Those of us of a certain age may remember the outrageous hijinks of the POWs in the 1960s comedy Hogan’s Heroes. (Some interesting trivia: Waterbury, CT native Bob Crane portrayed Colonel Hogan in that popular show.)
Working from within a German stalag, the heroes of the show did their best to disrupt the German war effort. The prisoners dug a complex of tunnels under the camp. Prisoners masquerading as anyone and everyone, including women and Hitler, were the order of the day. Nonsensical, of course, but maybe not entirely without precedent.
During the early days of the American Revolution, Major Christopher French was the ranking prisoner of war (POW) in Hartford in the rebellious colony of Connecticut. He was an Anglo-Irish officer that had been captured at sea on a British supply ship on August 12, 1775. Originally taken to Philadelphia, he gave his parole and was sent north with other prisoners to General Washington’s camp outside of Boston. Washington, not wanting to be bothered by housing prisoners during a siege, had the group intercepted and sent to the “safe” inland city of Hartford.
At first, French and the other captured officers enjoyed what we would today consider unheard-of privileges for POWs. French, with his servant, was housed in a tavern run by William Knox. He would visit other prisoners and generally had the run of the town during the day. This, however, was not to last.
Major French, you see, was a problem prisoner. He wrote letters of complaint to General Washington (which probably contributed to his arrival in Hartford rather than to the outskirts of Boston in the first place). He tried to have letters, pro-British of course, published in the Connecticut Courant. He had no respect for the rebellious colonists and was particularly incensed by the printer of the Courant. When the local clergy prayed for the Continental Congress, French, as ranking officer, ordered that none of his fellow prisoners were to attend services. On August 28, 1776, he was placed in the local jail charged with “libellous [sic] Reflections on the Clergy & Churches established.”
In November of that year, Major French found a new way to be troublesome. When the local clergy wisely declined to marry local girls to prisoners, he conducted the weddings from the jail. After the second wedding, he was warned that his next stop would be Newgate Prison. Several days later, he made his first escape with four other prisoners through a hole in the jail that they had been working for two weeks.
After spending part of the time dressed as a woman, he was recaptured in four days. Six weeks later, he escaped again. This time his disguises included a rebel officer and a sailor. He reached his own British lines in January of 1777.
Two of Major French’s journals, including one at the Library of Congress, were transcribed by Sheldon S. Cohen in The Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 55:2-4 (Summer/Fall 1990).
CHS Development Services Associate Jill Padelford came to the CHS as an intern in the late 1980s. She has worked in the archives and served as the editorial assistant for the CHS Bulletin before moving onto IT, the store, and now fundraising. She occasionally does a spinning workshop for Home School Day.
Jill earned a B.A. in history with a minor in computer science from Eckerd College.
About the Connecticut Historical Society
A private, nonprofit, educational organization established in 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Located at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, the CHS houses a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center that are open to the public and funded by private contributions.
The CHS’s collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials accessible at our campus and on loan at other organizations. The CHS collection, programs and exhibits help Connecticut residents connect with each other, have conversations that shape our communities, and make informed decisions based on our past and present.