It started in early July of 1779 when a combined force of British Regulars, Crown Loyalists and German mercenaries under Governor Tryon and General Garth staged raids along the Connecticut coastline. New Haven and its environs were the first to receive attention on July 4th and Fairfield was attacked on the 8th.
Now it was to be Norwalk’s turn.
July 10th saw a fleet of 70 British sail appear off the Norwalk islands. During the evening and through the night of the 10th 2500 soldiers were landed, distributed on both sides of the lower harbor area in what was then known as Old Well, now South Norwalk.
On July 11th the separate columns began their march up both sides of the Norwalk River burning or otherwise destroying property as they proceeded. A small force of Patriots utilized the high ground of the Flax Hill area to put up a strong resistance in an attempt to refuse that high ground advantage to the invading forces.
The two British columns followed what are now East and West Avenues to a rendezvous atop Mill Hill above Wall Street. The combined columns now proceeded as a body to push the Colonial forces, a mix of local militia, State Line militia and Continental Line regulars, including a body of dragoons back toward “The Rocks” in the West Rocks Road and Cannon Street area. There the British encountered a stiff defense from hastily prepared fortifications complete with artillery. Their inability to push the defenders off of the barricaded high ground and an ebbing tide caused the British, not wanting to be stranded with more colonial forces doubtless converging on Norwalk from the surrounding area, to withdraw to their ships. The destruction they left in their wake included “130 dwelling houses, 87 barns, 22 stores, 17 shops, 4 mills, 1 church and 1 meeting house.” Even the property of local Loyalists was not spared.
According to recently unearthed historical material, the Battle of Norwalk may have been the largest fought within Connecticut during the American War for Independence. With estimates of 800 Americans matched against 2500 Crown Forces, the Norwalk action surpassed the Battle of Ridgefield for sheer numbers if not breadth and scope of contested ground. Ironically, the reinforcements requested by courier from General Washington, headquartered at West Point, would not arrive until the day after the British withdrew. In the aftermath, Washington’s report to the Continental Congress described the town as “destroyed.”
None of the other raided Connecticut coastal towns were the objects of such destruction. Why was this? Perhaps the answer lays, again, in ongoing research. Norwalk has long been considered to have been a Tory or Loyalist community. Certainly every town and village in America had a Tory faction. New evidence, however, suggests that the local Tory element was not as pervasive as formerly believed. The reality is that Norwalk was quite active with Privateers who ran the British Naval blockades and harassed British shipping. Major Benjamin Tallmadge ran his couriers for Washington’s “Culper Spy Ring” in part out of Norwalk and whaleboat raids against Loyalist Long Island were staged out of Norwalk.
There is also strong evidence of munitions manufacturing for the Continental Army with one mill being referenced as being in the Silvermine district. In addition, a recent historical work quotes a communication from Gen. Washington to Maj. Gen. Artemis Ward on August 13, 1776 asking Gen. Ward to order the Artificers in Boston to relocate to Norwalk with “tools complete” to make gun carriages for the Continental Army, perhaps in conjunction with the artillery under production in Salisbury in the northwest part of the state, authorized by Gov. Trumbull prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
With the recent discovery of this documentation it seems Norwalk may not have been the largely Loyalist town historians once believed it to be. The rebellious activity occurring in and operating out of Norwalk may shed new light on why Norwalk received the crushing blow from the forces of the British Crown.
A Brief History of the Battle of Norwalk