Connecticut’s Militia


At a time when the nations in Europe are all in arms against each other and are spreading death and destruction, and at a time when our country is threatened with the same calamity, the United States have no other means than this militia, we are the great bulwark against a foreign invasion. It is to us all will look for security; our wives, our children will depend on us for protection, in which we are determined they shall not be disappointed.

The officers and soldiers of the third Brigade will never lack ambition and pride to prompt them to do their duty while they reflect that they are Americans, and that the price of the liberty we now enjoy was the blood of our fathers, and that same spirit which so gloriously achieved our liberty can and will defend it against the attack and violence of all foreign powers, that the ideas be a stimulus to every officer and soldier to do his duty and thoroughly requaint himself with military discipline.

Let us bear in mind that our great Washington told us that if we wished to preserve peace we ought at all time be prepared for war.

William Williams, Brigadier General
Connecticut State Militia
August 31, 18071


This scene, identified as a “New London Encampment of the War of 1812,” was painted in oil on a mirror by an unknown artist in 1815. It depicts militiamen in their tidy uniforms relaxing, lounging, and smoking, suggesting a summer outing rather than a military encampment. In actuality, Connecticut militiamen stationed in Groton and New London commonly endured miserable food, leaky tents, and inadequate arms and equipment. (Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 1971.312)


General Williams, in an attempt to inspire his men, effectively characterized the heritage and responsibilities of the state’s citizen soldiers and articulated the serious expectations incumbent on them and their service. When the War of 1812 began, few other states could claim a militia that was better prepared and equipped. But few states would see the power of their militia so closely husbanded as that of Connecticut.

State militias were designed to provide a means of defense in time of need while reducing the necessity of a large standing army. Maintaining standing armies was a costly matter. They were also viewed as a threat since they could conceivably be used to strengthen a tyrant at the expense of the peoples’ liberties. This was an understandable concern in the decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—a period characterized by revolution against arbitrary power.

Connecticut’s militia traditions, modeled after practices in England, dated back to the early colonial period. In the early decades of the colony’s existence, Connecticut men participated in the ongoing power struggle in North America that pitted English colonists against Native Americans, and later against the French.

Connecticut first asserted sole authority for its own militia during King William’s War, which was fought from 1689 to 1698. When the King of England authorized the governor of New York to command militia units from other colonies, he attempted to exercise his control over the Connecticut militia. The people of Connecticut protested to King William, citing their chartered right to control their own militia. The king ultimately rescinded the New York governor’s authority. A precedent had been set, and with the outbreak of the War of 1812, Connecticut would once again steadfastly stand by her right to command her own troops.

The colony refined the structure of its militia with an act “for better regulating the militia” issued in 1739.2 This act provided a basic framework that would remain in place for over 100 years. The act outlined the command structure, with the governor at the top. It established 13 regiments combining town militia companies by region. Regiments were in turn grouped into brigades.

After the American Revolution (during which the militia was intermittently called up for service), Connecticut and the other states also complied, in varying degrees, with the federal government’s Uniform Militia Act of 1792. This act stipulated that all able-bodied white male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to enroll in the militia unless otherwise exempt for some specific reason such as serious health issues. Militiamen were required to supply their own arms and equipment. Militia companies were formed in each town, although smaller towns would often merge their forces to achieve the desired complement of men. A few companies of artillery and cavalry were included in the state militia structure. State law required militia companies to report or “muster” for training and inspection at regular intervals, usually four times per year.

Each company was to consist of 64 privates, although in actual practice the number varied. Lower-ranking officers were elected annually by the men of each militia company, while the higher ranks were filled by men appointed by the state. Their service was a badge of pride and frequently a pathway to political office as well.

Connecticut’s comprehensive militia laws were sophisticated enough to anticipate an issue that continues to be relevant today. They accommodated anti-war religious beliefs by providing exemptions for members of the “Societies of Friends, Shakers and Quakers.”3 Instead of military service, these individuals were required to pay a default fee of ten dollars annually to the state treasurer. Monies collected for these exemptions, as well as other militia-related fines and fees, contributed significantly to the state treasury.

The principal arm of each militia member was a flintlock musket. These muzzle-loading weapons fired a round ball and were highly inaccurate, except at close range. They were often of New England manufacture, and some were produced in Connecticut by arms-makers such as Eli Whitney. When reporting for active duty, the men were expected to possess 20 cartridges and two extra flints.

By 1800, most of Connecticut had long ceased to be a wild frontier. As a result, and despite militia training, many of the men in the state had very limited experience with firearms and artillery fieldpieces. This lack of familiarity led to numerous accidents and serious injuries, often during training exercises. State records for the period leading up to the War of 1812 include a number of petitions seeking compensation for such injuries, which generally resulted from burst muskets and the accidental discharge of fieldpieces.4

When the War of 1812 began, few states could claim militias that were better prepared for service than that of Connecticut. However, philosophically, the militiamen, state leaders, and the general population were not at all ready for the men to serve, largely in response to several key federal actions.

On June 12, 1812, a week before the declaration of war, General Henry Dearborn, senior general in command of forces in the Northeast, ordered five companies of Connecticut militia to New London and New Haven for the defense of those coastal cities. They were to be placed under the command of federal officers.

Governor Roger Griswold and his council addressed two key issues in considering their response. Could the Connecticut militia be called out if the specific contingencies stated in the U.S. Constitution did not apply, and could it be commanded by federal officers? Connecticut’s leaders pointed out that the Constitution authorized Congress to call out the militia “to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasion” and that no such conditions existed. They also noted that the Constitution assured militia units the right to serve under their own officers. This traditional and highly valued practice of leadership by men of their own choosing became a major point of contention, as it had been more than 100 years earlier.

Connecticut and several sister states strongly protested the U.S. government’s request that state troops enter federal service. Citing the state’s rights under the Constitution, Connecticut refused the federal request, and Governor Griswold issued a proclamation to that effect on August 6, 1812. Ultimately, the state did provide a force for federal service with volunteers drawn from militia units. This created what was essentially a special state army referred to as the State Corps or State Military Corps. This transfer of men reduced many militia companies to a typical strength of 30 to 40 men.5 In an interesting arrangement, the State Corps, while in service to and supplied by the U.S. Government, was under the command of Major General William Williams of the state militia. Connecticut steadfastly continued to stand by her right to command her own troops.

Although the militia would ultimately be called into service to protect the state’s coast, Connecticut had again exercised her rights pertaining to the militia, the Hartford Courant echoed the popular response to this decision: “Let our militia rally around the state government, to which they are indebted for not being called out to jeopardize their lives garrisoning our forts; to which they are indebted for not being dragged out of state to fight Indians or die before the walls of Quebec.”6

Beginning in 1812, Connecticut updated several of its militia laws. It revised uniform regulations in a General Order issued in February 1812, setting a standard for how militiamen would be clothed during the war. Privates were to wear blue coats lined with white and trimmed with red, with white buttons and standup collars. Also specified were white woolen vests, blue woolen pants, and hats with a common crown and the brim turned up on the left side. The designated footwear was bootees or half-boots. The requirements and colors varied slightly for the artillery, cavalry, and musicians. Officers were to be similarly attired, with the addition of long-skirted coats and “modern military hats.”7 In practice, standard uniforms were often in short supply. The men tended to wear clothing that was on hand or uniforms created from any fabric, buttons, and other supplies that may have been available.

Flintlock muskets remained the principal arm. Accidents involving weapons continued with the outbreak of war, such as in the case of Stonington militiaman John Miner who was injured by a premature cannon discharge during the defense of his town in 1814. In its rapid-fire haste, the gun crew had likely failed to adequately swab the gun after firing, leaving unextinguished sparks to ignite the next charge of powder as it was being loaded.

During the war, only one militia unit was dispatched for service outside of the state, and it was soon recalled by the governor. Although more than 10,000 men did serve in the state’s militia from 1812 to 1815, relatively few experienced combat. The notable exceptions were those who participated in the Battle of Stonington, in a skirmish following the burning of the vessels at Pettipauge, and in several lesser exchanges of fire.

The militia did serve for extended periods on active duty at a number of forts and defensive positions in the state. Locations included Bridgeport, New Haven, Killingworth, Saybrook, Waterford, New London, Groton, Mystic, and Stonington. During their 30- or 60-day deployments, they stood guard at harbors, mouths of rivers, and other key positions. While on active duty, privates received $10.00 per month and sergeants earned $12.00. In contrast, captains received $40.00 per month.8

The British threat was very real to these men and to all of Connecticut’s citizens, who were well aware of British naval and military power. They also remembered, especially in southeastern Connecticut, that the British had massacred 80 militia defenders of Fort Griswold in Groton following their surrender 30 years earlier during the Revolutionary War.

Some of Connecticut’s militia members actually served on the water as a means of assisting with coastal defense. In May of 1814, the General Assembly authorized the deployment of “row-guards … in such harbors of this state as the protection of the state may require & to employ such part of the military force, mariners and boats as may be necessary.”9 In this capacity, the row-guards patrolled harbors at places such as New Haven, watching for threatening British activity. Connecticut troops avoided additional “naval” service during a heightened British threat in August of 1814, when state leaders refused a request by the U.S. Navy to place militia detachments onboard Commodore Decatur’s ships at Gales Ferry for added protection.10

Life while on active duty could be challenging—even during times of limited threats from the British. On several different occasions, petitions were filed with the General Assembly by the forces in the vicinity of New London. They protested the poor quality of the rations, muskets, and tents in use by the militia.11 In the summer of 1813 complaints also arose concerning one of the most valued ration commodities—liquor. A contractor provided cider brandy, which seems to have been closer to vinegar. One officer observed that “a more pernicious poison was never distilled.”12

Militia duties and responsibilities were generally taken very seriously, especially by officers. Discipline for dereliction of duty could be severe. Private Garritt Osborne of the 37th Regiment of Infantry was found guilty of desertion from his post at Fort Trumbull in July of 1814. His punishment included two months of hard labor with a ball and chain attached to his ankle, stoppage of his liquor ration, shaving smooth of one side of his head twice during his sentence, and placing him on a wooden horse three days each week for two hours each day.13

Although actual combat experiences were limited for the militia, they were a reality for men such as Stonington defender Jesse Dean. He recalled in later years that his friends barely recognized him after the battle. He had lost his hat, his hair was knotted, his face was “smutted with smoke” and his clothing was spattered with the blood of his wounded compatriot, John Miner.14

Connecticut militia units saw only limited action, yet throughout the war thousands of men stood ready—armed, trained, and willing to defend their state in the face of a serious British threat. When the war ended, the men who were on active duty were quickly released and returned to their homes. The governor of the state praised the militia for “their uniformly spirited and honourable conduct.”15 Today, the tradition continues in the state with the service of modern militiamen—the Connecticut National Guard. But, unlike their forebears of 1812, these defenders of the Nutmeg State have served with honor in the distant and dangerous conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.

By Fred Calabretta
Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT



1. Orderly Book, 1803-1813 [Third Brigade]. Connecticut Militia and Military District, Connecticut Historical Society.

2. “An Act for the better regulating of the Militia of this Colony. and putting it in a more ready Posture for the Defense of the same,” Charles J. Hoadly, ed. Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, Records from Oct. 1735-Oct. 1743, vol. 8 (Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1874), 277-81.

3. “An Act in addition to and alteration of the statute entitled ‘An Act for the forming and conducting the military force of the state,’” vol. 1, doc. 59, Connecticut Archives, War of 1812, [microform] Connecticut State Library.

4. See various documents, Connecticut Archives, Militia, Third Series, October 1728-May 1820, [microform] Connecticut State Library

5. Third Regiment Muster Rolls, 1814, War of 1812, Records of Connecticut Militia, box 1, folders 7, 8 Connecticut Historical Society.

6. “Our Militia,” Hartford Courant, July 28, 1812.

7. “General Orders … uniform dress for the militia…,” February 17, 1812, vol. 1, doc. 24, Connecticut Archives, War of 1812, [microform] Connecticut State Library.

8. Third Regiment Receipt Rolls, 1814, War of 1812, Records of Connecticut Militia, (box 1, folder 5) Connecticut Historical Society.

9. “An Act in addition to and alteration of the statute entitled ‘An Act for the forming and conducting the military force of the state,’” vol. 3, doc. 36, Connecticut Archives, War of 1812, [microform] Connecticut State Library.

10. See Thomas Shaw Perkins Letter Book, vol. 2, 1813-1814, New London County Historical Society. Perkins was aide-de-camp to Major General William Williams of the state militia.

11. See for example Thomas Shaw Perkins Letter Book, vol. 1, 1813, NLCHS; vol. 2, doc. 74, Connecticut Archives, War of 1812, [microform] Connecticut State Library.

12. See Thomas Shaw Perkins Letter Book, vol. 1, 1813, NLCHS.

13. Orderly Book, 1803-1813 [Third Brigade]. Connecticut Militia and Military District, Connecticut Historical Society.

14. Frances Manwaring Caulkins, “An 1828 Excursion from Norwich to Stonington,” quoted in New London County Historical Society Newsletter, July/August 2009.

15. Gov. Joseph Cotton Smith, “on the restoration of peace…,” May 1815, vol. 1, doc. 20, Connecticut Archives, War of 1812, [microform] Connecticut State Library.