Long Island was a war zone during the American Revolution. At times, with tightening British military control of New York City and its environs, the glorious cause for independence appeared to turn into a lost cause for local Patriots and the American army.
A major battle had ended in defeat for the Patriots on the Heights of Guan. General George Washington and his army barely escaped capture through the fog of night. Thousands of Americans suffered from disease and infections from the deplorable conditions on British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay. Many died and their remains were committed to watery graves. Farther east, the farms and woods of Long Island witnessed clandestine activities by a rebel spy network that extended to Setauket while frequent confrontations between Loyalist and Patriot citizenry, many from the same families, resulted in death. Skirmishes and raids involving rival militias, the Continental Army, British regulars and Hessian mercenaries blanketed the plains and probed the shores from Hempstead to Montauk.
Patriot raids on the crown’s outposts on the island initiated in Connecticut. Americans crossed Long Island Sound at night. They navigated the bays and coves on its north shore, marched quietly to prevent discovery and penetrated fortifications across the width and along the length of the island. Throughout the war, the daring excursions generated several rewarding results for the American cause.
The Battle of Sag Harbor possessed these same tactics. However, in this fight, the Patriots faced the duel challenge of negotiating the twin forks at the end of Long Island.
Sag Harbor Raid
The Battle of Sag Harbor, also known as Meigs Raid, was a response to a successful British raid on a Patriot supply depot in Danbury, Connecticut, during late April 1777. The Battle of Ridgefield was part of that campaign. Associated with this battle are the celebrated ride of 16-year-old Sybil Ludington to turn out the Patriot militias and the heroism of General Benedict Arnold for the American side.
The Long Island retribution was organized in New Haven by Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons. According to his report to General Washington, a force of 234 men from several regiments assembled at New Haven under the command of Connecticut Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs. The troops rowed 13 whaleboats to Guilford on May 21. Rough seas and high winds prevented the force from crossing Long Island Sound until the afternoon of May 23. Two armed sloops and one unarmed sloop accompanied the raiders. Only 170 arrived near Southold on the North Fork of Long Island at approximately 6 p.m.
British troops had occupied Sag Harbor on the South Fork of Long Island since the August 1776 Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn). A strong defensive position had been established on Meeting House Hill. Earthworks protected about 70 soldiers attached to the Loyalist unit of Lieutenant Colonel Stephen De Lancey (the family spelling also is listed as de Lancy and Delancey). These troops were under the command of Captain James Raymond. The ships of the Royal Navy that patrolled the eastern end of Long Island Sound obtained provisions from Sag Harbor when anchored in nearby Gardiner’s Bay.
Following his arrival in Southold, Colonel Meigs scouted the area. He learned that most of the British soldiers had been dispatched to New York City and only the small force of De Lancey’s Loyalists remained at Sag Harbor. Miegs’ men carried 11 of the whaleboats across the island’s North Fork to reach one of the bays between the two forks. The boats were relaunched with 130 men rowing toward Sag Harbor. By midnight, the Patriots landed about four miles from the harbor. Meigs formed his men for the short march, arriving at the harbor at about two o’clock in the morning.
The commander then divided his force. One detachment stormed the earthworks on nearby Meeting House Hill. The second detachment of about 40 men was assigned to destroy British boats and eliminate or capture provisions.
The attack on the hill was conducted in silence with fixed bayonets. Only one shot was reported to have been fired by a soldier. At the waterfront, a British schooner of 12 guns opened fire on the Americans as they burned the boats. Twelve boats were destroyed. Six Loyalists were killed. The Americans did not suffer any casualties. The raiders grabbed 53 prisoners at the garrison and 37 at the wharf. The prisoners were evacuated to Connecticut.
Aftermath And Today
The victory at Sag Harbor marked the first significant American success in New York State since New York City and Long Island had fallen to the British. Additional Patriot operations, including raids and Washington’s spy network, continued on Long Island for the remainder of the war.
In recognition for his success, Colonel Meigs was awarded “an elegant sword” by the Second Continental Congress. A stone commemorating the battle was placed on the site on May 23, 1902.
Today, the hill that was occupied by the Loyalist garrison and attacked by the Patriots is a local cemetery. Many headstones date to the late 1700s and a considerable number of the interred are local Patriots. At the battle site, by blocking out modern intrusions, a visitor can gaze upon the slope of the property and visualize the fight for independence that took place here almost 250 years ago.
Mike Virgintino is the author of Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History, the story about America’s theme park published by Theme Park Press. It can be found on Amazon, eBay, Goodreads and Barnes & Noble. Just click on pic for a direct link to Amazon.
All photos Mike Virgintino ©2019
Written by Mike Virgintino ©2019