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The Battle of Groton Heights was a battle of the American Revolutionary War fought on September 6, 1781 between a small Continental Army force led by William Ledyard and the more numerous Britishmarker forces led by Benedict Arnold and Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre. It resulted in a decisive British victory.

Background

The national historic site is set on the place of battle


With its history dating back to 1655, Groton was a division of New London, its larger counterpart across the Thames River. Groton was an important maritime port, and became one of the largest along the New England coastline. Groton was officially separated from New London and incorporated as a separate town in 1705.

During the summer of 1781, British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Henry Clinton had all but destroyed George Washington’s forces stationed in New York. Washington had changed his plan of operations from continuing to attack Clinton in New York, to heading south towards Yorktown, Virginiamarker in a bold maneuver to capture British General Charles Cornwallis and his forces. General Clinton received news of Washington’s plans too late and was unable to reinforce Cornwallis. As a last resort, Clinton sought out to reestablish his base of operations in the New England territories while maintaining a defense at New York in case of a possible counterattack. Clinton’s plan called for an invasion of New England, and he decided that his new campaign would begin at the Connecticut port of New London along the Thames River. With Fort Trumbullmarker on the west bank and Fort Griswold on the east bank of the town of Grotonmarker, Clinton believed that with a victory over these fortresses he would be able to launch a full-scale invasion of New Englandmarker. He gave command of the forces to siege Fort Griswold and New London to Norwich, Connecticutmarker native Benedict Arnold.

Battle

At sunrise on September 6, 1781, a large force of 1,700 British regulars landed on both sides of the river’s mouth. The people of the town could do nothing but evacuate. Several ships in the harbor escaped upstream. The 800-man detachment that Arnold led met with no resistance as it destroyed stockpiles of goods and naval stores. Under the orders given, much of the town was to be spared. Unknown to Arnold, however, at least one of the ships he was to burn contained a large quantity of gunpowder. When it ignited, the resulting explosion set fire to the surrounding buildings. The fire was soon uncontrollable and 143 buildings were consumed by flames.
The tunnel-like passage
Meanwhile, the British force of 800 men that landed on the east side of the Thames River was slowed by tangled woodlands and swamplands. A battalion of New Jersey Loyalists, who were responsible for moving the artillery, could not keep pace with the regulars who came within striking range of Fort Griswold.

The fort was garrisoned by 164 militia and local men under the command of Colonel William Ledyard. He and his officers were expecting reinforcements soon. British commander Colonel Eyre sent a flag demanding the surrender of Fort Griswold, but Ledyard declined. Eyre then threatened to give no quarter to the defenders if he were to force to storm the fort, but Ledyard responded as before.

Soon, the British force advanced on the fort. As they neared the ditch, they were met by an artillery bombardment which killed and wounded many. Some tried to take the southwest bastion, but were repulsed. Colonel Eyre was badly wounded during the assault. Under heavy musket fire, another group removed some pickets and, in hand-to-hand combat, captured the cannon and turned it against its own men. Another party, led by Major Montgomery, led a bayonet charge, in which Montgomery was killed. A few of the British regulars forced open the gate and entered the fort. Colonel Ledyard then ordered his men to cease fire, but fighting continued on both sides.

The American version of what followed claims that after Ledyard gave up his sword in surrender, he was immediately killed with his own sword and a massacre followed. The British version makes no mention of either the massacre or Ledyard’s death.

Arnold’s forces prepared to leave New York Harbor on the 4th of September and docked within approximately thirty miles of New London the following day on September 5. Arnold’s original plan was to enter New London harbor the night of September 5 in order to catch the Americans under the cover of night, but due to weather conditions, the British fleet would anchor the following morning on September 6. Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard was the commander of the American militia forces stationed in New London and Groton. Ledyard himself had prior intelligence of British forces stationed in New York, but Arnold’s assault of the harbor was greatly unanticipated. In the early hours of September 6, Colonial Officer Rufus Avery, stationed at Fort Griswold witnessed the oncoming British onslaught:

“...about three o’clock in the morning, as soon as I had daylight so as to see the fleet, it appeared a short distance below the lighthouse. The fleet consisted of thirty-two vessels…I immediately sent word to Captain William Latham, who commanded the said fort, and who was not far distant. He very soon came to the fort, and saw the enemy’s fleet, and immediately sent a notice to Col. William Ledyard, who was commander of the harbor, Fort Griswold, and Fort Trumbull.”

Upon receiving the information, Ledyard crossed the Thames to Groton to meet with his soldiers and commanders to discuss strategy, seeing how the oncoming British vessels surely meant that conflict was inevitable. Ledyard’s band of approximately 185 militia would be the only defense of the Groton mainland; most all of them men with their sons and relatives. This was a particularly desperate time for Ledyard having no reinforcements or the resources to defend themselves even though British forces had not previously planned to attack Groton and New London. In preparing to capture General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Washington was unable to supply Fort Griswold with any additional troops or provisions, leaving the men to fight on their own.

Ledyard’s survey of Fort Griswold only added to the distress. Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull, being newly built forts, suffered from continuous shortages of provisions and equipment. In the case of Trumbull, construction of the fort itself wasn’t even finished. Although Fort Griswold’s infrastructure was complete, Ledyard would find that the fort’s defenses were still far from acceptable; lacking sufficient amounts of gunpowder, cannonballs, food, and troops to conduct an effective stand against the British. These inconveniences however had to be dealt with seeing as how Ledyard was out of options and virtually out of time. At this time, British troops would arrive within hours. Ledyard’s original plan called for all militia to be barricaded within the defenses of the fort in order to better preserve their numbers, considering they were outnumbered approximately 6:1. However, subordinates under Ledyard, came to a consensus that launching the bulk of their forces to meet the enemy in a skirmish outside the fort would confuse the British forces and possibly scramble their ranks. This would prove a brave effort; but as for the British, it would be their sheer numbers that would grant them their victory.

At approximately 10:30 through 11:00, eyewitness George Middleton, commanding officer of an African American unit called the “Bucks of America” witnessed the quick rallying of Ledyard’s militia and the landing of the British regiments. Middleton stated, “Soon after ascending the hill, the women and children began to congregate there, wringing their hands, and crying, “Oh, my son!” children crying, “Oh, my father!” and “Oh, my brother!”. Middleton continues his description of the landing of the British forces:

“The other division of troops landed on the east side of the river…under the command of Col. Eyre and Major Montgomery. This division…got to the terminus of the woods…a little south of east on a direct line from the fort. Here the division halted, and Major Montgomery sent Captain Beckwith with a flag to the fort to demand its surrender. Colonel Ledyard…sent a flag and met Beckwith…The bearer of the American flag answered, “Colonel Ledyard will maintain the fort to the last extremity.”

With these words, the battle upon the hills of Groton thus commenced. British forces then launched a full scale assault upon the fort. Survivor Stephen Hempstead, Sergeant in Ledyard’s militia states,“When the answer to their demand had been returned…the enemy were soon in motion, and marched with great rapidity, in a solid column…they rushed furiously and simultaneously to the assault of the southwest bastion and the opposite sides.”British regiments began their strong offensive but the American soldiers met them in an equally strong manner. British troops were initially pushed back and were forced to regroup for a second offensive. The problem for the British in this case was the Eyre’s and Montgomery’s divisions had to overcome many physical barriers around the fort. Their columns had to maneuver through trenches and tree lines that outlined the perimeter of the fort.

In the midst of the vast carnage between the offensives, British Colonel Eyre was mortally wounded by the gunfire and Major Montgomery was reported to have been bayoneted to death by African American, Jordan Freeman. Invigorated through rage, the British forces now entertained a much different mindset upon fighting the Americans. With their top commanding officers killed, the battle thus became personal; revenge now motivated the British assault. British forces conducted their last full offensive on the Americans who were then forced into retreat. Their uphill march brought them to the gates where they made their way through the fortifications of Fort Griswold to finish the Americans off once and for all.
Seeing that the effort to save Fort Griswold was about to come to an end, Colonel Ledyard attempted to rally the rest of his men to cease fighting. However the effort did not change the minds of the British. Rufus Avery stated, “I believe there was not less than five or six hundred men of the enemy on the parade in the fort. They killed and wounded nearly every man in the fort as quick as they could…”   Yet the slaughter wasn’t over until the British could finalize their revenge for the deaths of their top commanders Eyre and Montgomery. It was at this moment that British Captain Bromfield, who usurped command of the British troops, would avenge the deaths of his commanding officers by executing Colonel Ledyard himself; who was fully ready to surrender the fort with honor. Survivor Jonathan Rathbun described the gruesome defeat of Ledyard:


“…the wretch [Captain Bromfield] who murdered him [Ledyard], exclaimed, as he came near, “Who commands this fort?” Ledyard handsomely replied, “I did, but you do now:” at the same moment handing him his sword, which the unfeeling villain buried in his breast! Oh, the hellish spite and madness of a man that will murder a reasonable and noble-hearted officer, in the act of submitting and surrendering!”

Ledyard, slain by his own sword became a Revolutionary martyr in the eyes of his American brethren that fateful day. His memory would be forever marked at the spot he was struck down, which stills remains today. After Ledyard’s execution, fighting on both sides soon came to an abrupt halt. Stephen Hempstead recalled the bloody scene in the aftermath: “Never was a scene of more brutal wanton carnage witnessed than now took place. The enemy were still firing upon us…[until] they discovered they were in danger of being blown up…” Seeing that there was a risk of blowing up the remaining American gun powder kegs and magazines, which would destroy the fort and themselves, Captain Bromfield ordered the troops to cease their firing.

Aftermath

The slaughter at Fort Griswold left dozens dead for the Americans. Casualties numbered close to 150 total which was later published in the Groton Gazette. Benedict Arnold later issued a report stating that 48 British soldiers were killed along with 145 wounded. Although he had achieved victory it would be short lived in the broad perspective of the war, as it was nearing its end. Those who survived, such as George Middleton would escape, but others, including Stephen Hempstead would be captured by the British and forced to endure the pain of being a prisoner of war. He stated, “After the massacre, they plundered us of everything we had, and left us literally naked...” Hempstead along with over a dozen prisoners were paraded down to the British encampment at what is now Groton Long Point where they were detained for many days. In the aftermath of their capture Rufus Avery negotiated with the British officials for their release.

The massacre at Fort Griswold, although an obscure battle when seen from a much larger point of view, marked one of the largest tragedies in the history of Groton and Connecticut, and was one of the last big triumphs the British would see before the end of the war.

Notes

  1. Charles Burgess, ed. Historic Groton (Moosup: Burgess, 1909), 3.
  2. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 11.
  3. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 12.
  4. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 13.
  5. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 15.
  6. Jonathan Rathbun. Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun (New York: Arno Press Inc.), 1971, 26.
  7. Walter Powell. Murder or Mayhem? Benedict Arnold’s New London Connecticut Raid, 1781 (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications), 2000, 44.
  8. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 90.
  9. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 91.
  10. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 29.
  11. Walter Powell. Murder or Mayhem? Benedict Arnold’s New London Connecticut Raid, 1781 (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications), 2000, 48.
  12. Evan Andriopolous. Battle of Groton Heights. http://www.battleofgrotonheights.com/Battle_of_Groton_Heights.html.
  13. Jonathan Rathbun. Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun (New York: Arno Press Inc.), 1971, 29.
  14. Jonathan Rathbun. Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun (New York: Arno Press Inc.), 1971, 30.
  15. Jonathan Rathbun. Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun (New York: Arno Press Inc.), 1971, 28.
  16. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 52.
  17. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 266-268.
  18. Charles Allyn. Battle of Groton Heights: September 6, 1781 (New London: Seaport Autographs, 1999), 53.
  19. Christina Girod. The Thirteen Colonies: Connecticut (San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc.), 2002, 66.


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