Thousands of footsteps echoed in unison as troops marched past. The turncoat from Connecticut, Benedict Arnold, was leading the British occupation of Williamsburg. In April 1781, I was only ten years old, but knew the shrill call of fifes and the beat of drums as our own militia men drilled. I scrambled down from my tree-top vantage point to take action; hurling an apple at a Redcoat, it made a satisfactory thud.
I quickly disappeared into the crowd.
My immersion into the past at Colonial Williamsburg left a lasting impression. Historical reenactments and preservation sites became my portals to the past, providing first-hand experience of the sights and sounds of the battle for independence. I saw great leaders and unnamed patriots play equally important roles.
My ancestor, John Cadwell, baptized in 1762 in Hartford County, really did grow up amidst revolutionary struggles. Although no battles were fought in Farmington, “years of war left the town exhausted.” 1 Families kept a Continental Fast to save provisions for soldiers and stopped Tories from redirecting supplies to the British.2 They hung traitors’ portraits upside down in rejection. My great-great-great-great grandfather was the same age I am now, in September 1780, when Benedict Arnold’s treasonous scheme at West Point was uncovered.
On March 5, 1782, Parliament agreed to negotiate peace. Connecticut townspeople reacted to the news with “a mixed sensation of pleasure and pain.”3 Nineteen days later, Cadwell enlisted at Farmington and was posted in the area of West Point with the Second Regiment of the Connecticut Line, serving under Colonel Heman Swift.4 Not much military activity occurred during his service. No extraordinary stories of bravery were uncovered, but his assignment fulfilled an important role. Defense of the strategic Hudson Highlands remained a priority. His regiment made encampments in Connecticut Village and Nelson’s Point and may have helped close-down the northern division’s largest and most important provisions hub, the Fishkill Supply Depot. On July 28, 1782, Swift’s regiment began guard duty of King’s Ferry, the Hudson crossing at Verplanck’s Point. With the British still holding New York downriver, King’s Ferry was a critical stronghold and potential target. Cadwell likely witnessed the arrival of 12,000 of Washington’s and Rochambeau’s troops preparing to converge on New York for a final show of strength.5 Two months into his service, May 1782, the Second Regiment revolted from the “daily routine of a seldom paid and poorly supplied army” 6, but were soon suppressed. Unpaid salaries and scant food prompted the Connecticut Mutiny; on March 15, 1783, near the end of John Cadwell’s service, a widespread revolt among Continental troops erupted. His civilian life in the fledgling republic must also have been difficult, describing himself as “indigent” in his 1818 pension application.
“Occasionally in the study of history we find an 'unknown' man, a man who has received no recognition from his countrymen, yet is justly deserving of it.” 7 These words described Colonel Swift, but I believe they ring true for Private John Cadwell and countless other soldiers whose contributions must be searched out to be remembered. Interactive opportunities and research gave me awareness and appreciation of my ancestor’s struggles. In piecing together the path of one long-forgotten patriot, a link connecting our past with the future was preserved.
Rich Malley, Diana McCain, Nancy Finlay at the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, CT
Jack Hale, Martin Byster at the Van Wyck Homestead Museum, Fishkill, NY