The Battle of Ridgefield
By Keith M. Jones
At the outbreak of Revolution, sleepy, out-of-the-way Ridgefield consisted of only about fifty dwellings, for most of the community’s 1700 residents were scattered in outlying farms that dotted the twenty-three square miles purchased from Ramapoo tribal sachem, Catoohnah in 1708.
Chartered by the Connecticut General Assembly a year later, the village itself was distinguished primarily by its remarkable mile-long, eight-rod-broad (132 feet) Main Street, then known as “Town Street.” Like most of Fairfield County, not all Ridgefielders were of one mind when it came to revolution, but ties of religion, marriage and commerce, together with a complex network of barter obligations, bound Patriot and Loyalist together.
On April 27, 1777, the full fury of Revolution arrived at the head of Town Street, as the village became host to Connecticut’s only inland battle of the eight-year war.
Shortly before noon, American Generals Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold!) and Gold Selleck Silliman arrived with about five hundred men hastily mustered Fairfield County militia, old men and patriotic farm boys. They were greeted by Colonel Philip Burr Bradley and a handful of Continental troops of his Ridgefield-based 5th Connecticut Line, together with a company of Continentals from nearby Salem, New York under Captain Samuel Lawrence, plus a few dozen raw recruits raised by Captain Ebenezer Jones of the recently formed 1st Ridgefield Militia.
Under Arnold’s command the little army erected a barricade of timbers, carts, carriages, stones and earth at the northern end of Town Street and waited for the British column advancing southward from Danbury.
After burning the Colonial supply depot in nearby Danbury, 1900 British troops under General William Tryon were in trouble. Expecting much of the countryside to rise up in support of the Crown, Tryon had two days earlier disembarked 1500 handpicked regulars, a six-piece artillery unit, and a small mounted contingent of resplendently-garbed elite mounted dragoons from a fleet of 26 ships anchored at Compo Beach off the mouth of the Saugatuck River (present-day Westport).
Tryon’s force was augmented by a 300-man regiment of Loyalist irregulars, drawn from Long Island and Fairfield County, known as the Prince of Wales Provincial Volunteers. Because he truly believed that his army would be warmly received if it refrained from looting and pillage, Tryon excluded the unruly Hessian mercenaries from his expedition.
But General Tryon had miscalculated! Like a swarm of angry hornets, American forces were closing on Danbury from all directions. Twelve hundred Continentals under General McDougall were marching from Peekskill. Four Hundred and seventy-strong, the Dutchess County New York militia under Colonel Ludington was in motion, and contingents from as far as Litchfield, Wallingford and New Haven were also on the way. What’s more, Colonel Jedidiah Huntington with fifty Continentals, and Major Nehemiah Beardsley with 150 men of the 16th Connecticut Militia regiment lurked in the Danbury hills. Worst of all, Tryon learned that Major General David Wooster, together with Arnold and Silliman, was at Bethel in his rear with another 700 militia.
At two A.M. in the morning of April 27th, Tryon roused his troops and began retreat to the awaiting ships at Compo Beach.
To avoid Wooster’s force, the British army veered south from Danbury, marched through Ridgebury, and headed for Ridgefield. Hoping to delay Tryon until overwhelming reinforcements arrived, Wooster split his force, sending the main body with Arnold and Silliman to Ridgefield, while personally harassing the British rear with the remainder. Collectively the three engagements that followed became known as the Battle of Ridgefield. With the element of surprise, Wooster swooped out the woods about three miles north of Ridgefield and crashed into Tryon’s rear guard as it paused briefly for breakfast. Killing at least two redcoats, Wooster took about fifteen prisoners in this first engagement, then vanished back into the trees.
An hour later, Wooster struck again, but this time the British were ready, having positioned three artillery pieces in the rear. Rallying his men, the 67-year-old David Wooster was mortally wounded about two miles from Ridgefield center (a marker still graces the site) and his inexperienced militia dissolved in confusion. Wooster died five days later in Danbury, but his sacrifice had purchased precious time for Arnold to prepare a defensive position at Ridgefield.
Fife and drum blaring, colors rippling in the breeze, and bayonets gleaming, the British Column arrived in martial splendor at the base of Arnold’s barricade sometime after noon. Following an artillery barrage of the barricade, Tryon dispatched flanking parties to test both sides of the American position. Having anticipated this move, General Silliman posted forces at either flank that blunted these initial thrusts.
Outnumbering the Patriots by more than three to one, Tryon advanced on all three fronts, hurling a 600-man column under covering artillery fire against the barricade itself. Superior numbers and disciplined tactics carried the day for the Crown forces, but not without cost¾at least sixteen were killed and thirty wounded. After breaching the barricade and smashing both flanks, the British pursued their American adversary in a running battle the length of Town Street, and seized the town.
With twelve dead and double that number wounded, the Americans withdrew under Benedict Arnold’s personal direction. Positioned between his men and the advancing enemy, the heroic Arnold was fired upon by an entire platoon of redcoats. Hit by nine separate musket balls, his horse collapsed, pinning the General to the ground.
After dispatching an advancing soldier (some reports say two), by pistol, Arnold worked free of the unfortunate horse and fled to a pre-arranged rendezvous where the next day he was again unhorsed in combat. After encamping for the night just south of the village, the British departed next morning, leaving six houses and the Episcopal Church (a Patriot supply depot) in flames. Although Tryon’s Danbury raid and Ridgefield action were clear British successes, the retreat was a near thing, for within six hours thousands of American soldiers poured into the area. Never again would the British mount an inland expedition in Connecticut.
Beginning in 1877, Ridgefielders have remembered the battle with some form of ceremony every twenty-five years. A full day tribute of political speechifying was hosted at ex-Connecticut Governor Phineas C. Lounsbury’s Town Street mansion in conjunction with the town’s bicentennial celebration of 1908.
The 150th anniversary affair in 1927 featured publication of George L. Rockwell’s classic History of Ridgefield, while the 200th anniversary fete was held a year early to tie-in with America’s bicentennial celebration of 1976. This affair included a faithful reenactment of the battle itself, for which portions of Town Street were actually covered with dirt for sake of authenticity.
To honor those who fought (on both sides), remind Ridgefielders of their rich heritage and to educate the community about eighteenth-century lifestyle, the town is planning an ambitious program to recognize the battle’s 225th anniversary on April 27 and 28, 2002. This “Patriot Weekend” will include Revolutionary War storytelling sessions for children, historical-fact scavenger hunts, special theatrical performances, a period crafts fair, and exhibit of battle artifacts at the Keeler Tavern Preservation Society. Even a special commemorative medal will be struck! What’s more, downtown merchants will don costumes and invite town residents to do the same during a daylong retail value fest. Saturday night, a full dress costume ball will be staged at the Lounsbury Mansion Community Center along Town Street. Historical purists will be captivated by an authentic period military encampment at which the public may mingle with re-enactors from both British and American regiments, while observing various military and craft demonstrations.
Capping off the weekend, a large-scale recreation of the Battle of Ridgefield, complete with black-powder musketry, will be conducted by the Brigade of the American Revolution. The Brigade is a educational-historical association of more than 130 separate units representing infantry, cavalry, artillery, artificers, and musicians dedicated to recreating the life and times of the American Revolution. Its activities range from “working” encampments, regimental drills, 18th-century crafts, and military tactics and maneuvers all in painstakingly reproduced clothing, weapons, and gear.
Ridgefield is justifiably proud of its historical heritage. From the marker where Benedict Arnold’s Town Street barricade once stood, to the British cannon-ball still embedded in Timothy Keeler’s pre-Revolutionary tavern, and from period gravestones in the old town cemetery to nineteenth-century homes of the designated Historic District, Ridgefield’s Town Street (now Main Street) truly provides a road into the past.
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