Hartford in the Revolution (1899 article by Mary Talcott)

The following essay was taken from HARTFORD IN HISTORY: A SERIES OF PAPERS BY RESIDENT AUTHORS, Ed. Willis I. Twitchell, Hartford: Plimpton, 1899.

Hartford in the Revolution

By Mary K. Talcott

Being so far removed from the sea coast, Hartford suffered none of the rigors of actual warfare during the Revolution. The attempted invasions of Tryon and Arnold were beaten back long before they reached the interior of the State, and the only armed foreign troops the people of Hartford saw were their French allies, who passed through the town on their way to join the American army on the banks of the Hudson. English soldiers were brought to Hartford as prisoners in large numbers, as it was considered a safe and suitable place for confining them, and also Tories under suspicion, and several English officials, as the Governor of the Bahamas.

One of the most brilliant exploits of the whole war, and one of its earliest successes, was planned in Hartford—the capture of Ticonderoga. Several individuals seeing the great need of artillery and stores, and knowing that the forts on Lake Champlain contained plentiful supplies, planned this expedition. Samuel Holden Parsons, Silas Deane, Colonel Samuel Wyllys and several others consulted together and raised funds, obtaining a loan of £300 from the colony treasurer, for which their individual receipts with security were given. The committee collected sixteen men in Connecticut and then proceeded to Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where forty or fifty volunteers were added to their small number. At Bennington, Vermont, they were joined by Ethan Allen, Seth Warner and nearly one hundred volunteers. At Castleton, Vermont, Ethan Allen, a native of Litchfield, Connecticut, was chosen commander; James Easton, a native of Hartford, was second in command, and under these leaders the little army proceeded to surprise the fort at Ticonderoga, which was captured May 10, 1775, by this small force of New Englanders. The citizens of Connecticut, unaided by any other colony, had taken the initiative in conquering the forts on Lake Champlain, capturing the garrison and carrying the prisoners and munitions of war to Connecticut. Among the prisoners was Captain Skene, son of Major Skene, governor of Ticonderoga, Crown Point and Montreal, who was afterwards captured also and brought to Hartford. The father and son were kept in an honor able captivity in a private house in the West Division (now West Hartford). While there, “they together took leave of the Town without Liberty,” as the Connecticut Courant expresses it. They were recaptured and with other prisoners kept in closer confinement. Other forts were taken on Lake Champlain, and about fifty prisoners, including several officers, were brought to Hartford in May, 1775. Later in the year Major Christopher French, H. M. 22nd regiment, was sent to Hartford for safe keeping. His journal, which he left behind him at his flight, in 1776, gives many details of the life in Hartford at that time. At first the officers were allowed considerable liberty. Major French speaks of driving in a sleigh to visit Governor Skene in the West Division, and of going to Middletown to attend the services of the Church of England, as none were maintained in Hartford. But they appear to have indulged in freedoms of behavior which gave offense, and in the summer of 1776 they were placed in close confinement in the gaol. In May, 1776, the people of Hartford were much disturbed by the election of Governor Skene’s negro as governor of the blacks. This custom of electing a governor, in imitation of the whites, had been observed by the negroes for a number of years, and the fortunate individual was always treated with great attention and respect by his colored brethren. Governor Cuff saw fit to resign, and appointed Governor Skene’s man as his successor, without holding an election. This excited uneasiness in the public mind, lest there might be some plot on the part of the British officers, and a committee was appointed to investigate the matter. Governor Skene’s lodgings were searched and his papers examined, but the investigation seemed to prove that the affair was only meant as a compliment to a stranger. In the latter part of 1776 two of the English officers escaped, and in this flight Major French was assisted by the Rev. Roger Viets, the Episcopal clergyman at Simsbury, for which offense Mr. Viets was tried and sentenced to pay £20 to the State and suffer one year’s imprisonment. The private soldiers were apparently encouraged to pursue trades and to receive wages therefor. In 1777 about two hundred English officers and soldiers, captured at Princeton, were brought to Hartford, and the committee in charge of prisoners gave permission to two of the officers to give instruction in arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and in music on various instruments—the violin, flute, French horn, etc. It is probable that skilled teachers in these arts and sciences were rare, and such an opportunity would be eagerly embraced by the youth of Hartford. After the surrender of Burgoyne, in October, 1777, a number of his soldiers, among them several Hessian officers, were sent to Hartford. A Hartford man, Major Thomas Y. Seymour, a very brave and gallant officer of light dragoons, was detailed to take charge of General Burgoyne himself, after the surrender, and conduct him to Boston, and performed this duty so gracefully and acceptably that the general presented him with his handsome leopard-skin saddle-cloth and holsters, with the pistols, also, and these were long preserved by his family.

In December, 1776, a detachment of fourteen men under the command of an ensign and one sergeant were ordered to keep guard about the prison in Hartford, to prevent intercourse between the prisoners within and the Tories without.

The selectmen of Hartford petitioned the General Assembly, January 8, 1778, that the prisoners of war might be removed to some other place, complaining that the continuing of the prisoners in this town was attended with many ill effects ; that the public stores and magazines were greatly exposed ; that intelligence was communicated to the enemies of the country; that the prices of the necessaries of life — wood, bread, meat and clothing — were much increased by the British officers and their servants, “who do not stick at any sum to obtain the same; ” and that there was danger of their forming combinations with the blacks to injure the lives and property of the people.  A number of the Tory prisoners were confined in the mines at Newgate, in Simsbury, from the beginning of hostilities, and many more were sent there during the last years of the conflict. On May 18, 1781, the Tories then imprisoned there, to the number of about twenty-eight, broke jail, killed one of the guard, wounded others, and escaped. But nearly all were recaptured and taken back. In 1781, Congress applied to Governor Trumbull for the use of the mines as a prison “for the reception of British prisoners of war, and for the purpose of retaliation.” But the termination of the war prevented the plan from being carried into effect.

That the residents of Hartford at that date felt themselves to be living in the midst of war’s alarms is shown by an examination of the State Records, and the columns of the “Connecticut Courant.”  The chief supervision of affairs was exercised by the Committee of Inspection. This body was substantially identical with the Committee of Correspondence and Observation, appointed by the town, December 20, 1774, when a meeting was held to express the sympathy of the inhabitants “with our brethren of Boston and the Massachusetts Bay,” though the resolutions open with words of loyalty to the Crown. During the early days of the Revolution it was the universal custom to speak of the “ministerial forces” and the “ministerial measures against America,” as if the King were not responsible for the doings of the ministers of the Crown. This polite fiction shows the dying struggles of the feeling of personal loyalty, and later in the war all titles were dropped, and the King was mentioned as plain “George.” The Committee of Inspection controlled everything and everybody. No person could be allowed to come from any of the neighboring colonies to settle in Hartford without delivering to the committee a certificate from the committee of the city from whence he came, that he was friendly to the rights and liberties of America. No person could travel from town to town excepting those well-known and esteemed to be friendly to the American cause, and military officers and soldiers, without a permit, and anyone who could not produce such a permit, could be arrested and committed to jail. The Committee of Observation were also expected to observe the conduct of all members of a patriotic society called the Continental Association, banded together not to use English goods, or to give aid and comfort of any kind to the enemy. If any violated the rules of the Association, the committee were to publish the cases in the newspapers, and break off all dealings with him or her. If any person by writing or speaking should defame or libel any of the resolves of Congress, or of the General Assembly, and should be duly convicted thereof, he could be disarmed and rendered incapable of holding any office, civil or military, and might be further punished by imprisonment or fine. In December, 1775, two merchants having been convicted by the committee of having sold merchandise at an unusually high price, contrary to the rules of the Continental Association, the committee resolved that no one should have any further trade with them until they made satisfaction — practically a boycott. In March, 1776, the Committee of Inspection met at the State House and set certain prices for West India goods, so that the merchants should not take advantage of the scarcity of supplies, as rum, 3s. 9d. per gallon; New England rum, 2s. 4d. per gallon; coffee, 10d. per pound, etc. It was also resolved that the inhabitants be as sparing as possible in purchasing English or India goods, and to speedily engage in the manufacture of woolen and linen cloths. Occasionally we read of convictions for indulging in tea-drinking, and the punishment was severe. Stories are yet told in some families of indulgence in the drink that “cheers yet not inebriates” on the sly, and how the teapot and teacups were deposited under the bed on the approach of the officers of the law.

The women were formed into an association called the “Daughters of Liberty,” and its chief object appears to have been to assist each other in observing the self-denying ordinances required by the patriotic spirit of the time. In the Wolcott Papers may be found a set of resolutions promulgated by the “Ladies of Hartford.” Unfortunately there are no signatures. The fair patriots declare that they do not approve of the use of “foreign gewgaws and frippery,” and they consider the servile imitations of foreign fashions as one of the circumstances which operate to embarrass and distress the country, and they therefore subscribe to the following articles : That they will not purchase or wear any superfluous articles of dress; that they will not purchase silks, muslins, expensive hats, etc., except a single suit for a wedding, or for mourning, but for the future would only wear in visits and in public places such articles as they had on hand, or newly-purchased calicoes; that they will reduce the number and price of articles which furnish their tables ; that they will not attend a public or private assembly oftener than once in three weeks, and that they will use their influence to diffuse an attention to industry and frugality, and to render these virtues reputable and permanent.

In 1775 the “Courant” contains a request to the Daughters of Liberty to save carefully all linen and cotton “Raggs” of any kind, coarse as well as fine, as they were so much needed for making that most necessary article, paper, “and if they are not saved the Streams of Intelligence will soon fail.” The paper mill in that part of East Hartford now Burnside was a very important institution, and its destruction by fire in1778 was considered a great misfortune to the public, as well as to the owners, and a lottery was started to aid in rebuilding it.

Several executions of spies and deserters took place in Hartford, and drew throngs of people together. The most noted of these occasions perhaps was the execution of Moses Dunbar for high treason, in having received a commission from General Howe, and enlisting men for the enemy’s forces. The Rev. Dr. Strong improved the occasion by a discourse in the North Meeting House (the Center Church) to the spectators, while the Rev. Mr. Jarvis, of Middletown, preached a sermon to the prisoner in the jail.

From the beginning of the war embargoes were laid by the General Assembly on various articles, including all kinds of provisions, and linen and woolen cloth. On the 29th of February, 1780, twenty-nine persons were appointed to be Inspectors of Provisions, to detain and secure any embargoed provisions which they might suspect were intended to be carried out of the State.

The most picturesque event in the Revolutionary annals of Hartford is the meeting of Washington and Rochambeau, which took place September 21, 1780. General Washington arrived in town first, and was received by the Governor’s Foot Guard and a company of artillery; a salute of thirteen guns was fired, while crowds of people shouted and cheered. He was escorted to the house of Colonel Wadsworth, which stood where the Athenaeum now stands. Count Rochambeau crossed the ferry from East Hartford and walked to the public square, ac-companied by his suite. Washington came up Main Street, accompanied by Governor Trumbull, Colonel Wadsworth, General Knox and other prominent officers. As the two tall, fine looking commanders-in-chief advanced towards each other on the public square, bowing repeatedly, an eye-witness said it was like the meeting of two nations. The interview of the two commanders was held at the house of Colonel Wadsworth. The following year, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau met again, but the conference took place at Wethersfield in the Webb House. In consequence of the plans decided upon at that time, the French army left Rhode Island in June, and marched across Connecticut, stopping in Hartford on the way. After the victorious campaign of Yorktown, the French army again passed through Hartford en route to Newport. They encamped in East Hartford, and the name of Silver Lane is derived from the kegs of silver which were opened there for the purpose of paying the troops.

In 1776, when the English troops attacked New York, Connecticut furnished a number of regiments for Washington’s army. From Hart-ford went several companies of foot and three regiments of light horse. At different periods during the war new levies of troops were encamped in Hartford for the purpose of filling the ranks and drilling, and General Gates’ division of the Continental Army was stationed in Hartford for some time in 1778. In 1779, at the time of the British attack on New Haven, a train of artillery was sent into the State from Springfield at the request of Governor Trumbull. Three brass field-pieces were halted at Hartford, and a company of fifteen men was enlisted to exercise themselves in their management. This company acquired, under the direction of Colonel Hezekiah Wyllys, considerable skill in the use of the field-pieces, and held themselves in readiness to march to the defense of the country.

The treaty of peace with Great Britain was signed at Versailles, January 20, 1783, but the news was not known in Hartford until the 27th of March, at seven o’clock A. M., when Colonel Wadsworth received a letter from Philadelphia, dated March 23, containing the information. The news was received with great joy. The “Connecticut Courant” says: “As the express came solely to bring the news, and we had no doubt of its being true, the inhabitants of this town manifested their extreme joy by the firing of cannon, ringing of bells, and in the evening fireworks and illuminations.”




COLLECTIONS OF THE CONNECTICUT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, I., containing Papers Relating to the Ticonderoga Expedition, and Major French’s Journal.




Files of the Connecticut Courant.