Issue Briefs

Patriots Among Us

By Rob Newell

While we all enjoyed our President’s Day off on Monday, today is actually George Washington’s birthday. All hail to our first commander-in-chief. President’s Day was first consolidated to combine Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, which was a good cause. But it has become watered down in the public mind, and now for many people it is a celebration of all our presidents. That is too bad, so the Lexington Institute has decided to go ahead and celebrate Washington’s birthday on its own with the below article.

Rob Newell is the Assistant Chief of Information for Community Outreach for the US Navy. He was a surface warfare officer and a public affairs officer on active duty. Last year he published a powerful essay in the Connecticut Coast magazine on a band of 16 men who fought in Washington’s revolutionary army along the Connecticut coast and beyond. Their 16 footstones are still together in a Westbrook graveyard. It is a great feeling to reflect on those men’s determination against the most powerful empire on earth, and how that paid off in all the magnificent developments in American and world history since. And we can consider Washington as the 17th man, since they had his strategic genius and fortitude leading them for seven brutal years of war.

The words on the headstones are nearly illegible now, slowly worn away by more than 200 years of time’s steady march. Walking amongst them, you wonder, “Who were these people? What did they do?” And then you notice sixteen small footstones spread throughout this historic cemetery, placed there by fellow citizens determined to help us answer those questions. And remind us what they once did – for all of us.

The names are still clear on these stones – Lay, Stannard, Chapman, Ely, Post, Kelsey, Bushnell and others – all descendants of Westbrook, Connecticut’s original families.

A special inscription is at the top of each stone – “Revolutionary War.”

The sixteen most certainly knew each other. All of them were farmers. One was also a doctor. They fished in the nearby Long Island Sound and on Sundays attended the same church – First Congregational – adjacent to the town green. They helped each other during the long New England winters. Many found their wives in each other’s families. When the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the youngest of the group to enlist – James Kelsey – was 16. James Redfield and Caleb Chapman were also teenagers. Eight were in their 20s. Reuben Bushnell, Oliver Norris, William Chapman and John Ely were in their 30s. Elijah Stannard, the oldest, was 60.

Some served for short stints, protecting forts and towns along Connecticut’s coastline. Others found themselves fighting British Soldiers in places and battles now synonymous with the country’s founding – Bunker Hill; Boston; New York; Saratoga and Trenton. Regardless of the nature or length of their service, a fundamental truth binds them together. Their willingness to step forward and join their fellow colonists to fight for freedom and independence – often against overwhelming odds – helped shape the future of not only their small town but an entire nation.

By the time Massachusetts Militia and British Troops exchanged fire in April of 1775, most in the New England Colonies had long viewed such a confrontation as inevitable. Fed up with new taxes on everything from sugar and stamps to tea, and still lacking representation in the British Parliament, many colonists not only expected a fight, they were hoping for one. During the preceding years, New England Colonies had been quietly readying their state militias, so when the call came that colonial reinforcements were needed in Boston, town response was rapid and Westbrook – or Oyster River Quarter as it was known then – was no exception.

“We shall have war, “said Daniel Lay to his three sons, “and one of you must enlist in the service of your country. The light falls upon you Asa, and your brothers must support your family while you are gone.”

Under the leadership of Dr. John Ely, five in Westbrook’s Old Burying Ground – Ely, Henry Hill, Asa Lay, Labeus Chapman and Elijah Stannard – joined the 9th Company of Connecticut’s 6th Regiment and, after a brief stop to fortify New London’s Fort, marched to Boston. Once there, they joined the state militias of the other New England Colonies, now under the command of General George Washington, to keep British Forces penned in the Boston Harbor.

“We arrived on June 18, 1775, the day after the Battle of Bunker Hill, “recalled John Ely in describing his service to the war department’s pension board years later. Ely was in the same regiment but not related to Dr. Ely. “We encamped on the high ground of Roxbury, the smoking ruins of Charlestown lying before us. I was first terrified with the noise of the cannon balls flying over, and the bursting of bombshells. But when I found they did not kill me, the distressing sensations of fear were soon over and no longer troublesome during my soldiership.”

In March of 1776, unable to leave the harbor and facing sudden additional colonial firepower from cannons moved down from Fort Ticonderoga in Northern New York, British General William Howe evacuated his 10,000 soldiers and set his sights on New York City. Anticipating the new battle ground, Washington marched the state militias south, adding and subtracting soldiers as he went. With their initial 9-month enlistments coming to an end, Ely, Lay and Chapman re-upped and were joined by James Redfield, William Chapman and James Kelsey.

The six were with were with Washington’s Army as it battled a now reinforced British Army of 20,000 on Long Island and Brooklyn, barely escaping annihilation and the forced surrender of the patriot cause.

“The enemy, now greatly superior to us in number, compelled us to give ground,” recalled Ely. “And Washington, who never did wrong, and deeming it imprudent to no longer contend against such odds on that bloody arena, ordered a retreat which, as far as my knowledge extended, was performed in excellent order. We were commanded to rest on our arms, and be ready at a moment’s call. Everyone expected hard fighting. My own mind was made up and prepared for a terrible conflict. But during the stillness of the night, while the enemy was yawning, we were quietly paraded and drawn off so that by sunrise, our whole Army had crossed the East River, at, and near Brooklyn.”

The British, sensing an opportunity to end the war, pursued Washington, who had already lost 1,500 of his men compared to just 400 Red Coats.

“We fought and retreated, first to Harlem Heights where we made a stand, then to Kings Bridge, to White Plains, to North Castle, and so on, counter marching till we came to Dobbs Ferry, where we crossed over the North River into the state of New Jersey,” continued Ely. “We were much harassed both in our flanks and rear. Many were killed.”

The six Westbrook Patriots were in the middle of it. By December of 1776 Washington’s Army was down to just 5,400 men. Many, including his own troops, believed their cause was lost and surrender inevitable. In a confidential letter to Congress, even Washington himself admitted, “Our affairs are in a very bad way…. I think the game is pretty near up.”

It was of course then, sensing perhaps a final opportunity to reverse the downward spiral of the war, as well as the morale of his soldiers and the country overall, that Washington made his famous Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River, defeating the British at the Battle of Trenton where he took 948 prisoners. Only three of his men were wounded. A week later, his Army won again in Princeton, routing three British Regiments and the tide of the war suddenly changed.

In 1777, understanding a more regular Army was required rather than a patchwork of state militias, Congress authorized the formation of the Continental Army. It requested each state contribute a specific number of regiments according to its population, which were to be supplemented by state militias when additional forces were required. Connecticut was tasked with forming eight regiments. All “abled body” men under the age of 50 were asked to enlist.

That call to service brought in the other Revolutionary War Veterans in Westbrook’s Old Burying Ground. From 1777 to the war’s conclusion in 1783, the group engaged British Troops along the Hudson River and up and down the East Coast, venturing as far north as Newport, Rhode Island. Caleb Chapman served multiple stints in the Connecticut Militia, fighting in Saratoga, New York, in the fall of 1777 during British General John Burgoyne’s failed attempt to capture Albany and divide New England from America’s Southern Colonies. The next year, Caleb was with his cousin William during the Continental Army’s failed attempt to re-take Newport in August of 1778 when French efforts to join the battle there went awry.

After fighting in Boston and New York, Dr. John Ely, one of Westbrook’s wealthiest landowners, returned home, sold one of his farms and used the money to start another militia regiment, providing guns, uniforms, and other needed supplies. He was serving with this regiment when he was captured by the British on Long Island in December of 1777. Well-known prior to the war for his treatment of smallpox patients, Ely was imprisoned with hundreds of other American Officers near Flatbush, Long Island. Seeing their need for medical care, he refused opportunities to be included in prisoner exchanges, choosing instead to serve as the prison’s physician so he could administer to the needs of his fellow officers. One of those officers would eventually be his Westbrook neighbor, Asa Lay, who was captured by the British in January of 1779 while on a Long Island reconnaissance mission. It was Ely who would nurse Lay, the son of his friend Daniel, back to health when he became severely ill while in captivity.

In December of 1780, only after his own health began deteriorating, did Ely finally accept parole and journey back to Westbrook to recover. Lay remained a prisoner for another ten months until he, also frail from malnutrition and illness, was paroled when General Washington himself reportedly exchanged 16 British Officers for Lay’s return. While Ely and Lay were imprisoned, Westbrook’s other Patriots continued to fight.

Frustrated by their inability to engage Washington and his Army in a decisive, war-ending battle, British forces frequently ventured out from their camps in New York City to attack towns along the Connecticut Coast, hoping to draw Washington out from the New York Highlands. Beginning on July 3rd 1779, a force of 2,700 British Soldiers sailed from New York City up the Long Island Sound and for the next nine days burned homes, stores and farms in New Haven, Norwalk and Fairfield. They met with resistance from the state’s militia, one of whom was Westbrook’s CAPT Simeon Lay who helped push back the British at New Haven. By the time everything ended on July 12, 26 British soldiers had been killed compared to 23 Militia and British efforts to draw out Washington had failed.

Reuben Bushnell was with 165 other Connecticut Militia at Fort Griswold in Groton when the British attacked New London in 1781. As 800 British soldiers approach the fort, Colonel William Ledyard was asked to surrender. “We will not give up the fort, let the consequences be what they may,” replied Ledyard. By the time the 40-minute battle was over, 85 of the 165 Americans had been killed and another 36 severely wounded. The remaining Patriot Soldiers, to include Bushnell, were taken Prisoner and placed aboard a British Ship for the remainder of the war.

The decisive battle the British had been looking for finally occurred in the fall of 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia. After initially fooling British Generals into thinking a large Patriot attack on New York City was imminent, Washington marched a combined American and French Force of 19,000 soldiers south past Philadelphia and down the Chesapeake Bay to confront General Charles Cornwallis who was encamped in Yorktown with 8,000 soldiers and sailors on the banks of the York River. When the French Fleet prevented British Warships from sailing down the bay to bolster the British Forces, he and his Army were trapped. After just five days of fighting, Cornwallis, on October 19, 1781, surrendered his Army – a quarter of all the British Forces in North America.

Prior to the battle, British General Henry Clinton, who had relieved General Howe as overall commander of all British Forces in 1778, had said from his New York Headquarters, “If Lord Cornwallis’s Army fails, I should have little hope of seeing British Dominion re-established in America, as our country cannot replace that Army.”

He was right. While it would be another two years before the last of the British Forces left America, departing New York City in the fall of 1783, the Revolutionary War, for all intense and purposes, was over. For Westbrook’s Patriots, it meant returning to their homes, their farms in their quiet town along the Long Island Sound. Many of them, including Asa Lay, continued to be members of their local militia unit. But the war years had unquestionably taken a toll on themselves and their families. Perhaps no one more so than Dr. Ely. Wealthy prior to the war’s start in 1775, he returned home to a hospital that had been burned to the ground by the British and a dilapidated home and farm.

“Here Sarah is all that is left of the Griswold Farm,” he is reported to have told his wife, pouring what little money he had left into her lap. “It is the price of liberty, “she responded. In the ensuing years, he would petition Congress and then President Washington himself, for reimbursement for his financial and medical contributions throughout the war. In 1833, 33 years after his death on October 3, 1800, Congress finally recognized his special contributions, reimbursing his family $5,000.

Around the same time, Congress began awarding small pensions to Revolutionary War Veteran’s or their surviving family members. Elijah Stannard, who had marched with that initial Westbrook group to Boston in 1775, was awarded a one-time payment of $232 and annual payments of $77. Caleb Chapman, who fought at Saratoga and Newport, was given $91.63 and annual payments of $36.66. Asa Lay died on February 23, 1813, at the age of 65. Except for his time as a prisoner, he had served almost continuously in Washington’s Army. In recognition of that service, his widow Sarah was presented with a check for $2,880 in March of 1834, and began receiving annual payments of $480.

Located just off the Post Road, Westbrook’s Old Burying Ground is easy to miss now in the increasing business of Connecticut’s Coastal Towns. Cars zip by on their way to the nearby Interstate or outlet stores. Walkers and runners rarely give it a notice on their morning exercise routines. Flowers of recognition and remembrance by the weathered old stones are rarely seen. But every August, the sounds of the fife and drum are heard once again in Westbrook as drum corps from throughout Connecticut assemble in their vintage uniforms to honor New England’s Revolutionary War Heritage. As they march past the Town Green and down the Old Post Road, their music drifts across those 16 footstones, music that reminds us of July 4th and classroom history lessons about America’s Declaration of Independence. But that extraordinary history is not just found in history books. It’s still with us in places like Westbrook’s Old Burying Ground. And those who are there wrote it with their lives.

This article was originally published on the Lexington Institute 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s