July 5, 1779
July 3, 1779 was a Saturday. For Adjutant William Campbell and more than 3,000 other British and Hessian soldiers based in New York City, July 3 proved to be one terribly uncomfortable night. Soldiers, horses, cannon, and gear were all crammed together aboard two warships and 46 troop carriers bound for New Haven harbor.
Because of the still summer weather, it was slow going. The British armada took a day and a half to sail the 80 miles to New Haven. When the ships finally dropped anchor off of West Haven’s Bradley Point, it was already after midnight.
Most West Haveners were still sound asleep. Militia sentries, including West Haven’s Thomas Painter, were beside themselves. Running from one shoreline house to another, Painter warned of the British fleet offshore. Few paid much attention to the 20-year-old. Like many times before, they said, the fleet would sail off before daybreak. Frustrated, Painter buried his personal effects for safe keeping than anxiously awaited sunrise at Bradley Point.
Aboard the ships, Adjutant William Campbell also waited, likely recalling his last visit to the area some 20 years earlier. A member of Great Britain’s famed Third Guards, Campbell was a Scot Highlander who spoke both English and Gaelic. Born in 1742, the tall, some say strikingly handsome, Campbell originally came to the New Haven area as a private in Fraser’s Highlanders.
His unit stayed for several weeks in 1759 before advancing north to take part in the epic Battle of the Plains of Abraham in September of 1759. The outcome of that battle proved to be the deciding victory for the British over the French.
By late 1760 Campbell sailed for home where he had already made arrangements to join the Third Guards as a corporal. For the next 15 years, Campbell was stationed in London as part of King George’s personal bodyguards. It was a role in which he obviously excelled.
Tapped as the official recruiter of the Guards, Campbell occasionally toured Scotland in search of new recruits. Back in London, he earned a reputation for showing enviable restraint in helping to quell the infamous Wilkes riots of 1768. Promoted to sergeant, Campbell then married the widow of an army pal in 1772, and the couple had two children.
But Campbell’s idyllic life in the shadows Buckingham Palace soon came to an end.Drawing the proverbial “short straw,” he was tapped to return to America in June of 1776 as part of the army meant to crush the American rebellion.
Since that date, Campbell distinguished himself in leading the flanking guards of his regiment into a number of major battles against the Americans — from Long Island to Brandywine. By 1777 Campbell earned a field commission to the rank of ensign in 1777.
It was an extremely rare promotion in an age when officers’ commissions were usually bought outright, not earned on the field of battle. But then Campbell was no ordinary soldier… as he would soon prove when he set foot on West Haven’s shore.
To be continued….
Guest contributor Peter J. Malia is the author of award-winning Visible Saints: The Colonial History of West Haven, 1648 – 1798, available from www.connecticutpress.com, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.