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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    Tossing Lines: Colonel William Ledyard legislated liberty in 1776

    Fort Griswold State Park in Groton, with Col. Ledyard’s marker appearing inside the gated area on the left. Photo by John Steward

    In early May of 1776, William Ledyard journeyed from Groton to Hartford to serve his second term in the Connecticut General Assembly. This term would be very different, with the American colonies on the verge of declaring freedom from Great Britain, taking on the greatest army and navy in the world.

    Ledyard was raised in a privileged family, immersed in politics and community service. His father John was a longtime assemblyman himself, holding several public titles, and a proponent of revolution.

    But it was the family’s livelihood as West Indies merchants that fueled William’s own revolutionary ideals. The stringent trade laws of Parliament had secured his loyalties to the mercantile class instigating revolution in America.

    Ledyard was 37 years old, married for almost 15 years to Anne Williams Ledyard.

    Anne was now 32 years old. It was a loving marriage, blessed with six children so far, ages 9 months to 13 years. As a devoted father, Ledyard surely worried about them as he headed into the maelstrom of 1776 politics.

    The opening gavel fell on May 9. After taking care of the normal miscellaneous business of the people, the Assembly dug right into war preparations. Treason was in the air as the Assembly established new naval offices at Middletown, Norwalk, New Haven, and New London.

    Horse regiments were authorized, and the governor was empowered to complete the works protecting the port and harbor of New London. A Saybrook battery was approved, and it was resolved the Governor would fill the commissions for Private Ships of War and Letters of Marque issued by the Continental Congress.

    Monetary incentives were approved to increase the manufacture of saltpeter and gunpowder in Connecticut, and new powder mills were approved in New Haven, Salisbury and elsewhere.

    Payment authorization was issued for 3,000 stands of arms. Military officers were approved, promotions issued, and oaths established for soldiers. New regiments were raised and compensation approved for those already injured in battle.

    Bodies of Minute Men were created, who the Assembly deemed “shall completely equip themselves with a good musket and bayonet, half a pound of powder, two pounds of bullets fit for his gun, six flints, a powder horn and a cartouche box, and also a good blanket and knapsack, to the acceptance of the captain.”

    Connecticut was going to war.

    The Assembly forged even deeper into treasonous territory, declaring that Connecticut judges and juries would be guided only by Connecticut law, and not the laws of the Crown.

    They changed the oath for voting Freemen, demanding that they vote their conscience, “without respect of persons or favor of any man,” including the King. They would now vote as freethinking men.

    They struck the King’s name from all official documents, unequivocally announcing their freedom before the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July 1776. And, William Ledyard was in the thick of it.

    They issued a statement about the coming danger to Connecticut’s peace, resolving that all citizens should defend the state against Britain’s intent “to burn and destroy our seaport towns, and to spread rapine, murder and destruction through the whole.”

    All able persons should arm themselves, and remain in readiness, “Wherefore in this day of darkness and threatening calamity…” Connecticut should “not fear or be dismayed at all the attempts…with which we are threatened.” The published statement was distributed to “…all the religious societies in this Colony.”

    The Assembly adjourned on June 8, 1776.

    One wonders whether, on the slow journey back to Groton, William Ledyard contemplated the risk bestowed upon his wife Anne and his young family. He had voted to endanger their future in the name of liberty, not only through war, but now he and his fellow legislators were guilty of treason, punishable by death.

    His patriotic convictions ran deep.

    Five years later, he was killed by the British in the Battle of Groton Heights, defending the very liberty he had legislated, sending his family on a downward spiral.

    After the massacre of the Fort Griswold garrison, the British burned Groton Bank, including Ledyard’s shipping business. Anne never remarried, living in grief for nine years after the battle.

    She died in 1790 at age 46. Her 8-year-old son, Charles, also died in her arms that day.

    The Ledyards by then had had nine children, only one of which lived past age 21 due to colonial epidemics.

    Colonel William Ledyard’s family paid a heavy price for our freedom, and deserve the remembrance we still offer today.

    John Steward lives in Waterford. He continues presenting public programs on the life of Colonel Ledyard.

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