Twenty French Soldiers (or Sailors)
According to local legend, in 1778, General Lafayette was marching his troops south from Providence, RI and stopped in Norwich when many of his soldiers fell ill. The sick soldiers were quartered in the Court House, just off the Green, while the rest camped on the Norwichtown Green. Twenty soldiers died and were buried along the road which leads to the town burial ground.
Two memorials are located near the entrance to the burial grounds to memorialize this event. One was donated by the Faith Trumbull Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1901 and the second from the “Societe National Souvenir Francais” a French historical society.
Further research has been done by the Norwich City Historian and others to determine the truth behind this story. In 2017, the State Archaeologist came to the Burying Ground and performed ground penetrating radar to determine where these individuals might be buried. They discovered evidence of a mass grave right along the path in front of the monument. Additionally, research has shown that the Marquis de Lafayette did pass through Norwich in 1778, but he was with Continental Army Troops, not French troops. French troops didn’t come to Connecticut until 1780-81 when they were quartered in Lebanon.
It seems like this story may be a myth…however, there was a report of a prisoner exchange between the French and the British in 1778. Many of these French prisoners were held by the British in New York on prison ships. These men were likely captured off French merchant ships or were French privateers.
The prisoner exchange did not occur in Norwich; however, the French prisoners were marched from British occupied New York to the French fleet in Boston and stopped in Norwich. Local accounts indicate 5 – 600 Frenchmen arrived in Norwich on Oct. 25, 1778. A sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Lord given on Nov. 21, 1778, listing the deaths in his parish during the year, adding, “And also died here in a few weeks, of the French prisoners from New-York, 20.”
So, it would appear that there is some truth to the local stories.
For more information, please check out the following article in The Day newspaper written by Norwich City Historian, Dale Plummer, offering some clarity to the mystery of the French Soldiers.