Blessed Are The Merciful
If you happen to visit Bradley Point this summer, think about this a moment: Long before Veterans Walk ever existed, a small band of West Haveners that included Thomas Painter stood on that very same shoreline firing their muskets at British and Hessian soldiers rowing towards shore at sunrise on July 5, 1779. Outnumbered and outgunned, Painter and his friends soon ran for their lives. Within an hour, some 1,500 troops were snaking their way up what is now Savin Avenue to the West Haven Green amid intermittent sniper fire from the heavily wooded hillside along the entire route.
Some unruly soldiers occasionally broke ranks to pilfer homes and steal whatever they could. In one case, a soldier pulled the wedding ring off a terrified woman’s finger. In another, a soldier rammed his bayonet through a family bible. With so many men wanting to let off steam following a night cramped aboard their transports, their officers had their hands full keeping their troops in good order.
One of those officers was Adjutant William Campbell. His role was to oversee the flanking units – advance guards whose job it was to flush out the rebels and test their strength. At over 6’ tall, Campbell, astride his mount, was an imposing figure. At age 37, he was held in high regard by his men and superiors alike as the epitome of a Scots Guardsman.
So when Campbell came upon a group of soldiers viciously taunting a hapless minister who had broken his leg in his failed effort to escape, the Adjutant immediately ordered them to stop what some later claimed was a going to be a hanging party.
“We make war on soldiers, not civilians,” Campbell was allegedly overheard scolding the troopers. He then ordered them to help the Rev.Noah Williston back to the parsonage and called for the regimental surgeon to set the minister’s leg. To prevent any further threats to the clergyman, Campbell posted a guard at the parsonage door. Williston is said to have spent the reminder of the day praying to the Lord in thanks for sparing his life. Whatever may have been said between the minister and Campbell is now lost to history.
But one thing is certain. Campbell’s act of mercy was no accident. As far back as his childhood, he had witnessed British atrocities against Scottish civilians following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and had learned that was unacceptable behavior even at a time of war. Then as a guardsman in London, Campbell earned the respect of even the king himself for the cool, even-tempered way he and his fellow Foot Guards handled dangerous rioters in 1768. And now as an officer in the most elite unit in the British army, Campbell’s experience and military breeding go a long way in explaining his simple act of mercy to save an injured and helpless stranger.
Not long after his encounter with Williston, Adj. Campbell was shot in the chest while reconnoitering American defenses atop Milford Hill in Allingtown. That imposing figure in his saddle proved to be an easy target. Carried to a local farmhouse by his aide, Campbell was left to die. But not before the aide took the officer’s belongings and disappeared. American militiamen from Milford then stripped Campbell’s corpse of his uniform and boots. He was buried the next day on the edge of a farmer’s field and was soon forgotten.
A half century later, a local historian named John Warner Barber was so moved by the story of Campbell’s act of mercy that he placed a small headstone to mark the British officer’s gravesite. It soon became something of an attraction, and visitors would chip away pieces of the marker as keepsakes. For years, a Milford man is said to have worn Campbell’s uniform at Fourth of July parades in New Haven, and the Milford Grenadiers, a military unit, appears to have modeled their uniforms after That worn by Campbell.
By the late 19th century, a committee of New Haveners who were deeply moved by the Campbell story installed a new monument to the adjutant near his burial site. Then West Haven’s postmaster and newspaper editor, Harry Ives Thompson, mounted a campaign to rename the town’s main thoroughfare after the fallen British officer.
To this day, Campbell Avenue and the Campbell Monument are thought to be the only such testimonials honoring an enemy combatant in the United States. Inscribed on Campbell’s monument is a simple verse from the Bible that hopefully none of us will ever forget: “Blessed are the Merciful.”
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.