French Encampment at Middlebury / Breakneck, 27 – 30 June 1781

Historical Significance:

From Barnes’ Tavern the route went across “le mad river,” so called, according to the comte de Lauberdière, because of the rocks and stones in it, to Waterbury, a “village of 50-some houses.” The Mad River runs into the Naugatuck River in Waterbury; Lauberdière’s comment indicates that the troops took today’s Washington Avenue through Waterbury. Five miles beyond the “Waterbury River” lay Breakneck, an assemblage of “two or three houses” in 1781, which is now part of the town of Middlebury, incorporated in 1807.

All accounts by French officers agree that “the roads were “détestables,” and the first division reached Breakneck on June 27 only with “the greatest difficulty. … the village is frightful and without resources,” wrote Baron Cromot du Bourg. If we believe the French officers, Breakneck justly deserved its name. “On … the 28th, we were very weary before we got to Breakneck. It is rightly named, casse-col, for the stony roads and the endless mountains intersecting this area make it very disagreeable for travelers,” wrote Baron Closen. Clermont-Crèvecœur’s detachment of artillery in the first division did not reach the camp at “Break Neck or, in French, ‘casse-cou,’ a most appropriate name indeed … until after three in the morning” on the 28th, just as the infantry was getting ready for the next day’s march! “Our horses could do no more, so we had to commandeer all the oxen we passed and go far afield to find others in order to reach camp with our guns. Many of our wagons broke down. We never had a worse day, considering the fatigues and misfortunes we endured. The village contains few houses. These are widely scattered and very ugly.”

Artillery conductors/wagoners in the French army had their own uniforms. Reproduced courtesy Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University, Providence, RI.

In the United States, Rochambeau employed civilian American wagoners, presumably for linguistic reasons: the horses would not understand French-language commands. On 9 August 1780, General William Heath informed General George Washington from Howland’s Ferry in Newport County, RI, that he had supplied Rochambeau with American drivers for the artillery and ammunition wagons. Since the horses did not understand French commands “it would be impossible for the Frenchmen to drive the American horses without creating the greatest confusion and disorder especially in action.”

Linguistic problems potentially caused problems in Franco-American relations as well. Few Americans spoke French, and few French soldiers spoke English. Rochambeau’s Livre d’ordre, his “Orderly Book”, reflects this aspect of Franco-American relations.

Livre d’ordre, 15 February 1781. Reproduced courtesy Archives Générales du Département de Meurthe-et-Moselle, Nancy, France.

Whenever a sentinel shouts qui vivent at someone other than Frenchmen it is expressly recommended toeach sentinel to first shout qui vive and afterwards if he does not get a response Who is there which is pronounced Ou is dair, which is the way to shout qui vive.

Once again there were four nights of dancing around Josiah Bronson’s Tavern on Breakneck Hill Road. Private Flohr of the Royal Deux-Ponts remembered Breakneck as “a little town in the mountains in a most beautiful area where the entertainments were even greater what with dancing and frolicking with the lovely beautiful American girls who lived there.” Rochambeau’s aide-de-camp Baron Closen remembered “Two very pretty young ladies whom we found in M. de Vioménil’s quarters (and who) seemed to have fallen from the clouds to receive us and console us a little for the fatigues of the day. Our artillery and wagons arrived only at nine o’clock in the evening, piece by piece.” One of the two “beautiful maidens,” which the comte de Lauberdière, another aide-de-camp to Rochambeau, thought “looked very much like the queen of France,” may well have been Esther, the daughter of Josiah Bronson, who reportedly locked her away in her room for fear she might elope with a French officer.

Driving Information:

From the campsite on Marion Avenue in Southington continue going south until you reach Waterbury Road where you turn right/west. Follow Waterbury Road, which becomes East Main Street, cross the Mad River, follow East Main Street through Waterbury, where it becomes West Main Street, onto Chase Parkway. The Waterbury Road would have been to your left but was obliterated by I-84. Once you are past Straits Turnpike turn right onto Memorial Drive and left onto Kelley Road, which becomes Colonial Avenue and then Breakneck Hill Road, which you follow to the campsite. Alternately you can keep on going straight on Middlebury Road past Straits Turnpike until you see the campsite marker on Middlebury Road on your left. Merge right onto Charcoal Avenue and then right again onto Artillery Road to Breakneck Hill Road. The campsite will be to your left.

Home of Josiah Bronson at 506 Breakneck Hill Road in Middlebury.

Campsite Marker for Camps 9 and 42 at 959 Middlebury Road, Middlebury, CT.

The sign has identical text on both sides: || ROCHAMBEAU ROUTE 1781-1782 || IN THIS VICINITY || FRENCH TROOPS UNDER || ROCHAMBEAU || ENROUTE TO YORKTOWN || ENCAMPED DURING JUNE 1781 || ERECTED BY THE STATE || AND || Mattatuck S.A.R. || cooperating ||

The marker is one of 27 erected along Rochambeau’s route throughout the state in 1957 by the State Highway Commissioner in cooperation with an “Interstate Rochambeau Commission” and “local historical societies or fraternal community groups.”

35. Camp à Break-Neck, le 27 Juin, 13 miles de Barn’s Tavern; undated; Louis-Alexandre Berthier Collection, Portfolio IX, Packet 21-9; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
Reproduced with permission of Princeton University Library

Detail of USGS Waterbury (1893)

The Breakneck Hill Camp Monument is located on a steep hillside off Artillery Road, about 200 feet from the intersection with Breakneck Hill Road. The monument, erected in 1904, is difficult to find since there is no path or road leading to it, and a Department of Transportation marker on Artillery Road pointing out the campsite had disappeared by 1996.

French Encampment at Middlebury / Breakneck, 26 – 27 October 1782

Cadet gentilhomme/student of the Ecole Militaire. Reproduced courtesy Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University, Providence, RI.

Historical Significance:

On 26 October 1782 the troops reached the camp “in frightful weather; it rained in torrents … Never have the troops suffered so much during three campaigns as they did that day”, wrote Baron Closen. Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, a Swiss officer, who had entered the Royal Deux-Ponts as a 17-year-old cadet-gentilhomme in February 1780, agreed: “We left very early in the morning and had scarcely begun our march when it began to rain in torrents. This was the worst thing that could have happened to us, for during our whole journey we had never found so bad a road. … The continual rain, added to the cold, caused us inexpressible suffering.”

French forces camped on the same site in 1782 they had camped on in 1781; there is no separate map for this campsite.

Suggestions for further readings:

Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780-1783 (Westport, 1977)

Rice, Howard C. Jr., and Anne S.K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s

         Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783 2 vols., (Princeton and Providence, 1972)

Scott, Samuel F. From Yorktown to Valmy: The Transformation of the French Army in an

         Age of Revolution (Niwot, CO, 1998)

Selig, Robert A. Rochambeau in Connecticut: Tracing his Journey. Historic and

          Architectural Survey Connecticut Historical Commission (Hartford: Connecticut

Historical Commission, 1999) available at

Selig, Robert A., Mary M. Donohue, Bruce Clouette and Mary Harper, ‘En Avant’ With Our French Allies:  

         Sites, Markers, and Monuments in Connecticut Commemorating the Contributions of French Troops

         under the comte de Rochambeau to the Achievement of American Independence, 1780 to 1782

          (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Commission, 2004)

For an extensive bibliography of English-, French- and German-language titles about France and the American War of Independence click here: Bibliography