We will not give up the Fort
let the consequences be what they may.
September 6, 1781
During the Revolutionary War, New London harbor on the Thames River was home port for many privately owned armed ships that preyed upon British supply vessels and merchant ships. The privateers were licensed by the State of Connecticut according to the rules established by Congress. Each year they increased in number and captured more British shipping. Their exploits peaked with the taking of the Hannah's rich cargo which included personal supplies for British officers stationed in New York City and helped prompt the events that soon followed.
New London's bulging warehouses brought great wealth to adventurous ship owners and merchants, but they were a potential target for enemy reprisals. From the earliest days of the war, state officials had seen the need for harbor fortifications, but construction had proceeded slowly. By 1781, the largest structure on the New London side, Fort Trumbull, was still unfinished and vulnerable to attack from land.
East of the river on Groton Heights, a completed work, Fort Griswold, commanded the harbor and the surrounding countryside. It was somewhat square with protecting fortifications on two corners and a projection on the east side. A deep trench surrounded the fort on three sides. The lower walls were faced with stone and were topped with a barrier of cedar pickets projecting outward. Above this was an earthen wall with openings (embrasures) for cannon. A tunnel-like passageway (sally port) led to a covered ditch which ended at a battery for cannon southwest of the fort. The gate at the north end was protected by a V-shaped earthen mount. Barracks for 300 men paralleled the innermost wall and the magazine was set into the southwest bastion near the flagpole. The fort was in good condition and the magazine was full in 1781.
Late that summer, the British generals were anxious to distract Washington who was then marching south. They decided to create a diversion by attacking an important northern supply center, New London, and, with the same stroke, destroy the "Rebel pirate ships." The command of the expedition fell to Benedict Arnold who had deserted the American cause the year before, and who, being a native of nearby Norwich, knew the harbor area well.
At sunrise on September 6, 1781, the people of the town were awakened with the news that a large force of British Regulars had landed on both sides of the river's mouth and were coming upon them fast. They could do nothing but flee. A number of rigged ships in the harbor caught a favorable breeze and escaped upstream, but the rest were trapped. The 800 men led by Arnold into New London met only scattered resistance as they set upon the task of destroying the "immense" stockpile of goods and naval stores kept there. Buildings, wharfs and ships were soon in flames. One hundred and forty-three buildings, nearly all in town, were consumed.
The Battle of Groton Heights
The scene of Major Montgomery's charge.
The view shows the covered ditch, southwest bastion, and sally port.
The British force of 800 that landed on the east side of the Thames River was
slowed by tangled woods and swamps. A battalion of New Jersey loyalists responsible
for moving the artillery could not keep pace with the Regulars who came within
striking distance of Fort Griswold at 10:00 a.m. Meanwhile, the fort had been
garrisoned with about 150 militia and local men under the command of Colonel
William Ledyard. Colonel Ledyard and his officers, expecting reinforcements
momentarily, elected to defend the post against the superior force. Colonel
Eyre, the British commander, sent forward a flag demanding surrender. Ledyard
refused. The demand was made again and Eyre threatened that if he were forced
to storm the fort, no quarter would be given to its defenders. The response
was the same.
The British force immediately spread their ranks and advanced on Fort Griswold.
As they neared the ditch, they were met with an artillery barrage which killed
and wounded many, but the seasoned and disciplined troops continued their charge.
Some tried to gain the southwest bastion but they were repulsed and Colonel
Eyre was badly wounded. Under heavy musket fire, another group dislodged some
pickets and by hand-to-hand combat reached a cannon and turned it against the
garrison. Another party led by Major Montgomery charged with fixed bayonets.
They were met with long spear and the Major was killed. A few of the Regulars
managed to reach the gate and open it and the enemy force marched in, in formation.
Seeing this, Colonel Ledyard ordered his men to stop fighting, but some action
continued on both sides.
American and British accounts of the subsequent events are at odds. The American version holds that after Ledyard gave up his sword in surrender he was immediately killed with it and a massacre ensured. Before the "massacre" it is claimed that less than ten Americans had been killed, but when it was over, more than eighty of the garrison lay dead and mutilated and more than half of the remainder were severely wounded. The British version makes no mention of the massacre or of the manner of Ledyard's death. The entire battle had lasted only 40 minutes.
Major Montgomery was buried in the fort's parade ground. The other British dead were placed in unmarked graves and their wounded were carried down the steep hill to the river. The American wounded were placed on a heavy artillery cart which, as it was being moved down hill, broke away and smashed into a tree causing terrible suffering. The bleeding wounded men were then carried to the nearby Avery House. Prisoners who were able to walk were placed aboard ship. As evening approached, the British troops embarked, leaving a detachment behind to lay a powder train from the full magazine to the barracks and then burn the barracks. The attempt to destroy the fort failed when a patriot put the fire out. Arnold reported his losses for the expedition at 51 dead and 142 wounded. Many of his wounded men and prisoners soon died aboard ship.
Fort Griswold was the scene of military defense preparations in at least four other wars. The water battery was rebuilt and rearmed several times, but the fort itself retained its original form.
The granite monument was dedicated in 1830 to the men who had defended Fort Griswold. In the centennial year, 1881, the top was enclosed and the monument was increased to a height of 134 feet.
The monument today.
This colonial house is located on the park grounds, west of the fort. After the battle on the heights, many of the American wounded were placed in this house. It was moved from its original location on nearby Thames Street in 1971.
Information on this page is courtesy of the Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park Foundation.
View more photographs of Fort Griswold
Be sure to also visit Michael Meal's Fort Griswold Page for news of Fort-related events.
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