Alumnus’ writings offer a window to the Revolutionary War in Connecticut

A photo of the diary of Jonathan Maltby from 1781
A 1781 entry from the diary of Yale alumnus Jonathan Maltby (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Writing on the occasion of his 90th birthday at his home in Fair Haven, Yale alumnus Jonathan Maltby (Class of 1779) recalled his college years “in the time of the Revolution.”

A war spirit prevailed in all the old 13,” wrote Maltby, who arrived on campus from his hometown of Northford, Connecticut in 1775 to study theology. “Patriotism, warmed the hearts of the free born sons of Yale.”

Maltby’s April 1848 letter, a typewritten copy of which is part of the General Collection at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, offers a first-hand account of how the people of Yale and New Haven responded to some of the war’s decisive moments — and, in one case, weathered the war itself.

Fired with the news of the death of their countrymen at Lexington,” wrote Maltby of the first skirmish of what would become the American Revolution, “100 of [Yale’s] sons marshaled for fight, [rushed] to Boston.”

I [saw] an old gentleman point his cane and [heard] him say: ‘What do you think [the British commander General Gage] will say when he knows that a hundred men from Yale College are come to fight him?’”

Following news of the 1775 Colonial victory at Fort St. Jean in Quebec (under the co-command of Yalie David Wooster, Class of 1738), Maltby described “a thrill of joy pervading the city and college”:

Cannon are ordered out, 13 thunders, one for each state, tell the heartfelt joy. At the last fire, the Col., soldier-like leaped on the cannon — swung his hat and cried aloud ‘God, save the Continental Congress.’ Three cheers!

The Battle of New Haven

Closer to home than Massachusetts or Quebec, however, was the July 5, 1779 invasion of New Haven by close to 3,000 British soldiers under the command of William Tryon.

Hand-drawn map by Yale President Ezra Stiles showing the British movements during their 1779 invasion of New Haven
Hand-drawn map by Yale President Ezra Stiles showing British movements during the 1779 invasion of New Haven (Yale Manuscripts & Archives)

A volunteer force of several dozen Yale students and other New Haveners led by Captain James Hillhouse rallied “to meet the enemy,” as Maltby put it. Two of his classmates, David Austin and Elizur Goodrich, were wounded in the battle before British troops sacked the city and advanced down the coast­­­­. “The distress they made,” wrote Maltby, “I will not attempt to describe.”

On Tuesday I was one of a reconnoitering party on East Haven Heights where the balls were whistling constantly,” he continued. “A cannon ball took off all upper part of Mr. Pardee’s head, and several were wounded.”

Ending his account of the invasion on an upbeat note, Maltby wrote: “We have the pleasure to witness … that the wound of the Hon’l Elizur Goodrich was not mortal — with heartfelt joy we behold him one of the happy alumni.” (At the time of Maltby’s writing, Goodrich was 87 years old and had served as both a United States Representative from Connecticut and a member of the Yale Corporation.)

Disagreeable news’

Also in the Beinecke’s collection is a personal diary kept by Maltby between 1776 and 1781. In it, he complains of “the dispersed [and] broken state of College in consequence of the war” during his junior year.

An entry dated Sept. 7, 1781 describes the “disagreeable news” of a British siege on the port at Groton and New London the day before.

Tis said that N. London is laid in ashes,” wrote Maltby. “The fort on Groton side is taken [and] the garrison put to the sword after they had surrendered. … The enemy also fired some time upon the poor defenseless Americans while in their barracks after they had delivered up their arms.”

A classmate of Maltby’s named William Seymour, who volunteered in the fort while visiting an uncle in the area, was “so badly wounded in the knee (by the enemy) as to require amputation of the limb,” wrote Malby.

In a grim counterpoint to the enthusiastic “war spirit” he would recall in his letter nearly 70 years later, Maltby was moved by the savage defeat to mourn “poor human nature” and “all the distressing wars that have crimsoned the earth with blood … from the beginning to this day.”  

We have sustained the late disaster [and] much expect to sustain many more,” wrote Maltby of his fellow Americans. “[But] our cause is unquestionably gaining in every point of view.”

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Peter Cunningham: peter.cunningham@yale.edu, 203-432-3786