For over a century, the Minute Man has stood as Westport’s most beloved symbol. Harry Daniel Webster’s statue was dedicated in June 1910.
But this will make you feel really old: The skirmish it commemorates — the Battle of Compo Hill — took place 133 years before that.
If you’ve lived in Westport a while, you know at least some of the story behind the monument.
But many new residents may pass by, on the way to the beach, and not give it a second thought.
Or they may think it’s a typical New England nod to some generic Revolutionary War soldier.
There’s much more to our Minute Man than that. On the 246th anniversary of Westport’s most famous battle, here’s the back story.
Twenty-six ships carrying 2000 British troops under the direction of General William Tryon — a force larger than at Lexington or Concord — landed at Compo Beach at dusk on April 25, 1777. Tory loyalists planned to guide them up Compo Road to Cross Highway, across to Redding Road, then north through Redding and Bethel to Danbury, where they would burn a major munitions depot.
Patriots fired a few shots at the corner of the Post Road and Compo, but the British marched on. In Danbury they destroyed the Continental Army’s munitions, then headed back toward their waiting ships at Compo.
Hastily assembled patriot forces fought them in the fierce Battle of Ridgefield. Led by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold — not yet a traitor — and outnumbered 3 to 1, the patriots deployed a strategy of selective engagement.
The next day — April 28, 1777 — patriots tried to capture the Redcoats at a bridge across the Saugatuck River. That forced the soldiers to march 2 miles north, and swim across.
Meanwhile, marksmen waited on Compo Hill (the current site of Minuteman Hill road).
Twenty colonials were killed, and between 40 and 80 wounded when the British made a shoulder to shoulder charge with fixed bayonets — but, wearing everyday work clothes and using hunting guns or pistols, they gave them a fight.
It was reported that resistance here was more severe than at Lexington and Concord.
Graves of some of the patriots who fell that day lie along Compo Beach Road, just past the Minuteman statue. British soldiers are buried across Gray’s Creek, by the Longshore golf course.
Though Tryon returned to burn Norwalk and Fairfield, never again during the American Revolution did British troops venture inland in Connecticut.
The next time you pass the Minute Man, think about the Battle of Compo Hill. That’s the reason our Minuteman stands guard, facing Compo Road.
Like his fellow patriots 246 years ago, he’s ready to give the Brits his best shot.
There are a number of good historical sources about the Battle of Compo Hill.
One of the most fun, colorful — and detailed — was unearthed recently by alert reader Deborah Johnson.
She discovered “The Battle of Compo Beach,” a 9-page booklet, written and illustrated by C.M. Owens.
Hand-written, with meticulous lettering, it was published by the Hillspoint PTA. Built as an elementary school in 1960 to educate Westport’s booming school-age population, and open for just over 2 decades, today it’s the Hillspoint Road childcare facility with the domed roof.
The booklet has lasted longer than the school.
Now it’s up to all of us — old-timers and newcomers alike — to keep the memory of the Battle of Compo Hill alive.
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Great history and so very well summarized here.
One of my ancestors was flagged as a Patriot and taken prisoner by Tryon as the long column of British regulars passed his house on Cross Highway. How he subsequently managed to survive that brutal, disease filled floating prison in New York harbor is beyond me. All I can say is that the people who came before us were truly made of stern stuff.
Local lore has it that the Minutemen poured tar on a rock sitting high above Compo Road and set it afire to signal that the British were coming. I can see this famous rock from my living room window on what is now Tar Rock Road, about a mile north of the beach. When we first moved here, some 30 years ago, a neighbor told us that at one time a tour bus (!) made a stop at the “tar rock.”
I grew up on Tar Rock Road. Mom & Dad lived there for 50 years. They loved to share that story.
Great report, Dan. I’ve passed by the statue many times and never knew the story behind it.
I’m not sure if the cemeteries have dead from the battle. I thought they were family cemeteries.
After the war, Tryon moved to North Carolina where he was appointed governor by the King. The corner of “Trade and Tryon” is the epicenter of “uptown” Charlotte, from where NationsBank built their empire.
Funny that a guy who burned all these towns in the North retired to the South….
Thanks for recognizing the anniversary of the battle. My 5th great grandfather, Titus Finch, was a Tory from New Haven who landed at Compo to guide the British. Thankfully, the Patriots prevailed and we’re all able to enjoy our great nation!
Long time Westporter Jonathan B. Walker wrote a book called “A Certain Cast of Light” about the Revolutionary War. It’s a fictionalized work based on how the battle of Compo Hill affected a real local family. I believe the Historical Society has copies.
Here’s a link to the “06880” story about that book: https://06880danwoog.com/2017/03/14/the-british-were-coming-jono-walker-was-almost-there/
Dan – talk to kathie Bennewitz – our town curator – the statue will be cleaned and conserved (again) very soon so it cna stay or another 126 years!
As a newcomer to Westport (and CT), from Massachusetts, I have been kidding new friends about how CT was just an overnight stop between Massachusetts and New York during the Revolution. Now I know better and I am suitably contrite. Great story.
Great Story. Please allow some context and excuse my obsession with acronyms.
Back when the WHS knew what it was doing, a kindly old Westport indigenous female named Bessie Jennings made it her life’s work to conduct a tour for every Westport elementary school class as part of the core curriculum. I enjoyed it twice because I went to both Greens Farms and Kings Highway elementary schools. Those days are long gone, the WHS has morphed into the WMFH (Westport Museum From Hell) kindly Ms Jennings has morphed into the CFHWAATG (Curator From Hell With An Axe To Grind) and negative stereotypes from NYC have replaced civic pride in Westport. This has happened while Mom and Dad were off worshipping The Almighty Buck and delegating their job to a SWAC (Stranger Without A Clue) from the WMFH.
I may be missing something, and it doesn’t change the point of the observation much, but I wouldn’t want Bob Diamond to think he had failed me entirely. I calculate the battle preceded the statue by 133 years, not 126.
Correct, Peter. You get an A+ in both history and math.
I imagine the British took that route to avoid the Weston Road / Easton Road / Main Street debacle (TFIC)!
But seriously, many thanks for this great article, Dan!! I remember the Minute Man also as the “logo” of the old Westport Bank & Trust (currently the site of Patagonia). I used to see it when I went there with my dad in the late 50’s / 60’s.
I’ve heard stories of the houses burned by the British on the way to / from Danbury. Does anyone know if there is a list of these houses anywhere?
Per classmate Pat Saviano, Jono Walker SHS ‘70 did all of this research when he wrote his book. It’s a pretty good read. It’s on Amazon. For the price of a double latte at Starbucks and you won’t need to double park.
Thanks Eric!! I will take a look at that book.
Jono Walker SHS ‘70 is the essential “Old Westporter” and is kind of unique because his Bennett ancestors were Tories and his Schuyler ancestors were Patriots at the same time. Talk about political polarization within families!!! He weaves family history into serious research that he did for years going back to when we were kids. So it’s historical fiction but the foundation is historically accurate. I’m kind of bullish on this book because Jono sent me a manuscript for my comments before he published it.
Also, about Tryon: “After the war . . . appointed … by the King”. The King?
Great work Dan. Growing up in Westport in the 50s and the 60s, the Minute Man was always there, a symbol of Westport and its past. I didn’t know the whole story and I thank you for your well-written history.
Dan, you are right “Most of us just pass by and nod to a Revolutionary War soldier.”
It is all how you look at it.
Many years ago, our daughter was a Rotary International exchange student in Brazil. We went down to visit her and attended the local Rotary Club lunch meeting. My wife was a Rotarian and as is the tradition she exchanged our club banner which displays the minuteman. Seeing the banner our Brazilian host said, “You Americans really do love your guns.” I had never looked it that way.
PS – Don’t get me wrong, 46 years ago I was on the town committee for the Westport celebration of the 200th Battle of Compo Hill. It was a great celebration and reenactment.
Great write-up on Minuteman statue and the battles (skirmishes?) fought in Westport after the British landed at Compo beach (commemorated by the cannons) and marched up to Danbury and back. My understanding is they marched up to Danbury on Compo Road and crossed (forded) the Saugatuck at Ford Road where Redcoat Road (get it?) once crossed the river.
And, the action that could be called the “battle of Compo Hill” did not happen once the British landed, but rather when the British came back down through the area after destroying an ammunition depot in Danbury and burning homes along the way, to board their ships anchored off of Compo – Woody Klein says the British actually ran out of ammunition during the ensuing fight put up by locals (minutemen) around Compo Hill and they had to resort to a bayonete charge to end that battle and get to their boats.
My favorite piece of information is found in the response to the frequent question: why doesn’t the minuteman statue face towards the beach?
Dan, as much as Compo Beach is the crown jewel of Westport, you are its literary crown jewel. Your 06880 blog never fails to amaze, educate and entertain me. Keep it up.
That’s Major-General Tryon to you! Any remaining Loyalists unable to pay respects to the General at his resting place in England may take the A Train to upper Manhattan to take in the sights at his namesake park.
This history is precisely why that insipid meaninglessness nondescript blue “W” should have never replaced our unique Minuteman as Westport’s digital identity to the world. I firmly believe that had Westport’s residents been given the final decision (via poll or referendum), that insult to our heritage would not have occurred.
Perhaps one day our leadership will understand the value of maintaining historical identity and tradition rather than desiring a “Madison Avenue – esque logo” representing “anywhere USA” regardless of who submitted its design.
You nailed it!!!
I love this story!
I remember going to the Westport Historical Society as a child and learning about the Minuteman statue. How it was erected and scoped it out by Daniel Webster in 1910, and he used one of the Wakeman family members to model for him when making it.
Also, The reason why the Statue faces looking towards Danbury was because the minute men were hiding in the woods along that area waiting for the 2000 British troops to march towards Danbury hence looking towards Danbury.
Also, did you know how tar rock Road got its name? When the British soldiers had marched a great distance past where the minute men were hiding, they lit the rocks on fire, which were covered in tar.
I have volunteered to maintain the statue, even planting roughly 100 tulips this year and planting 400 this fall (all are invited!). I am also working with Michael West, of Parks & Recreation to restore the grass that’s growing there and even improve the large plaque that is weathered.
I agree with Mr. Walshon, the nondescript “W” is not a fair, appropriate, accurate or proud representation of our town as a logo. We should display our history, our identity, and most importantly, our story!!!