A burning memory: Revolutionary-era torching of Fairfield recalled

The heat wave that brought blistering temperatures to Connecticut this week could not compare to the heat that engulfed Fairfield center 231 years ago when British soldiers punished local Colonial patriots for seeking independence.

About 40 current Fairfielders turned out despite the record-breaking heat Wednesday to learn about the fiery punishment their 18th-Century counterparts endured at the hands of British soldiers and the Hessian rear guard on July 7 and 8, 1779. They relived the events leading up to the fateful attack on the town by the British at the Fairfield Museum and History Center's 2nd annual "Twilight Walk" commemorating the Burning of Fairfield in 1779.

Costumed staff and volunteers portrayed prominent local citizens of the time and led the group to several significant historic sites, including Penfield's Sun Tavern on the Town Green, the Burr Homestead on Old Post Road and the Isaac Tucker House on Beach Road. In front of each landmark one of them read a primary account in the words of the Fairfielders who experienced the terrifying event in Revolutionary War history.

"I'm getting ready for fourth grade. This will give me a little bit of a head start," said Kevin Harper, 9, of Fairfield, who said fourth graders are introduced to American history in local schools' curriculum.

Eileen Williams, a teacher at Bridgeport International Academy, said the history walk appealed to her even though she teaches English, not History. "I love American History and it's so close to the Fourth (of July)," said Williams, who moved to Connecticut two years ago after spending 12 years in Washington state. "Every house here is older than the oldest house in the town I lived," she said.

Ken and Katherine Kinglsey, of Fairfield, who brought their two young children on the walk, said they wanted to learn more about the community where they live. Residents of the town's historic area, they wanted to learn more about the people whose names are immortalized on street signs and the town's beaches.

At each site the crowd learned more of the horrific details of the attack. Caroline Saxe, the museum's visitor services manager, portrayed Mary Beers, who testified about the British invasion before Justice of the Peace Andrew Rowland on July 24, 1779. "Their behavior was like distracted mad men," Saxe read from Beers' testimony. Beers said she was initially confronted by a number of fixed bayonets and calls to "kill her" in her own home.

Walt Matis, program and volunteer coordinator for the museum, who served as the narrator, said the testimony of Eunice Burr is one of the most important pieces of evidence the town has documenting the attack.

Jill Littig, representing Burr, read a three-page testimony that recounted risking her life to save her mansion from the torch -- which ultimately failed, the "pack of the most barbarous ruffians" who rushed into her house, the "cruel monsters" who threw her to the ground, and the killing of an aged negro at her neighbors' home under the pretense that he had shot at them first.

As Littig read her account, Claire Harper, 7, Kevin's sister, was called to participate in the presentation by holding Littig's lantern. Other re-enactors included Mike Perazzini, 18, of Fairfield, who portrayed British loyalist Rev. John Sayer, and Russell Jennings, who read the actual the letter given on board His Majesty's Ship, Camilla, in Long Island Sound by the commodore, Sir George Collier, and Major-General, William Tryon, threatening Fairfield's citizens with punishment for their --¦ungenerous and wanton Insurrection against the Sovereignty of Great-Britain..."

"It was basically telling them if they don't swear allegiance to the crown we would do them harm," said Jennings, a descendant of the early Jennings family, whose house was the first to be burned down in Fairfield.

Matis said only seven structures were burned on July 7. The real damage occurred on the morning of July 8 when the British, frustrated that they were thwarted by locals and at their inability to seize the fort at Black Rock, retaliated by setting aflame numerous houses, businesses, the court house, jail, and Anglican church as they marched out of Fairfield.

In all, 169 buildings were burned from Mill River to Ash Creek, Matis said.

"It's a very real part of Fairfield's history. It's the price Fairfield paid for independence," Matis said.

Four houses survived, he said. Some speculate that those homeowners were Tory sympathizers. Burn marks remain today as evidence inside the Isaac Tucker House of an attempted torching. Matis said the common belief is that a servant was hiding upstairs and extinguished the flames, sparing the house.