The 'Provision State': Connecticut Resources Fed Struggle For Independence

Site of the Revolutionary War Foundry in Salisbury, formerly owned by Ethan Allen. (Connecticut Historical Society Collection)

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."

Munitions Industry

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.