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Norwich in a Nutshell: The mystery of the French soldiers

On July 4, 1901, thousands gathered in the Norwichtown Burial Ground for the dedication of a monument to 20 French soldiers who had given their lives for American liberty.

In their honor, the Faith Trumbull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had placed a boulder with a bronze plaque “In memory of twenty French soldiers who, serving under Lafayette, died while in camp in Norwich Town 1778.”

In the 119 years since, ceremonies honoring these men have been held yearly. An official French memorial was placed near the D.A.R. monument in the years after World War I.

Even at the time, Norwich grumbletonians (a large and numerous lot, even to this day) complained that these men had never been in town, nor had died and been buried here. In reply, the words of Frances Manwaring Caulkins, 19th-century historian of both Norwich and New London, were thrown back:

“In 1778, a body of French troops, on the route from Providence to the south, halted there for ten or fifteen days, on account of sickness among them. They had their tents spread upon the plain, while the sick were quartered in the court house. About twenty died and were buried each side of the lane that led into the old burying-yard. No stones were set up, and the ground was soon smoothed over so as to leave no trace of the narrow tenements below.”

Over time, this brief mention was polished and embellished. The French soldiers were lauded as patriots who gave their lives for freedom and liberty. In reality, the royal government of France saw the American Revolution as an opportunity to avenge the stinging defeat of the Seven Years’ War and take advantage of overextended British power.

French recognition of the Americans in February 1778 was followed by Britain’s declaration of war against France in March 1778. Although the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing arrived in time to support an American attempt to drive the British from Newport, R.I., in August 1778, little was accomplished, and French troops did not participate in any meaningful way.

There is absolutely no evidence for a body of French troops moving from Providence through Norwich in this period.

However, as part of the Newport campaign, a body of Continental troops, General John Glover’s Irish brigade, under the command of the young Marquis de Lafayette, did pass through Norwich on the way to Rhode Island in the summer of 1778. Local historian Mary E. Perkins speculates that the death of the French may have occurred during the three days the troops camped in Norwich.

However, Perkins notes that the local paper, the Norwich Packet, makes no mention of any deaths at this time. Also, the Irish brigade was composed of Continental army troops, not French. Only Lafayette was French.

French troops did not appear in Connecticut until the winter of 1780-1781, when a regiment of hussars led by the Duc de Lauzun quartered in the nearby town of Lebanon. In 1781, Rochambeau led troops through the state of Connecticut to Yorktown, Virginia. His route did not include Norwich. There is no evidence for any French military units in Connecticut in 1778, or, indeed, until late in 1780. Yet a persistent local oral tradition existed that French soldiers were, indeed buried in Norwichtown, with old-timers pointing out the location of the unmarked graves.

In 1824, Lafayette himself revisited America, being greeted by massive crowds and feted everywhere. He came through Norwich on August 21. Some of the elderly who remembered Lafayette embraced him, and wept, as did the aging general.

In accounts of this emotional visit, there is no mention of Lafayette referring to French comrades-in-arms who had died here, no salutes, honors, or accolades of any kind.

The French soldiers laid to rest in foreign soil in Norwich is a myth.

However, there were a sizeable number of French in Norwich in the fall of 1778. This was the result of a prisoner exchange between the French fleet in Boston and the British in New York.

The Norwich Packet of Oct. 12, 1778 reported: “Last Saturday arrived in this town from Boston, under a proper guard, and this day set out for New York, about 230 British prisoners, taken by the Count de Estaing’s fleet; they are to be exchanged for the like number of Frenchmen, captured by the English.”

The next clue is in a letter from Jedediah Huntington to his father, Jabez Huntington, dated at Norwich, Oct. 25, 1778: “between 5 and 600 frenchmen [sic] came in from N York in the Flag they arrived here last Night. Part are gone on this day to Boston.”

The final clue as to the identity of the French buried in Norwichtown is found in a sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Lord given on Nov. 21, 1778, listing the deaths in his parish during the year, adding, “And also died here in a few weeks, of the French prisoners from New-York, 20.”

Where did these mysterious French prisoners come from? Since declaring war on France in March, the British navy had swept the sea of French merchant vessels trading with the former American colonies, also capturing French privateers.

Many of these ships, about 50 in all, were brought into New York, where an Admiralty court condemned the vessels and ordered the ships and their cargoes sold off. The crews were deposited in the notorious British prison ships in Wallabout Bay.

Under the appalling conditions on board, many of the prisoners became ill. When they arrived in Norwich, 20 were too sick to continue to Boston and died here. Today, these 20 anonymous men would be termed “collateral damage.”

In October 2017, state archaeologist Brian Jones and state soil scientist Deborah Surabian, with the help of volunteers, conducted a ground penetrating radar survey of the area of the Norwichtown burial ground where local tradition claimed the graves were. Sure enough, along the pathway were three roughly parallel rows indicative of a mass burial.

It is possible that someday we will discover the identities of these unknown French prisoners. In the meantime, it is reassuring that local tradition about the burials has a firm foundation in fact, even if the victims were misidentified. The D.A.R. in memorializing the French “soldiers” was acting in good faith on information passed down for a century and a quarter. And the memory of French sacrifice for our Revolution, even if somewhat misplaced, served our country well. During World War I, the D.A.R. was active in supporting the sale of war bonds, in promoting Americanization, adopting French orphans, and helping to rebuild French villages destroyed by four years of the most destructive war in human history.

Yet I like to think that wherever sailors go after death, there is a band of 20 Frenchmen having a hearty laugh at the mix-up.

Dale Plummer is the Norwich city historian.

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