Fort Salonga History Part 2
Looking back… by Bradley Harris, Smithtown Town Historian
(This is the second article in a series about the history of the Fort Salonga area for the FSA newsletter. I hope that you will enjoy this article which focuses on the role that residents of this area played in the American Revolution.)
“Fresh Pond becomes a hot bed of ‘Rebel’ activity during the Revolutionary War….”
If we look back to the time period of 1775-1783, a time when the 13 colonies of the British in North America became embroiled in a war of independence with Great Britain, Ft. Salonga did not exist. There was instead a tiny village called Middleville that consisted of several houses clustered around the intersection of Bread and Cheese Hollow Road and Sunken Meadow Road. And further north where Bread and Cheese Hollow Road crossed North Country Road, there was another tiny village known as Fresh Pond. If we were to travel back in time to the year 1776 and could be transported to the southeast corner of the intersection of North Country Road (25a) and Bread and Cheese Hollow Road, we would be standing in the middle of that little village called Fresh Pond. Across the dirt road known as North Country Road, on the north side of the road, would have been the inn known as the Mulford House, a favorite hangout of the British officers who were commanding the occupation forces of the British Army in this area. Next to the inn and clustered around it were a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cider mill, and several houses.
Following the Battle of Brooklyn and the rout of the American Army in 1776, the British Army occupied New York City and its environs including all of Long Island. The British Army of Occupation, consisting of several thousand regular British soldiers, Hessians and Loyalists, took control of strategic points and harbors throughout Long Island. This occupation was to last for the duration of the war, seven years from August 1776 to September 1783, and it was seven years of hardship and suffering for many Huntington and Smithtown residents. It was particularly true for those inhabitants who were not pronounced Loyalists and refused to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. It was also true for those who had demonstrated their patriotism by signing the Articles of Association, by enrolling in the local militia, and fighting in the Battle of Long Island. Most of these “rebels” fled to Connecticut after the Battle of Long Island leaving their families behind to face the many indignities and outrages foisted upon them by the occupying forces. They were forced to quarter foreign troops. They watched as their food and livestock disappeared into cooking pots, their fences and outbuildings were turned into firewood, their teams taken from them, and their crops seized. They had just about given up hope that they would ever be free of the British menace in their midst.
Thomas Tredwell, one of New York State’s leading patriots, lived near Fresh Pond at the time of the Revolution. The Thomas Tredwell house can be seen from 25A where it sits on the north bank of Sunken Meadow Creek in the midst of the Punch Bowl development. The Tredwells were among the very early settlers and landowners in the Fresh Pond area. “Thomas Tredwell was the first large landowner” and his house is thought to be the oldest house in Ft. Salonga having been built in 1690. “His son Timothy, born in 1713, married Mary Platt” and their son, also named Thomas Tredwell was born in this house in 1742/3. He “graduated from Princeton in 1764”, became a very large landowner and was the largest slaveholder in Smithtown. He “held many public offices” in Smithtown’s government and was “an active patriot from the earliest days of the Revolution.” He was one of three men chosen to head Smithtown’s Committee of Correspondence, was chosen as a delegate to New York’s Provincial Congress, and was a signer of the Articles of Association at Smithtown in 1775. Tredwell joined Col. Smith’s militia regiment, and following the Battle of Long Island, he was obliged to abandon his home and seek refuge in Connecticut. (Colonel Rockwell’s Scrap-book, edited by Charlotte Ganz, published by the Smithtown Historical Society, Smithtown, N.Y., 1968, p. 122.)
Fresh Pond was a hot bed of “rebel” activity before the war, and during the occupation of Long Island by the British. The Zephaniah Platt House on Sunken Meadow Road, said to be one of Long Island’s finest pre-Revolutionary War houses, was built in 1754 on the site of an earlier home. The earlier home was built by Jonas Platt who in 1717 bought the land in Sunken Meadow from Richard Smith II. Jonas’s son, Zephaniah, built the house that stands today and it was Zephaniah who was engaged in whaleboat raiding on the Sound during the time the British occupied Long Island. “Zephaniah’s property, lying along the Sound and with its innumerable creeks, and bays and ponds, was ideally situated for those engaged in whaleboat warfare. Many of the whaleboat men were refugees from Long Island living in Connecticut , who were familiar with the ins and outs of both shores. Two or three whaleboats, small and light, could easily hide in a cove or creek, ready to dart out under the cover of night or fog, and capture coasting vessels loaded with supplies for New York.” In 1777, British soldiers discovered whaleboats in Zephaniah’s barn, pulled them out, burned them and took Zephaniah prisoner. He was bound to a huge elm tree in his front yard, along with forty other men who were rounded up. The number of men taken prisoner gives you an idea of the extent of the local resistance movement. Over 70 years of age when the Revolution began, Zephaniah was hauled into New York City and confined on a prison ship. “Zephaniah’s youngest daughter Dorothea, went to the British General in New York, Sir Henry Clinton, and pleaded for her father’s release. Her request was granted, but the old man had contracted” smallpox in prison and died four days after returning home. (Colonel Rockwell’s Scrap-book, op.cit., p. 120.)
This effort by the British failed to stamp out “rebel” activity in the area. Major Jesse Brush made sure to remind the British and their Loyalist sympathizers of their unwelcome presence every chance he got. Jesse Brush was the husband of Dorothea Platt and the young couple lived where the Cranford House once stood to the east of Thomas Tredwell’s home. (See the photograph of the Cranford House with its 1790 wing.) Jesse Brush was a Major in the colonial militia and an uncompromising patriot. Following the Battle of Long Island, he too fled across the Sound abandoning his home. But he returned to the Fresh Ponds area to harass Loyalists, waylay travelers, and rob houses.
There seems to have been a high concentration of rebels in the Fresh Pond area. To keep an eye on them and to protect the British forces from attack by the “rebels”, the British decided to build a fort along the dirt track (North Country Road) that led from Smithtown to Huntington. They chose to build it near Fresh Pond and they named it Ft. Slongo. Ft. Slongo was erected on a high point of land known then as Treadwell’s Neck in Smithtown. The fort, a few miles to the north of the little village of Middleville, overlooked Fresh Pond and commanded a view of hundreds of square miles of Long Island Sound. Today there is not much to see from the site of the actual fort since the trees have all grown up around the fort and there is no indication that it once had a commanding view. But back in 1781, the trees around the fort had all been cleared for a great distance by British soldiers who were dispatched to cut cords of firewood for the occupying army. The fort itself was an embankment forming a hollow square with palisaded walls 50’ on a side. The 7’ walls constructed of tree trunks were set perpendicularly in the ground with earth packed between the logs. (See the sketch of Ft. Slongo used by Major Trescott in the raid on the fort.) Outside this solid wall was to be found an abatis (line of felled trees with sharpened branches facing toward any attacking force) and beyond this was an earthen trench. So any attacking force had to struggle up a long sloping hill, get across the trench, get through the entangled branches, and climb over the 7’ wall to get to the British. It was an impregnable fortress with a small blockhouse in the middle where the fort’s cannon could be positioned to fire over the walls. Within the walls of this fort could usually be found a garrison of 80 men which included a detachment of mounted dragoons who were ready to dash out and intercept any raiding party that might cross the Sound. The men of this garrison spent much of their time harassing the rebel farmers in the area, taking their crops, cattle and firewood, and generally making themselves very unpopular. So it was that this fort was singled out by American forces as a target for a raiding party.
At 8 o’clock on the evening of October 2, 1781, Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge dispatched a detachment of some 100 men in whaleboats across the Sound from Norwalk, Connecticut. Their mission was to attack and destroy Ft. Slongo. On this mission were 50 men from Captain Richard’s Company of the Connecticut Line and another 50 men from Captain Edgar’s dismounted dragoons. These men and the boatmen made up the raiding party. A Major Lemuel Trescott was in command of the detachment. The night before this raiding party was dispatched, a smaller party of men under the command of Sergeant Elijah Churchill was sent to reconnoiter and scout the area. Churchill’s party crossed the Sound with muffled oars, landed at Crab Meadow some distance west of the fort near the farm of Nathaniel Skidmore, and he guided them to the fort and showed them its location. With Churchill’s scouting report in hand, complete with a map of the fort that had been previously provided by Henry Scudder, a leader in the Culpepper Spy Ring, Major Trescott’s raiding party was ready to spring into action.
As things worked out, Major Trescott picked an auspicious time to attack. The British officers commanding Ft. Slongo had chosen Saturday night, October 2nd, to carouse and party at the Mulford Inn in Middleville. Their commanding officer, Major Valanstine, had gone off to New York City on military matters and left the fort in command of his subordinates who chose to party in his absence. They left the fort for the party at Mulford Inn, a party that went on into the wee hours of the morning of October 3rd, when the American forces launched their attack.
The actual assault on the fort was made at dawn on Sunday, October 3rd. Major Benjamin Tallmadge wrote the following account of the capture of Ft. Slongo in a report to his commanding officer, Major General Heath:
I am happy in having the occasion to congratulate you on the success of an enterprise against Fort Slongo, Long Island. After making many attempts to embark and being prevented by bad weather, last evening at eight o’clock I ordered fifty men from Capt. Richards Company of the Connecticut line and 50 more from Capt. Edgar’s dismounted dragons to embark at this place. The smallness of the garrison at Slongo and the difficulty of procuring boats making it unnecessary to employ but a part of my detachment, at the request of Major Trescott, he was honored with the command. Having obtained several very accurate draughts of this post, and even the places where the sentinels stood, I made every disposition for the attack previous to the embarkment of the troops. I have enclosed a copy of my orders to Major Trescott which he most faithfully executed and his return of his prisoners, etc.
It becomes necessary to observe that for the execution of this service Capt. Edgar’s dismounted dragoons were ordered to surprise the garrison and the works, while Capt. Richards with his company were to surround the Fort and prevent the garrison from escaping. Lieutenant Rogers of the 2nd regiment of light dragoons, with ten chosen men, was appointed to lead the attack against the fort, followed by Major Trescott and Captain Edgar with the remainder of the dismounted dragoons, the rear of which was brought up by Cornet Pike, Capt. Richards, Lieutenant Holt and Ensign Pinto, were disposed of as above observed to surround the garrison. The attack commenced at three o’clock this morning and was conducted with great good order, but notwithstanding the greatest exertions of Capt. Richards and his officers, some of the garrison jumped over the works and escaped. Major Trescott speaks highly of all the officers and soldiers under his command as well as the boatmen employed in his service. It was fortunate that Major Valanstine, who commanded the garrison, was absent in New York.
It gives me peculiar satisfaction that I have occasion to report not a man killed of our Detachment and but one wounded.”
The one wounded man was Sgt. Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, one of Capt. Edgar’s fifty dismounted dragoons who had been given the assignment of surprising the garrison and leading the assault on Fort Slongo. Although we don’t really know what role Sgt. Churchill played in the assault, he apparently distinguished himself in the attack. Major Tallmadge wrote the following in his Journal about the assault: Oct. 11, 1781. “150 Continental troops” under the command of Major Trescott, “crossed the Sound in boats and landed in the evening near a small fort on L.I., 15 miles east of Lloyd’s Neck, which they approached with so much secrecy that they were not discovered till challenged by the sentinel, who fired on them and ran into the fort, but was followed so close that he had not time to shut the gate. Some opposition was made as our people entered the fort, and 4 of the enemy were killed and 2 wounded, but they soon surrendered. The fort, barracks and magazines were destroyed. Major Trescott returned to Fairfield next morning with 20 prisoners, and brought off 70 muskets and a brass 3 pounder. We had one man slightly wounded.” Tallmadge noted in a subsequent entry in his Journal that the Fort’s “Block-house and combustible materials were brunt” and that “of the enemy, 2 Capts., 1 Lt., and 18 privates” were taken as “prisoners.”
Imagine the joy in Fresh Pond and Middleville as the long suffering populace awakened to the news that the hated British had been handed a rousing defeat and Ft. Slongo had been destroyed. By God, there was a cause for hope, the British could be beaten. And American troops proved that again two weeks later when the British were defeated at Yorktown, Virginia. Actually the successful raid by American forces on Ft. Slongo, although a minor engagement, helped lead to the British surrender at Yorktown.
The loss of Ft. Slongo, so close to New York City, was a cause for concern for the British Commander in Chief General Charles Clinton. With a French army and navy firmly in control of Newport, Rhode Island, General Clinton was concerned about weakening his own defenses in New York City. And when American and French forces threatened to attack New York City, he refused to send any help to Cornwallis in Virginia. The result was that Cornwallis was bottled up in Yorktown and the arrival of a French fleet cut off any possible escape by sea. After a lengthy siege, General Cornwallis was forced to surrender his army of 7,000 British soldiers, at Yorktown. And with that victory, America at long last turned the tide of war in its favor and American independence was practically assured.
Long after the attack on Ft. Slongo was over and the end of the war was being negotiated in Paris, Sergeant Elijah Churchhill was awarded a special commendation by General George Washington. In an effort to improve the morale of the Continental Army, Washington decided to create a “Badge of Military Merit” for enlisted men who had performed bravely in combat. Candidates were screened by a board of officers who were charged with the responsibility of determining who should receive the badge. Sgt. Elijah Churchill was recognized for his bravery and courage, his outstanding gallantry, and became the first enlisted man to receive the honor.
The original badge was made out of blue silk, was shaped like a heart, and was embroidered by Martha Washington with the word “Merit.” The cloth badge was then sewn on the left breast of the uniform. A total of three enlisted men, all non-commissioned officers, were presented with the Badge of Military Merit by General Washington during the Revolutionary War. Sgt. Elijah Churchill received his Badge of Military Merit on May 3, 1783 when General Washington presented it to him at the Hasbrouck House in Newburgh, New York, General Washington’s headquarters at the time. After the war, the badge fell into disuse. It was officially re-instated as the Purple Heart by the War Department on February 22, 1932, in part, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday. Churchill’s original Badge of Military Merit is now on display at the National Temple Hill Association in Vails Gate, New York.
The attack on Fort Slongo, October 3, 1781, put the town of Smithtown and the little village of Fresh Pond on the historical map of the Revolutionary War. And the presentation of the Badge of Merit to Sgt. Elijah Churchill for his heroic actions during that attack, add a historical footnote to the history of that assault and remind us of the struggle that Americans endured to win their freedom and independence.
Photographs to accompany this article:
Jonas Platt House on Sunken Meadow Road. The original house on the property was built by Jonas Platt in 1717. In 1754, Jonas’s son, Zephaniah Platt, built the core of the existing house in the photograph. Zephaniah was involved in whaleboat raiding on the Sound, attacking British shipping on the Sound, and he secreted the whaleboats in his barn.
Zephaniah Platt’s barns where whaleboats were discovered by the British in 1777. The British pulled out the whaleboats, burned them, and took Zephaniah prisoner, along with 40 other ‘rebels’ who were rounded up and taken into New York City where they were confined on prison ships.
The Tredwell House, thought to have been built in 1690, making it the oldest surviving house in the Ft. Salonga area today. Thomas Tredwell was born in this house in 1742 and he became one of the largest landowners and the largest slaveholder in Smithtown. He was an ardent patriot who was forced to flee the area and seek refuge in Connecticut following the Battle of Long Island.
The Cranford House. This house stood to the east of Thomas Tredwell’s house on the banks of the Sunken Meadow Creek. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Jesse Brush lived here with his wife Dorothea Platt. Jesse was a Major in the colonial militia and an uncompromising patriot who was also forced to flee to Connecticut.
Sketch of Ft. Slongo created in 1781 by Lt. Henry Scudder of Huntington, who at the time was a refugee in Connecticut, for use by the Continental Army in the attack on Ft. Slongo, October 3, 1781.