Our Amazing History: The Invasion of 1777

Vintage Map of New York at the beginning of the 18th Century
Vintage Map of New York at the beginning of the 18th Century
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Did you ever wonder if the leader of a hostile enemy force would put his finger on a map of the Hamptons and tell his men, “Okay, let’s do it.” Well, it’s happened. Four times. Guns blazing. This week is an account of the attack in the Hamptons in 1777.

The Hamptons were invaded during the revolution. Earlier in the war, Gen. George Washington and his ragtag rebel army of 12,000 faced off against 32,000 British redcoats in the Battle of Brooklyn, also called the Battle of Long Island, in 1776. The British won, and chased the remains of the American army across New Jersey to Pennsylvania where the Americans camped for the brutal winter of 1776-77 while the British consolidated their gains to include Manhattan, New Jersey and all of Long Island from Brooklyn to Montauk. No fighting took place in the Hamptons at that time because there was no American army out here. The British just took over, and their occupying armies demanded the citizenry sign loyalty papers to the king. The British army also took whatever they wanted from the citizenry here. Livestock, furniture, hay and vegetables. Needless to say, they were much hated. These supplies went to fortify the occupying redcoats, not only in the Hamptons but also along the rest of Long Island. What could anyone do?

There had been a fiery band of young men who’d served in Hamptons militias fighting the British in Brooklyn, but after the loss, they fled across Long Island Sound to the safety of Connecticut, which was still in rebel hands. There, 50 men led by Lt. Col. Return Jonathan Meigs got together and studied maps. The finger was pointed at Sag Harbor. It was there, on Long Wharf, that the British had built warehouses to contain the war material coming in from the homeland and the valuables from the local citizenry leaving for England. All this was guarded from offshore by a large fleet of British Men O’ War anchored in Gardiners Bay and a force on the Wharf of British guards to keep everything safe. Meigs’ plan was for a rebel group of about 243 men to sail small whaleboats and two armed sloops across Long Island Sound at night, overwhelm the soldiers at Long Wharf, set fire to the warehouses and then withdraw. “The Americanslosers—could still sting,” would be the message, and it would become known around the world. The boats sailed from New London around 9 p.m. on May 23, 1777. They could not go around Orient Point and right up to Long Wharf. The British fleet would stop them. Instead, as displaced Long Islanders, they knew another way.

Around midnight, the fleet of whaleboats landed at a Long Island Sound beach on the North Fork where that peninsula is only 100 yards wide. This is a place today known as Truman Beach. Dragging their heavy whaleboats through the wetlands there, they relaunched them into Peconic Bay and quietly rowed around the western side of Shelter Island to pull their whaleboats up at a South Fork beach about six miles west of Sag Harbor (about where the Mill Creek Marina is now). It was about 2 a.m. From there, they walked east for two hours through the night to make their presence known at Long Wharf with gunfire. The British guards, awakened suddenly at 5 a.m. by Meigs and his men, fought briefly, but then—mostly in pajamas and hungover from an earlier drunken party—surrendered after the first gunfire. All 99 were taken prisoner and, as the warehouses burned to the ground, marched back by Meigs and his men to the whaleboats and the trip back to Connecticut and prison. Six British soldiers were killed, 90 captured and 12 boats small sunk. All Americans returned safely from the Battle of Sag Harbor.

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