Way Back When...1779
Today’s column highlights the mural located in the lobby of Sullivan Independence Hall that depicts “The British Attack on Fairfield in 1779.”
As many Fairfielders know, the “burning of Fairfield” occurred in July of 1779. Fairfield, with a major port, affluence, and a source of supplies and provisions for colonists had become a target of the British.
On July 7, 1779, the people of Fairfield awoke to a warning from the fort at Black Rock. A British fleet had been spotted and was anchoring off the coast. With feelings of dread and uncertainty, residents prepared to defend the town. Livestock was driven to safety. In haste, people gathered their possessions, hiding their valuable silver in wells and stonewall crevices. Some loaded wagons with household goods and food, and took refuge inland. Others stayed to defend the town. A few remained in their homes, believing the British would not harm them. No one predicted the extent of destruction that was about to occur, and with it, the downfall of the town’s prosperity.
The British invasion came in the late afternoon when the 2,600 troops disembarked at McKenzie’s Point (near the end of what is now South Pine Creek Road), and marched along the beach, heading northeast. When they came to the lane that is now Beach Road, they marched inland toward the center of the town. As they came within range of cannons at Black Rock Fort, Isaac Jarvis, the fort’s commander, ordered his men to fire on the troops. Local militia near the town center opened fire with muskets. Undaunted by the attack, General William Tryon and his troops proceeded to set up headquarters in a home on Beach Road. The Fairfield men did not give up. Under the direction of Colonel Samuel Whiting they successfully defended a makeshift fortification at Round Hill, and tore up a strategic bridge crossing Ash Creek.
British troops under the command of General George Garth landed near Mill River and marched over Sasco Hill toward Fairfield to join Tryon. Tryon’s intention to march the combined forces to Black Rock Fort and attack from the rear had been foiled by the destruction of the Ash Creek Bridge. In retaliation he began burning homes one by one. The terrifying scene became even more dramatic at night; a lightning storm illuminated the sky, making the flames visible to distant observers. But the greatest damage was inflicted on the following day as the British left Fairfield. A rear guard of German mercenaries had been ordered to cover the withdrawal. In the face of furious inhabitants, they set fire to virtually all the buildings, including the churches and ministers’ homes, which Tryon had given protection. Three men were bayoneted and another was shot. Reverend Andrew Eliot, the Congregational Church minister, called the Jaegers “the vilest [soldiers] ever let loose among men.”
Fairfielders refused to swear allegiance to the King and Colonel Whiting stated that “Connecticut has nobly dared to take up arms against the cruel despotism of Britain.”
The total damage included 97 dwellings, 67 barns, 48 stores, two school houses, one County House, two meeting houses and one Episcopal Church.
Fairfield never fully recovered from the destruction. In 1789, ten years after the fire and six years after the war ended, President George Washington stopped at Penfield’s Sun Tavern in Fairfield. He observed, “The destructive evidences of British cruelty are yet visible both in Norwalk and Fairfield; as there are the chimneys of many burnt houses standing in them yet."
Fairfield’s stature as one of the most influential and prosperous towns in the region diminished in the slow process of rebuilding. In the decades following the war, the economic center of coastal Fairfield County shifted to Bridgeport and its superior harbor.
According to Municipal Historian Emeritus William D. Lee, the mural shows the Town Green with the Town Hall in the near distance. “The figures symbolically depict the confusion and chaos caused by the advance of the British troops -a drummer boy running for his life, a young patriot standing courageously in defense, and two of Colonel Whiting’s men making one last stand, with some help, against the advancing enemy.”
The mural shows the Samuel Penfield home on fire to the right of the Town Hall and also shows one of the several houses that were spared during the attack. This house, to the left of the Town Hall, was temporarily occupied as headquarters for the British Officers. It remained standing and has been occupied by Fairfield residents since the American Revolution.
Sun Tavern, where President George Washington visited, will open to the public as part of the newly revitalized Museum Commons this summer. It will feature brand-new exhibitions and hands-on activities including a “Seeking Justice” exhibition where guests can re-enact historic legal cases. Visitors can purchase admission to Sun Tavern at the Fairfield Museum on Fridays through Sundays from June 3 through September 3. Join the Fairfield Museum for a Community Opening Celebration on Saturday, June 10 from 10am - 4pm.
The Fairfield Museum and History Center is located at 370 Beach Road. Learn more about the history and culture of Fairfield, view rotating exhibitions and purchase Fairfield-themed gifts at the Museum Shop. For more information visit Fairfieldhistory.org or call (203) 259-1598; Fairfieldhistory.org.