We’re all starting to think early Colonial, big thanks, and bigger turkeys, but today I immersed in the end of the Colonial era, with the behind-the scenes tour of Revolutionary War stuff and stories at the Connecticut Historical Society.
You may have heard of Nathan Hale, wishing he had more than one life to give for his country. He certainly could have used more than one. This Yalie made a terrible spy, hanged at age 21. George Washington had recruited Hale to carry messages behind the lines, but he was found out either by the British Major Roberts who pretended to be a patriot or by his cousin Samuel Hale, who exposed him. I don’t know if this diary gives any clues to his cluelessness, but it’s there to be read.
Who wouldn‘t love the battle of the red’s? This red coat belonged to Redcoat Munson Hoyt, a Connecticut loyalist fighting for the British. The coat, as you can see, is in remarkable condition, given that Munson fought while wearing it. After the war, he moved to Canada, taking advantage of the reward for his military service of a plot of land. That didn’t keep him out of the new United States though. He moved back to Long Island, where he met his wife and settled.
Somehow the bright red cloak of 22-year-old Deborah Champion not only retained its brilliance, but also didn’t get in the way of her spying activities. Red is a color that catches the eye, a notoriously bad choice for sneaking around. But Deborah, who carried messages from her father to George Washington, apparently was all success. Whenever she felt threatened, she could hide under a calash bonnet, also known as a ‘bashful bonnet’, with its broad hood, disguising herself as an old lady. Of course, we all know that old ladies couldn’t possibly be spies!
Although Connecticut didn’t see a lot of battle action as the ‘provision state’ (supplying all of George Washington’s armies’ needs), some memorable battles did happen here. In 1781, Benedict Arnold betrayed his home state and his mentor Washington with his insider knowledge. He knew that the signal for an enemy ship along the Connecticut River was two cannon shots, with three for a friendly ship.
When a British ship was sited and two shots were fired, Arnold had the third fired as well, delaying the patriot army’s response. Also outnumbered, the patriots lost the battle at Fort Griswold at New London. Even though the patriots surrendered, fighting continued. Imagine this vest on Colonel William Ledyard, who in the act of surrendering his sword, was bayoneted 14 times by an unnamed British soldier. Yikes! So much for a gentlemanly engagement of war.
The vest came to the Historical Society, blood and all, in 1841. A diligent curator thought the blood stains would upset the ladies and had the vest cleaned. All curators since have been turning in their graves and sighing, including the two interns leading our tour. Still you can clearly see where the bayonet penetrated, making this soldier’s unjust fate all the more real..
Imagine the day-to-day life of a patriot soldier. You had to “grab your gun and go” to war, bringing your squirrel-hunting rifle, or whatever was handy. Wear any garments you had that might keep you warm and dry. Not like the British soldiers who were outfitted in red coats and the latest armament technology–the flint-lock rifle.
You would wear your shoes out marching, so that you’d be better off barefoot. Your clothes would be in tatters. Why? Not only are you carrying a 10-pound rifle, but also your bedroll and all your supplies. With malnutrition and disease limiting growth, the gun might be as big as the man. That was verified by the tiny red coat on display and the 5’2″ intern with a rifle.
What a life. It did help to believe in the cause. In Connecticut, only 50% were patriots, while 20% were loyalists. 30% probably wanted to see who would win.
Phineas Meigs would never find out. Ostensibly the last Connecticut soldier to die in the war, his hat made it to the Historical Society in 1859 and clearly shows the entrance and exit sites of the bullet that killed him.
Age 73, this private fought in the Battle of Madison on May 19, 1782, when the war was winding down. Meigs left his home to respond to the alarm. Armed British ships had been chasing a merchant vessel that sailed for cover in Madison. The resulting skirmish left one British soldier and Meigs dead, the latter close to his own home. Someone included his hat when returning his body home. The family clung to if for 75 years. It’s chilling to see in person, taking the war out of the history books and onto a real guy’s head.
Maybe one of the last things he would have seen would have been his regimental flag. Here’s a remarkable flag that was “raised 1640” and still flew in the Revolutionary War. Its red color suggests it was a state militia flag originally, then appropriated later by the patriots. Betsy Ross didn’t make any kind of flag in time for the war. That’s all myth, and another story. But this flag is the real deal. Its silken tatters are a reminder of the remarkable stories that make the past seem like just a moment ago.