The town of Lebanon, Connecticut, approximately 25 miles southeast of the state’s capital at Hartford, traces its origins to the complex relationship between American Indians and European settlers and the land they both desired. In 1637 Major John Mason, with 90 Connecticut soldiers and 70 Mohegan Indians, attacked a Pequot stronghold near Mystic, decimating the Pequot tribe and eliminating a major source of hostility toward settlement in the Connecticut River valley. A tract of 500 acres was granted to Mason in 1663 for his services to the colony; he selected a spot near the Yantic River for what would become the nucleus of Lebanon. The town became Connecticut’s first to be given a biblical name when the Reverend James Fitch, Mason’s son-in-law and the recipient of a 120-acre grant adjacent to Mason’s, named the town after Lebanon for its stands of white cedar, which reminded him of a wood used to construct Solomon’s Temple. This wood was valued for clapboards, shingles and barrel staves.
In the 1690s Samuel Mason, John Stanton, Benjamin Brewster and John Birchard purchased a tract of land from Oweneco, leader of the Mohegans. They began distributing large plots from this Five Mile Purchase to settlers. Lebanon was incorporated by the General Assembly in 1700, and by 1756 it was the 10th largest town in Connecticut, with a population of more than 3,200.
The focal point of the community, as in many New England villages of the period, was the town green. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the one-mile-long Lebanon green retains much of its original rural character. While other town greens have been landscaped and converted into parks, the Lebanon green opens onto farmland where hay is still cut by local farmers. Development has been kept to a minimum, and the green is surrounded by reminders of Lebanon’s role in the American Revolution.
Lebanon recently marked the 225th anniversary of a notable event in its Revolutionary past: the quartering of allied French troops on and around the green. In 1780 Lt. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, was chosen to lead the ground forces in the Expédition particulière, King Louis XVI’s commitment of French troops that was instrumental in determining the success of the American Revolution. Among the troops were the Volontaires Étrangèrs de Lauzun, largely volunteers commanded by Colonel Armand-Louis de Gontaut, duc de Lauzun. Ironically, perhaps, the ethnic makeup of Lauzun’s Legion, as it came to be known, resembled the melting pot that would later characterize the United States. More than half the étrangèrs hailed from German-speaking territories, including the French states of Alsace and Lorraine, as well as from Ireland, Denmark, Hungary, Sweden, England and Poland.
The French troops disembarked in Rhode Island in July 1780, and Rochambeau’s plans called for Lauzun’s Legion to winter in Newport. Newport residents, however, were not very receptive to the idea. The French were to pay for whatever supplies they used, and Rochambeau wrote to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull in October that “the immoderate cupidity of the neighboring inhabitants raised forage to an extravagant price in hard money….” Therefore, Rochambeau requested that “a winter quarter be assigned to the Cavalry of the Duke of Lauzun in Connecticut State.” Trumbull readily agreed and offered his hometown of Lebanon to Lauzun’s Legion. In a letter to Rochambeau from his headquarters at Passaic County, N.J., General George Washington approved the choice of eastern Connecticut as “advantageous.”
The first snows of the New England winter had already fallen when the duc de Lauzun and some 200 hussars arrived in Lebanon in November. Although Lauzun was quartered at Redwood, the home of Governor Trumbull’s son David and the only residence in the town to have a carpet, the colonel likened his post to the Russian steppes. “Siberia alone can furnish any idea of Lebanon, which consists of a few huts scattered among vast forests,” Lauzun wrote in his memoirs.
The residents of Lebanon, meanwhile, probably wished that the legion had been sent to Siberia. Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, American commissary to the French army, faced the monumental task of finding shelter for the soldiers and feed for their horses. The early cold snap made the Connecticut farmers wary of selling hay to the French, especially for Continental dollars, which were practically worthless. “I am tired of quartering troops,” Wadsworth wrote after Lauzun’s troops had been in Lebanon a mere two weeks. “I had rather live out doors all my life than undertake such a job again.” The legion remained in Lebanon until June 1781. Awaiting the next campaign season, the French troops drilled on the Lebanon green—Washington reviewed them there in March 1781. Today a plaque marks the location of brick ovens the soldiers built on the green to bake their bread.
Meanwhile, relations between the soldiers and town residents did not improve much with time. Lebanon native William Williams, a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted angrily in March 1781 that his town had been sold a bill of goods. Lebanon had been promised that “the French Troops were kept under the best government and discipline and that the Inhabitants of Newport had not lost a Pig nor a Fowl by them, which was great Inducement to provide them Quarters here…but soon they began to pilfer and steal, which was, and is, in many instances borne.”
This clash of Old World and New World cultures was played out time and again, and New Englanders’ hostility toward the French had very deep roots. In 1745, when a force of New Englanders under Lt. Gen. William Pepperrell and with the backing of Massachusetts’ Royal Governor William Shirley, captured the French fortress at Louisbourg on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton, powerful New England clergy imbued the victory with millennial overtones. Coming on the heels of the Great Awakening (the ecstatic religious movement that swept the colonies in the early 1740s and stressed one’s personal relationship with God above all civil or social authority), the victory by American troops at Louisbourg reinforced a growing belief that the colonies were destined for greatness. The French and Indian (or Seven Years’) War, further cemented anti-French feeling in the colonies. But when Britain’s attempts to pay for that war out of Colonial coffers sowed the seeds of revolution, Americans followed the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The one-time “Gallic peril” had become the fledgling nation’s best hope for independence.
Still, uniting against a common foe could not always bridge the cultural divide. “Here it is not like it is in Europe, where when the troops are on the march you can take horses, you can take wagons, you can issue billets for lodging, and with the aid of a gendarme overcome the difficulties the inhabitant might make,” wrote the chevalier de Coriolis, one of Rochambeau’s officers stationed in Newport. “[B]ut in America the people say they are free and, if a proprietor who doesn’t like the look of your face tells you he doesn’t want to lodge you, you must go seek a lodging elsewhere. Thus the words: ‘I don’t want to’ end the business, and there is no means of appeal.”
Perhaps the sense that authority could be challenged led some of Lauzun’s men to grab their own chances for independence. Perhaps it was simply that such volunteers were cannon fodder who had little to gain from their military service. Whatever the reason, the legion’s 20 percent desertion rate was four times that of the rest of Rochambeau’s army. More than 20 enlisted men were reported as deserting from Lebanon, and at least three were executed by firing squad for the crime: Jacques Sauker, age 23, on December 26, 1780, and Joseph Frank, age 21, and Christophe Hand, age 25, on April 23, 1781.
By the spring, it was clear that the campaign season of 1781 had to produce results for the American cause. Washington and Rochambeau met in Wethersfield, Conn., and decided to join forces for an attack on Sir Henry Clinton in New York City. (The armies would soon be diverted to the South for the final confrontation with Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va.) Lauzun’s Legion broke camp in Lebanon on June 21, and Mary Williams, the wife of William Williams and daughter of Governor Trumbull, expressed her profound relief: “O how glad and how thankfull I shall be when they are gone for never was I so sick of any people in my life….[ J]oy go long with them and wish never to see another French man in my life the best of them are nothing but pride and vanity.”
Although the brief experiment in fostering Franco-American relations had its pitfalls, Lebanon went on to claim a unique spot in the history of the Revolution. Governor Trumbull, first elected deputy governor in 1766 in opposition to then-Governor Thomas Fitch’s enforcement of the Stamp Act in Connecticut, became the only Colonial governor to retain his position after independence was declared. His home still stands on the green and is operated as a museum by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Nearby is the War Office from which Trumbull oversaw Connecticut’s war effort, particularly the manufacture of cannons at the iron foundry in Salisbury. A special express rider was kept on duty at the office, formerly Trumbull’s store, to carry information back and forth between Lebanon and the foundry in northwestern Connecticut. The site of some 500 meetings of the Connecticut Council of Safety, the War Office is now a museum run by the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
In addition to the Trumbull homestead and other historic sites open to the public, Redwood (the site of Lauzun’s headquarters) and William Williams’ home still grace the Lebanon green. Both are now private residences. Designed to complement the town’s original architecture, the Jonathan Trumbull Library opened in 1968; the new Town Hall, that quintessential feature of American small-town life, appeared in 1969 and the Lebanon Historical Society Museum opened in 1998. All reflect Connecticut’s early days, sharing the green with the First Congregational Church, which was designed by Governor Trumbull’s son John and built between 1804 and 1807. John Trumbull is perhaps best known for his paintings, including The Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
With its still vital town green and a keen interest in celebrating its legacy, Lebanon’s rich Colonial and Revolutionary heritage mixes comfortably with its present.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.