A Revolutionary Road Trip: Rochambeau in Connecticut

What is the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route?

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route is a National Historic Trail, maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) and local partners called the National W3R Association (W3R.) It stretches through nine states and the District of Columbia, beginning in Massachusetts and ending in Virginia. It commemorates the journey of George Washington’s army and allied French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau that culminated in October 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown and the British surrender.

The Connecticut segment is 120 miles long, or one-fifth of the entire route – more than any other state. As you travel the roads that make up the route, Connecticut’s crucial role in the Revolution becomes clear. Local farms and merchants provided much-needed supplies to American and allied forces, earning us the nickname “ the Provisions State,” and many important meetings between Washington, Rochambeau, and other military commanders and political leaders took place here. 

Where does it go?

The Connecticut section of the Rochambeau Route starts in Sterling on the Rhode Island border and ends in Ridgefield on the New York border. It largely follows back roads, except for some very short stretches (e.g. crossing the Connecticut River into Hartford) where highways are required. 

I mostly followed this Google Maps version of the route provided by the NPS.

This map will guide you along the entire route with a couple major exceptions; to visit Lebanon Green and Old Wethersfield – both are must-sees, from a historical and current perspective – you’ll have to take short detours off this path. 

Can I do it in one day?

The drive can technically be done in a day; without stopping, it would take roughly 3 to 4 hours, depending on traffic. If you have a full day to drive through Connecticut and want to stop at two or three historic sites and take in a wide variety of towns and landscapes, this route would be a good off-the-beaten-path option. 

To fully enjoy the experience, however, I’d recommend splitting the trip into two or three days. If you live locally, you don’t have to do them on three successive days,of course. You could also pick just one segment, based on your location or preference, and explore that more fully. I’ve split the route into three sections, each of which could easily fill a day depending on how much you want to explore.

What’s the route like?

The route takes you through three major Connecticut cities, numerous bustling suburbs, dozens of small towns and villages, and long stretches of countryside where it seems little has changed since the French marched through, battling heat and cold, setting up their camps and complaining about the inadequacy of American bread and coffee. (These things, happily, have changed; today, I promise, Connecticut is full of delicious bakeries and coffee shops.)

It runs through historic small-town centers and urban downtowns. It is very quiet in some places, with pastoral views of old farms and rolling hills. In other places, it passes cookie-cutter strip malls and jumbles of highway on-ramps. (These less attractive stretches at least provide plenty of convenience; unlike the French troops, who recorded their hardships along the way, you’ll never be far from the comfort of a drugstore, grocery store, restaurant, gas station, or anything you might need.) You could think of the Rochambeau Route today as a little cross-section of America, and through it all, small farms and businesses remain as evidence of Connecticut’s Provisions State heritage. 

Roadside markers, plaques, and other signage can be found along the route, more reliably in some spots than others.

What should I see?

When I follow a trail like this one, I like to mix a bit of history with a few modern-day attractions and to simply get a sense of the places I pass, whether they’ve retained their historic atmosphere or changed drastically over time.

I followed the route as mapped above, with a few small exceptions. I structured my trip around the twelve interpretive markers placed along the route, almost all conveniently located in the centers of towns. I also stopped at a few historic houses and a handful of other sites that give a sense of the French troops’ experience in Connecticut. (W3R provides information about historic sites, encampments, and markers.) In between, I just enjoyed the ride; there’s a lot to see on this route, and you’ll probably want to stop often.

I’ve split the route into three sections and provided highlights for each. 

Section 1: Connecticut As It Was (Sterling to Bolton)

The first third of the trip primarily follows routes 14A, 14, 66, 87, 6, and 85 from the Rhode Island line westward. As soon as you enter the state, a Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route sign greets you, and you’re suddenly immersed in a landscape that’s as close as you can get today to the Connecticut Rochambeau’s troops would have seen. Life moves slowly in the small towns and rural areas of Windham and Tolland Counties, and the route reveals roads with names like Pudding Hill, fields of hay bales, ramshackle barns, rocks painted like animals or American flags, tiny post offices and libraries, neighborhood markets and liquor stores, historic cemeteries, little white churches, and the kind of large but simple old homes that would have housed the French officers while their soldiers slept in rows of tents on the open ground.   

You’ll probably be tempted to stop and get a better look at small villages like Oneco and Sterling Hill, former mill towns like Plainfield, old-fashioned town greens like those in Columbia and Bolton, and historic sites associated with Connecticut’s State Hero, Nathan Hale of Coventry, and State Heroine, Prudence Crandall of Canterbury. 

Markers: 

Scotland, Huntington Homestead, 36 Huntington Road; Lebanon, Governor Trumbull House, 169 West Town Street; Andover, Museum of Andover History, Routes 6 and Route 316; Bolton, Bolton Green, Bolton Center Road.

Highlights: 

This section of the trip contains the only Connecticut site mentioned in the NPS visitor guide to the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route: the mile-long Lebanon Green, the heart of the town known as the “heartbeat of the Revolution.” (It’s a few minutes south of Willimantic.) The French cavalry, more than 200 hussars led by the duc de Lauzun, camped near here for eight months, the longest such encampment in the state. Surrounding the green are dozens of historic buildings, including several museums devoted to local – mostly Revolutionary – history. Even if they’re not open when you pass through, they’re still worth seeing, especially the tiny War Office

Another (livelier) must-see is the college town of Willimantic, technically a borough within the town of Windham. Main Street is the perfect place to grab some food, stroll for a few blocks, and check out the famous Frog Bridge on South Street. Windham’s frog motif refers not to the French march through Connecticut (though various anecdotes from the time do claim that they raided local ponds for the delicacy) but to an earlier humorous moment in local history.

When you reach the outskirts of Manchester, modernity and higher population density change the landscape, there’s more going on outside your car window, and the character of the route begins to change.

Section 2: History in the City (Manchester to Waterbury)

The middle section of the route roughly follows Route 502 to I84 across the Connecticut River and the capital city, then continues west on routes 4, 10, and 844 towards Waterbury. It travels mostly through busy suburbs and cities, making this the most modern-feeling part of the trip. It’s a little harder to imagine the past here, but that doesn’t mean this area isn’t jam-packed with history. In fact, these bustling cities and towns are saturated with stories of the past, they’re just equally full of cars, people, roads, buildings, and things to do and see. 

You could stop in almost any town here and find plenty to occupy yourself for a day: West Hartford and Farmington are upscale and charming, full of museums and other attractions; Manchester and Southington combine distinct old-fashioned neighborhoods with areas of natural beauty and touches of hipness; and Hartford and Waterbury are fascinating cities with endless layers of culture to unpeel.

Markers: 

East Hartford, Raymond Library, 840 Main Street; Hartford, Old State House, 800 Main Street; Wethersfield, Village Tavern, 222 Main Street; Southington, South Main Street, Plantsville; Waterbury, Town Green, near 144 West Main Street.

Highlights: 

Manchester has one of Connecticut’s most impressive town parks. Wickham Park costs $5 to enter by car, unusual for a Connecticut park, but it’s worth it for the variety of landscapes in this 280-acre property. It’s a great spot to rest for a little while, have a picnic, and explore some of the state’s prettiest gardens.

Downtown Hartford contains several days’ worth of sights on its own, and can be so overwhelming (and, during work days, crowded) that you might be tempted to bypass it. But anyone who loves history or architecture should consider making the stop. 

Old Wethersfield, just south of Hartford, is a must-see spot for its current charm as well as its historic significance. In the area around the Rochambeau Route marker you’ll find the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, which includes the site of an important Washington-Rochambeau meeting. In this large historic district you’ll find plenty of old and picturesque places, like Comstock Ferre & Co; if you have time, stroll past blocks of historic houses down to the water at Cove Park.

In Southington, there is a monument with a bronze relief portrait of Rochambeau at an encampment site called French Hill. (1038 Marion Avenue, Plantsville.) Located between two lawns on a residential street, it’s easier to drive past than to see up-close, but the contrast of these suburban front yards and a nation at war is striking.

In Waterbury, one of the most moving sites of the route is all but hidden from view. Walk down a grassy path behind 3092 East Main Street to find a forgotten-looking cemetery where two French soldiers who died along the march are buried. (A sign erected by the D.A.R. points the way from the greenery in front of an apartment building across the street.)

Section 3: Where Then Meets Now (Middlebury to Ridgefield)

The third section of the route follows Route 64 to Route 6, before confusing itself in the smaller roads of Danbury and Ridgefield. I followed the mapped route less exactly here, navigating instead from one marker to the next, knowing that any path my GPS gave me would still lead me through the hilly terrain the French troops complained about in their journals. (Luckily, they found “beautiful American maidens” to distract them from their travails.)

The stretch of route from Middlebury to the New York line is somewhat of a mix of the first two sections, a blend of nearly-rural scenes with vibrant and attractive town centers, plus touches of city and suburban life in a region where history runs deep. 

Middlebury, Southbury, and Newtown are leafy and lovely, full of historic districts and distinct neighborhoods to tempt you off the route. Danbury and Ridgefield are much busier, in the different styles of a larger city and an affluent suburb, though it’s not hard to imagine the past in either place. This area is full of Revolutionary history beyond Rochambeau. 1977 saw the Battle of Ridgefield and the raiding of Danbury; the former was also home of hermit Sarah Bishop, driven to life inside a cave following vaguely referenced abuse at the hands of British troops, and the latter was a major supplier for the Continental army.

Markers: 

Newtown, Hawley Elementary School, 29 Church Hill Road;  Danbury, Danbury Museum and Historical Society, 43 Main Street; Ridgefield, Ridgebury Road and Old Stagecoach Road.

Highlights: 

Before you end your trip, drive a few minutes south to downtown Ridgefield, a typically pretty Fairfield County suburb with a plethora of small shops and eateries surrounded by impressive historic homes.

Or for a more urban atmosphere, head to Main Street in Danbury, a business district full of eclectic architecture and hints of the so-called Hat City’s one-time prominence as the millinery capital of the nation. The Danbury Museum, where the Rochambeau marker is located, has a serene little garden hidden in the back.

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