CHAPTER 4. Planning the Yorktown Campaign at Wethersfield

Wethersfield is two tours in one: settlement and colonial. (For the tour of the settlement period see the chapter on "Early English Settlements in Connecticut.") For the Revolutionary War period there are available three house museums that have great historic value. Behind the houses are gardens that you also may want to tour.

Joseph Webb House
211 Main Street, Wethersfield, CT (Open Tues-Sat 10-4, all year; and Sun 1-4, May 15-Oct 15)

Joseph Webb Sr., a prosperous shopkeeper and West Indies trader, built this house in 1752. He died in 1761, leaving behind his wife, Mehitabel, and six young children. Mehitabel married Silas Deane in 1763 -- the two having met when Silas handled Mehitabel's legal affairs after her husband's death. The couple had one son, making a total of seven in their charge.

In 1766 Deane built next-door to the Webb House a home that today is known as the Deane House. Four of the younger children lived with the Deanes in this house. Joseph Webb Jr., then age 18, and two of the children stayed in the Webb House. Joseph ran the store his father had established. He later married Abigail Chester, but continued to live in the Webb House.

Within a year of Mehitabel's move into the Deane house she died. Subsequent relations between the Deane and Webb households became strained. Several of the Webb children accused Deane of misappropriating the Webb inheritance for his own financial gain.

Following the American defeat at the battle of Saratoga, the French joined cause with the rebels. The British decided on a series of attacks on the southern colonies. This caused the British to evacuate Newport, Rhode Island in November 1779. Newport then hosted a French expeditionary force under the command of Comte de Rochambeau. While the French army stayed in Newport, in May of 1781 Washington selected the Webb House for what turned out to be a five-day conference with Rochambeau.

Washington selected Wethersfield because it was almost equidistant between Newburgh, New York on the Hudson River where he was headquartered, and Newport, where the French were. Joseph Webb, Jr.'s younger brother, Samuel, had served as Washington's aide-de-camp in 1776 and later commanded a special infantry unit directly under Washington. This may have influenced Washington's selection of the Webb House for the site of the meeting. Washington stayed here from May 19 to May 24, 1781. Rochambeau stayed at Stillman's Tavern (no longer in existence). When touring the house you can see the parlor where Washington and Rochambeau met to plan what proved to be the final showdown at Yorktown, Virginia. At Yorktown the British under Lord Cornwallis surrendered October 1781. Also present at the meeting was Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. of Connecticut. Relations between Washington and Rochambeau were strained and tense. The men had met once before, in Hartford, and they did not trust each other. It was said that Rochambeau was unpleasant, even rancorous at the previous meeting. The two agreed to attack New York. But Rochambeau never had any intentions of going to New York. He decided to go with his original proposal of attacking Cornwallis in Virginia. He also did not inform Washington that a French fleet was headed north from the Indies to rendezvous with Rochambeau's fleet. The Frenchman made sure that the fleet would not go to New York, so Washington would have no choice but to move on Virginia.

In the house itself you can see the parlor that is known as the Council Room, because this is where the strategies were worked out for the Yorktown campaign. Very few of the furniture pieces are original. The other parlor has a cabinet with a shell-dome cover (looks like a rising sun). Note the beautiful colors of the shell-carved cupboard in the north parlor. In the gentlemen's library there is a game of loo set up. This was a Chinese gambling game. Also here is a ceremonial dress sword worn by Samuel Webb. In the dining room are Chippendale chairs and Chinese export porcelain. Upstairs is a calamanca coverlet. In the hall is a 1690 dower chest of oak. In honor of Washington's stay the bedroom has been completely redone. Here is the original wallpaper. It has turned brown with age, but one section has been protected and you can see it was of red flock (made from wool dust). Here also is another calamanca coverlet. In the attic is the slave loft for both indentured and Black slaves.

Joseph Webb, Jr. had thirteen children in all, ten of which survived infancy. He furnished supplies to the American Army, but accepted as payment Continental money at face value. Subsequently, currency inflation pushed Joseph into debtor's prison, where he spent a total of twelve years.

In 1790 Mrs. Webb's family, the Chesters, bought the Webb House. The Webbs lived in the house until 1802 when the Chesters sold it. When Joseph finally got out of debtor's prison he and his family had to live in the home of Mrs. Webb's parents as Joseph could not find employment.

Silas Deane House
Next door to the Webb House (on the left), Wethersfield, CT (Same hours as the Webb House)

Silas Dean graduated from Yale in 1758. He then studied law at night, while teaching school during the day. He was admitted to the bar in 1761 and began his law practice in Wethersfield.

He married Mehitabel Webb in 1763 and built the Dean House for her in 1766. Mehitabel died in 1767 and soon afterwards Dean married Elizabeth Saltonstall, the granddaughter of Gurdon Saltonstall, governor of Connecticut from 1707 to 1724.

Deane's accomplishments are many. He served on the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence; was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses; helped finance the expedition that captured Fort Ticonderoga; assisted in the birth of the United States Navy; and was the first accredited American diplomat. It was this last role that was to cause Deane so much grief.

Deane went to France and successfully procured the supplies that proved so crucial to winning the Battle of Saratoga that finally convinced the French formally to come into the war against the British. Despite this accomplishment, difficulties partly arose from the in-fighting between himself and fellow diplomat Arthur Lee. Lee accused Deane of charging the American government for French supplies that were really gifts and then pocketing the money himself. Deane was innocent of this charge, but had a difficult time defending himself. However, Deane was in a conflict of interest situation. In France he engaged in private commerce, while holding a public office. Congress recalled him in 1778 to account for his expenditures, but did not give him a hearing. In 1780 Deane went back to France to clear his name and settle all outstanding accounts.

While in France, Deane only made matters worse for himself by writing private letters in which he expressed his feelings that the Americans would loose the war and should begin to sue for peace. These letters became public knowledge and Deane found himself accused of treason by many influential persons.

Despised as a traitor and living in abject poverty in his later years, Deane died in 1789 on board ship on his way back to America. In 1841 Congress exonerated him and paid $37,000 to Deane's heirs.

The house itself is a real hodge-podge -- not much Georgian symmetry here. The "best parlor" was kept closed when not in use. There is a portrait of Silas Dean by William Johnston in the house. As in the Webb house there were quarters for the slaves. A rare press bed lifts up into the wall to hide behind the curtains. In the kitchen are twenty-two inch wide wood floor boards. Note the brass clock jack installed above the fireplace that controls the action of the spit. The eating parlor is covered with a painted canvas floor cloth that looks like linoleum.

Isaac Stevens House
Next door to the Webb House (on the right), Wethersfield, CT (Same hours as the Webb House)

This 1788 Connecticut Georgian house of saddler, Isaac Stevens, contains over one hundred objects owned by the many generations of the Stevens family that lived here. The Stevens house is interesting because it is just like the many Georgian houses one can visit in the travel area but all the rooms are smaller. In the parlor is an Eli Terry clock, and in the kitchen is the owner's desk and ledger.

First Church of Christ, Congregational
Corner of Main and Marsh streets, Wethersfield, CT (Open daily 9-5 all year)

This is the third meetinghouse on this property. It was completed in 1764 and is the oldest extant brick meeting house in Connecticut. The town had to raise extra money to pay for the fancy church, therefore, wags referred to the structure as "the church that onions built!" Washington attended the church while visiting the Webb family. Be sure and see the ancient burying ground behind the church. The oldest grave is from 1648. One of the graves is of a black slave who became a physician. He learned the necessary medical skills by being an apprentice to his master. Through his abilities he gained his freedom. A descendant of his, Nelson Primus, was a successful portrait painter.

Captain James Francis House
1204 Hartford Avenue, Wethersfield, CT (Open Thur 1-4, May 15-Oct 15)

Captain Francis was a master builder. Indeed, he was the local expert on the framing of brick houses. Today there are over twenty examples of his work still standing in Wethersfield. He build this house in 1793. It has remained in the Francis family for seven generations. It contains family furnishings and artifacts.

Solomon Welles House
220 Hartford Avenue, Wethersfield, CT (open all year)

Solomon Welles was a descendent of Thomas Welles, the only governor from Wethersfield. Work on the house, begun in 1774, stopped because the men had to go off to fight the revolution. When they returned, they retrieved their tools and completed the job.

Hurlbut-Dunham House
212 Main Street, Wethersfield, CT (Open all year)

In 1796 first mate John Hurlbut (1770-1808) of Wethersfield was sailing around the world on the ship "Neptune." Little did he realize that the captain would die and he would find himself in charge of the voyage. He successfully completed the trip -- giving him the honor of commanding the first Connecticut ship to circumnavigate the globe. On his return he built this home in 1804. It is one of the finest and largest Federal buildings in town. Tragically, the young man died in New York City of smallpox at the age of thirty-eight. His wife and daughter also died of the disease. An aunt and uncle raised the surviving daughter in the house here.

In 1852 Levi Goodwin, a tavern keeper, bought the house and added a kitchen ell and piazza. Goodwin married John Hurlbut's granddaughter. In 1879 Silas W. Robbins, a prosperous businessman, purchased the house for his son and daughter-in-law. His granddaughter lived here all her life and finally turned over the property and house to the Wethersfield Historical Society. The front parlor has furniture of the Victorian and Federal periods. Matching marble mantel-pieces were installed in the parlors after 1879. A paneled archway joins the two halves of the double parlor. The dining room has a Tiffany chandelier, and early twentieth century china, glassware, and tablecloth.

Other Sites

See the chapters dealing with the Wethersfield and Windsor settlements. There are also lots of sites in nearby Hartford, including the Harriet Beecher Stowe-Mark Twain houses. When in the area north of Hartford stop and see Newgate Prison (Newgate Road, Exit 40 of I-91 in East Granby), where British prisoners of war were kept.

 

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