David Wooster’s part in the American Revolution began in a slightly embarrassing manner. Wooster commanded the militia at New Haven, Connecticut. On April 22, 1775, just days after Lexington and Concord, hotheaded young Benedict Arnold was demanding the keys to the storehouse where the local company kept its gunpowder. The leaders of the community had refused to give up the keys. Wooster faced Arnold and told him the news. Arnold, eager to get to Boston and the action, argued until he finally told Wooster that he would either have the keys or the young men of the company would open the magazine through other means. Wooster handed over the keys. The event is still celebrated in New Haven as Powder House Day.
A native of Connecticut, Wooster graduated from Yale University in 1738, marrying the daughter of Yale’s president in 1745. Later that year he sailed off with the British expedition to Louisburg and earned honors for his part in that action. Afterwards, he accompanied French prisoners to France and went on to England. He was presented to the King and given the rank of captain in a regular regiment.
Wooster returned battle in 1755 during the French and Indian War. He commanded a regiment in the conflict, participating in the battles for Fort Ticonderoga (Fort Carillon). A well-respected officer, he went back to civilian life as a successful businessman in 1761.
After the incident with Arnold on April 22, 1775, Wooster was given command of the Connecticut forces and joined the forces in New York City. When Congress took over the army in June of 1775, Wooster was one of the first brigadier generals appointed. He was sent with a Connecticut brigade to join Philip Schuyler’s Northern Department and Richard Montgomery’s invasion of Canada.
The Connecticut troops joined Montgomery before Wooster did and refused to follow the orders of Montgomery or any other Continental officer. Their refusal to move, even to help move supplies forward, infuriated Major General Schuyler: “Do not chuse to move! Strange language in an Army—but an Irresistable Force of Necessity obliges me to put up with it.” When Wooster finally showed up, he worked out the command with Montgomery. Both were brigadier generals but they agreed that since Montgomery was already in command and knew the ground, he would continue in command with Wooster as his second.
Wooster continued to show a provincial spirit when one of his officers interfered with the commissary department. When the army’s doctor wanted to discharge sick Connecticut troops, Wooster retorted that he was “Major Genl. of the Connecticut Forces, & that no man on this side [of] Connecticut had a right to discharge one of his Soldiers but himself.” His inability to get along with subordinates and his department commander caused Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, to lament in a letter to a member of Congress, “I wish … that the good old General was at home or near Boston.”
Montgomery left Wooster in command at Montreal when he led the army in the attempt to capture Quebec. Wooster reluctantly moved his troops to Montreal, but not before complaining about the number of boats available and the weather. His reluctance to move reached Washington, who opined, “General Wooster, I am informed, is not of such Activity as to press thro Difficulties, with which that Service is environed.”
Montgomery was killed in the failed attack on Quebec and Wooster took command. He was to suffer through the same difficulties that Montgomery, Schuyler, Arnold, and many other commanders would find on the Canadian frontier. The sheer distances, lack of infrastructure, lack of logistical support, and Congressional ineptitude made the command in Canada and the entire Northern Department much more difficult than that of Washington’s main army in the more “civilized” states.
Wooster did what he could to keep the army together before Gen. John Thomas arrived to take over command in Canada. Relegated to a subordinate position, Wooster alienated the local citizens through his policies toward those who were Tories or refused to support the American army. In addition, those soldiers not part of the Connecticut brigade were offended by his provincial attitude. Word of the dissatisfaction with Wooster reached the main army. Horatio Gates thought Wooster might be too old, writing to Charles Lee, “Worcester [Wooster], it is upon all hands agreed, is too infirm for that service.” At the same time, a court martial was called charging him with incompetence. He was found not guilty but a cloud hung over him.
After a Congressional Committee reached the area, they filed a report to Congress that included a recommendation about Wooster: “General Wooster is in our opinion unfit, totally unfit, to Command your Army & conduct the war … his stay in this Colony is unnecessary & even prejudicial to our Affairs.” It was decided to recall Wooster. His reputation seemed ruined.
Returning to Connecticut, Wooster was promoted to major general of militia and given command of all the state’s militia. He did what he could to ensure the militia was trained and equipped; he also helped recruit men for the Continental service and forwarded them to Washington. He worked to detain Loyalists and pacify his state. He seemed to have a good working relationship with Washington, closing a letter to the commander in chief, “Your Excellency may be assured I shall exert myself and recommend it to all my Officers by all the ways & means in Our power.”
Colonists in Connecticut frequently crossed Long Island Sound, raiding Tory holdings and capturing supplies for the American effort. Large numbers of Tories and British regulars were required to defend the island against these incursions. Brig. Gen. William Tryon, previously the royal governor of New York, decided to attack the areas where the raiders launched their attacks and also destroy the provisions being kept at Danbury, Connecticut. Under orders from Tryon, Capt. Henry Duncan of the Royal Navy led twelve transports, a hospital ship, and some small craft on April 22 1777, with about 1,800 troops, including 300 Loyalists.
The British landed on the Connecticut shore about four miles east of Norwalk and eight miles west of Fairfield on April 25, marching quickly to Reading, twenty miles inland. Marching further to Danbury, they dispersed a force of Continental soldiers who were trying to save some of the supplies from capture.
Before leaving the next morning, the British destroyed 5,000 barrels of pork, beef, and flour, 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents among other supplies. Several houses were burned. After their fury of destruction, the British headed back to their ships.
Militia Gen. Gold Selleck Silliman hurried a force of about 400 militia and 100 Continental soldiers toward Danbury. Along the way Benedict Arnold and Wooster joined him with a few more men. It was decided that Wooster would pursue and delay the British with a small force while the majority of troops would accompany Arnold and Silliman to attempt to cut off the British from their ships by going across country and getting behind them.
Near Ridgefield, Wooster and his men charged the redcoats’ rear guard. Surprised by the attack, the British lost a number of men as prisoners to the Americans and a few more were wounded. After Wooster retreated into nearby woods, the British resumed their march.
Wooster’s small force of about two hundred militiamen pursued the British and after about an hour again attacked the redcoats. The British rear guard formed quickly and met the Americans with a blast of fire. Wooster led his men in a charge, exhorting them, “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!” The militia couldn’t stand the heavy fire and dissolved into the countryside. Wooster was badly wounded. But they had bought enough time for Arnold to take up a position.
The first position that Arnold’s men took up lay right across the path of British retreat. After attempting to outflank the position, the British finally overwhelmed it by sheer numbers. As the Americans fled, Arnold had his horse shot out from under him. While trapped beneath the horse, he killed a soldier who ran up to take him prisoner. He finally limped off to join his men.
At daybreak on April 28 the British column set off again, molested by irregular fire from rebels that dogged their path. Finally, the British turned on their pursuers, and with bayonets fixed, four regiments charged. Despite their exhaustion after the day’s march, they easily drove off the Americans. Arnold had another horse killed under him.
After the counterattack, the British were able to embark on their ships and return to New York. The supplies lost to the Americans, especially the tents, were galling. Various reports put personnel losses anywhere between 60 and 100 men killed or wounded. British losses were 26 killed, 117 wounded, and 28 missing. Washington ordered supplies moved at least a one-day march from the coast; the tents he had lost were virtually irreplaceable.
David Wooster was taken to the Dibble House in Danbury. He died there of his wounds on May 2, 1777. His last words were supposedly: “I am dying, but with a strong hope and persuasion that my country will gain her independence.” Maligned often during the Revolution, the old man’s actions on his last battlefield had proved his courage and military ability. The people of the Danbury area named schools, streets, and a plaza after him. A giant monument to him stands in Danbury today, reminding all who pass of a hero who was thought “unfit” and “unnecessary” to the Revolution.
Philip Schuyler to Silas Deane, June 3, 1775, “Correspondence of Silas Deane, Delegate to the Congress at Philadelphia, 1774-1776,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Volume 2 (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1870), 252.
George Washington to Schuyler, October 6, 1775, Philander D. Chase, ed. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, September-December 1775(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987), 120.
William Hanford Burr, “Invasion of Connecticut by British in the War for American Independence,”The Connecticut Magazine, Vol. 10 (Hartford: The Connecticut Magazine Company, 1906), 147.
Paul Locher, “Gen. David Wooster: A Largely Forgotten Hero Of The Revolution,”Wooster (Ohio) Daily Record, web.archive.org/web/20060922100129/http://web.cortland.edu/woosterk/locher.html.