Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Christmas in 1780

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Christmas in 1780

University Hall, an early view.
University Hall was only ten years old when it was used as a military hospital in 1780. (Detail of illustration from The Early History of Brown University by Dr. Reuben Aldridge Guild (1864)).

Voices raised to heaven.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 140-142, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

It was the year 1780 and Christmas time in Providence, where not many more than twenty-five hundred war-weary souls were preparing for the age-old holiday observance with just a little more enthusiasm than they had been able to arouse for, what seemed to them, a long, long time. And, it had been a long time since the startling news of the fateful clash of arms at Lexington had disrupted the ordinary course of things in all Rhode Island. April 19, 1775, then seemed like a day in the dim past, only faintly recalled as the time when it all began. Too many things had happened, had occurred in rapid succession, for any one hour, day, or event to stand out in any great degree of prominence then, for the crushing burdens of war still rested heavily upon the shoulders of Rhode Islanders and of all those in America who, for more than five years, had resolutely sought liberty through armed resistance.

Long forgotten by the people of Providence in 1780 were the quiet times of ordered existence. No longer were the laborious but tranquil pursuits of agriculture, and the methodical tasks of trade and commerce familiar to the comparatively few men who remained at home; no longer were household duties for the women routines of regular habits and practices. Providence like many American communities was a military camp; talk of war filled the air; machinery of war cluttered the streets; no family could escape or avoid the destructive, disconcerting effects of a bitter struggle that still raged on native soil. For many months since '75 Providence had been near to the actual fighting, hundreds of soldiers had tramped through its streets to battle, and on their way back to home or hospital. Young men, old men, many had smelled the smoke of battle, been shaken by the sudden burst of bombardment. While old wounds and new wounds were healed under the patient care of frightened, hopeful wives and mothers—cherished notes from the front were pressed against anxious breasts. In all wars man-made instruments of destruction shatter the minds and bodies of humans far out of the range of their death-dealing missiles. Battlefields encompass vastly more than the serried ranks and drawn up reserves of fighting armies.

Map of College Hill, 1790.
This detail from a 1790 map gives an idea of the layout of College Hill during the period of this story. University Hall is at the top, First Baptist Church is to the left, just north and to the right of the bridge is Market House. (Map redrawn by Christopher Martin, 2007; original is in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society).

But, it was now Christmas in Providence and it was the year 1780 when something had happened that gave renewed hope to those who sought liberty through strife. In the summer six thousand men had come from far-off France to help the American colonists in their cause, and this formidable force of eager allies had the good fortune to complete a long and stormy ocean voyage in Rhode Island waters. Leaving their ships in Newport harbor, Count de Rochambeau's troops were promptly quartered in the old seaport at the lower end of the Bay. Many were ill, however, after the crossing, and had to be provided immediately with hospital care.

The ill French soldiers who remained in Newport quartered in the Old State House and in the Congregational Church; some were sent to Bristol; and about three hundred and forty were transported to Providence and placed in University Hall, on College Hill, Brown's original structure, which was ordered to be turned over to the French by the Council of War. Brown University's precious pile of perfect Colonial design was a hospital for sick, lonesome native French warriors when the snow began to fall lightly late in the afternoon of December 24, 1780.

For many weeks the Frenchmen who had escaped illness and who could actively prepare for service at the front with Washington's army had virtually spellbound both Newport and Providence with their dazzling uniforms and courtly manners. People took their new guests as a form of wine, responding miraculously to their invigorating presence. Rhode Islanders, bruised and battered by every blow known to war, began to laugh again in the renewed gaiety of social life, and turned with a new heart to build up a bustling business and trade. The best mansions were thrown open to the French officers, and many homesteads, especially in Newport, were allotted to them as quarters. Brilliant parties and balls sprang into immediate vogue, and the two chief seaports of Rhode Island outdid themselves in courtesy and hospitality. Newport witnessed most of the social renaissance but Providence and other communities were not far behind in the whirl of entertainment. Nor were the Frenchmen one whit behind. Perhaps they had heard that a reputation for foppish ways and broad views about life preceded their arrival in this country; at any rate, they deliberately set out to shatter the truth of such unfair rumors. Certainly, by acting from the beginning with the most perfect decorum and grace, they dispelled whatever apprehensions American people may have had. Rather, the sight of their brilliant regalia, their gleaming swords, cockades, buttoned boots, the white uniforms of the Deux-Ponts Regiment, the green and white of the Saintonge, the black and red of the Bourbonnais, and the rose facings of the Soissonais [sic] with white and rose pluming surmounting grenadier caps, soon caused many a feminine heart to flutter, perhaps to feel that war really wasn't so terrible after all.

But the belles of Rhode Island were not alone in feeling the delightful quickening of the pulse and the excited beating of the heart. Charming as the Frenchmen had found America, they were unanimous in their praise of its beautiful women. Refined, attractive, gallant, and always considerate, they vied among themselves for the honor of paying tribute to their fair Colonial hostesses and partners at gay social functions. Many a French heart was left behind on the shores of Narragansett Bay at parting time, and many a romance, friendship, and broken heart can never be recalled. But, we are thinking particularly now of Christmas Eve, in 1780, when, in the midst of the joy and merriment that a chance meeting of the Old World and the new brought to these shores, three hundred or more strangers rested quietly in the dimly-lighted halls and chambers of old University Hall on College Hill.

Somewhere that afternoon a group of French officers had met intending to celebrate the approaching Christmas Eve. They were thinking and talking of Paris and of little villages in their faraway homeland—they pictured in their minds the familiar scenes of Christmas back home. They wondered what the holiday would be like in Puritanical New England where, for many years, old world customs had been put aside for more austere, conservative rites and forms of observance. But, several rounds of Madeira wine, and perhaps a few hot toddies which the cold November days in Rhode Island had taught these strangers to relish, soon dispelled all somber thoughts and longings for home. Songs soon replaced thoughts and words, and when candle lights began to flicker in the gray of twilight, the merry spirit of an old time Christmas spread to every corner of the tavern room, not far from the Market House. The tunes they sang were familiar to all, but the words sounded strange to the Providence folks who peered through the steaming panes of the tavern windows and who crowded into the room to join the happy Frenchmen. Greetings were exchanged, well wishes extended, toasts drunk to General Washington, to Count de Rochambeau, to Lafayette, to the pretty girls of Providence, to Rhode Island, to Christmas.

Then some one suggested that a serenade be given the sick Frenchmen on the Hill; and hardly had the suggestion been offered when an impromptu procession was formed in front of the tavern. Two musicians with a flute and a viola appeared from somewhere, volunteer serenaders appeared from everywhere. Headed by a popular tavern keeper in the town who linked arms with a stalwart Grenadier from the Royal Deux Ponts, the singing, laughing, arm-waving file, becoming longer and longer by the minute, circled Market Square and then tramped through the mud and slush up the hill leading to the Military Hospital long since vacated by President Manning's prospective lawyers, doctors, and preachers.

There were no Van Wickle gates to pass through then, no sidewalks for hand clapping spectators to stand upon and watch the fun. College Hill that night was just a sloping, treelined cowpath, but no College victory parade along that famous thoroughfare ever had more genuine enthusiasm, heartfelt spirit than did the procession of jolly carollers on the eve of Christmas in 1780.

Standing beneath the great elms that were probably the grandparents of the stately trees now surrounding Brown's original college building, Frenchmen, Englishmen, officers, soldiers, tavern-keepers, boys, pretty girls, and aged patriarchs waited for the signal, and then, as the snow fell lightly upon cockades, bonnets, fur caps, and beavers, they sang of Christmas. It was an old tune, a French tune, but both English and foreign words seemed to fit the rhythm and meter of the melody. Words did not matter, it was the spirit of the singing, and the three hundred or more lonesome, bodily-ill strangers behind those hoary walls heard the voices; they knew it was Christmas in Providence, Christmas everywhere. Tears came to eyes, prayers were muttered, heads fell back upon rough straw pallets, but a bond of union, of sympathy and understanding, had joined all in a common spirit of peace on earth, goodwill to men. And, as the last strains of "Lift up your gates, ye Princes, and let the child be born," or some other old European carol, reached the ears of those who listened within, some one ran to the steps of the ancient edifice and shouted loudly, "Merry Christmas to all, Merry Christmas to all," and the answer came back from every hall, from every room, "Joyeux Noel, Joyeux Noel." It was a Merry Christmas for all in Providence, in 1780.

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John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes
Although sung to an old French melody, the lyrics of the Christmas carol "A Day, A Day of Glory," from which the line "Lift up your gates, ye Princes, and let the child be born" comes, weren't written until the nineteenth century. John M. Neale (1818-1866) based his lyrics on Psalm 24:7.

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