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Naphtali Daggett: Pastor, Yale President, Sniper

Just after midnight on July 5, 1779, 48 British ships, crammed with 2,000 sailors and marines and 3,000 troops, appeared along the New Haven shoreline. At dawn, from a vantage point atop Yale’s chapel, Yale president Ezra Stiles watched the invading fleet through his telescope. As the soldiers began to come ashore, Stiles took precautions to protect Yale’s papers: “Immediately, I sent off the College records.”


The British raiding party included Colonel Edmund Fanning, Class of 1757.

The attack was not as bad as Stiles may have feared, even though the British troops far outnumbered the several hundred citizens who came to the town’s defense. The British raiding party included Colonel Edmund Fanning—a Loyalist, but also a Yale graduate, Class of 1757. Fanning was instrumental in persuading the British not to burn down New Haven. (Fairfield and Norwalk would not be as lucky.) The invaders sailed away the next day, leaving 23 American patriots dead and 15 wounded.

Among the casualties was Naphtali Daggett, Yale professor and former president. Almost as soon as the invasion was over, stories began circulating about Daggett’s heroic brush with the British. After his death, the legend of the ex-president’s armed resistance persisted—and was embellished. Yale historian Rollin Osterweis gave a fairly typical account almost 200 years later in his 1953 book, Three Centuries of New Haven.

In Osterweis’s version, Daggett had “ridden out to battle on an old black mare” and taken up a position in the woods, where he began “shooting his long fowling piece at the advancing line of redcoats.” Then:

A British officer led a squad of men to remove the menace of the sniper and discovered to his amazement a 72-year-old professor with an antiquated weapon. 'What are you doing there, you damned old rebel, firing on His Majesty’s troops?' demanded the officer. 'Exercising the rights of war,' snapped Daggett. 'If we should let you go,' said the Englishman, 'would you continue this sort of thing?' Again Daggett snapped back: 'Nothing more likely.' That was too much for the irritated invaders. They gave the old gentleman a beating, took off his shoes, and marched him along with them, barefooted and bleeding.

In fact, in 1779 Daggett was 51, the same age as Ezra Stiles; he had been born in 1727 and graduated in 1748. According to his sworn statement, he fought with Yale students in a volunteer company of about 100 who marched to West Haven to delay the enemy so the women and children could flee to the north. Assigned to a station on Milford Hill, the defenders soon had to retreat due to the “speedy invasion” of the enemy. Fired on directly, Daggett was able to run to a “little covert” and fire his musket—a modern weapon, not the rusty fowling piece ascribed to him in legend—once before he surrendered. Asked why he shot at the invaders, Daggett answered: “Because it is the exercise of war.”


Daggett was the first non-Harvard graduate to head the Yale Corporation.

Daggett testified that a soldier lunged at him with his bayonet, but Daggett vigorously “tossed it up from its direction and sprang in so near to him that he could not hurt me.” The British then surrounded him and gashed him repeatedly. “But what is a thousand times worse … is the blows and bruises they gave me with heavy barrels of their guns in the bowels by which I was knocked down once or more and almost deprived of life.”

Although Daggett identified himself and “begged for protection,” the soldiers forced him to march five miles, barefoot, in the oppressive heat. Daggett was still confined to his bed when he signed the statement on July 26. By the fall term, he had recovered enough that he was able to resume his Yale duties.

Daggett, a brilliant student at Yale College, had received the Berkeley Scholarship for graduate study. After his ordination he served in Smithtown, Long Island, until 1755. In that year, he became the first person to hold the first professorship at Yale—the Livingston Chair of Divinity. When President Thomas Clap founded the college church in 1757, Daggett became its first pastor.

The ultra-conservative Clap was forced to resign in 1766. After a fellow of the Yale Corporation turned down the presidency, Daggett was selected to preside pro tempore. He became the first Yale graduate (in fact, the first non-Harvard graduate) to head the institution. He served for 11 years—always as president pro tempore. It is said that, when asked why he had never requested that the “pro tempore” be dropped from his title, he replied: “What would you have them call me, ‘President pro aeternitate?’”

As president, Daggett struck something of a blow for democracy by changing the convention for listing students' names: Yale had always listed its students in order of their fathers' social standing, but Daggett had them listed alphabetically. In addition, he created two new professorships and liberalized the curriculum. But after ten years Daggett’s popularity waned. He had kept the positions of divinity professor and pastor, and in 1777 he resigned as president to devote himself to teaching and preaching.

The injuries Daggett received at the hands of the British cut short his career; he died on November 25, 1780, of internal hemorrhage. Stiles described the funeral in his diary. The students brought Daggett’s coffin to the college chapel, but it was too small for the crowd, so they moved to the New Haven Meeting House. After Daggett’s burial on the Green, the procession “returned to the House of Mourning, having paid the last Tribute of Respect to the Remains of a Gentleman, who had been long distinguished in the Instruction & Government of the College. … The Procession was the longest & the Funeral the largest, I think, that I ever saw.”  the end


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