WASHINGTON’S HEADQUARTERS IN WETHERSFIELD, CONNECTICUT
Where He and Rochambeau Planned the Double-headed Campaign Which Ended in the Surrender of Yorktown
By Mabel Lorenz Ives
WETHERSFIELD, a rich and handsome town, was in its early days considered a winning rival to Hartford. The oldest permanently inhabited township in the state, it was first settled late in 1634 by colonists from Watertown, who (wishing to get far from the irksome conditions in Massachusetts) chose for their home this great bend in the river called by the Indians Pyquag, the place for public games. In its first quarter century Wethersfield sent its overflow to help found many a town in western Connecticut-Stamford, Litchfield, Milford being among them, even Hadley.
In 1752 Joseph Webb, one of a long line of eldest sons of that name, bought a property on Main Street from Major Samuel Walcott. who owned much land hereabout. On it he built “Hospitality Hall,” a large comfortable house with three rooms downstairs besides dining room and kitchen, and in the wide hallway a straight staircase that is the delight of every architect who sees it. Four years earlier Joseph had married Mehitable Nott. of this town, and here lived with her and their children for nine years, dying in 1761- Presently Mehitable married Silas Deane, a Croton man, a Yale graduate, by now a lawyer and merchant in Wethersfield, who served several times in the legislature of the Colony. They moved to the Goodrich house, the second south of “Hospitality Hall,” while building a handsome home between, also on land bought from Samuel Walcott.
At her marriage Mehitable transferred the Webb house to her son Joseph, a boy in his teens. But Joseph was 25 and married to his 19-year-old Abigail when in 1775 Washington rode up to take command of the embattled farmers about Boston and stayed overnight at the Deane home-if Mme. Deane followed out the injunction in her husband’s oft-quoted letter. There at the Deane house the heads of the Whig families gathered about Washington to hear the latest news of the Continental Congress and there the youth of the Whig families felt the urge to join his army – Goodrich, Robbins, Griswold, Coleman, Saltonstall, Belden. Kellogg, Roger Welles from out the Hartford road, going from college into the army, and Samuel Blatchley and Jack Webb, Joseph’s younger brothers. Even Grandfather Webb, another Joseph, served as first lieutenant in the Revolution in spite of his 75 years; and it was from his wife that Samuel got Blatchley for middle name.
Now by 1781 Samuel was on Washington’s staff, and Jack on Israel Putnam’s; and Jack’s uniform it was that was almost secured at Peekskill for Andre’s escape. An old campaigner at 22, it was Samuel who is said to have dropped the suggestion in Washington’s presence that led to “Hospitality Hall” as place of rendezvous with Rochambeau.
|The Council Room. Note the “HL” hinges on the “Christian” doors, the Adams mirror, the heart-and-crown- chairs|
In its May session the Connecticut General Assembly had appropriated £500 for expenses to be incurred for entertaining the two commanders and their corteges while in Wethersfield. Nothing was left undone. On Saturday, the 19th, when Washington, Henry Knox, General Du Portail and their suites neared town they were met by a number of gentlemen from Hartford and Wethersfield, who escorted them to their quarters- As Washington dismounted before “Hospitality Hall” Capt. Frederick Bull’s artillery corps saluted with a discharge of 13 cannon, Washington and his steed being by this time equally inured to such salutes. They took him first into the parlor to the right, where a fire burned on the hearth, above which no mantelshelf broke the clean sweep of the woodwork. To each side of the chimney were closets with “HL” hinges to ward off witches; to make this doubly sure there were “Christian doors” to the closets-a double cross on the upper panel. a single cross below. And when they lighted him up to bed, he turned into the room above the parlor, where even yet we can see a sample of the wallpaper of that day, the only original paper in the house-put on in squares the size of a huge handkerchief, patterned in raised red velvet flowers. The furniture is in keeping, four-poster, wall sconces, and on its table between the front windows, even an unusual whale-oil lamp, with curious double lens.
Next morning found him striding over to the new church to climb the steeple, for he had equally an eye for nature and for good fighting ground. Wherever he was during the Revolution he set the example of going to church. Here at “Hospitality Hall,” a committee waited on him to ask what hour His Excellency would prefer to attend service. “The usual hour, gentlemen,” he replied .”The time of public worship must not be altered on my account,” which shows the respectful awe he excited and the ready tact he ever used. It is even recorded that he paid strict attention to every word of anthem, sermon and hymn – every eye on him and his eyes on the minister.
Governor Trumbull was on deck as usual. Chastellux wrote of his simplicity of dress and importance of manner, a man who brought to mind, he said, the Dutch burgomasters in the days of Heinsius and Barnavelt. “His whole life is consecrated to business, which he passionately loves, whether important or not.” He loved the Lord’s business equally. His and Washington’s diaries that day read characteristically. Dear old Jonathan Trumbull put down: “Lord’s Day, May twentieth.- Went with Capt. Fred. Bull in a carriage to Wethersfield-attended divine service with General Washington per tot diem. Mr. Marsh preached. Mat. 7:3-Blessed are the poor of spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Washington’s impression “per tot diem” was different: the poor in spirit might be blessed but not the army poorly provisioned. His entry reads: “Had a good deal of private conversation with Gov’r. Trumbull, who gave it to me as his opinion that if any important offensive operation should he undertaken he had little doubt of our obtaining Men & Provision adequate to our wants.”
Monday, Washington and his attendant officers with a number of private gentlemen of position and patriotism rode into Hartford to meet the French contingent, Rochambeau and his suite, Chastellux and his suite, but not Barras, too, as had been hoped, since Admiral Arbuthnot’s arrival off Block Island. kept him alertly aboard ship. Rochambeau arrived at noon – the very day, as it chanced, that Cornwallis reached Yorktown. I wonder if the Count still carried the huge muff, emblem of high office, that so much interested Rhode Island folk. When he dismounted in Wethersfield the artillery corps saluted him smartly with a roar of cannon all his own. The town outdid itself in attentions, and it was not here that Rochambeau had to lament that the young women lost all interest in a man and had not a word to say to him the moment they discovered he was married! Surely Roger Welles’s seven handsome sisters. whom their father expressly forbade to marry-Eunice and Sarah and Hannah and Penelope, Prudence, Mehitable and little Marv Welles-all lent a hand at helping Abigail Webb entertain the leaders their father and five brothers so much talked of and admired.
But the council room to the left of the staircase now became the center of interest. Today we see it papered in green and gold and cream and black, a Chinese Chippendale paper chosen, like all the papering that had to be replaced, by an expert from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are “HL” hinges on the passageway closet door, heart-and-crown chairs at the fireplace, and a golden wheat Adam mirror from the Simsbury Colonial Dames.
It is usual to say that here the Yorktown campaign was planned. and let it go at that. But matters were not so easy to arrange that 21st and 22nd of May. The generals were not altogether in accord. Washington still felt the recovery of New York-not impossible with allied armies and a borrowed fleet – the hardest blow they could strike the British. Rochambeau inclined toward combined land and naval operations in Virginia. which might reasonably be expected to necessitate the withdrawal of some troops from New York and Charleston. Would Barras’s and De Grasse’s long-legged ships be able to get over the bar at New York City any better than d’Estaing’s? If not, that left the attack to an army only equal in numbers to the city’s defenders, always an error, according to military mathematics. On the other hand, the French ships at Newport were not large enough to transport the armies south by sea, while an overland march to Virginia was long and difficult, and the danger of disease increased the further south they took their northern-bred troops. So it was argued back and forth, with good reason on both sides and infinite courtesy.
Intercepted despatches spoke of Clinton’s thought of sending a detachment south to help Cornwallis. If so, New York either would be easier to take or would have to hold on to all her men when threatened, thus preventing the complete collapse of the American cause further south. Washington and Rochambeau therefore decided to send a swift frigate to De Grasse. asking when and where he could be expected. If his fleet did bring such naval supremacy that the allies could be carried south by sea, they could change their plans accordingly. Meanwhile the French fleet should join the Americans at the Hudson in hope of a successful move against New York.
That day Jonathan Trumbull’s diary records: “Fair – dined with General Washington, Rochambeau &c. at Stillman’s.” And next day: “Fair – dined at Colyer’s with the Generals-supra public expense. Guards-Artillery.” Washington’s entry is fuller: “Count de Rochambeau set out on his return to Newport, while I prepared and forwarded dispatches to the Governors of the four New England States. calling upon them in earnest & pointed terms, to complete their Continental Battalions for the Campaign.”
Next day he was to go back to headquarters; the town would lose touch with the army and with many native sons. When young women of that day danced through two pairs of satin slippers at an ordination ball to honor their new minister, do you suppose that Abigail Webb would let such an occasion go undanced? Did she not rather, while the Governor “dined at Colyer’s with the Generals supra public expense,” gather her girl friends. the younger officers in town and any aides off duty, set a couple of fiddlers in the musician’s gallery up in the vast attic, and dance till the dust rose and the rafters rang to the rhythm of “Sir Roger de Coverley” or minuet? Today the attic is almost a museum of ancient uses, with hoop skirts and spinning wheels. cheese carrier and bread kneader, old chums with hand-dashers, and elbow rests to ease one’s hours in church. There is an ample closet in the chimney to smoke hams and bacon-flitches; but the fiddlers’ gallery with its crude steep stairs fascinates me most of all.
Young Roger Welles, of Wethersfield. was a captain in Lafayette’s command, one of 100 picked men, all like their leader-over 6 feet tall. During the siege of Yorktown Roger led an attack on one of the redoubts, took it and drove its guard closer in toward the fort. “The Marquis conducted himself like a Fabius and not like `the ambitious boy’ that Lord Cornwallis was pleased to call him,” he writes home with enthusiasm. After British officers and Hessian soldiers had filed awkwardly out, Alexander Hamilton was the first man to enter the fort and Roger Welles the second. “The most pleasing sight I ever beheld,” he wrote again after the surrender, “was to see those haughty fellows march out of their strong entrenchments and ground their arms.”
The Webbs owned the house less than 60 years. Then it passed successively to James Fortune and James Belden, until in 1821 it was bought by a young lawyer of Hartford, Martin Welles, eldest son to Captain Roger, who died a brigadier general. It was the judge Welles’ house for nearly a century, but in 1915 Wallace Nutting bought it, furnished it with rare furniture and bric-a-brac collected after years of search, and took some of the loveliest of interior views. Now the Colonial Dames own it and keep it open all day long from April 1 to November 1, with a nominal admission fee for all of us who are not Colonial Dames.
If you are near, do not fail to see it inside and out, from council room to attic. Linger in its old-fashioned garden, its kitchen with three outlooks, brick floor and beams scraped free of layer upon layer of paint, pause by its wonderful newel post, and as you leave turn for one last look at its great horse-chestnut that so long has guarded the door of “Hospitality Hall.” Silas Deane who, however we may view him, nevertheless did get large quantities of indispensable military supplies for us from overseas, Jonathan Trumbull who loved business, be it great or small, Rochambeau, veteran of a hundred fields, smoother-out of a thousand quarrels, and Washington himself, all went in and out that door!
Quarterly Bulletin, National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution – April 1932