Leg 1: Rhode Island & Connecticut
by Ralph Nelson (Kirkwood Chapter, Delaware Society SAR)
Thursday, June 17, 2004
Lee arrived at the airport at 9 AM Thursday on June 17 and was driven to Newport by Richard Sheryka, fifer for the Bourbonnais re-enactors. I had driven the van, with uniforms and equipment up the day before (330 miles in 7.5 hours including lunch and rest stops).
We changed into uniform in the parking garage. Lee (shown above) portrays a soldier in the Bourbonnais Regiment, and I portray a captain in Lauzun’s Legions (which was technically a Navy regiment).
We then marched to the Old Colony House, which in 1780 was one of the four capitol buildings of Rhode Island — they rotated the seat of power between four cities. There we were met by historian Jim Snydacker, four summer interns, a video crew, former Newport mayor Robert McKenna, and Roseanna Gorham (chair of the W3R in RI), who had planned the day’s activities. Jim provided a tour of this building and several others used by the French during their almost year-long stay in Newport.
In the evening Lee (now in U.S Continental uniform) gave a talk at the Nathaniel Greene’s home in Coventry. ]Nathaniel Greene was a Quaker foundry manager who became a soldier and rose through the ranks to become commander of the southern branch of the Contnental Army.]
We stayed at the Waterman Tavern, where Rochambeau spent several evenings as he travelled to Connecticut and back. There we had a fine Colonial dinner with all participants in colonial dress — and a chamber music group playing colonial tunes in the background.
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Since we had a heavy travel schedule, Lee got up at 6 AM to hike up Biscuit Lane. It’s name came from an incident where a French food cart broke and spilled its contents. The French army had to move on without picking up the food, and the local households reaped the benefits.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
As Lee trekked from Windham to Andover he gave interviews by Email, cell phone, and in person, and our hosts gave us clippings about the walk from papers across Rhode Island and Connecticut. As we traveled we also made arrangements for presentations in NY and NJ, so there was rarely a dull moment during the day or evening.
We spoke in uniform every evening to forty to fifty people. While many in the audience were aware that French troops passed through their town, few had any knowledge of the great military, financial, and social impact of having 5,400 professional soldiers and a like number of professional sailors paying in silver for their food and lodging (or ship repairs) for three years in the U.S.
A few sections of the W3R remain as dirt roads — as they were in 1781. It is also hard to re-create the scenery that the French troops viewed, since at that time most of the area was farmland and there were few trees along the roadway. However, it is cool to walk up a steep hill in the shade on a warm summer day and imagine what it was like for soldiers carrying a knapsack and twenty pounds of armaments while marching in full sunshine.
Monday, June 21, 2004
We drove back to RI so that Lee could hike down some sections of road in RI and eastern CT that he missed on the first pass through the area. There were few way-finding signs along the W3R, but some erected in 1980 are still in fine shape. This one is on a hill overlooking Plainfield CT. (Pictured to the left.)
Later Lee walked trail sections between Andover and East Hartford. South of Bolton he walked several miles of a roadway used by the French troops and now going back to being covered by forest. I was not able to follow him there in the van, but I got a photo as he reached the town hall in Bolton.
This evening we spoke about the W3R to about forty people at the Raymond Library in East Hartford. Several people gave us items related to the W3R or useful as snacks along the trail.
Later Betty and Bill Knose gave us a tour of W3R-related sites near Hartford.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Lee started out on Silver Lane in East Hartford. Here in 1781 eight French treasure wagons were unloaded into the Forbes home, where the silver would be safer from thieves.
Braving scattered showers, Bill Knose guided Lee through the tangle of Hartford bridges and streets to Farmingon Ave. The walk ended in West Hartford.
After cleaning up for dinner, we had a tour of the Silas Deane House in Wethersfield.
As part of our talks we describe the present effort to mark the trail, to develop sites and tours along the trail, and to encourage all-route events such as Lee’s walk. Our Sponsor Recognition Board listed a wide variety of people and organizations that supported the Walk with donations of cash, food, transportation, or lodging. A number of people in the audience contributed to support the trip as we travelled.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
The day started in Farmington. As we drove along Main Street (Route 10) — the route taken by Rochambeau’s army — we enjoyed seeing many Revolutionary-era homes that have been carefully preserved and restored.
In Plainville we met representatives of the local press and several hikers who wanted to accompany Lee today. They pointed out a path along the river that led to the French campsite south of Farmington and set off. Unfortunately for Lee’s feet, the path ended after two miles due to lack of regular trimming, so they had to push through meadows with six-foot grass, then ford a fifty-foot wide stream. After a trek of eight miles they returned to the van.
While they walked the trail I stopped to visit the Farmington Congregational Church (founded in 1652). The present building was built in 1771 and is three-stories tall, not counting the steeple.
Lee ended this day’s walk in Plainville. The roads near Hartford cross several large rivers and boggy areas in only a few places, so we had to drive twenty miles on the Interstate to circle around a tangled network of local roads to get from Wethersfield (where we are staying for three days) to Farmington and then back on this evening. Because of all the side trips to get supplies, see historic sights, get to presentations, and get to our motels the van travelled about eight times as far as Lee walked (not counting driving up from Delaware).
Thursday, June 24, 2004
After checking the route from Plainville through Marion to Waterbury we joined Ken Buckbee (president of the Conecticut Society SAR) and Albin Weber (re-enactor) at the Pierpont Cemetery, which contains a monument honoring the two unknown French soldiers (from Rochambeau’s army) who are buried there. Ken wore a frontiersman uniform; Albin wore a Continental uniform. Also present was Homer Lantier, a resident of Connecticut and a member of the Branch Francaise of the SAR. His ancestor was one of Rochambeau’s troops.
Lee and the re-enactors then marched (with a police escort) three and a half miles to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, where we spoke to an audience of about seventy people. Ken and Albin provided additional comments about the local effort to commemorate the W3R. Lee than walked to Breakneck Hill, where we picked him up to explore by car the route to Southbury.
A TV crew from Channel 8 videotaped the march, as well as our vidoegrapher from Rhode Island, who drove to Waterbury to get additional footage of Lee’s walk. The event made the 5 o’clock news, including brief comments from Lee, Albin, Ken, and several bystanders.
An article by Ryan Kelly in the Republican American (Waterbury CT) helped publicize information about the historic events and the development of the W3R as a historic trail to a much wider audience than we reached in the lectures. The photographers were drawn to men in uniform, so although Lee was the focus of the article, the photo is of the local re-enactors — who do the important work of educating the public over a period of several years, while we could provide a highlight event for only one day.
Friday, June 25, 2004
Albin Weber took us on a tour of the old roadways and possible campsites of the French army around Southbury. Lee and I then did more exploring on our own. One of Lee’s tasks is to make on-the-spot observations to help the historians decide which of several proposed campsites or roadways is most likely to have been the one used by the allied forces. To do this he must envision what the landscape would have been like 223 years ago.
It was cleared farmland then, not the second-growth forest one often sees there now. Many swamps that blocked travel then have been drained or filled in, and rocky outcroppings have been blasted away or buried to make a level area, so what may seem an obvious route today was impossible for wagons to get through during the Revolution.
In 1781 the rocks removed from the fields were often piled up as thick stone walls along both sides of a road. The roadways were too narrow for a modern auto route, and they were hard to dismantle, so many early asphalt roads were laid out along another route, thus the old road was not destroyed. Eighty years later the local residents may not know that the “new” road with the old name is not the original route. We believe that this was the case for Breakneck Hill in Middlebury.
As we walked on the original (we believe) roadway we found a small arched bridge that allows a spring rivulet to run under the road rather than making a muddy mess of the road. We hope historians can answer the question “Was this bridge built by the French road crew that preceded the army so that the baggage train would not get bogged down in the mud here?
Dinner with the Weber family was followed by a reception with local historians, at which the re-enactors of the 5th Connecticut Regiment gave a demonstration of volley fire.
We gave our presentation in uniform — but without our video slide show — to an auduence of about seventy people. This is Ralph in uniform and a moustache grown specifically for presentations along the route of march.
Saturday, June 26, 2004
Due to the condition of Lee’s feet and his non-W3R schedule we drove home (to NJ and then DE) early in the morning rather than walking into New York. We reviewed the route from Southbury CT to the Bedford NY area from the van window — much more forested now than it was then, but clearly quite hilly and hard to march through. In 1781 the road probably have twisted and turned a lot to provide a gentle grade, since otherwise double teams (slowing the journey) would have been required to pull the baggage wagons up the many steep hills.
In summary, we had a fine time following the route and meeting many enthusiastic supporters of the W3R, and we made presentations about the W3R to hundreds of people (and through TV and papers we informed thousands more). It was good to get home, where we continued to work on plans for the next three legs of the trip.