Meigs Raid: Following Patriots’ Route to Attack the British in Sag Harbor

Dan Rattiner's Meigs Raid map, from Connecticut to Sag Harbor
Dan Rattiner’s Meigs Raid map, from Connecticut to Sag Harbor

During the Revolution, there was only one military engagement between the patriots and the British Redcoats in the Hamptons. It was called the Meigs Raid.

In the darkest part of the night on May 23–24, 1777, a group of 234 patriots from Connecticut sailed across Long Island Sound in 13 whaleboats, snuck down Main Street Sag Harbor and with bayonets fixed atop their muskets, quietly woke up and attacked 120 Redcoats asleep for the night at the small group of warehouses on Long Wharf where the British had stored guns, ammunition, foodstuffs, uniforms and other equipment. The British, in a state of shock, immediately surrendered—some, according to Colonel Meigs’ report, wearing only one sock or only pajama bottoms or nightshirts. Meigs wrote he believed they were all hungover from a party the night before.

It is believed just one shot was fired. The plan for surprise had hoped for no shots fired. Not a single patriot was injured or killed, 99 Redcoats surrendered, six died from their wounds, the weapons and other hardware were confiscated and the “forage,” as it was called, having been collected by the British as a demanded tribute from the local citizenry, got all burned up when the patriots set fire to the warehouses.

I have always wondered about how these 234 armed patriots, all from Connecticut, had gotten to Sag Harbor in their 13 whaleboats just hours after they left. If you were in Guilford today and wanted to get to Sag Harbor, you’d probably, with all our modern conveniences, allow six hours to do so. You’d drive an hour and a half to New London, wait an hour for the ferry, take the ferry for an hour and a half to Orient, drive a half an hour to Greenport and take the ferry to Shelter Island, another half an hour, then take the second short ferry to North Haven and drive another 15 minutes to Sag Harbor.

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How long do you think it took those 234 patriots and all their baggage to do that? A day? Two days? They couldn’t come by sea. A large British fleet of Men-o-War was anchored offshore of Sag Harbor, waiting to intercept any patriot ships that might try to come in that way. And a 22-gun British schooner was right off the tip of Long Wharf. The patriots, to get complete surprise, would have to approach Long Wharf by sneaking into Sag Harbor at night on foot. And they did it, from Guilford to Long Wharf, in 12 hours. Impossible.

Re-enactments take place in Sag Harbor from time to time when men in colonial garb march at midday down Main Street to walk out onto Long Wharf and fire blanks into the air with their muskets. They sometimes start their march at the far end of town. At other times, they assemble at Long Beach, a two-mile walk from town, since the first part of the journey was by the whaleboats.

I have looked into this. How in the world did the patriots do this so fast?

An important part of the answer lies in the fact that many young men from Long Island, having fought in the Battle of Long Island eight months before and lost, had come back to their homes and, with the Island now controlled by the British, sailed off to Connecticut, where the patriots were still in charge. They knew all the short cuts on Long Island. And they explained them to the patriot commanders in Connecticut when this operation was being planned.

Captain James Raymond had been ordered to make this hit-and-run attack. It was to be in reprisal for a similar attack conducted a month earlier by the British, who set fire to the patriot storehouses in Connecticut at Danbury. It would be tit-for-tat. A patriot named Return Jonathan Meigs, a young man whose father owned a hat store in Connecticut, was ordered to put it together.

The exact route he and his men took can be figured out from the statements made in the report given to General Washington by Captain Raymond after the fact. I set Google Maps to “walk” for the job.

The 13 whaleboats left as a flotilla from Guilford at 2 p.m. May 23 and sailed across Long Island Sound to the shore of Southold, where, at 8 p.m., they carried their small whaleboats on their shoulders, portage fashion, across the North Fork to relaunch them into Peconic Bay. It is unclear exactly where this was, but there are only two places where the carrying of these heavy boats could be accomplished where the separation between the two bodies of water is less than 200 feet.

One is at Truman Beach between Greenport and Orient. But the report says it was in Southold. So that has to be the other narrowing, where the Southold Town Public Beach backs up to a strip of land separating the Long Island Sound from Hashamomuck Pond just 150 feet away. Hashamomuck Pond empties southward into Peconic Bay. This is a very short carry. And it’s the only one needed.

I confirmed the time frame. Guilford is 18 miles across the Long Island Sound from the Southold Town Public Beach. They left at 2 p.m. A small boat traveling at 3 miles an hour can make 18 miles in just 6 hours. So from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. is accurate. They re-launched the boats in the dark at 8:15 p.m., heading 10 miles across Peconic Bay to where the report says they landed four miles west of Sag Harbor and Long Wharf at 12:15 a.m.

Now, what landing spot is four miles west of Sag Harbor? According to Google Maps, that would be at Mill Creek, where today there is a marina and dock and the Bell & Anchor restaurant. So there, along the curving shore of that protected harbor, they anchored their boats, and then about 1 a.m. walked silently through the night along old trails toward Long Wharf, passing—if it were today—Noyac Road past Cromer’s Market, then down to the right to the Serene Green Farm Stand and onward with twists and turns to end at Brick Kiln Road where you jog left. Brick Kiln continues, then ends to become Jermain at Main Street and Mashashimuet Park. Turn left and the walk into town—all that, according to Google Maps, takes an hour and 15 minutes to get to the snoring Redcoats at 2:15 a.m.

And that’s when the report says they got there.

Two hours later, just before dawn, the patriots would be escorting their 99 prisoners on the walk back to Mill Creek and their whaleboats, then back the way they came, probably supervising the prisoners who now were required to carry the whaleboats across the portage at Hashamomuck Creek.

I think a proper re-enactment should begin with the portage from Southold Town Beach to Hashamomuck Creek, then resume again at Mill Creek, where there would be 13 invisible whaleboats anchored, then the walk to Long Wharf and the firing of their muskets at 2 a.m.

A few odds and ends:

When the 234 patriots got to Jermain and Main Street at 2 a.m., they split up. One group continued on to Long Wharf while the other scampered up High Street to overwhelm the Redcoats manning a small fort with cannons overlooking and protecting the activities on the wharf down below. That hill was at Meeting House Hill then, Fort Hill today. All was done with courage and bravery.

When the report reached General Washington in New Jersey, where he was now conducting hit-and-run operations of his own, he wrote back asking how he could meet up with the brave Return Meigs to give him a special engraved sword on behalf of his men, but that had to wait until after the war.

The British, finding out about the raid, were shocked. In response, they arranged a new raid on patriot storage facilities in Connecticut, after which patriots kidnapped a Tory judge on the East End and hustled him off to Connecticut. In the end, a prisoner exchange took place and the stalemate continued. But in the very end, we won.

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