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Storied 1781 March Traced

Continentals, French Crossed Connecticut

March 12, 2006
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, Courant Staff Writer

The story of French soldiers who marched across Connecticut in June 1781 to help their Continental brothers defeat the British will be told this year in a string of detailed panels.

The dozen panels mark significant camps and crossings along the state's 120-mile section of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, which stretches about 600 miles from Rhode Island to Virginia.

Panel installations in 10 communities (two panels already are up) are among planned events marking the 225th anniversary of the Franco-American march and the victory at Yorktown that ended the Revolutionary War.

The 24-by-36-inch panels, made of fiberglass mounted in steel frames, include paintings and photos of historic buildings, along with maps, place descriptions and anecdotes about French-Yankee encounters. The story board for the Waterbury area, for example, tells a tale from the Josiah Bronson Tavern, where Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, and other French officers bedded down for a night. Seems the proprietor had to lock up his daughter, Esther, to stop her from eloping with a French officer.

The panel to be installed in Scotland tells of a Yankee who fixed a wheel on Rochambeau's carriage, working through the night, despite being ill, to finish the job.

"I do not mean to compare all good Americans to this good man," Rochambeau wrote in his journal, "but almost all inland cultivators and all land owners of Connecticut are animated with that patriot spirit, which many other people would do well to imitate."

The two previously installed panels are in Lebanon and East Hartford. The others are to be delivered from the Pennsylvania maker in four to six weeks and put up in Andover, Bolton, Danbury, Hartford, Newtown, Ridgefield, Scotland, Southington, Waterbury and Wethersfield.

Project coordinator Ann Harrison, who wrote and edited the panels' text while working for the state Commission on Culture and Tourism, said they were designed to appeal to a broad range of people, from casual passersby to history buffs. The panels are unified by color, design and a common introduction that gives a brief account of the march.

The National Park Service is considering a proposal to make the entire Washington-Rochambeau route a National Historic Trail. A Park Service study committee has found the route is nationally significant as "a watershed in the development of an American identity" and "a prime illustration of the American Revolutionary War as a truly diverse effort."

"I think it's significant because it explains so much of our state's history," Harrison said. "When you study that route, you really get a snapshot of life at that time."

The story begins with the French monarchy's decision to aid American rebels against their common enemy, the British. Humiliated in the French and Indian War in 1763, France approved a formal alliance with the colonies in 1778. Rochambeau met with Gen. George Washington in Hartford in 1780 and again in Wethersfield in 1781 to discuss strategy. The initial target was British forces in New York, but the focus shifted later in 1781 to Lord Cornwallis and his troops on the Virginia coast.

French soldiers had landed in Newport in 1780. The main force traveled into Connecticut in June 1781, with a plan to join Washington's army in what is now White Plains, N.Y.

The French were not entirely welcome. Many New Englanders distrusted these practitioners of "popery," who had fought against the Americans only 18 years before in the French and Indian War.

Some Frenchmen also disliked Yankee traits and customs. They couldn't get used to the ubiquitous cornbread and found the Americans' business practices and egalitarianism strange. In a guidebook about the Connecticut march titled "En Avant with our French Allies," the authors include a French observer's explanation of military maneuvers in Europe compared with America.

"Here it is not like it is in Europe, where when the troops are on the march you can take horses, you can take wagons, you can issue billets for lodging, and with the aid of a gendarme, overcome the difficulties the inhabitant might make; but in America the people say they are free and, if a proprietor who doesn't like the look of your face tells you he doesn't want to lodge you, you must go seek a lodging elsewhere."

Despite their differences, the approximately 4,700 French soldiers were well received along most of the route through Connecticut. Bands accompanying the regiments broke the ice.

"Enchanted to find charming young ladies in our midst, our generals and colonels had the musicians play each evening and invited the girls to dance," a Frenchman wrote in his journal. "We lived very well during our passage through this province. The poultry here is excellent and quite cheap. The Americans crowded round, not only to hear the bands, but also loaded with every sort of produce, so that the camp was a continual market, offering the most delicious wares."

The French soldiers were mostly peasants and laborers, with some skilled craftsmen such as carpenters and masons. They wore wigs and tight-fitting woolen underwear and carried about 60 pounds of equipment along with their Charleville muskets. Most were in their 20s, serving in regiments called Bourbonnais, Soisonnais, Saintonge and Royal Deux-Ponts. Few knew much or cared much about the reasons for the American Revolution.

"Glory, honor, the opportunity to make a name for oneself, a chance to escape creditors and parents: these are the themes found in the writings of the participants," the authors of "En Avant" wrote.

The French force reached New York state in early July, then joined with Washington's forces and marched to Yorktown and ultimate victory on Oct. 19, 1781. The French soldiers traveled back through Connecticut in the fall of 1782 and had to weather torrential rain and extreme cold. A few did not make it and were buried along the trail, including seven in Coventry.

Some spots on the route retain much of their 18th-century appearance. Hutchinson Road in Andover, for instance, is still a narrow way lined with mature trees and stone walls. Harrison, the project coordinator, and Mary Donahue, survey and grants director at the state culture and tourism commission and one of the authors of "En Avant," said they hope the panels will prompt state residents and tourists to explore the route and the international story behind it.

The state paid for archaeological and historical research, while money for the panels, which cost $1,200 each, was donated by individuals, particularly Hugh Trumbull Adams of Lebanon; and organizations, including the state chapters of the Society of the Cincinnati and the Society of Sons of the American Revolution, Harrison said.

Along with the panel installations, events marking the 225th anniversary of Rochambeau's march are scheduled this spring and summer in several state communities. Also, a free map of the Revolutionary Route is to be available at state Welcome Centers by the beginning of May.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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