Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Sudbury Fight



On April 21, 1676, somewhere between 500 and 1,500 Indian warriors made their closest approach to Boston during what became known as the Sudbury Fight.  It happened during Kings Philip's War of 1675-6, the bloodiest settler-Indian conflict in American history, as measured by the percentage of the male population killed or wounded (THC wrote of the origin, course and memory of the war in the post Bloody Brook).  King Philip (native name Metcomet), lived near the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border and an incident involving him triggered the war.
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/Images/Gazetteer/Places/America/United_States/_Topics/history/_Texts/EAMKPW/map=large*.jpg
(Map from King Philip's War by George Ellis & John Morris (1906) via U of Chicago.)

By the late winter of 1675-6, Indian attacks had forced the abandonment of the towns of central Massachusetts.  Settlers in the Connecticut River Valley towns were huddled closely in several towns for protection and small settlements in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine had come under attack.

In March a meeting of Indian warriors at Mt Wachusetts (see map above) resulted in a decision to attack settlements to the east in the direction of Boston, with Sudbury being the immediate objective (reportedly after rejecting an attack on Concord).  Marlboro, Groton and Lancaster were quickly overrun and burned and by the evening of April 20, the warriors were on the outskirts of Sudbury.

At the time, the boundaries of Sudbury were different than they are today, also embracing current-day Wayland as well as Maynard to the northwest. Most of the town's populace was located on the east side of the Sudbury River, in what is now Wayland.  Eastern Massachusetts has been densely settled for more than two centuries, but in the latter part of the 17th century, it was on the frontier.  Beyond the new town of Marlboro, immediately to the west of Sudbury, there were only scattered settlements in the midst of the woodlands until you reached the Connecticut Valley towns.

All of the frontier towns like Sudbury and Marlboro depended upon local militia for protection against Indian raids from the western wilderness and also upon "garrison" houses; selected homesteads strengthened for protection, well-provisioned to withstand sieges and with guns and powder available to which families could flee in times of trouble.  There were six garrison houses in Sudbury.

On April 21, there were about 200 defenders of the Sudbury settlement.  About 80 local militia along with several columns of militia from other towns were in the area that day.

The action opened with an early morning attack by the Indians on the garrison houses as well as a crossing of the Sudbury River and the burning of some homes in the eastern part of town.  The primary target was the Haynes Garrison house, just west of the river, where the siege began at 6 am.

The Sudbury Fight         Cowell and Wadsworth• Wadsworth draws off the Indians from Cowell, but  is drawn further into Su...
(screenshot from slideshare; an excellent presentation on King Philip's War in Marlboro, worth looking at, it can be found here)

Stationed in Marlboro was a company of about 70 under the command of Captain Samuel Wadsworth.  While most of the settlement had already been burned, Wadsworth's company was stationed at one of the garrison houses to which he had march through Sudbury without being aware of the gathering force of Indians.  Upon hiring firing, Wadsworth took about 50 of his men and began marching towards Sudbury.  On another road between Sudbury and Marlboro, a company of 18 mounted men under Captain Edward Cowell was ambushed, with four of his men killed before the Indians withdrew and he cautiously made his way into Sudbury.

Meanwhile, another company of about 40 from Watertown under Captain Hugh Mason mustered and began marching west to Sudbury's relief upon getting the alarm.  As they pushed into Sudbury they found the Indians on their front withdrawing.

The siege at Haynes Garrison house continued into early afternoon, with constant shooting and unsuccessful attempts by the Indians to set the house afire.  At one point, those in the house watched in horror as 12 Concord men, moving south along the river to help those in Sudbury were ambushed, with only one escaping.  Early afternoon saw the end of the garrison house siege as the Indians withdrew.

It was only later in the day that the reasons for the Indian withdrawals became clear; Wadsworth's company had fallen into yet another ambush and his force was big enough that all of the Indians in the area were needed to annihilate it.  Taking up a position on Green Hill near the Sudbury/Marlboro border, Wadsworth's men waged a desperate struggle that afternoon.

Samuel Wadsworth was already an experienced combat captain in the war.  He came from a distinguished family, arriving in Boston, as a two-year old, with his father Christopher aboard The Lion in 1632.  Christopher's older brother, William Wadsworth, arrived on the same ship and went on to become one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut.  Young Samuel grew up in Duxbury, near Plymouth, before moving to Milton, southwest of Boston in 1656.  There, he and his wife Abagail raised eight children (five surviving into adulthood) on their 300 acre farm.  One of his sons, Benjamin, six years old in 1676, went on to become President of Harvard College from 1725 to 1737.  Wadsworth House at Harvard, built for Benjamin in 1726, still exists as the second oldest building at the University and served as George Washington's first headquarters when he arrived to take command of the Continental Army in July 1776.

Despite his experience, Wadsworth did not survive the battle - nor did 28 of his soldiers. The survivors were able to break out of the encirclement and seek refuge in the garrison houses.  Little is known of the details of the struggle on Green Hill.  This account is from the 1906 book by Ellis and Morris on the war:
In the evening the worst was confirmed. Captain Wadsworth had learned, soon after his already at Marlboro, of the storm gathering in the rear. Leaving the least efficient of his command in garrison, and taking with him Captain Brocklebank and the troops who had been relieved, he marched back without delay. He was expected. As he neared Sudbury by the south road, a few warriors appearing across the path ahead amid the trees, fled before him toward Green Hill. Experienced soldier though he was he believed that the main body of the foe had been seized with a panic on his approach, and, leaving the road, in eager pursuit rushed into the woods. The flitting of dusky forms and the roar of musketry from all sides soon undeceived him. The troops rallied and fought their way to the crest of the hill and, sheltering themselves behind the trees and rocks, held their own until the evening fell. Then the Indians fired the bushes and grass to windward, and as Wadsworth's weary men fell back in the dusk, blinded by the smoke, and their nerves shaken by the loss of many of their comrades, a panic seized them, the Indians closed in, there was a brief hand to hand conflict, and all was over. 
(Wadsworth monument on Green Hill from U of Chicago page on Ellis & Morris book)

[image ALT: On a flat clearing with a low rise behind it, a stone obelisk some 10 meters tall surrounded by a double row of well-kept fence. It is an early-20c photograph of the Sudbury monument near Green Hill, Massachusetts.]
That evening about 125 people - Sudbury families and surviving militia - huddled in the garrison houses on the west side of the river, anticipating a further Indian onslaught the next day.  But with dawn nothing happened.  The Indians had withdrawn to the west.

The Sudbury Fight was a tactical victory for King Philip's warriors.  They had successfully conducted three ambushes - on Cowell and Wadsworth's commands as well as on the Concord men, and destroyed much of Sudbury west of the river.  Fifty two militia were dead, while Indian losses may have been as few as four to six.  Why the withdrawal occurred remains unknown, but King Philip never resumed the offensive, the initiative quickly moved to the colonials, and the war was over by the end of the year. 

THC has always been interested in the events of the Sudbury Fight.  From 1973 to 1975 he lived in Sudbury and the foundations of the Haynes Garrison house were still visible along Water Row, adjacent to the river.  The Haynes Garrison House stood until 1876; this engraving is from a history of Sudbury (found via Along The King's Highway).  He and Mrs THC revisited the site earlier this year and took these photos:







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