The Battle of Groton Heights & The Burning of New London -- September 6, 1781
"We shall not surrender, let the consequences by what they may"-Col.Wm. Ledyard --Commander of Ft.Griswold
The Aftermath



With the fall of Fort Griswold, the burning of New London and the departure of the invading British, Loyalist and Hessian Yagers the citizens of New London and Groton began to slowly return to the site of the attrocities. At Fort Griswold it is said that mothers, sisters and daughters of those in the fort crawled through the darkness on their hands in search of their loved ones. Many too afraid to use candle or lantern lite as to possibly ignite the powder or the enemy that was thought to still be in the area. The moans and groans of those severely and mortally wounded filled the air. Otherwise a deafening silence filled the air, the sound a crackling ember from a fire not yet having its thirst quenched and the sound of weeping family members but the odd deviation to that rule.

The dead within the walls of Fort Griswold littered the grounds, blood of those killed and wounded made the ground soggy. Most of the bodies had some of their personal belongings removed by the attackers, most were so bloated and mutilated that it was nearly impossible to identify them.

Col.Ledyard had fallen near the north enterance while those in the transport cart littered the grounds near an old tree and his body was collected by a Major Peters of Norwich who easily identified the Col. after having extinguished the powder that was lit to explode the magazine and fort. As soon as the enemy finished putting the torch to the local buildings local citizens attended to those who were stuffed into the carts. Of the 20 odd unlucky men perhaps 6 had died in the crash, perhaps a fitting ending to a terrible day. Those survivors were brought into the house of Ebenezer Avery.

Of this event F.M.Calkins wrote:

"Under cover of the night, a number of Americans had cautiously approached the fort, even before it was evacuated by the conquerors; and as soon as the rear-guard of the enemy had retreated down the hill, and the dip of their ors was heard in the water, they hastened to the gate of the fort.  Major Peters, of Norwich, is understood to have first reached the spot.  Perceiving the barracks on fire and the train laid, without a moment's hesitation he periled life by entering the gate, and being well acquainted with the interior arrangements, rushed to the pump for water to extinguish the fire.  Hew he found nothing that would hold water but an old cartridge-box; the spout of the pump likewise had been removed; but notwithstanding there disadvantages, he succeeded in interrupting the communication between the burning barracks and the powder.  The heroism of this act can not be too highly applauded.  Others were soon on the spot, and the fire was entirely subdued.  These adventurous men supposed that the wounded as well as the dead had been left by the enemy to be blown into the air, and it was to preserve them from this awful fate that they hazarded their lives by entering the fort.  The fire being quenched, they hastened to examine the heaps of human forms that lay around, but found no lingering warmth, no sign to indicate that life yet hovered in the frame, and might be recalled to consciousness.  Major Peters easily selected the lifeless remains of his friend Col. Ledyard.  His strongly marked features, calm and serene in death, could not be mistaken.

As soon as it was known that he British had re-embarked all Groton was moved, inquiring for her sons.  Women and children assembled before the morning dawn, with torches in their hands, examining the dead and wounded in search of their friends.  They passed the light from face to face, but so bloody and mangled were they - their features so distorted with the energy of resistance, or the convulsion of pain, that in many cases the wife could not identify her husband or the mother her son.  When a mournful recognition did take place, piteous were the groans and lamentations that succeeded.  Forty widows ahd been made that day, all residing near the scene of action.  A woman, searching for her husband among the slain, cleansed the gore from more than thirty faces before she found the remains she sought."

The unlucky prisoners, mostly wounded were already receiving poor treatment that was common place in the hold of a British prison ship. Some too badly wounded to survive without the care of a physician expired and were tossed in the Long Island Sound. Dying British soldiers were buried on Plumb Island a few miles from the mouth of the Thames River, some were buried at sea on the Long Island Sound.
Surviving Americans were guarded and treated inhumanly. Many would never be heard of again. Hands tied behind their backs and marched at the sharp end of a bayonet through the streets of New York, emprisoned in the sugar house... some died here as well.

Several days after the attack bodies of British Soldiers began to wash up on the shores of New London and near modern day Harkness Point. In fact some were also found along the shores of Lyme, likely those who died and were buried at sea. This was a regular occurrence and happened for about a week after they departed this area.

Militia units from across Eastern Connecticut and Western Rhode Island began to respond many arriving just as Arnold and his men pushed off. Fear and confusion ruled the air, angry citizens were ready to make a move on the British Ships anchored off the Thames River and already under sail the next morning. Immediately questions began to abound as why there was no better defense... why was there no organized response. In all 38 court martials were to happen in the following months of those officers who failed to respond or fight. A Gen.Saltonstall of New London, thick in the girth was seen riding by 500 militia men who organized as the British set the torch to the town. When asked what to do by local militia men... he was quoted as saying "I have a headache and am too ill"... he rode off north toward Norwich. A Continental Army officer from Lyme 2nd Society with a company of 22 to 23 men arrived as the torch was being set... confused, shocked and without any senior leadership their response was nothing as they understood that their numbers were too small to affact the outcome. However some of the Lyme men and New London militia did in fact organize small scouting parties of which they laid a harassing fire on the British Troops as they ransacked New London. On the Groton side the militia under Gallup stood in the forest awaiting the outcome... they wanted nothing to do with defending the fort as witgh martial law and no quarter given the defense was hopeless. Although they wished to face the British regulars in a field of battle it is likely that they would have made little difference and would have had their lines broken by the first volleys of the regulars.

Col.Jedediah Huntington of Norwich (later New London) aide to General Washington and later Brig.General of Continental Army.

11th Regiment Connecticut (New London County Men) Under Command of Col.Huntington later Brig.General.

The sixteen sloops and ships that escaped up river began to return to New London to find a shell of a town. Some brought provisions with them while others returned as soon as Arnold's Navy pushed off and set sail. Damage on both sides was complete.

Captain Shapley of New London was one of the lucky unlucky ones. He severely wounded by the grape shot from the cannon blast lingered in terrible pain for 5 months, finally dieing in February of 1782.

Eleven members of the Avery Family fell, six of the Perkins name. It is told by survivors that only 6 men were killed by the invaders at the onset of the attack. Halsey was one of these as was one of the Averys. The rest were killed after Ledyard surrendered his sword. One boy of 16 escaped unhurt as he was grabbed by the hand of a British sergent when the massacre began and told "where do you think you are going you little rebel rascal"..." when the heat of the massacre increased he let the boy go and told him to run away from this place... and he did.

Captain William Coit of New London whose home still stands on Washington and
Coit Street,  a veteran of several early land campaigns (call to arms after Lexington & Concord, Bunker Hill, New York & Long Island, eventually went off to sea with Capt. Dudley Saltonstall in a failed mission (worst US Navy Disaster in history) in the Maine Area as well as having served on privateers (out of New London) and the Oliver Cromwell of (built in modern day Essex) New London the first American Warship was captured in New London during the battle. Coit was taken prisoner eventually escaping in 1782 returning to New London to help rebuild the city.




                  Signatures & Declaration of Surviving Defenders of Ft.Griswold





Col.Ledyard's Waist Coat at Connecticut Historical Society- Photo Credit D.Sanbury


Arnold's Report to Sir Henry Clinton - Written while anchored of Plumb Island, NY Sept 8, 1781.

The RevWar.com website has a wonderful copy of the reports given to Sir Henry Clinton. Please Click on the portrait of Arnold below for more information.


Intelligence - Tory - A Local from Lyme "goes off with the enemy".

In late November of 1781 a whale boat was spotted on Black Point in Lyme 2nd Society (Niantic) by several of the Sea Coast Guard on duty there. The group numbering about 5 included Noah Lester, Slvanus Griswold and Andrew Griswold of Lyme 2nd society moved toward a suspected Tory house located near the Moses Warren mill off the old Nehantic trail called Pattagansett.

From the Connecticut Gazette, November 30, 1781

Last Friday a guard under the command of Ensign Andrew Griswold, stationed at Lyme, discovered a whale boat in a fresh pond near Black Point; and suspecting it came from Long Island, they set a guard  of five men over the boat, and the night after four others of the guard with Ensign Griswold went towards the house of the noted Elisha Beckwith. One of the guard named Noah Lester, advancing faster than the rest, was challenged by Beckwith's wife, who was near the house. This alarmed ten men who were in the house, well armed, and they immediately seized up and makde prisoner of Lester, and carried him into the house. Soon after the other four of the guard (not knowing Lester was a prisoner) and went directly in, where they discovered the ten persons in arms. A scuffle immediately ensued between them, and after some time the guard secured six of the party, among them was Elisha Beckwith. The other four made their escape into the woods, but they were all accept one taken the next day. They came in the above boat from Long Island, and were under the command of Thomas Smith, formerly of Middletown, who had a captain's commission under the British King. Elisha Beckwith went off with the enemy September 6 last, when they made their descent on this place. The above culprits are secured in Norwich Jail.


At the court martial in Hartford in January of 1782 noted that Elisha Beckwith  now residing in Hartford Jail "went off with Arnold when they came on the town of New London and Groton on Sept. 6, 1781". It was likely that Beckwith was a major source of intelligence for Arnold and Middleton and returned after the hostilities had died down to collect his family. He had hoped to return to the enemy and re-locate to Halifax with other "refugees". His requests were denied, eventually he did reunite with his family in Canada in 1782 after spending time in Hartford Jail.



House of Elisha Beckwith "Tory House" in Niantic-Still Standing

 
"A Tory Officers Coat"  (Connecticut Historical Society)



New London and Groton- The Economy & Compensation

It would take New London and Groton many years to recover from the attack. Many residents opted not to return, many took advantage of the offer from the Connecticut General Assembly in 1793 (12 years later) which awarded those suffering with compensation in the form of land grants in the Western Reserve (Ohio, Western Pennsylvania) on Lake Erie which later became known as "The Fire Lands". However it is said that most of the sufferers never realized anythinga nd so many years after the event it was nearly impossible to prove one's worth, especially those who lost everything in their homes that were burned to the ground. Some of the residents had already relocated to Upstate New York (near modern day Vermont) while others moved to other towns in the area. Nathaniel Shaw estimated his loss at 12,000 pounds sterling, a fortune that the state could not never afford to cover. Not until the late 1780s did New London see the sign of progress. Weeds had replaced the ashes of the former buildings and the ships began to return as trade began again with England and Europe. Many of the fine estate properties in New London, like those owned by the Green family were divided up and sold to help the family through the tough times.

It is also said that Tory families who lost their homes in New London were double compensated by the English Crown after the war for this terrible act.

John Deshon. Esq. was chosen to evaluate claims in April of 1791 of the sufferers in New London. Again many years after the act, many years after most had moved or left and or basically were unaware of any possibility of gaining a form of compensation.

Town records were lost for the most part, some were salvaged and some "copies" were created. The task in proving property was next to impossible.

It has been recorded that a William Hillhouse of Lyme (2nd Society) made a clam to John Deshon Esq. for Timber used for pickets and abatis as well as for delivery of beef, flour and pork. Nothing else is written of this claim and without receipts and records it was very difficult to prove.

John Saunders of Lyme 2nd society asked for re-imbursement as he adavnced large sums of money for the Sea Coast Guard. However it is not known whether this was before or after Sept, 6, 1781 and the attack on the ports of the Thames River.
Assisting John Deshon Esq. of New London Samuel Mott, Rufus Lathrop ((Modern day Waterford) and Elias Brown to assist in "checking victims for possible tax abatements".  Daniel Calkins of the Calkins Tavern in modern day East Lyme received 11 shillings for his relief of the poor while , Dan Tubbs (East Lyme) received 10 pounds, Elias Smith 2 pounds, 10 shillings all for relief of the suffering in New London

.

WPA Architectural Survey EALY003

Calkins Tavern formerly located at Flander's Four Corners in East Lyme off Rte.1- Courtery of Connecticut State Library (www.cslib.com)

It has also been noted that Joseph Packwood of New London asked for re-imbursement of debts incurred in getting arms etc... from the West Indies in 1775-76. It was likely that Mr.Packwood deemed this a good time to apply for those costs instead of doing this immediately upon return.

All in all there were upwards of 38 court martials after the attack on Groton and New London. Most were due to the "lack of response" by the local militia and commanders. One case a Lt.Col.Joseph Harris of the 3rd Regt. was present at Ft.Nonesense at the time off attack and did nothing to defende or respond. He was convivtec and booted out of the militia all honor lost.  Col. Johnathan Latimer of Lyme 2nd society (East Lyme) responded with 22 men from modern day East Lyme. He was acquitted but shamed of this trial. He reported that when he arrived, likely 2 hours after the attack began the invaders were already dismebarking. Whether this true or not it is likely that without a central command or plan for defense to avoid further casualties all organized defenses were avoided. It is known that some of the 22 men from East Lyme among them a Capt. James Huntley, and other veterans responded on their own seeing the destruction of New London by organizing skirmishing parties and harassed the enemy to their boats.

With increased trade and the entry into Whaling in the late 1790s New London and Groton soon prospered as Ship Building and Whaling centers. With arrival of the much debated War of 1812 new alarms, similar to those given on Sept. 6, 1781 were common, for one legthy period of time US Naval Commodore Steven Decatur
 
(Comm. Steven Decatur at The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans)

and his ships were bottled up in the Thames River, eventually building fortifications near the modern day US. Sub Base at the Gales Ferry border on a height rising above the river. However this area flourished through the Whaling Era of the first half of the 1800s and eventually giving way to maritime trade that would take New London County into 20th century prosperity.


 
A New London Whaler ca. 1839 & The New London Whaler George ca. 1845 in front of Ft.Griswold


The event was marked for many years on each anniversary. Finally with monies raised by lottery and other a monument was established on Groton Heights and later an addition was placed on the top. It was not until the very early 1830's that any veterans of the American Revolution were able to "apply" and "received" benefits or a "pensions" for their efforts. The ardious task was most difficult in proving one's official whereabouts almost 60 years before. Many commanders kept poor records like those of Gen.Samuel H. Parsons of Lyme who fought in the New York and New Jersey campaigns with 100's of men from New London, Groton and Lyme. Many veterans, aged and not 100% in mind elaborated their involvements in the events to try to prove their stories. It is mostly these accounts that give us the picture of what happened not only on September 6, 1781 but of the entire American Revolution. Stephen Hempstead wrote his story for the sake of gaining his pension. While their are many "half truths" there is enough to give us a glimpse of what happened through the eyes of an eyewtiness.

 
Fort Griswold Monument & Jordan Freeman Plaque


Where Col.Ledyard Fell ** Rev War Soldiers Marching to Monument **Entry


Lottery Ticket to Erect The Monument at Groton Heights

"This Monument was erected under the patronage of the State of Connecticut, A. D. 1830, and in the 55th year of the Independence of the U.S.A., in memory of the patriots who fell in the massacre at Fort Griswold, near this spot, on the 6th of September, A. D. 1781, when the British under the command of the traitor Benedict Arnold, burnt the towns of New London and Groton, and spread desolation and woe throughout this region.
"'Zebulon and Napthali were a people that jeopardized their lives unto death in the high places of the field.  Judges, 5th chap., 18th ver.'"


225th Anniversary Brochure



Lebanon Town Militia - Hosted the 225th Anniversary Re-enactment and Supporters of Fort Griswold
(Please Click on Picture for More Information)



Most of what we see in New London and Groton is post "attack", some buildings remain, those lucky enough to escape the torch like the Shaw-Perkins Mansion, Ebenezer Avery House, Smith Homestad in Groton, Hempstead House in New London and so on...so we must learn to appreciate that which survived and grew out of the ashes so that all will know what happened in this corner of the world on that September day in 1781.


Glimpses of Historic New London & Groton


 
(copy of ca. 1908 Post Card)
Old Grist Mill-New London
ca.1781 re-built after being burned by Arnold's men.

(1980 post card)       
Col.Ledyard's Resting Spot -- Hempstead House



Starr Street- Formerly Area of RopeWalk Burned in 1781 (New London Mainstreet)



Fort Trumbull Painting ca. 1839 & Current view from Thames River


                                     
1787 Court House Rebuilt after Burning 1781  & Timothy Green Printing Shop

 

Ca.1800 house built on Green's Alley on former Timothy Green Estate


House at 79 Green Street- ca. 1801 in the rear of the Timothy Green printing shop. However a 2nd foundation was found in the basement indicating it may date to pre-1781 raid and burning of New London as well as a .50 caliber artillery ball. (in 2009).



Photograph of Lower State Street ca. 1880. Buildings to right all replaced those that fell under the torch and date to 1787-1796.



A Sketching of New London ca. 1813 from Ft.Trumbull



ca.1775 House on "Town Hill Road" near British Landing in New London





Historic Belcher Tavern that stood on Hempstead Street. British Regulars were said to have stopped here when leaving New London. It was from this area of Hempstead & Broad Street that local independent militia was firing on the regulars. Across the street in Williams Park a single cannon was used to defend the area. Several regulars were hastily buried in the parks grounds. Built around 1750 it was a stop on the New London and Hartford Turnpike (one of the major roads in the region).


Last resting place of Capt. William Latham and his wife Eunice rededicated in 2006 by the Trolan family.

Essay on Sources


While planning this web site I have found no better a source on the Battle of Groton Heights and Burning of New London than that of famous New London County Historian Frances Manwaring Calkins work of 1860. She used 2nd hand stories, or stories of those children of veterans of the war for independence, accounts from yet even older newspaper clippings and tedious works researching everything from postal routes, original settlement documents as well as oral and written histories of New London County.

Additional sources used included A Lyme Miscellany by George Willauer Jr. printed for the bicentennial in 1976 giving an inside look at the town of Lyme and references made to alarms, fortifications, action and response during the American Revolution. Having used (edited) information in the Connecticut Gazette from 1781 and 1782 this gives the events of September 6, 1781 and the surrounding countryside a new dimension. While mentioning of Mr.Elisha Beckwith has been offered only in passing by devout historians A Lyme Miscellany and The Connecticut Gazette coupled with an old photograph from Scallop Shells and Grainte Too printed in 1989 of the Beckwith House (Tory House) that still stands only supports the efforts of this site to bring another dimension of thought and understanding to the sight.

Having spent many long hours that would total to years analyzing various internet sites, historical publications in East Lyme, Waterford, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, New London and Groton Public Libraries including analysis of pay documents, testaments, land deeds, town maps, artist depictions and more adding these to the "story" of September 6, 1781 and "The Aftermath" affords yet another dimension to the story of this site.

John Ruddy's "Image of America-New London" is an excellent work of collections of pre Civil War to Turn of the 19th century Photograhpic Images of Historic New London offering a glimpse at those buildings and streets, some of which now cease to exist, that survived the Burning of New London in 1781.

After having compiled all of this information, photographs, and having spent countless hours doing walking tours of the sites of "action" the story was pieced together, told like never before. Friends of Fort Trumbull and Griswold websites also offered encouragement to finish this site honoring what they are also attempting to do... which is preserve history and educate today's public. Wikpedia & Answers.com give a summary of the Battle and are excellent sources for those looking for a quick read on what happened. This offers an excellent entry level means to understanding what happened on that day and whom the major players were.

When attempting to paint a picture of what the militia / defenders looked like I used two measures to affording this better understanding for the reading public. One- via the internet, & Connecticut Historical Society I have found sources showing what historical uniforms looked like. Secondly to give a more 21st century real look I used photographs of the 225th Anniversary of the Battle of Groton Heights and Burning of New London that was held in New London and Groton on September 1-4, 2006. As a participant in the Ye Old Towne Lebanon Militia, dressed in a standard local militia (Lyme) outfit which consisted of Waist Coat, Breeches, Stockings, Shoes, White linen type shirt, powder horn and cartridge box, axe, tri corn and 1763 French Musket I was able to not only show the public what the defenders who responded to the alarm looked like but as a participant I was able to "feel" the heat and emotions of battle, albeit a re-enactment. The photos throughout give yet another dimension.

From the re-enactment I was able to discuss the events of the day 225 years ago with several members of the Lebanon Militia who had information that was previously unknown to me of that day. Robert Gasparini our detachment commander gave me a collection of his personal notes and those of F.M.Calkins writings among other that were used in putting together this story.


  • History of New London and New London County- Frances Manwaring Calkin-1860 Second Edition. Chapter XXXII, pages 545-572
  • A Lyme Miscellany- George Willauer Jr. Printed 1976 pgs 264-267-Wesleyan University Press
  • Scallop Shells and Granite Too-150 years of East Lyme, Connecticut -L.Chapman 1989.Mystic Publications
  • New London-Images of America-John Ruddy-Arcadia Publishing-1998
  • The History of Ft.Trumbull- John Duchesneau (web)
  • Wikipedia-the free encyclopedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_London,_Connecticut
  • Uniforms of the Continental Army- (web) http://webpages.charter.net/usaihp/contarmy.html
  • Research via New London County Historical Society-New London, Conn. (web) www.newlondonhistory.org
  • 225th Anniversary- Ye Olde Lebanon Towne Militia (web) http://webpages.charter.net/usaihp/contarmy.html
  • Fort Griswold Internet Home Page (web) www.revwar.com/ftgriswold/
  • A Narrative of the Capture of Fort Griswold- Mayor George Middleton of Newark, NY- Related in 1868.
  • Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun & Stephen Hempstead- Notes from defenders of Forts Trumbull and Griswold. Connecticut District Copywright 1840
  • Narrative of Rufus Avery- Battle of Groton Heights- E.E Darrow, 1926
  • Wikipedia-the free encyclopedia. (web) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Groton_Heights
  • Information courtesy of Wallace Latham Trolan Jr.
  • Photograph of William Latham and wife Eunice special thanks to the Trolan Family
  • Benedict Arnold & George Washington - A Tale of Two Patriots (Palmer)
  • Special Thanks to New London County Historical Society
  • Connecticut State Library (Calkins Tavern Photo)























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