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French soldiers remembered in Norwich

Four years ago, Norwich Area Veterans Council President Brian Hague didn’t know there were two monuments in the Colonial Norwichtown Burying Ground that memorialized 20 French sailors who died of disease while in Norwich in 1778.

The veterans group recently held what is now its annual tribute to those fallen military men.

Local veterans, municipal officials, and history buffs gathered at the monuments as American and French flags, along with a wreath, were laid at the memorial site. The French national anthem was also played.

Hague says City Historian Dale Plummer first told him about the monuments and the story behind them. The French sailors had been brought by the British out of New York, enroute to Newport, Rhode Island, as part of a prisoner exchange during the Revolutionary War. While in Norwich, 20 of them died from disease, and were given burials by the local church. While the monuments to the fallen soldiers are located near Old Cemetery Lane at the entrance to the burying ground, Hague says it’s not exactly known where the soldiers are buried, and it’s most likely at least some of them are buried underneath the paved roadway.

Past-President of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Damien Cregeau says the British were literally practicing biological warfare by releasing the French prisoners of war. “They intentionally sent sick soldiers out into the American countryside,” he said. Hague said prison ships in New York harbor were notorious in colonial times for just locking prisoners up, and “‘calling it a day.”

Hague says it’s only appropriate that Norwich do something to honor the French soldiers, since France keeps the American graves in Normandy “absolutely pristine.” He said while the French flags placed on the Norwich monument this year represent the current design of that country’s emblem, plans are to place flags next year that represent what France’s flag looked like at the time of the prisoner exchange.

The Veterans Council observance occurred on July 14, which is Bastille Day in France — the day in 1789 when an angry mob stormed the Bastille prison, marking the start of the French Revolution. Veterans’ Liaison for Hartford Heathcare at Home Sherri Vogt told those assembled at the Norwich ceremony that the storming of the Bastille is similar to skirmishes fought in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, that ignited the American Revolution.

“The French soldiers who died in Norwich need to be remembered, must be remembered. Our freedom demands we don’t forget the price that was paid. We take care of our veterans from all wars,” she said.

Vogt served in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany.

Cregeau says he’s amazed at the uniqueness of the historic Norwichtown cemetery.

“I remember the first time I had breakfast at the nearby McDonald’s,” he said. “Where else can you sit in a fast food restaurant, look out, and see U.S. and French flags at a memorial? I don’t know of any other mass grave in the U.S. that honors French soldiers.”

Cregeau says the colonial burying ground is also the only cemetery that has three Revolutionary War officers from the same family that were either generals in the conflict, or who would soon be generals. Major General Jabez Huntington, and his first-born son, General Jedidiah Huntington, are buried with another son, Ebenezer Huntington, who was a colonel during the war, and later became a brigadier general.

Cregeau lives in the East Town Street residence where Jedidiah Huntington lived.

“It’s quite an honor to wake up each morning in a general’s house where the Marquis de Lafayette (a French military officer in the American Revolutionary war) visited,” he said. Cregeau also noted another Huntington buried in the cemetery, Samuel Huntington, presided over Congress when the Articles of Confederation was adopted, making some historians believe he was the true first leader of what would be the United States.

The Norwich monument to the fallen French soldiers was erected in 1901 by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. A separate monument was built by the French government two years later just up a small hill from the D.A.R. tribute. The Veterans Council ceremony took place at the D.A.R. monument.

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