It’s not as vast as the Atlantic Ocean, or as storied as the Mississippi River. But as Richard Radune, author of Sound Rising, explained in a talk at the last Thursday, Long Island Sound has played a vital role in shaping Connecticut, and the United States, into what we know today.
Radune, a former Air Force Captain and businessman turned independent historian, focused on the period he calls the Sound’s “golden age,” from 1750 to 1820, in his research.
This era began with “massive” local participation in the West Indies trade, which, Radune said, has long been ignored by most historians. The Sound was a “superhighway” for Connecticut ships transporting rum, molasses, salt, and prohibited European goods. British authorities cracking down on these illegal actions concentrated on the larger ports of New York and Boston, making Connecticut’s smaller harbors, and its many coves and rivers, ideal for escaping their notice. Some New York merchants even relocated to Connecticut in order to better evade the law.
During the Revolution, the Connecticut Navy and over 200 privateers captured an impressive number of enemy ships and interdicted British supplies crossing the Sound on their way to New York. With British forces occupying Long Island, Connecticut men engaged in “guerrilla warfare” from their small whaleboats and sloops, carrying out revenge raids and kidnappings and attacking British forts on the Island. A spy ring made up of locals used their intimate knowledge of the coastal towns and waterfronts to gather information for George Washington.
In the post-war years, the new United States “ping ponged” between Britain and France, and Long Island Sound was not spared. In the Undeclared or Quasi War with France between 1798 and 1800, French ships seized American vessels trading with Britain, which became a driving force in the revitalization of the US Navy. British impressment of American sailors into Royal Navy service, a danger since the 1600s, increased and was a contributing factor to the start of the War of 1812.
In that conflict, too, the Sound and its mariners played a significant part. Ironically, until the defeat of Napoleon, Britain relied on Connecticut and Massachusetts ships to supply their army in Europe, while both governments looked away. Later in the war, the action reached the Connecticut shore. Stonington was bombarded, Essex shipping devastated, and New London Harbor blockaded.
According to Radune, who visited “every library from Stonington to Greenwich” while writing Sound Rising, the Sound is important not only for its role in history, but its continuing legacy. Military successes in local waters contributed to the maritime and political independence of the United States, while trade profits enabled Connecticut to build factories, establish banks, and transition into an industrial economy.
Radune lives in Branford and can trace his family back to the early days of Ledyard and Griswold. His first book, Pequot Plantation, looks into the lives of 17th century settlers in southeastern Connecticut. For his next book, he said, he plans to take a break from colonial days and the sea to research aviators of the 1930s.