Connecticut as the Provision State & Danburys Early Role in Civic Engagement
Connecticut has been known as ‘The Provision State’ since the American Revolution, having been so designated by George Washington. The third smallest state supplied more food and canons for Washington’s army than any other state. The complexities of supplying the Continental Army goes to the heart of Connecticut history, a supply history that continued well into the twentieth century. Civic engagement played no small part in the provisioning of the Revolutionary army. The sacrifices, risks and skills of the ordinary people as well as public officials of this era is still being uncovered.
Connecticut’s agricultural output for the mid-eighteenth century, while not as sophisticated as that of Great Britain, was not as primitive as early historians originally thought. By the time of the American Revolution Connecticut was no longer considered the ‘frontier’. It had been four generations since the founding of Hartford and the river towns. Land distribution in the state was through the Proprietors of the various towns and the farmers had been clearing the land since the beginning. To protect the community interests and ensure economic survival the towns had set-up communal fencing of meadowlands, crop lands and pastures. Outlying woodlands had been distributed to the inhabitants for fuel and wood. In the fall, herds of cattle, hogs and sheep were reduced to numbers that could be fed over the winter months. Wool from the sheep and flax from planting would be used to produce clothing. Tanning of hog and cattle hides provided leather for shoes and other uses. Connecticut was producing an agricultural surplus.
This surplus production in Connecticut was the result of land clearing and population increases as farmers sought land for their children. Until before the French and Indian War Connecticut took in a large number of immigrants from Massachusetts, which was already experiencing over-population. Land owners could employ those who did not own their own land and thus even modest farms could produce more than it needed. With this financial surplus the Connecticut farmers could purchase manufactured goods and salt. Living standards were beyond subsistence level.
Agriculture produced for market is commercial agriculture. During the seventeenth century Connecticut had marketed its surplus overland to Boston. In the eighteenth century with the settlement of new towns and more land clearing, new and better roads were built. It was now possible to trade with New York via a host of new water routes. Connecticut farmers bred a sturdy oxen which pulled in pairs either ploughs or two-wheeled carts for taking produce to points for shipping. Draft oxen usually weighed six hundred pounds but they were bred for weights up to sixteen hundred pounds to pull carts loaded with beef.
A coastal state lying mid-way between New York and Boston would give Connecticut an advantage in the gathering, movement and storage of supplies. After the Revolution and well into the twentieth century Connecticut would be considered a manufacturing state. The success of Connecticut as an industrial state was do in large part to the skills acquired in the Revolution as a funnel for provisions for Washington’s army. Danbury played a pivotal role in the provisioning of the Continental Army. Situated on the New York border, twenty-five miles inland from the coast, Danbury was considered to be outside the easy reach of the British. Food was grown in Danbury, cattle were driven in and grazed and left as meat to feed the army and leather for shoes. Wagons were also made in Danbury because they would be essential in moving goods in and out of the town. By the summer of 1776 Danbury became a key depot town. Troops, both American and French, would be encamped here at various times during the war. General Gates was the first encampment at Eli Mygatt’s farm on the outskirts of the town. Later, Washington would order General Benjamin Lincoln to Danbury with a force of 6,000 men. Both Lafayette and Rochambeau would be with their troops in Danbury. Early in1777 Washington ordered a Continental forage depot and a military hospital established at Danbury.
Historians have long held that Washington commissioned a hospital to be built in Danbury for the convalescence of Continental soldiers. Medical supplies were removed from Danbury in late April 1777 just before the British raid. Land records in Danbury show that on July 17, 1777, Joseph Wildman sold 6.5 acres on what is now Park Avenue to a Dr. Turner. In turn Turner sold the property to a Dr. Foster “in trust for the United States of America” in 1778. What has never been entirely clear is whether there was already a state militia hospital at Danbury and Washington wanted to expand on an existing facility for the Continentals. The Public Records of Connecticut on August 4, 1778 record a resolution passed by the Council of Safety:
“Resolved that Doctor Turner be and is hereby desired to dispose of all the medical and hospital stores belonging to this state at Danbury to the Director General of the Continental hospitals and to render his account of the avails to the Committee of the Pay Table in settlement of his accounts with the state.”
Danbury was to be propelled into the annals of American History with the British raid on the town. On Friday, April 25, 1777 twenty six British ships anchored off Compo beach in Fairfield and 2000 soldiers under Gen. William Tryon disembarked for a surprise raid on the military depot at Danbury. On a forced overland march through northern Fairfield to the Danbury line they reached the town on the afternoon of the 26th. Danbury was thought to be protected by the rugged terrain which surrounded it and this day by a militia company under Col. Joseph P. Cooke, fifty Continental soldiers and a militia regiment under Col. Jedediah Huntington. The British took up positions around the town and occupied that part which is now the southern end of Main Street up as far as White Street.
The soldiers began by rifling through the houses and public buildings looking for the military provisions residents of the town were storing. Dragging the provisions into the center of the street the British set fire to them. Having reached his objective without incident Tryon was now faced with a steady rain and soldiers who would be in the firm grip of New England rum for the duration of the raid. The residents of the town had hastily evacuated when the British intent became clear. The night of the 26th was not a happy one for the British. Tryon received word that American forces under General Wooster were gathering and Benedict Arnold was on a fast horse coming down from New Haven where he had been recuperating. Sybil Luddington, in a midnight ride, alerted her father’s militia troops on the New York side of the line.
Realizing his possibly untenable position Tryon wanted to finish his mission and get back to his ships with all haste. At this point the soldiers stopped dragging the supplies into the street and simply burned the homes and buildings where contraband was found. There was loss of life in Danbury from those who mounted resistance to the British and now the Court House along with nineteen other homes and businesses would be torched. The most dramatic loss to the town were its land records and vital statistic records. Almost a century of history went up in flames never to be recovered.
“In Sir William Howe’s official report of the foray he states that “in the destruction of the stores at Danbury the village was unavoidably burnt.” The list of the material destroyed was as follows: a quantity of ordnance stores, with iron, etc; 4000 barrels of beef and pork; 100 large tierces of biscuits; 89 barrels of rice; 120 puncheons of rum; several large stores of wheat, oats and Indian corn, in bulk, the quantity hereof could not possibly be ascertained; 30 pipes of wine; 100 hogsheads of sugar; 50 ditto of molasses; 20 casks of coffee; 15 large casks filled with medicines of all kinds; 100 barrels of saltpeter; 1020 tents and marquees; a number of iron boilers; a large quantity of hospital bedding; engineers’, pioneers’ and carpenters’ tools; a printing press complete; tar; tallow, etc.; 5000 pairs of shoes and stockings.” (Case pp.27-28)
In his report to General Horatio Gates, Col. Hughes said that the greatest loss in the raid to the Continental army were the tents. They were irreplaceable since most were made of material imported from France. Provisioners of Commissary realizing Danbury’s importance as a depot and supply center would never again let it be unprotected and for the rest of the war some soldiers of the Continental line would be encamped nearby.
The retreating British were not able to leave by the route through Bethel and Redding by which they had arrived. Wooster and Arnold stood in their way and General Silliman from Fairfield was enroute. The British chose to pivot around and go through the Ridgebury section of Ridgefield and ultimately down the main street of that village. The British were set upon from all sides. It mirrored Lexington and Concord. General Wooster would receive a fatal wound in the ensuing battle and die several days later in Danbury . Even today, you can still see a canon ball fired by the British and lodged in the north wall of the Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield. Tryon and his troops fled through Wilton and back to their waiting ships at Compo. If it were not for a company of British marines covering their last bit of retreat the damage inflicted by the Americans would have been much greater.
This famous local event is often referred to as the ‘Burning of Danbury or (Raid on Danbury) and the Battle of Ridgefield.’ Its significance was far greater for Connecticut and the local efforts of civic engagement then originally realized. Never again would the British mount an inland raid into Connecticut for the duration of the war. Danbury was too close a call. The British would confine themselves to raiding the Connecticut coastline from bases on Long Island. Terrible damage would be inflicted on Norwalk and Fairfield in 1778 and 1779. Both towns would lose more than 400 buildings each in a burning assault by the British. Later, a vicious attack against New London would be led by, then turncoat, Benedict Arnold.
After the raid Danbury returned to being a major supply depot and encampment area for the Continental army. Civic engagement extended to a unique core of workers known as ‘artificers’. Most of the information on this group has come to light from pensioners’ records. Certain individuals who enlisted were put into a Corp of Artificers. These groups built barracks, workshops , wagons, carriages and did the work of iron smiths or forgers. They were not military personnel per se but were under the ‘Continental establishment’. There is evidence that such a group was established in Danbury by the summer of 1776. Given the time constraints on the British during the raid it is not hard to understand why the hospital was spared. It is difficult to understand why the artificers camp was not destroyed, if it existed. It may be that because the British left via Miry Brook Road, and the artificers camp was hidden below a hill in a remote section of town, it was simply missed. It is not clearly understood whether the barrack and shops of the artificers were part of the state militia or the Continental line.
Danbury had a rich history of civic engagement in the eighteenth century. The movement of materials, raw and finished, in and out of town during the Revolution, would help the Danbury merchants acquire the skills that were used after the war to establish a thriving hatting industry, along with silk and band boxes. Civic engagement also translated into community engagement over the next two hundred years and the city today boasts a vibrant picture of diversity and economic accomplishment in business, corporate and retail establishments. There are a number of cultural institutions in Danbury and the city boasts a state university campus in its downtown area.
Case, James R., Tryon’s Raid, Published on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Danbury, CT., 1927
Destler, Chester M., Connecticut: The Provision State, A Publication of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, Pequot Press, 1973.
Hadaway, William S., ed. The McDonald Papers, Westchester County Historical Society, 1926.
McDevitt, Robert, Connecticut Attacked: A British Viewpoint, A Publication of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, Pequot Press, 1974.
Schling, Dorothy T., The Untold Story: Danbury’s Unsung Role in the Revolution, Published by the Danbury Tricentennial Commission, 1985.