island, near the modern intersection of Island and Middle Beach Roads.

[8]Timothy Todd Pension Application, (W.25495).

[9]Meigs’ home still stands today at 45 Wall Street in Madison. He is often cited as being a captain and a veteran of the French and Indian War, but an examination of both the state records and rolls of French and Indian War soldiers fails to reveal any commission or service.

[10]Elias was an older brother of Lizur Willard, a member of Todd’s detachment.

[11]Jonathan Todd Pension Application (W.2197). It is not clear why the other British armed vessels did not accompany the party headed towards the shore. It seems likely this was due to contrary winds as the vessels headed towards the schooner did not need wind to maneuver but instead could be manually rowed.

[12]Connecticut Journal (New Haven, CT), May 23, 1782.

[13]Providence Gazette, June 8, 1782; Timothy Todd Pension Application (W.25495). It is unclear where the fieldpiece was kept or how Todd’s men were provided with it. There is no record of either Todd’s command or Captain Vail’s company being provided with one. An interesting side note is that the Providence Gazette claimed there were two fieldpieces in the action, and that one of them came from as far away as five miles, roughly the distance between the centers of Guilford and East Guilford. It may have come from Guilford.

[14]Providence Gazette, June 8, 1782; Timothy Todd Pension Application (W.25495). According to Jehiel Munger’s statement in Todd’s pension application, the Refugee found on the schooner was carried to shore and buried by himself and Ichabod Hand.

[15]Timothy Todd Pension Application (W.25495); John Grave Pension Application (W.25661). Meigs’ grandson believed his grandfather was killed within an hour of leaving his house.

2 Comments

  • What were the other engagements in Connecticut? The only ones I’ve encountered- and I do enormous research- are Danbury/Ridgefield, Tryon’s Raid in 1779, and Tryon’s failed endeavor to capture Putnam.

    1. Chris, the raids by Tryon on Greenwich, New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk in 1779 and Arnold’s raid on New London in 1781 get all the press, but there were a great many smaller raids on Connecticut by Loyalist forces in Westchester and on Long Island.

      By January 1781 Greenwich had been hit by deadly raids so often that most of the town had been abandoned; civil authority was at an end and it had become part of the ruined No Man’s Land between enemy lines. The western border of patriot Connecticut was effectively the Mianus River at the edge of Stamford.

      Meanwhile, Stamford, Norwalk, and most of the towns up the coast of the Sound were regularly attacked from early 1777 through the spring of 1782.

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