French Encampment in East Hartford, 22 – 27 June 1781
French forces under General Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, camped here from June 20 through June 24, 1781, their sixth camp on their way to White Plains.
Following the camp in Bolton, the next stop of French forces on their way to White Plains was in East Hartford, where the troops enjoyed a few days of rest. The Bourbonnais occupied the campsite near the Connecticut River from June 22 through June 24; the Saintonge used the site from June 25 through 27. The Royal Deux-Ponts camped beside them from June 23 through June 25, while the Soissonnois camped along the road from Bolton from June 24 to June 26 on today’s Silver Lane.
Joseph O. Goodwin reports that “Rochambeau was quartered at Squire Eliza Pitkin’s home at the south-west corner of Main and Pitkin Streets in East Hartford (relocated in 1953 to 173 High Woods Drive in Guilford), not far from the old meeting house, which was used as a hospital during the sojourn of the army. … Other French officers stayed at both private and public houses,” such as Richard Pitkin’s Tavern (there is a sign on the Green at the intersection of Parker Street and Porter Street in Manchester, erected 1973) “and stories of the dances, barbecues, and cattle roasts were told locally for many years. The Abbé Robin, a Catholic priest with the French army, reported that during this encampment he said the first Catholic Mass in the State of Connecticut, which would have been most likely on Sunday, June 24, 1781.
After being stored in the house of James S. Forbes on 135 Forbes Street in East Hartford, kegs of silver were opened at the French encampment to pay soldiers and officers, presumably giving the name of “‘Silver Lane’ to that locality.” These lines show how local lore had mixed with history by the time Goodwin wrote his history of East Hartford in 1879. The sign at 201 Silver Lane and Elizabeth Shea Park in East Hartford, commemorating “the officers || and men of the French Army … who camped near this spot in 1781,” identifies Camp 6 of the Regiment Soissonnois only; the other three regiments camped nearer the river as indicated in contemporary maps. Silver Lane, according to Hughes and Allen’s study of Connecticut Place Names, may well have received its name from a silversmith who resided there almost 20 years before the first French troops marched down that road. That does not mean, however, that Rochambeau’s troops were not paid while in Hartford with money stored in Mr. Forbes’ house. Rochambeau carted large amounts of cash with him: Admiral Barras had brought about 1.2 million livres in silver with him, part of a total of 6.6 million made available to Rochambeau, when he came ashore in Boston on May 6, 1781. French troops were paid on time, so punctually, in fact, that Sturgill states that “to my knowledge the Crown did not miss paying a single unit or officer on time during the eighteenth century.” The troops were so accustomed to getting paid that not a single primary source mentions this, or any other, payday! French troops were paid monthly in advance; they were quartered in Hartford between June 22 and June 27, and since they were on a march, it is quite possible that they were paid earlier than usual.
The journals have surprisingly little to say about Hartford where general headquarters were located: “a large town, divided in two by the river that is named after the province. It is quite well built with some pretty houses, but the streets are not paved,”… “quite a considerable place divided by a river of the same name,”… “the capital of the province of Connecticut, is situated on the west bank of the river of that name … large, well-built, with a fine state house and some very wealthy inhabitants”, are typical comments. The comte de Lauberdière described Hartford as a town of “three to four hundred houses, the streets are not paved, they are quite wide, the Court House (sic. The present State House was built only in 1796; the French troops saw an earlier edifice) where the general assembly of the state meets is very large and beautiful. … The province of Connecticut abounds with pasturage; the animals here are of the greatest beauty. They also grow wheat here of which they ship the flour to the Antilles.”
There is a plaque to commemorate the French hospital of 1781-82 on Main Street at the north-west corner of Main Street and Pitkin Avenue in East Hartford, that was erected in 1902.
Coming from the encampment site, stay on Bolton Center Road, drive under I-384 to Boston Turnpike, where you turn left/west. Boston Turnpike becomes New Bolton Road and Middle Turnpike in Manchester Green. In Manchester Green turn left onto East Center Street/Center Street/West Center Street/Spencer Street. You drive under I-384 where Spencer Street becomes Silver Lane. You cross Forbes Street; Elizabeth Shea Park will be on your left, the Soissonnois camp will be on your right.
A word on Money and Finances
The soldier of the ancien régime everywhere was notoriously underpaid. When salaries for the troops were increased by 50 percent for the expédition particulière, a fusilier received 9 sols 6 deniers per day or 14 livres 5 sols per month/171 livres a year. (For administrative purposes the French military counted every month as having 30 days.) The better-paid grenadier made 11 sols per day, 16 1/2 livres per month or 198 livres per year, as did a hussar. A sergeant-major, the highest-paid NCO, had 486 livres per year. Before departure, the rank and file received one month’ pay plus 18 livres from the masse générale to equip themselves; another 18 livres from the masse were distributed upon arrival in Newport. (All contributions to the masse générale, increased from 36 livres for the French infantry and 72 livres for the Foreign infantry to 48 and 84 livres to account for the anticipated high expenses of the American campaign, were covered by the crown.) But they also had stoppages taken from their pay. The ordonnance of 20 March 1780, set food costs at 2 sols for bread and 1 sol 6 d for beef per day. This meant a monthly food bill for every NCO and enlisted man of
3 livres for bread
2 livres 5 sols for beef
1 sols 6 deniers for 1 pound of salt per month
5 livres 6 sols 6 deniers
Also increased were the deductions for the masse de linge et chaussure, the regimental fund to pay for a soldier’s uniform and for his shoes. NCOs contributed 16 deniers per day to this masse, corporals and enlisted men half as much. That meant additional stoppages of 2 livres for a sergeant and 1 livre for each hussar, fusilier, grenadier, or chasseur, leaving a fusilier or chasseur with 7 livres 18 sols 6 deniers per month, a grenadier or hussar with 10 livres 3 sols 6 deniers per month, or 122 livres, 2 sols per year. Since wages had been doubled for the American Campaign, a soldier stationed in France received around 60 livres in cash wages per year, one fourth the wages of a domestic servant and half the annual monetary value of a slave’s labor to his owner which was set by the Parlement of Paris throughout the 1760s and 1770s at 120 livres, again not counting expenses for food and clothing. To put this figure into perspective it may be worth mentioning that Axel von Fersen estimated that it cost him 20 livres a month to keep his dog!
What was even more important was that they were paid regularly every two weeks without fail in specie, more and more with Spanish dollars as the war progressed, but during the fall and winter of 1780/1, they received their wages in French coin. The French currency system and coinage set in an ordonnance of 23 May 1774 maintained its basis in the Carolingian monetary system until the spring of 1795. The most valuable French coin minted was the golden double louis d’or worth 48 livres followed by the louis d’or at 24 livres and the half-Louis or demi-louis d’or at 12 livres. The largest silver coin was the écu at 6 livres or 120 sols, followed by ½, ¼ and ⅛ écu worth 60, 30 and 15 sols respectively. The smaller copper coins minted were worth 1 and 2 sols as well as coins worth 6 and 3 deniers.
There were three kinds of copper coin: the liard at 3 deniers, the 1/2 sol at 6 deniers, and the one sol coin worth 12 deniers. There were five different kinds of silver coins: the écu of six livres, the 1/2 écu worth three livres, the 1/5 écu at 24 sols, the 1/10 écu at 12 sols, and the 1/20 écu at 6 sols. If a common hussar was used to handling an écu even if six livres were more than two weeks of wages, one of the three gold coins was less likely to pass through his hands: the 1/2 louis d’or at 12 livres, the louis d’or at 24 livres, and the double louis d’or at 48 livres. The double louis d’or at 48 livres was 18 weeks wages for a grenadier, and more than six months wages for a common fusilier.
The importance of the French bullion spent to maintain Rochambeau’s army for the American war-time economy cannot be overemphasized. Historian Timothy R. Walton estimates that “on the eve of the American Revolution, about half the coins used in the British North American Colonies, some 4 million Pieces of Eight [21 million livres], were pieces of eight from New Spain and Peru,” while historian Lee Kennett estimated French forces may have spent more than the 20 million during their stay in the United States. If loans arranged by private lenders, estimated at between 15 and 20 million livres, are added, the expédition particulière may have doubled the amount of specie circulating between Yorktown and Boston.
For additional information on coins and currencies see here: 18th Century Currencies
All coins of a country have identical obverse and reverse sides. ½ crown, 3 livres and 4 reales are virtually identical in silver weight and value, interchangeable and circulated freely in the United States: it was irrelevant which country issued them.
French Encampment in East Hartford,
29 October – 4 November 1782
On their return march from Virginia in 1782, French forces took a few days of rest in East Hartford. All units camped along Silver Lane on the same site where the Soissonnois had camped the previous summer. It was here at East Hartford that Rochambeau announced to the troops that they were to march to Boston and embark for the West Indies while he himself would return to France. To accelerate the march “the artillery obtained permission to march, from now on, one day in advance of the 1st Brigade, for convenience, and set out early on its way” on October 30. The artillery was halfway through its march when a courier from Admiral de Vaudreuil informed Rochambeau that the ships would not be ready for embarkation by November 15, and the artillery returned to East Hartford. Lieutenant Verger, who had not made the march in June 1781, met Connecticutians for the first time, but thought that “The inhabitants of Connecticut are the best people in the United States, without any doubt. They have a lively curiosity and examined our troops and all our actions with evident astonishment. When they visited our camp (in East Hartford), the girls came without their mothers and entered our tents with the greatest confidence.”
By now the weather was turning cold, and many soldiers had hoped that they would enter winter quarters in Hartford. But after “four days in Hartford,” the artillery left for Bolton on November 3, 1782.
The camp was east of East Hartford and of the Hockanum River, on either side of the road to Bolton Center.
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 https://w3r-us.org/history-by-state/
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