You can watch the rocket’s red glare at a fireworks display, have a picnic or go to a ballgame, but if you want to tap into the revolutionary vibe in celebration of American independence, there may be no better place than the Lebanon, Connecticut Green. Sure, Independence Hall in Philadelphia is ground zero in the birth of the United States, but you step out of the classic redbrick building only to be hit hard with the sites and sounds of a twenty-first century city. Visiting a battlefield or encampment like Valley Forge is a good bet, but they tell only a narrow sliver of the story. In Lebanon, you can practically reach out and touch the eighteenth century.
Dominated by buildings going back two hundred years and more, the Lebanon Green is a broad, mile long common that is as close to a colonial landscape as you are likely to find. Although there’s a gravel walking path around the perimeter and a few stone benches and trees, it’s mostly a field, much of which is still harvested for hay. Livestock graze on adjacent farms and when the wind is right, the air is lightly scented with pungent manure. Block out cars and a few people in modern dress and you can feel transported. We willingly suspend disbelief at a play or the movies, so why not test our imaginations at a site where real things actually happened?
Since the revolution began with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, revolutionary time travel best starts near the south end of the Green at the home of William Williams, a signer of that document and member of the Continental Congress. Williams was a merchant and an electrifying orator who set aside his business to enlist recruits and marshal supplies for the army. His house, still a private residence, is a foursquare colonial with a generous entrance and pilasters at the corners. It looks as if a man in tricorn hat and waistcoat might step out the door at any moment.
On the opposite side of the Green and a little north is the home of Jonathan Trumbull, the only colonial governor to support the Revolution and a close confident of George Washington. Now a museum, the house is a gracious center chimney structure with triangular pediments over the lower windows and central doorway. On days when it is open, visitors are greeted by docents in period costume whose wealth of knowledge cannot help but cause one to fall back in time. A merchant and Connecticut’s largest meatpacker, Trumbull was critical in supplying the troops. His tiny gambrel roof store just down the street was nicknamed the War Office because within its walls he helped plot the revolution with Washington, Generals Knox and Putnam, and French allies Rochambeau and Lafayette. Over 500 meetings of the Council of Safety were held here. Washington said of this stern-looking man that “but for Jonathan Trumbull the war would not have been won.”
Further north and on the opposite side of the Green from his father’s place, is the residence of Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. who not only assisted his dad in providing the Continental Army with supplies, he was military secretary to Washington and witnessed the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. He was also the first Comptroller of the U.S. Treasury and second speaker of the U.S. House and later a Connecticut governor. It’s a substantial house with a divided light transom window over the doorway. Washington stayed here on March 4, 1781.
Between November 1780 and June 1781 colorful French cavalry camped nearby, baking their bread and conducting drills on the Green before marching on to Yorktown. Continental troops also drilled here, and Washington reviewed the men when he visited in the late winter of 1781. I imagine the tall, regal looking general on horseback slowly moving along the long row of men stiffly at attention on a chilly, windy day. For all their hardships, the troops must have felt buoyed in the presence of a commander who was already a living legend.
A walk around the Lebanon Green can take an observant traveler full circle in the story of the American Revolution from the signing of the Declaration through the building of political and logistical support to the recruitment and training of troops and the assistance of our French allies. With a little imagination, some historical knowledge, and a bit of patriotic fervor you can conjure a close encounter with the country’s struggle for nationhood.
The Lebanon Green is a place where space matters as much as time and the ghosts of 1776 are never far away. It’s remarkable that this small, humble plot of ground served such a critical role in world changing events. But for most of its existence the Green has been the quiet, pastoral spot it is today. As a plaque affixed to a rock near the Jonathan Trumbull House notes, “ON THIS SITE IN 1897 NOTHING HAPPENED.” Thanks to those brave and persistent souls who wrestled freedom from an empire, nothing much will happen today either.