College of Arts and Sciences


Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)


Christopher Smith


Connecticut, 18th Century America, Revolutionary War, French and Indian War, Republicanism




By the spring of 1777 loyalty and leadership in America had been tested both politically in congress and militarily on the battlefield for well over two years. The Continental Congress had declared independence the previous July, and General Washington’s military victories at Trenton in December 1776 and Princeton the following month stabilized wavering American patriotism after the massive loss of New York during the previous fall. Regional tensions were at a heightened state, especially in the Continental Congress. By March 1776 the Continental Army had lost their foothold on upper Canada, in large part due to the lack of material support from congress. Politicians in Philadelphia required a scapegoat for their inaction. They found one with the oldest general officer they had appointed to the position of brigadier general in 1775: David Wooster of Connecticut. On April 27, 1777, after being recommissioned as Connecticut’s senior ranking major general of militia, Wooster learned of a pending invasion of his home state. Major General Wooster, supported by Brigadier Generals Benedict Arnold and Gold Selleck Silliman, also from Connecticut, called out the militia and marched to Danbury to oppose the invaders. British troops under the command of General Tryon, the tory governor of New York, marched into Connecticut to seize a store of munitions held by the patriots in Danbury. On Tuesday morning, April 29, American troops met the British forces at the Battle of Ridgefield. As the enemy was engaged by Arnold and Silliman, Wooster’s troops attacked the rear of the retreating enemy. Wooster rallied his men forward to drive the British and loyalist forces from the field. While repositioning his men, he turned in his saddle, sword in hand, and was struck in his side by an enemy bullet and fell mortally wounded from his horse. The ball shattered Wooster’s spine. Soldiers removed the general’s scarlet sash from around his waist, unwrapped it, bore the dying officer from the field in the make-shift stretcher. On May 2, 1777, with his wife and son present, Major General David Wooster died and was quickly buried due to the proximity of the enemy still along the coast. At age sixty-seven, the oldest American general in the Revolution was dead. On June 17, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating a committee to determine the most fitting way to honor “Brigadier Wooster.” The responsibility fell to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, who had highly praised Wooster in a letter to General Washington on July 13, 1775, as being “held in high estimation by our Assembly, and by the officers and troops.” However, due to continued British threats followed by a second attack on the Connecticut coast in 1779, no memorial was ever erected. In 1786, the Confederation Congress officially created the Western Reserve of Connecticut in northeast Ohio, the “Firelands” as they were more commonly called. This land was made available to those in Connecticut who had lost their homes due to the devastation of the war. Wayne County was located on the southern edge of the Western Reserve and became home of many Connecticut refugees. By 1808, Wayne County had become sufficiently populated to establish an official county seat, and the veterans who resided there took the opportunity to honor the late Major General David Wooster by naming the county seat after the fallen general, who had been dead for almost thirty-two years. Yet today the question still arises: Who was David Wooster, and why should he be remembered within the annals of eighteenth-century American History? If this man was held in such “high estimation” by those in power in Connecticut throughout the 1700s, why has no one heard of him? Why has history, and the historiography of the eighteenth-century neglected him? Wooster’s experience highlighted the development and growth of American ideology throughout the 1700s that revolved around Lockean republicanism, military training, and civic leadership. His story provides new evidence which highlights the importance of eighteenth-century New England as an epicenter of political revolutionary ideology. David Wooster was a prominent leader in Connecticut throughout the 1700s, and was actively engaged in the civic, political, and military life of the colony. As historians continue to write about eighteenth-century America, as well as the Revolutionary War, David Wooster continues to evade the narrative, or at best is offered a peripheral reference. Why? By 1775 Wooster already had decades of successful military experience and was appointed the first major general of Connecticut militia before the Continental Army was even created. Yet, the historiography continues to provide only a tertiary glance at Wooster’s undeniable leadership. The focus of this dissertation will be to uncover how David Wooster shaped eighteenth-century Connecticut, and how his undivided loyalty and unwavering leadership are two characteristics that embody and define his life. As a British subject and commissioned officer in the army, his loyalty to England was unquestioned in his early years. However, as political abuses of royal authority and parliamentary government in London permeated into the colonies in North America, the seeds of political discontentment were sown, and Wooster eventually refocused his political loyalty upon his home colony of Connecticut. What would make a sixty-five-year-old merchant, justice of the peace, captain of the 51st Regiment of Foot, and naval custom officer for the port of New Haven yield his royal commission in 1775 and endanger his entire livelihood to take up arms in the republican cause of independence and liberty? The historical record of David Wooster is sparce. In 1779 British General Tryon led a raid upon New Haven and the surrounding Connecticut countryside. Wooster’s home was targeted. Many of his personal papers, including much of his correspondence, were destroyed. Thus, to recreate Wooster’s place within the historic narrative requires analysis of a limited number of surviving letters and intense research to locate additional sources within the correspondences of those who wrote to Wooster. Political journals of the colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York provide important details, as well as the Journals of the Continental Congress. In addition, the personal papers of Connecticut Governors, Law, Fitch, Pitkin, and Trumbull illuminate the historical record where Wooster’s actions become difficult to trace. Furthermore, prominent individuals who interacted with Wooster wrote about him, such as Sir William Pepperrell, Philip Schuyler, Roger Sherman, and John Adams whose letters contain invaluable material on his life.

Included in

History Commons