Review: How Lyme helped win the American Revolution

"Revolution in the Lymes: From the New Lights to the Sons of Liberty"
By Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson
History Press, 156 pages, $22

 

When you think of the Revolutionary War in southeastern Connecticut, what comes to mind? Probably the smoking ruins of New London and a blood-soaked battlefield in Groton. And possibly the usual suspects: Nathan Hale, Col. Ledyard and you-know-who, the traitor.

But there were other local figures in other places also making history, and they too deserve to be remembered. A recent book shines a light on a different corner of the region where a separate story was unfolding.

"Revolution in the Lymes" does more than restore lesser-known characters to southeastern Connecticut's wartime narrative. It's very much a book about the ideas that fired their beliefs and guided their actions.

"The Lymes" of the title are a nod to what the book's setting looks like on today's map. At the time it was a single, large town called Lyme, which encompassed what are now Lyme, Old Lyme, East Lyme and Salem, then the entire area between New London and Saybrook.

While New London is only tangential to the story, Saybrook was the ancestral home of the radical politics that animated Lyme's residents.

Before it was a town, Saybrook was a full-fledged colony, uniquely independent of the British crown and born of revolutionary fervor. When Oliver Cromwell revolted against King Charles I, Saybrook was established as the place he and his allies would flee to, should their revolution fail.

It didn't, and Saybrook was eventually sold to the British colony of Connecticut. But its spirit of militant self-determination endured, especially in its outposts east of the Connecticut River, which petitioned for separation as the town of Lyme in 1665.

A century later, this spirit took new life from a different kind of upheaval. The Great Awakening split the institution at the heart of New England society, the Congregational Church, into two factions: "Old Lights," or staid traditionalists, and "New Lights," who followed revivalist preachers and their shockingly emotional, even exhibitionist brand of religion.

The result was an undermining of the established order, a development the people of Lyme, by their history, were especially inclined to embrace.

Against this backdrop the story of Lyme's role in the Revolution unfolds. Authors Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson present a rich cast of characters and the complexities of their interconnected families, business pursuits and politics.

More than anyone, Reverend Stephen Johnson set the tone for what was to follow. A fiery New Light minister, he was spurred to become a political instigator by the Stamp Act, the hated 1765 tax that lit the fuse of revolution.

Inveighing against the tax in the pages of the New London Gazette, he found himself an influential voice of protest well beyond the borders of Lyme. His neighbors were equally eager to take up the cause, and the town produced a number of leaders disproportionate to its size.

John McCurdy, a merchant, self-taught intellectual and member of the Sons of Liberty, encouraged Johnson's writings.

Samuel Holden Parsons, a young lawyer, became one of George Washington's generals and oversaw the successful evacuation of the American army from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Ezra Lee piloted the submersible Turtle in an unsuccessful attack on the British fleet. The incident has gone down in history as the first use of a submarine in wartime.

Matthew Griswold IV, descendant and namesake of Lyme's founder, was the deputy governor of Connecticut. As second in command of a colonial government in rebellion, he was deeply active in the cause, both politically and personally. Stories survive of him escaping British raids by hiding in a barrel and under a pile of laundry.

In addition to sketching the careers of Lyme's revolutionaries, the book offers illuminating asides that fill out the picture of the times. These include the story of the Post Road, the mail route along which Johnson's writings were carried to a wider audience.

Laid out by Benjamin Franklin, the road followed a different route than today's Post Road, and at least one original milestone can still be found on what's now a back road in Old Lyme.

There's also the contribution of Timothy Green, publisher of the New London Gazette, which chronicled the war. The newspaper was printed on a 17th-century press that, before Green's family purchased it, was the first one brought to North America.

The ride of Israel Bissel is not well-known, but he was the Paul Revere of Connecticut. The book recounts his horseback journey from Watertown, Mass., through Norwich, New London and Lyme, and on to New York, to deliver word of the war's outbreak at Lexington and Concord.

"Revolution in the Lymes" is a welcome addition to southeastern Connecticut's history bookshelf. Well-conceived, solidly researched and elegantly written, it gives a group of deserving but lesser-known patriots their due.

But it also achieves something of a higher order. From the religious ecstasy of the New Light preachers to the seething resentment of the revolutionaries, it makes us feel what it must have been like to live through stirring times.

j.ruddy@theday.com

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