Wilton’s Militia: Fighting America’s Battles the Old-Fashioned Way

Each April the states of Maine and Massachusetts celebrate Patriot’s Day to commemorate the battles and skirmishes that began our fight for independence on April 19, 1775. That “shot heard around the world” mobilized local militia throughout the colonies and today brings to mind the forgotten, often nameless farmers and shopkeepers who banded together in order to protect their local communities.

As early as 1636, colonial laws in Connecticut required every town and parish to conduct military training for their “Train Bands” in defense of Indian raids. The Militia in Wilton, Connecticut set its first training day for October 9, 1727, and held similar events six times per year. The volunteers practiced marksmanship and military drills for a full day, usually a Saturday and followed them by festivities for the whole family that included ample food and drink. Today’s musters follow a similar pattern.

Wilton’s Militia is Reactivated

The Wilton Militia Committee was chaired by Owen Williams, who was the driving force behind the revival of the militia. Its study group did six months of research on the history of Wilton’s early militia and found that the group was very active in defending the area. It discovered that members of the Wilton Militia had participated in the Battle of Ridgefield, a previously unknown fact.

Local militias were the first lines of defense in colonial America and men from the Wilton Militia served in many wars: King George’s War (1744-1748), the French and Indian War (1756-1763), and our Revolutionary War. Wilton’s men are hardly forgotten. Records indicate that out of a total population of 900 people, 85 served in the French and Indian War and more than 330 men participated in the Revolutionary War. The latter served in the local militia, the 7th Company of the 9th Connecticut Military Regional commanded by Samuel Comstock, or the Connecticut 5th Regiment of the Continental Army. Eighteen of these men died in service. During the War of 1812, 46 Wiltonians served in the 34th Connecticut Militia for brief periods of shoreline defense.

In contrast to a standing army, militias consisted of citizens enrolled and trained for service in times of national emergency. The Marquis de Lafayette left vivid descriptions of the shocking appearance of Washington’s soldiers, who were mostly country militiamen. The rag-tag group made an impression that the odds against ousting the British were long. But the militia’s patriotic spirit and willingness to endure unreasonable personal discomfort made up for their early lack of military performance.

An Educational Vehicle

In 2003, the Wilton Militia was reactivated after almost 200 years of inactivity. A member of the 5th Connecticut Regiment Continental Line, the group celebrates the history of the town with all the appropriate trappings, color, uniforms, and armaments of yesteryear.
“The initiative behind the move was to provide an additional activity in the Wilton Historical Society that would provide an interest for the men and boys in our group,” said Lee Wilson, Commander of the Wilton Militia and President of the Society. “The move broadened the base and appeal of the Wilton Historical Society to a much larger audience.”

Wilson envisions his militia as a vehicle to educate children and young adults (of all ages) about the Revolutionary Period.

“They like this stuff,” he mused.

The band of men and boys include members who are very experienced in illustrating Von Steuben’s Manual of Arms, which still survives and serves as a field guide for those participating in local parades and musters.

Historical accuracy is of paramount importance to Wilton’s Militia, whose goals are:

• Extend local knowledge of the early Wilton Militia, including its organization, functions, and the important role it played in the history of Wilton and the lives of the Wilton citizens.

• Provide an opportunity for interested persons to learn more about a community militia in colonial and early American times by participating in drills, battle reenactments, and firing exercises.

• Raise the public’s awareness and appreciation for the early Militia’s historical significance through public events, including musket and cannon firings.

• Increase the community’s knowledge and interest in the resources and contributions of The Wilton Historical Society.

The Grasshopper

A special member of the Wilton Militia is a replica of a Verbruggen Cannon, purchased by the society in 2003. Originally manufactured by Jan Verbruggen for the British army, the Americans captured a number of these cannons at Saratoga and put them to good use against the British. Sometimes nicknamed ‘Grasshoppers,’ they are light enough to be moved quickly up and down a battlefield. The bronze alloy cannon barrel weighs a little more than 200 pounds. When they bought the Grasshopper, members of the Wilton Militia were invited by the Artillery Company of Newport (chartered in 1741) to spend three days at Fort Adams in order to learn about the operation of their new cannon.

“Most militias didn’t have cannons, but it’s a rallying point for us,” said Wilson. “Believe me, you fire one of those things for a crowd and they love it.”

It’s a thrill to watch a firing demonstration on the circular drive outside the Historical Society. Tension mounts as the barrel is primed, charges are placed, and everything is made ready. The boom is deafening and the smoke clouds the immediate area. It’s a salute to Wilton militiamen past and present.

“You know, Hunter Brown, Dr. Gregg Chann, and myself have been certified by the State of Massachusetts for cannon and mortar competency,” Wilson said. “This was purely an elective initiative for us, but for safety issues we figured we needed to be as well-informed as possible when performing at public events.”

Appropriate Trappings, Uniforms, and Armaments

About 22 men and boys are on the email list of the Wilton Militia with about 16 that are really active in re-enactments. Many don’t wear uniforms because militiamen were basically farmers. Prior to the Revolution, there were no uniforms and street clothes of the period were worn. However, pieces of equipment like cartridge boxes, muskets, bayonets, scabbards, and the cannon are very important.

“We have a couple of experienced re-enactors in the Society who have helped us immensely,” said Wilson. “They are a valuable resource, and continue to be a big help.”
The men perform cannon drills constantly and do blank fire exercise where live charges are fired without projectiles. Many of these drills take place up at Ambler farm in Wilton. The terrain up there is more reminiscent of what the landscape looked like at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Patriotic spirit survives through the men and boys of the Wilton Militia. The group helps bring history alive, and gives us all a greater understanding of the sacrifices made to help establish this country.

“This has been a very rewarding experience for me,” admitted Wilson. “It’s been both engaging and a learning experience.”

Wilton Militia, Wilton Historical Society, Inc., 224 Danbury Road, Wilton, CT 06897, (203) 762-3927, www.wiltonmilitia.org

Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal