Every Westporter worth his salt knows the Minuteman statue.
It’s how we give directions to the beach. We put ski caps on its head, and flowers in its musket.
It commemorates Westport’s most historic only wartime exploits: 2 Revolutionary War battles.
It’s as much a part of this place as stone walls and Long Island Sound.
So it may surprise you to learn that the Minuteman statue is just 100 years young.
Tomorrow (Thursday, June 17) at 4 p.m. the Westport Historical Society is sponsoring a centennial celebration of H. Daniel Webster’s statue. It takes place at Compo Beach.
Which makes today a perfect time to look back, and learn exactly what the Minuteman commemorates.
As Woody Klein recounts in his book Westport, Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence, on April 25, 1777 a fleet of British warships anchored off Compo Beach. The Redcoats were headed to Danbury, a colonial supply center.
The landing of 1,850 men was virtually uncontested. A group of 18 men gathered behind a stone wall near the corner of Compo and Post Roads. They killed a British major and wounded 3 others.
But the British pressed north. In Danbury they demolished an ammunition depot; burned 19 houses, 22 stores and barns; and destroyed food, clothing, medical equipment, tents, candles and a printing press.
On the way back, the colonists offered more resistance. In Ridgefield General Benedict Arnold — before he became a bad guy — rallied the local militia, and had his horse shot out from under him.
The next day, a Tory named Deliverance Bennett warned the British about an ambush planned here, on Old Hill. They doubled back, crossing the Saugatuck River at Ford Road.
Benedict Arnold rushed to intercept the redcoats near the Kings Highway Bridge. He led a charge — but none of his 200 militiamen followed.
“Arnold then rushed to the foot of Compo Hill where a full-scale battle was fought,” Klein wrote, “forcing the British to fight their way back to their ships in the harbor.” The colonial troops, led by Colonel John Lamb, forced the British into a shoulder-to-shoulder charge, with fixed bayonets. The maneuver demoralized the colonial forces, and the British made it to their ships.
The British lost 300 men, while more than 100 Connecticut militiamen were killed. According to Klein, the British later claimed the resistance they met was more severe than what they faced at Lexington and Concord.
Two years later — on July 6, 1779 — the British returned to the area, with up to 3,000 men. At Green’s Farms they torched 15 homes, 11 barns, several stores and the second Green’s Farms meetinghouse. (Deacon Ebenezer Jesup and his wife Abigail did manage to save the Green’s Farms Congregational Church’s silver Communion set, by lowering it down a well.)
Which brings us back to the Minuteman statue. Symbolizing the Connecticut Militia under the leadership of Colonel Lamb, it was sculpted by Webster from a composite of militia descendants. Former first selectman Lewis P. Wakeman reportedly also sat as a model.
The dedication took place in 1910 — 9 years after two cannons were placed at Compo Beach, on the exact spot where the British landed.
So why does the Minuteman face away from the beach?
He’s looking north, toward Compo Hill — where the final, most successful battle took place.