French Nationals Buried in Norwichtown
There is a persistent story that twenty French soldiers were buried in Norwichtown in 1778, during the American Revolution. Careful investigation indicates that, indeed, twenty Frenchmen were interred in Norwich at this time, but that they have been incorrectly identified as soldiers. The basis for this story is Frances Manwaring Caulkins, who wrote in her History of Norwich, Connecticut from its settlement in 1660, to January 1845 (Norwich: Thomas Robinson, 1845, page 237):
“Detachments from the Continental Army frequently passed through Norwich. 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.”
This account was repeated in Caulkins’ second, greatly expanded, edition, published in 1866. Later historians have accepted Caulkins, and elaborated on the story. 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, Rhode Island, in August, 1778, little was accomplished, and French troops did not participate in any meaningful way. There is 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. Mary E. Perkins, in Old Houses of the Antient Town of Norwich 1660-1800 (Norwich: Press of the Bulletin Co., 1895, page 324), 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.
In 1901, the Faith Trumbull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a boulder with a bronze plaque as a memorial to the twenty French soldiers. At about the same time, the D. A. R. made substantial improvements to the burial ground. In the 1920s, the French donated another monument close to the location of the D.A.R. one.
In an address delivered in 1903, George S. Porter, a local antiquarian, mentioned the graves (Porter, George S., Inscriptions from Gravestones in the Old Burying Ground, Norwich Town, Connecticut, Norwich: The Society of the Founders of Norwich, Connecticut, The Bulletin Press, 1933, page 5):
“Two years ago to-day, Faith Trumbull Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, unveiled the boulder and bronze tablet, which indicate the graves of the French soldiers- our Revolutionary allies- who died in Norwich and were buried within these grounds in 1778. It has been asserted of late that these men were never in the town and consequently could not have sickened, died and been buried here; yet it is averred by an elderly gentleman that in his boyhood days the spot was indicated to him by several old men who had witnessed the interments and were familiar with the circumstances as subsequently recorded by the historian of Norwich.”
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.
Examination of contemporary records, however, does show the presence of 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 October 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, October 25th, 1778 (Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Volume XX, Huntington Papers, Part I, Correspondence of Col. Joshua Huntington (and other members of the Huntington Family), 1771-1773, Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1923, page 418): “between 5 and 600 frenchmen 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 Rev. Benjamin Lord given on November 21, 1778, in which he enumerated the vital statistics for the year in his parish:
“Baptisms this year, 40. Deaths, 36. Of those, infants, 5. Children from 2 years, with the youth to 25, are 10. From the age of 25 to 50, are 13. From 50 to 94, are 7. And also died here in a few weeks, of the French prisoners from New-York, 20. In all, 56.” The Aged Minister’s solemn appeal to God, and serious address to his people. Being the substance of the tenth and eleventh annual discourse, after the half-century, at Norwich, Nov. 21, 1778, with a dedicatory preface. Benjamin Lord, A.M., Senior Pastor of the first church there. Norwich: Printed by John Trumbull, 1783, page 31.
Thus, the Frenchmen buried in Norwichtown were prisoners of the British in New York, being exchanged for British prisoners held by the French fleet under D’ Estaing. Rather than French soldiers from any particular regiment or other unit, it would appear that they were sailors taken by the British fleet, primarily civilian, as the British navy had been seizing French trading vessels since the onset of war between the two nations in March. I have been unable to find any lists of the exchanged prisoners. It is possible that such exist. Given the paucity of information on the identities of these individuals, it seems most likely that they were primarily civilians in the merchant trade, caught up in the war.
Norwich City Historian