Connecticut at War: 1634 – 1781

Connecticut at War250px-Pequot_war-thumb-320x230-534.jpgConnecticut’s first military episode was the Pequot War of 1637.  The Pequots were a war-like, break-away band of Mohegan Indians originally from the Hudson Valley of New York. They had been in Connecticut since 1600 and feared an English threat to their territories. Between 1634 and the start of the war, they had killed traders on the Connecticut River and raided a settlement at Wethersfield where they slew six men and three women and carried off two girls. In 1637, the General Court at Hartford responded after the Wethersfield episode by raising a troop of ninety men commanded by Captain John Mason (1600-1672).

For the Pequot campaign men from sixteen to sixty were recruited and armed with twenty bullets and two pounds of powder per man. The levy accounted for thirty percent of the colony’s population. Mason soon broke the Pequot resistance in a decisive battle on the banks of the Mystic River. He was helped by nineteen men from the fort at Saybrook and also by seventy Mohegans. Between 300 and 700 Pequot men, women, and children died in Mason’s assault on their fort. Mason emerged from the expedition as a hero. With assistance from some Massachusetts men, Mason and his troop pursued the fleeing Pequots and eventually cornered about 300 of them in a Fairfield swamp. Only sixty Indians escaped the slaughter, with the remnant killed or sold, especially women and children, into slavery. The Indian extermination was based largely on English cultural blindness and not on any substantial Pequot threat. Connecticut had now freed itself from Indian power until 1675.

King Philip’s War broke out in 1675 when the Wampanoag Indians, a powerful Massachusetts tribe, killed eight settlers at Swansea in Massachusetts. The Indians were led by an able chief, Philip (c. 1639-1676), whose aim was to drive the English from the land. To aid Massachusetts, Connecticut sent 315 men and 150 Mohegan Indians under Robert Treat (1622-1710). Treat’s men helped defeat the Indians in a Rhode Island swamp battle. Other Connecticut volunteers captured an important chief near Stonington, Connecticut, as the Indians retreated. In the summer of 1676, 240 Connecticut soldiers with 200 friendly Indians under John Talcott (1632-1688) dealt a severe blow to the Indians at Great Barrington, Massachusetts. By then the war was at an end, and Connecticut had accomplished its goal of preventing Indian raids into the Connecticut Valley.

In 1689 Great Britain and France, struggling for mastery in Europe and overseas dominion, began a struggle that would last until 1815. During the Colonial Period there took place in North America four conflicts between 1689 and 1763. The first was King William’s war (1689-1697). In September, Connecticut first called up 200 men for duty on the Massachusetts frontier exposed to France’s Indian allies. Within a month, another sixty-four men were sent to Albany, New York, under Thomas Bull (1646-1708). In April, 130 more men and eighty Indians were dispatched to New York. In 1690, Connecticut’s Fitz-John Winthrop (1639-1707) led an intercolonial invasion of Canada that never got beyond Lake George because of disease and no supply. After that year, fighting trailed off and the war soon ended inconclusively with the Treaty of Ryswick of 1697. Until then, Connecticut troops helped garrison the Massachusetts frontier.

Throughout Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), Connecticut kept sixty men on duty at Deerfleld, Massachusetts, the scene of a 1704 massacre by Indians, and 400 volunteers on alert in Connecticut. The colony twice refused to join Massachusetts in assaulting Canada but in 1709 sent 350 men to help British Army troops to invade Canada. Connecticut lost one quarter of this force to disease. In 1710, 300 Connecticut men helped capture Port Royal, Nova Scotia. The colony as well furnished five ships for this venture. By the time the war ended with limited British gains, Connecticut put another 300 men into the field and had to issue paper currency to finance the war effort itself.

There was a war fever in Connecticut for King George’s War (1744-1748). Eight ships with 1,100 men under Deputy Governor Roger Wolcott (1679-1767) helped the British seize Fort Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. The Connecticut General Assembly spent £12,000 to equip this force during its eleven-month occupation of the fort. Expecting a deeper penetration of Canada, the Assembly offered bounties of ten to thirty pounds to raise 600 more men for the effort while maintaining a home force of 200 soldiers for frontier duty. These preparations required another issue of paper currency, but the colony did receive partial compensation in the amount of £28,000 at war’s end from Britain. King George’s War closed with all captured territories being exchanged–to the dismay of Connecticut’s fighters of the Louisbourg campaign.

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was the decisive Anglo-French struggle for North America. Connecticut mobilized one out of every five of its men to fight, over 20,000 soldiers. In the fighting around Lake George, New York, during 1755, Phineas T. Lyman (1715-1774) commanding 1,000 Connecticut men, and Nathan Whiting (1725-1790) played key roles in beating back French assaults. Connecticut men helped build Port William Henry on Lake George and took part in an offensive against Fort Louisbourg. In 1759, Lyman assisted the British in the capture of the French fort at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, and Israel Putnam (1718-1790) participated in the Battle of Quebec. In 1760, Putnam distinguished himself in the fall of Montreal. Besides supplying manpower, Connecticut aided the British in finally driving the French from North America by provisioning the British troops with flour, wheat, beef, and pork.  Proportionate to size and resources, Connecticut expended the most of any other colony for the war effort.

When the Anglo-American squabbling of the 1760s and early 1770s deteriorated into warfare, Connecticut played a key role in the winning of American independence. As the news from Lexington reached Connecticut in 1775, 3,600 Militia from fifty towns hurried to Boston. Typical of the enthusiasm for the American cause that marked Connecticut throughout the Revolutionary War was the action of Israel Putnam, who left Pomfret and rode directly to Boston without a change of clothes. Another example was the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard of New Haven under Captain Benedict Arnold (1741-1801). It was one of the first units into Massachusetts after Arnold forced powder and shot from reluctant New Haven officials. During the Revolution, Connecticut would be represented in Washington’s armies by about sixteen regiments, although these units were not always at full strength. But by 1776 half of Washington’s New York force was from Connecticut.

Connecticut at War300px-Harlem_Heights-thumb-320x242-536.jpgIn signal campaigns of the Revolution, Connecticut men took an active hand. The capture of eighty artillery pieces used in the siege of Boston was an operation in which Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen (1738-178
9) played roles. Israel Putn
am was at Breed’s Hill, Massachusetts (1775), along with the rangers of Captain Thomas Knowlton (1740-1776), who was later killed at the Battle of Harlem Heights, New York (1776). At White Plains (1776), the arrival of fresh Connecticut troops helped Washington make a successful escape. These men stayed with him for Trenton (1776). Benedict Arnold was highly instrumental at Saratoga (1778), and the brigade of Jedidiah Huntington (1742-1818) figured significantly at Monmouth (1778). The treason of Benedict Arnold at West Point, was, of course, a major blemish on Connecticut’s record.

Supply is as vital to wares soldiering, and in this aspect of the war Connecticut did yeoman service, earning the accolade of “the Provisions State.” Two Connecticuters served as commissary-generals of the American Army–Joseph Trumbull (1737-1778) who served from 1775 to 1777 and Jeremiah Wadsworth (1743-1804) who served from 1778 to 1779. Another Connecticuter who played a crucial role in the provisioning of Washington’s men was Governor Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785) of Lebanon, Connecticut’s governor from 1769 to 1784.

In constant touch with Washington, Governor Trumbull sent arms, tents, food, and clothing to the American troops. Connecticut beef saved Washington at Valley Forge (1777-1778) and rescued him at Morristown (1779-1780). Valley Forge was a time of trial for the Continental Army. With 3,000 ragged and hungry men, Washington urgently called on the state governors for relief. A number responded but none more eagerly than Connecticut’s governor. Trumbull promptly organized the rounding up of cattle from eastern Connecticut which were then driven through New York and New Jersey to Washington’s men in Pennsylvania. Washington’s men consumed the first herd in five days. Throughout the winter and spring of 1778 Connecticut kept Washington fed with its arriving herds.

At Morristown in 1779-1780, Washington’s situation had again become desperate. The winter was extremely harsh, with snow drifts up to six feet, and the troops had begun to plunder the neighborhood for food. Washington told Trumbull of his plight. Within hours of getting Washington’s urgent plea for supply, Trumbull assured Washington that Connecticut would answer his call and made haste to deliver the provisions to Washington’s starving men–despite the complication of frozen roads and icy winds.

Connecticut’s supplying of Washington took place even though during the Revolution the state endured four destructive British raids. At Danbury in 1777, the royal governor of New York with a force of 2,000 was able to destroy 1,700 bushels of wheat and 1,600 tents. Benedict Arnold and David Wooster (1710-1777), with a militia unit of 200, harassed the invaders but could not stop the devastation. Wooster was killed in the attempt. In 1779 a British force attacked the saltworks at Greenwich and did considerable damage to the town before Israel Putnam’s militia drove them away. Later in the same year, the British raided New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk. In Fairfield, 200 buildings were burned. In Norwalk, the assault claimed 130 homes, 40 shops, 100 barns, 5 ships, 2 churches and some flour mills and saltworks.

Connecticut at War300px-BattleOfGrotonHeightsSketch-thumb-320x470-538.jpgBut far worse than these three raids, which generally damaged only property, was Benedict Arnold’s 1781 attack on New London-Groton with 2,000 British now under his command after his treason. In attacking Fort Trumbull on the New London side of the Thames River, Arnold’s contingent easily took the fort and then put the torch to warehouses and ships. A total of sixty homes were destroyed by the spreading fires lighted by Arnold’s men. On the Groton side of the river, Fort Griswold under Colonel William Ledyard (1738-1781) fell after bitter hand-to-hand fighting. The Americans had numbered only 150 and held off the British numbering 800. As Ledyard surrendered his sword, he was run through, and many of his men, including wounded, were massacred. Though Arnold himself had no part in the atrocity, the episode was one of the bloodiest of the entire war and inflamed Connecticut sentiment against the turncoat Arnold even more.

Much like Connecticut’s feats in the French and Indian War, the state during the American Revolution had distinguished itself out of all proportion to its size. Almost fittingly, Washington met his French allies in Hartford, Connecticut, and then in a series of meetings at Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1781 began to plan with the French the decisive Yorktown campaign of 1781.

Connecticut at Warweth01_550-thumb-320x212-540.jpg
About the Author: Joe Duffy 

Connecticut Explored. This article first appeared in the Hog River Journal (now Connecticut Explored). Reprinted by permission


  1. Mandy Ranslow says

    Unfortunately the theory that the Pequot originated in the Hudson Valley has long been perpetuated, but has soundly been dismissed by experts. I ask you to refer to “The Pequots in Southern New England” by Hauptman & Wherry (see Chapter 3: They have lived in the area that is now southeastern Connecticut well before 1600AD, and they are related quite closely linguistically and culturally to other Natives in the area. And while the Pequot were most certainly depicted as “war-like” by the English at the time (likely justifying the genocide), it seems a little bias not then to use the term to describe the English who were also killing Natives.

  2. Wethersfield Historical Society says

    I have a problem with an historical article which still, however mildly, continues the ethnocentric white settler version of the great conflict along the CT river in the early 1600’s. The background focuses on what the First Nations did to the whites; conflict with the whites where the colonists are defeated is referred to as a “massacre” (Deerfield). The event at Mystic Fort, where hundreds of Pequot, mainly women and children, were burnt or shot to death, is a “battle”.
    The article fails to mention the hundreds of Narragansett who joined the English, and who acquired most of the Pequot prisoners as slaves.
    I think the Society owes it to its readers to make some effort at review, and, where necessary, revison.

  3. Wethersfield Historical Society says

    I have a problem with an historical article which still, however mildly, continues the ethnocentric white settler version of the great conflict along the CT river in the early 1600’s. The background focuses on what the First Nations did to the whites; conflict with the whites where the colonists are defeated is referred to as a “massacre” (Deerfield). The event at Mystic Fort, where hundreds of Pequot, mainly women and children, were burnt or shot to death, is a “battle”.
    The article fails to mention the hundreds of Narragansett who joined the English, and who acquired most of the Pequot prisoners as slaves.
    I think the Society owes it to its readers to make some effort at review, and, where necessary, revison.

  4. Wethersfield Historical Society says

    However, My last sentence of paragraph one uses the word “slaughter’ referring to Mason’s Fairfield swamp fight. It was meant to render harsh judgement on those “ethnocentric” transplanted Englishmen in Ct. I also wrote of the “cultural blindness” of Mason etc. I recall putting in a quote from Mason’s second-in-command who thought that a goodly part of Mason’s actions were truly appalling–i.e. atrocities. It may have fallen victim to the old blue pencil. The coverage of Native American history was not what it is today, much fairer to them at last. Paul should in fairness factor those items into his critique of my “mildly…ethnocentric version” of those sad events. It’s not John Ford’s version of the film fantasy about Custer’s(Errol Flynn) nobility! My article does mention Pequot survivors sold into slavery but not in the detail to which Paul alludes. I either didn’t include coverage of the Narragansett spoils of war or it got edited out. The article was published for Ct’s 350th and went through editing by the ASHS people, as I recall. As to the “Deerfield Massacre,” it was not the burden of my assignment. I honestly don’t know what the careful historians of New England call it today. As to Paul’s point about nomenclature–i.e., what’s a battle? what’s a ‘massacre,’ he and I would surely agree at this point in time that Custer’s famous or infamous 7th was not “massacred” by the Sioux and the Cheyenne. The Nations were defending themselves against aggression, gold- greed and Custer’s megalomania. He wanted to slaughter them as he’d done before. My article incidentally used the word “extermination” which was meant to set the context acceptable to those white English transplants. I am certain Paul and I agree that when the dispatches of Grant-Sherman-Sheridan specified words like “extermination” I think even “final solution”(Dee Brown’s book), it was really a longstanding white belief that, yes, reaches all the way back to, for example, the Pequot Wars. I wish I had never mentioned the “Deerfield Massacre,” which designation came from secondary sources extant at the time. In summary, I don’t agree with Paul if his point is that the article, however “mild” failed absolutely to point out the “cultural blindness” of the Ct. colonists. Read my words in that first paragraph! Today, I’d use the word “racist,” an attitude also held by English generally toward the Irish whom they regarded as a different “race” from their superior selves! See Horace Bushnell’s sermons over at the Ct. Historical Society. I would also today revise my article to say shame on the Narragansetts for joining in the massacre of the Pequots. But hey argue that they had grievances against the Pequots and probability found defense in the code of the warrior brave. Look what the Japanese made of the code of Bushido which was meant originally to inspire honor among warriors. History is messy business and never ending in its telling. That’s why I truly appreciate Paul’s taking the time to comment. Let’s all have lunch and discuss a burning issue among today’s ethnic, cultural and feminist historians–i.e., despite the fact that Native American rivalries and native African tribal rivalries are said by some not to have been “race-based” since the word may have been unknown in their own tongues, no one argues conversely that “tribal hatreds” stopped short of atrocities pure and simply. The Sudan, Rewanda(sp?) etc Cruelty is cruelty, an unfortunate constant in the human condition. We need more philosophers of history besides merely writers of history. Anyway, Jim, feel free to share my comments with Paul and assure him of my apologies for any uncorrected shortcomings unfair to our Native American sisters and brothers. Family lore has it that there was in fact some Mic-Mac blood way back on the Duffy side.

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