Freezing cold, stricken with smallpox and under attack from enemy ships in a foreign land, a regiment of American soldiers fled their encampment in Deschambault, Canada, early on the morning of May 7, 1776.
Under the command of Col. Charles Burrall, the men retreated 130 miles to Sorel, the healthy over land and the sick by boat on the St. Lawrence River.
Writing in his journal, the Rev. Ammi Robbins of Norfolk, Conn., a chaplain who had been "exercised with sickness, vomiting severely, [and] very weak," for four days, described the "gloom and terror" of the journey.
"This is the most terrible day I ever saw. God of armies, help us," Robbins prayed.
As the soldiers fled the oncoming assault from British ships "firing as they came," Robbins wrote that "many officers lost all, to the clothes on their backs."
Revolutionary war soldiers, like those who fled with Robbins, frequently were ordered to drop everything, sometimes for an attack and at other times for retreat, said Tim Abbott, a Revolutionary War re-enactor from Canaan who has extensively researched the history of Connecticut's colonial soldiers.
Those who did were left with none of the necessities for survival, and those who didn't were often captured or killed. Clothing and supplying the early colonial militias, and later, the Continental Army, was a constant struggle.
Connecticut, arguably more than any other state, provided the resources necessary for the newborn nation to win and defend its independence from England, earning it the nickname, "The Provision State."
The state "played a paramount role in the struggle for national liberty," wrote Danbury judge and historian J. Moss Ives in 1899. "When the war broke out, no state was more fully prepared to act a worthy and heroic part."
When the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the vast majority of Connecticut's residents were farmers. Under the leadership of Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, the state quickly rallied 3,700 men to fight in six regiments of the newly formed Continental Army under George Washington on June 14.
For the next eight years, while war raged in surrounding colonies, Connecticut enjoyed relative peace, though it did have several notable raids and battles. All the while, the state's manufacturers and farmers continued to churn out goods and livestock.
The isolation imposed by the war meant that those goods could no longer be traded abroad, so much of what Connecticut produced ended up supplying the war effort.
"Before the war, we had a very bustling trade in livestock and foodstuffs, wood products like shingles and casks, with the West Indies," said State Historian Emeritus Christopher Collier. When war broke out, British ships blocked trade routes to the Caribbean, leaving Connecticut farmers and merchants with "plenty of foodstuffs and livestock to sell to the Continental Army.
"But Connecticut was a little bit more mercantile than some of the others," Collier said, referring to the other colonies. "Connecticut people were very enterprising and always have been."
It wasn't just Connecticut's relative abundance of goods, but its unique political climate that left the state poised to jump into the war early on, said State Historian Walt Woodward.
The royal charter of 1662 "effectively had given Connecticut independence more than 100 years before the American Revolution" and allowed the state to organize itself differently from other colonies, all of which, except for Rhode Island, were still under tight British control. As the other colonies scrambled to appoint leaders and write constitutions after declaring independence, Rhode Island and Connecticut just adapted their charters to grant power to the people rather than the King of England, making for an easy transition from colonial rule.
"Connecticut was ready to go, and under Governor Trumbull's leadership, they mobilized quickly and effectively to support the cause of the Revolution," Woodward said. "What that meant is that during the early years of the Revolution, Connecticut was administratively organized to fund the war and provide provisions better than most, if not all, of the other colonies."
While Connecticut farmers supplied much of the food the Continental Army would require in its uprising against British troops, the state was also well-positioned to provide soldiers with the weapons of war, including ships.
"The kinds of things that were happening in Connecticut were pretty varied, and provisioning was not just food — it was guns, it was cannons, it was cannonballs, it was salt to preserve the food," said Donna Baron, museum director for the Lebanon Historical Society.
While munitions manufacturers were not yet industrialized, independent gunsmiths were the early precursors to Connecticut's later industrial gunmakers, such as Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt. Beyond the finished weapons, Connecticut also produced important weapons-grade raw materials: iron and saltpeter.
Long before he helped found the state of Vermont, and a decade before he led the successful capture of Fort Ticonderoga in New York in May 1775, Ethan Allen co-owned an iron ore furnace in Salisbury, Conn. The furnace produced more than 800 cannon during the war, and the gunpowder and cannonballs used to fire at British troops were made in villages throughout Connecticut.
"Farm families helped out by producing things like saltpeter," Baron said. A necessary ingredient in gunpowder, saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, was made from a months-long process that involved urine, which was in abundant supply on livestock farms. The reuse of animal waste to create saltpeter benefited not only the army, but the farmers.
"What few records we have indicate that it was sold as often as it was donated," Baron said.
Farmers also sold meat to the army, but those farmers "expected to be paid, and as Continental currency was devalued over the course of the war, the farmers got quite angry about it," Baron said. While the federal government printed paper currency, the states also issued their own money, which Baron described as "more like IOUs than anything else, and not always very widely accepted."
As a result, colonists often carried an assortment of paper currency and coinage. A notice published in the Connecticut Courant in 1779 by Joshua Briggs of Suffield offered a reward for a lost leather pocketbook containing "about One Hundred Dollars in Continental Money, eight or nine shillings, Rhode Island currency and two shillings in silver."
Metal coins were the only currency that truly held its value, and the phrase "not worth a Continental" came about because of the federal dollar's dramatic decline. In contrast, Connecticut's currency "didn't deflate nearly so much" during the war, Collier said.
The declining value of currency left Connecticut farmers and merchants in a quandary. The French, who arrived in Newport and supported the colonies, would pay farmers in gold or silver, so "it became increasingly difficult for the men working for the State of Connecticut to be able to get livestock because they had to pay in paper currency that wasn't worth very much," Baron said.
"Congress was printing money and the money was collapsing in value on a daily basis," Collier said. "Connecticut people were always mercenary and if they could get high currency from the French troops that were helping us, then they would sell to the French. But they also had a patriotic impulse to sell to the Continental armies for whatever they could get."
The outbreak of war also changed the landscape for Connecticut merchants.
Before the war, merchants' goods were largely imported from England. A classified ad published in the Connecticut Courant in 1774 included a list of medicines and spices shipped from London for sale at Hezekiah Merrill's shop in Hartford as well as "an assortment of European and India goods such as broad cloths, velverets, corduroys … Irish linens, cotton checks, cambricks, lawns, muslins …" available at the Farmington store of Amos & Fenn Wadsworth.
When full-blown war broke out in 1775, all foreign imports of cloth were halted and an army's worth of soldiers needed to be clothed.
McCain said colonists were forced to replace British cloth with homegrown textiles, and prolific spinners "came to be considered newsworthy as examples of feminine patriotism."
The Connecticut Courant reported in 1767 that Woodstock residents Levina Lyon and Molly Ledoyt, "in one Day, carded and spun 22 Skaines of good Tow Yarn," before spinning a further 194 knots of linen yarn later in the week, an arduous task that took them from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to accomplish.
Two women engaged in a marathon competitive spinning session of similar length in Lebanon in 1768, with the Courant noting that, "would the sex in general apply their hands to the Distaff [a part of a spinning wheel], instead of the idle Apparatus of the Tea Table, perhaps we need not always be beholden to Asia for our Food, or Europe for our Clothing."
Shipbuilding And Militias
While Connecticut avoided many major battles, its role as a supplier to the war effort made it prone to raids, most notably in Danbury and along the state's vulnerable coast.
"It was important to protect the coastline from the British Navy and invasions from Long Island Sound into Connecticut," Baron said. "Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were not. That was Connecticut's responsibility, to protect its own coastline. Connecticut had a small navy as part of that effort, and Connecticut's militias were often stationed either along the Long Island coast or the New York state border to protect against British invasion."
In 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned Connecticut shipbuilders to construct three frigates: the Trumbull, followed by the Confederacy and the Bourbon a year later, according to The Society of the Cincinnati, which was founded in 1783 by officers of the French and Continental armies.
Connecticut's navy eventually grew to about 14 vessels, mostly smaller sloops, and the state also authorized about 250 privateers, which acted essentially as legalized pirates, attacking and plundering British ships.
In addition to providing food and manufactured items, Connecticut also contributed more than its share of soldiers for the Revolution.
"The 'provision state' is of course the thing everyone points to first," Collier said, "but what is often overlooked is the fact that we also contributed, in proportion to our population, many more troops than any other state."
Relative to the other colonies, Connecticut was mid-sized in terms of population at the time. Yet more than 40,000 men, or about one-fifth of the state's population, served in the Revolution, according to The Society of the Cincinnati.
Historian Alexander Johnston wrote that for a while during the war, "almost the entire burden of the struggle lay on Connecticut." According to Ives, the "Department of the North" had 2,800 soldiers in the field in 1775, "of these, 2,500 were from Connecticut."
"In number of men furnished during the war, Connecticut stood second," Ives wrote. He quoted Johnston as saying that Massachusetts contributed 67,907 men, to Connecticut's 31,939.
Before fighting broke out, Collier said, Connecticut had a "surplus of manpower," so young men like Ethan Allen were leaving Connecticut to find better prospects in areas like western Pennsylvania and Vermont. But those opportunities halted during the Revolution, leaving "large numbers of young men looking for something to do. And the war gave them plenty to do," Collier said.
When the Continental Army was established, Connecticut soldiers went from short-term militiamen to full-time soldiers consigned to a minimum of three years' service, Abbott said. Many soldiers who joined the war were already on the margins of society, poor men who were enticed by inducements of property and pensions, he said.
Others joined because they had to. More than 300 African American men served as soldiers in Connecticut regiments during the war, "some of whom had been enslaved" and were sent to war as surrogates for their owners, Abbott said.
Getting supplies to the front lines, which were sometimes hundreds of miles away, was a serious challenge for the state. Shipping was difficult because of frequent British attacks along the coast, and moving provisions overland was a feat on colonial roads, which were thick with mud in the warmer months and covered by snow in the winter.
Still, historians agree that Connecticut fared better than other colonies in getting its soldiers what they needed to survive.
"No question that Trumbull was better organized than just about anybody else when it came to moving food and material to the troops in the field," Abbott said. "The record Connecticut had was really good, and it's not just the 900 cannon that were manufactured in Salisbury, but the large amounts of beef and pork that were provided ... it was not a simple task to move all that stuff around, but Connecticut has a very good record there."
Connecticut colonists were pragmatic about their contributions while still championing the cause of liberty.
"They were motivated materialistically, which is not to say they weren't also patriots," Collier said. "Connecticut people have always been very mercenary and materialistic. That's what Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee is all about … I think that's a continuity from the colonial area right to today."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun