The Redcoats are coming — to New Haven, that is

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Yale affiliates Ezra Stiles, James Hillhouse, and Naphtali Daggett rode out to defend their city from the invasion by British troops during the Battle of New Haven in 1779.

In commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, YaleNews spoke with Yale historian Joanne Freeman about an American Revolutionary War battle that hits particularly close to home because it took place right here in New Haven.

Freeman teaches a Yale Open Course on the American Revolution, and, in a section titled “Citizens and Choices: Experiencing the Revolution in New Haven,” has uncovered first-hand accounts from the Battle of New Haven and the many Yale affiliates and New Haven citizens who rode out to defend their city from the invasion by British troops.

What part did Yale college students and New Haven townspeople play in that battle?

Yale students either took arms and defended New Haven or fled; one sophomore who fled to a nearby town, hunkered down, and read Blackstone’s “Commentaries” for a few days. New Haven townspeople had a more mixed response. Some defended their town. Some fled. Some tried to wait things out. And some fought alongside the British. According to one account, roughly 20 townspeople were killed.

In your research, you came across Ezra Stiles’ diary. He was the president of Yale at the time of this battle. What were some of the more interesting entries in his diary?

Some of the most striking entries concern Stiles’ discovery that the British were headed towards New Haven. On July 4, 1779, he recorded a rumor that a fleet of British ships had been spotted near Bridgeport, but he couldn’t believe that there would be an attack. The next day, he described going to the Chapel steeple with a telescope and seeing soldiers headed towards shore, which sent him rushing off to ready Yale. The following day, he noted that British troops paraded in New Haven before they set to plundering.

Hillhouse is a common name to New Haveners. What was James Hillhouse’s role in the Battle of New Haven?

James Hillhouse, who had graduated from Yale a few years past, had recently been made a captain in the New Haven Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard. He helped lead a group of locals into battle, including 70 Yale students — roughly half the student body of Yale.

Naphtali Daggett was an emeritus president of Yale and a professor of divinity during the American Revolution. What is he most remembered for in the war?

Daggett took arm against the British and suffered for it. According to one senior, students had known for some time that Daggett endorsed armed resistance. On the day of the battle, he stayed true to his word. He joined the locals fighting the British, but after firing one or two shots, he was captured and forced to march back to town without his shoes, with soldiers taunting and striking him along the way. Many attributed his death the following year to this forced march.

How were you able to uncover these first-person accounts of the war?

Some of these accounts were included in commemorative anniversary pamphlets published in later years; some details come from memoirs or diaries; others were in newspapers. Daggett described his experience in an affidavit.

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered in your research on the Battle of New Haven?

The accounts of hand-to-hand combat in the streets of New Haven were certainly striking. Someone who lived on State Street later recalled seeing a British officer ride down Elm Street to State Street, where he was shot. According to the witness, an East Havener shot the officer (who crawled into someone’s garden), grabbed the officer’s horse, and rode away.

The divided loyalties in the town weren’t surprising, but they were fascinating, with neighbors turning against neighbors in the heat of battle when forced to take sides.

What are you currently researching/writing?

I’m currently completing a book about physical violence in the U.S. Congress in the decades before the Civil War.

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324