Connecticut, Mobilization in

views updated

Connecticut, Mobilization in

CONNECTICUT, MOBILIZATION IN. Connecticut had several reasons for enthusiastically embracing the revolutionary movement that led to independence from Great Britain. The unrestrained fertility of the colony's women and the extensive agriculture practiced by its men had exhausted Connecticut's usable lands by 1750. After midcentury the colony had begun exporting people. The formation of the Susquehannah Company to settle disputed territory in north-central Pennsylvania reflected the problem, although many Connecticut migrants preferred eastern New York and Vermont to the Upper Susquehannah River valley. Establishing families in an unsettled wilderness required capital. Parliamentary subsidies during the Seven Years' War filled the gap created by interruptions in Connecticut's overseas commerce. The mother country offered to pay for colonial manpower and supplies, and Connecticut's government passed this windfall along in the form of the bounties it offered volunteers. The colony's young men eagerly joined the expeditionary forces marching against Canada in expectation of acquiring enough capital to establish families of their own in lands secured from the French.

Connecticut was not alone in being militarized by the Seven Years' War, but it was the only colony with overlapping claims to northern Pennsylvania. That made it especially reluctant to obey British restrictions on westward settlement at the conclusion of the conflict. Pennsylvania's Quaker leadership had failed to support the war effort the way Connecticut's had, fostering the assumption that Pennsylvania would be at a disadvantage in defending its title. Even if Britain declined to recognize Connecticut's superior military value, the colony expected to be more than a match for Pennsylvania on the ground, especially if and when the imperial connection dissolved.

Connecticut's religious identity reinforced its economic interest in revolution. The colony had begun as part of the Puritan migration that also settled Massachusetts. By the end of the seventeenth century, both colonies had made provision for the public support of their Congregational clergy. Connecticut reacted to the turmoil accompanying the rapid expansion of settlement within its eastern half after King Philip's War (1675–1676) by developing a Presbyterian version of Congregationalism known as the Saybrook Platform (1708). But she joined Massachusetts in regarding the Church of England as a threat after the English church began using its missionaries to subvert New England's Congregational establishments. The Congregational clergy feared the next step would be the appointment of an American bishop, since some Anglican clergy in the colonies publicly favored such a measure. The Baptists, together with other dissenters from the Congregational establishment, shared this fear, ensuring that most of Connecticut's people would heed their religious leaders in opposing any expansion of British authority over them. The Church of England's clergy and communicants felt differently, but the only area of Connecticut where they constituted a significant presence was along the western border shared with New York.

After 1763 fewer anxieties about independence clouded Connecticut's response to Parliament's efforts to regulate the colonies' trade and raise a revenue from them than elsewhere in British North America. Connecticut's peripheral relationship to its more strategically located neighbors reinforced its rebellious disposition. The colony had won access to the larger Atlantic economy as an exporter of meat and timber to the West Indies. But it lacked any of the gateway ports that had emerged during the colonial period to facilitate the exchange of American surpluses for European imports. Initially, Boston had served as the central gateway for the rest of the continent; around 1750, however, Philadelphia replaced Boston. Those with an eye to the future could see that New York possessed assets that eventually would allow it to rival Philadelphia. And even Rhode Island had Newport, favored by the Royal Navy because it was largely ice-free. Connecticut's only deepwater port, New London, had a limited hinterland. Though New Haven, Hartford, and Middletown emerged as local commercial centers, the colony remained dependent on New York, Boston, and Newport for its European imports.

Occupying the economic and strategic periphery seemed advantageous as the imperial crisis developed. Responsibility for the nonimportation movement of 1768–1770 that resisted the Townshend duties fell on the gateway ports. When Britain replied with measures designed to subvert the solidarity of local merchants' associations, Connecticut's leaders observed from the sidelines, drawing two conclusions from the spectacle. They construed the lengths to which Britain was prepared to go in combating nonimportation as a symptom of weakness. And they assumed that any showdown with the mother country would take place around the continent's principal ports rather than in Connecticut. In 1769 the colony's government quietly extended its jurisdiction over the disputed Susquehannah lands. The action reflected a determination on the part of the leadership to press the colony's claim and the confident expectation that should independence materialize, possession would constitute nine-tenths of the law.


Connecticut responded almost as vigorously as Massachusetts to the Lexington and Concord alarms that initiated the Revolutionary War. Israel Putnam dropped everything upon hearing the news and hastened to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a makeshift army was assembling. Several thousand of his fellow colonists were not far behind, though most soon turned back because of the lack of supplies. But Connecticut subsequently complied with the Continental Congress's call for six regiments totaling six thousand men to serve until the end of 1775, embodying its full complement of men in less than a month.

News of the fighting in Massachusetts caught few by surprise. The Boston Port Act, followed by the Medford powder raid of 1 September 1774 had sent the message that Britain preferred coercion to conciliation. The British government had also replaced the Massachusetts charter of 1692 with a more centralized form of government headed by General Thomas Gage. Massachusetts responded with a Provincial Congress that began assuming the functions of government. The first Continental Congress's sponsorship of a continental nonimportation agreement persuaded no one close to Boston that an armed showdown could be avoided. Connecticut's farmers planted a bumper crop of winter wheat in September 1774. Since they had long before abandoned exporting wheat, we can infer they were anticipating an army's demand for bread during the following year. Their foresight paid off when Washington chose Joseph Trumbull as the first commissary general of the Continental army.

Most of Connecticut's population saw only economic advantage in a struggle they expected would be decided quickly somewhere else. The British force in Boston clearly was too weak to subdue New England, let alone the entire continent. Once Britain understood the realities on the ground, many expected her to offer acceptable terms. If, instead, Britain chose to pursue a military contest, the mother country would be limited to one major offensive now that it was deprived of the economic support formerly derived from its American colonies.

After the British had been driven from Boston early in 1776, however, Connecticut learned that the largest expeditionary force ever mounted from Europe was on its way to America. Some must have had second thoughts about their initial commitment to the contest. But they still expected the coming campaign would decide the issue, and Connecticut immediately doubled the number of regiments it placed under Continental command. Later it committed most of its western militia to the defense of New York. The results proved to be far from reassuring, and not just because the British experienced little difficulty in pushing Washington's forces off Long Island and Manhattan and chasing them through Westchester County. Washington's refusal after the Battle of White Plains to deploy troops in Connecticut's defense proved as disturbing as the visible superiority of British arms. Instead, he withdrew his dwindling army to New Jersey to cover Philadelphia, which was the seat of Congress, and to get access to grain surpluses that Connecticut had failed to produce in 1776. Left to defend itself, the newly independent state began to understand that being on the periphery could also be disadvantageous.

The Danbury raid in April 1777 increased Connecticut's misgivings. The British marched a force of eighteen hundred men twenty-three miles inland to destroy a Continental depot and escaped with minimal casualties after spending three full days in the state. By then it was too late to turn back. When the Congress asked Connecticut to raise eight regiments for three-years service or the duration of the war, the legislature turned to the towns. Local civil authorities cooperated with the local militia to raise the quotas of men assigned them through a combination of arm-twisting and enhanced incentives. Though the state did produce over four thousand men for the "permanent" army, compliance was incomplete and the regiments assembled much more slowly than in 1775 or 1776.

Nonetheless, Connecticut still behaved as if it was part of the revolutionary vanguard despite having to raise additional state regiments to provide for the defense of its coastline. In the early autumn of 1777, the northwestern militia responded vigorously to Horatio Gates's summons to assist in forcing Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga. The government also sponsored several military expeditions against Long Island and British-held Newport. None proved successful, but news that France had recognized the independence of the United States and entered into an alliance with the new nation offered hope that the next campaign would be the last.


Rather than heralding victory, the campaign of 1778 demonstrated two unpleasant truths: the continent was in for a long war, and those who had stood on the periphery were no longer immune to the vicissitudes hitherto visited on the strategic centers. Connecticut had received a foretaste of its changing circumstances early in 1777 when the commissary general, Joseph Trumbull, was replaced by a prominent Maryland merchant, William Buchanan. Buchanan seemed better positioned to provide the army with bread until British General William Howe disrupted Maryland and Delaware's grain region by striking at Philadelphia through the Chesapeake. Congress then turned back to Jeremiah Wadsworth, a Trumbull lieutenant during 1775–1776 from Hartford. Wadsworth managed to provide for the army during the campaign of 1778, but at the cost of bankrupting the continent.

Wadsworth's appointment has mistakenly led some to conclude that Connecticut was the "provision state." During the late colonial period, New England had specialized in producing livestock surpluses, and many of the cattle sustaining the army were procured by a network of Wadsworth's Connecticut agents, if not directly from it. But barreled salt pork rather than cattle had been the state's prewar specialty and would have better suited the army's needs had salt been available. Cattle had to substitute for pork because pigs could not be walked to camp. When it came to bread, providing for the limited mobilization of 1775 had left the state exhausted. Connecticut's principal contribution to the revolutionary movement was political commitment, though even that eroded as a prolonged war of attrition converted the state's peripheral position into a military liability.

While Connecticut lacked sufficient strategic significance to have the continent contribute to its defense, it remained an attractive prey for British commanders contemplating diversionary operations, as with Benedict Arnold's assault in 1781 on New London, and for ruffian Loyalists seeking plunder. After the Danbury raid, regular British forces did not return to the state until 1779, when Commodore George Collier attacked New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk between 5 July and 12 July and burned the latter two towns. However, Connecticut suffered as much from an abortive effort to dislodge the British from Newport during 1778 as it subsequently did from direct enemy action.

Cooperating with the French taxed the continent's resources to a point where an irreversible, downward spiral in the value of the continental currency ensued. The collapse of the currency affected Connecticut more than other states because it had contributed disproportionately to the early phase of the struggle and would now be repaid in devaluated coin, if at all. Provisioning the army raised for the Newport operation, together with Burgoyne's surrendered army near Boston, and the refit of a French expeditionary force, exhausted New England's grain supplies. Wheat bread became a luxury few could afford; most of the population was forced to subsist on grains they fed their stock. An extraordinarily harsh winter in 1779–1780 then substantially reduced the region's supply of animals.


Repeated adverse turns of fortune depressed the morale of the civilian population, producing widespread war weariness that had adverse political and military repercussions. At the end of 1779, Connecticut faced the task of replacing its three-year recruits for the army who had enlisted during 1777. By then the currency had lost almost all value as an inducement while frontier violence, together with the title dispute, prevented Connecticut from offering land bounties in the Susquehannah region. That left the state with no option but to divide the militia into as many units as men to be raised and to require each class to produce a recruit. The classes usually did so by raising a purse large enough to attract a volunteer. Though a class could also use force, coercion made bad soldiers. Eventually the legislature defined classes by the amount of property they possessed rather than the number of adult males they contained. But buying volunteers invited bounty jumping and the sellers' market that recruits enjoyed made it difficult to get them for more than one year. Connecticut was not alone in the obstacles it encountered in maintaining its Continental regiments. But by contributing to the progressive shrinkage of the army, the state surrendered its former vanguard identity.

Connecticut was unique in another, unenviable respect. The state had a 120-mile shoreline, most of which fronted on the protected waters of Long Island Sound. After the fall of New York City in 1776, Long Island fell under Britain's sway. That meant the island, never more than eighteen miles away, provided an ideal base for raiding Connecticut's coast. Though there had been some partisan raiding during 1777 and 1778, it was confined to refugees trying to survive. That began to change with the May 1779 kidnap of Gold Selleck Silliman from his home outside Fairfield. Silliman commanded the state's southwestern militia, and his abduction could be seen as preparation for Collier's incursions two months later. In 1780 Britain formally embodied a paramilitary military organization known as the Associated Loyalists to raid the shoreline. An orgy of kidnapping and plundering ensued. Those living in the no-man's lands of New York and New Jersey suffered similar depredations from Loyalist ruffians. But Connecticut's extensive coastline made its exposure more widespread than theirs. Trying to defend the state against this threat competed directly with efforts to maintain Connecticut's Continental regiments. There were insufficient resources to go around, in part because the state's Continental regiments were being used by Washington to defend New York and New Jersey. Connecticut's small navy proved better at sponsoring retaliatory strikes than at intercepting Loyalist raiders on the Sound.

Long Island also provided a base from which the British launched an illicit trade with Connecticut's coastal population. Trade proved to be a more productive way of extracting provisions than plundering, because after five years of being cut off from European and West Indian commodities, Connecticut's people craved overseas imports. British textiles and hardware now commanded a barter price in provisions unthinkable in peacetime. The state had no choice but to oppose this trade, since unhindered, it might have won the people's allegiance back to the crown. But Connecticut's political system proved as inadequate to the task as its military system was in defending the state against the Associated Loyalists. This time the legislature devolved principal responsibility for resisting the illicit trade onto individuals. Those making a citizen's arrest of an illicit trader were entitled to half the value of the goods seized. But that hardly solved the problem, because the enemy retaliated by plundering anyone who apprehended Loyalist partisans. The legislature authorized coastal communities to compile lists of the disaffected in their midst from whose property Patriot victims could be compensated. But this remedy proved more effective in dividing coastal communities among themselves than in halting the raiding and illicit trade.

The pressures that the illicit trade exerted on the state's coastal communities reverberated throughout Connecticut's political structure in debilitating ways. Most dramatically the state's governor, Jonathan Trumbull, began to be whispered out of office by rumors that he was trading with the British. The rumors originated with kidnap victims who were shown trunks of British goods—allegedly consigned to Trumbull—by their captors in New York. Though Trumbull was the only state governor to serve throughout the entire Revolutionary War, during the last three years of the conflict he was elected by the legislature rather than the people. At a less obvious level, the inability of the state to defend its coastline and secure itself against illicit traders created tensions within the legislature between the representatives of towns near the coast and the interior towns.


At the end of the war Connecticut was demoralized and exhausted. One measure of that exhaustion was the state's decreasing ability to raise money. Connecticut's revenue derived from direct taxes laid on male polls over eighteen years of age and the assessed value of lands and improvements. In the course of the war, the state's grand list declined dramatically because of enemy depredations along the coast and the migration of polls elsewhere. During the last years of the conflict, the state's tax collections fell hopelessly into arrears, precluding any reduction in taxes with the peace. Instead, Connecticut found itself having to service the substantial state debt it had contracted during the initial phase of the Revolution, quite independently of the demands Congress continued to make on it.

Connecticut's situation contrasted dramatically with neighboring New York's. Though New York had been less forward in joining the Revolution and had spent most of the war with three-fifths of its population under enemy occupation, it had emerged from the conflict with a much smaller state debt because the Continental army had defended the Hudson River. With peace, most of the foreign imports desired by Connecticut came through New York burdened by its impost. New York could tax Connecticut without fear of retaliation. A continental impost, such as the one Congress had been asking the states for since 1781, provided the obvious remedy. It would bear less perceptibly on a war-weary people, since only those who chose to purchase the dutied goods would pay. A continental impost would also preclude the states from competing against each other for this preferred resource, thus maximizing its yield. Connecticut's true interest lay in a stronger central government empowered to impose such a tax, but persuading its traumatized people of the wisdom of such a course posed a major challenge for its less than triumphant leadership.

At the end of the war, Jonathan Trumbull retired as governor. His replacement, Matthew Griswold, could do little to check the hostility a long war had built up against Connecticut's Revolutionary leaders. Popular dissatisfaction took many forms, from resisting the resettlement of Loyalists, entitled to return under the terms of the peace treaty, to opposing Congress's commutation of the Continental officers' half pay for life to full pay for five years. The latter issue provided the pretense for the Middletown Convention of 1783, which met twice in an effort to challenge the leadership's hold on the council, or upper house of the legislature, that had veto power over the lower house. The effort failed, but just barely. The state's leadership was less successful in persuading the lower house to adopt realistic fiscal policies that would reestablish the state's credit or in preventing the popular branch from favoring state creditors over federal creditors. It did not help that Congress had pronounced judgment against Connecticut's Susquehannah claims in 1782.

Eventually, those who possessed a continental vision of the state's problems triumphed. At the last minute the Connecticut legislature appointed three delegates to attend the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which framed the federal Constitution. The compromise proposed by Connecticut's delegates then proved critical in securing the agreement of the Convention to the new form of government. And Connecticut's ratifying convention endorsed the Convention's handiwork without significant opposition. But none of these developments would have occurred had it not been for the specter of anarchy raised by Shays's Rebellion in nearby Massachusetts.

The traumatic memory of the Revolution bred reservations about republicanism among Connecticut's Federalist leaders. It shaped their orientation to the wars of the French Revolution, predisposing them to favor good relations with Britain at the expense of bad relations with republican France, even to the point of waging a limited war against France. After the turn of the century, these leaders helped subvert the national government's attempt to parry pressure from the belligerent powers through commercial measures. When their actions left their domestic opponents with no alternative to war with Britain besides capitulation, Connecticut's government was so bent on avoiding a repetition of the revolutionary debacle that it withheld the state's militia from federal command. In 1814–1815 it even hosted a New England Convention in Hartford that concerted quasi-treasonable measures. Though Connecticut's people eventually repudiated those responsible for these actions, the state abandoned its former revolutionary identity, preferring instead to settle for being a land of "steady habits."

SEE ALSO Associated Loyalists; Collier, George; Connecticut Coast Raid; Danbury Raid, Connecticut; Silliman, Gold Selleck; Trumbull, Jonathan, Sr.; Trumbull, Joseph; Wadsworth, Jeremiah.


Anderson, Fred. A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Buel, Joy Day, and Richard Buel Jr. The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America. New York: Norton, 1984.

Buel, Richard, Jr. Dear Liberty: Connecticut's Mobilization for the Revolutionary War. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1980.

―――――――. In Irons: Britain's Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Collier, Christopher. All Politics Is Local: Family, Friends, and Provincial Interests in the Creation of the Constitution. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2003.

―――――――. Roger Sherman's Connecticut: Yankee Politics in the American Revolution. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Douglas, Damon. The Bridge Not Taken: Benedict Arnold Outwitted. Westport, Conn.: Westport Historical Society, 2002.

Mather, Frederic G. The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut. Albany, N.Y.: Lyon, 1913.

McDevitt, Robert F. Connecticut Attacked, A British Viewpoint: Tryon's Raid on Danbury. Chester, Conn.: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1974.

Middlebrook, Louis F. History of Maritime Connecticut during the Revolutionary War, 1775–1783. 2 vols. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1925.

Selesky, Harold. War and Society in Colonial Connecticut. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Stark, Bruce P. Connecticut Signer: William Williams. Chester, Conn.: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1975.

Tyler, John W. Connecticut Loyalists: An Analysis of the Loyalist Land Confiscations in Greenwich, Stamford, and Norwalk. New Orleans, La.: Polyanthus, 1977.

Wallace, Willard M. Connecticut's Dark Star of the Revolution: General Benedict Arnold. Deep River, Conn.: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1978.

Warfle, Richard T. Connecticut's Western Colony: The Susquehannah Affair. Hartford, Conn.: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1980.

About this article

Connecticut, Mobilization in

Updated About content Print Article