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 Burning of New London


Preface:

The attack on New London and Groton Heights, began and ended on September 6, 1781, taking considerable time to plan with the final go ahead only after the taking of the HMS Hannah and Washington's planned rendezvous with Comte D`Rochambeu in Virgina. There are various suggestions as to why this occurred and they range from; a test of former American Commander & Norwich, Connecticut native Benedict Arnold's loyalty to the King, Revenge for the taking of the prize ship Hannah by the New London privateer Minerva in the summer of 1781,  To divert the Franco-American force from heading south to meet Lord Cornwallis, to punishing the endless privateering efforts from the "Den of Serpents".

Of all of these it is like they are all true. Sir Henry Clinton's favorite type of war was to send british and loyal forces on destructive raids in lightning speed. While the majority of the American forces were headed south to meet up with Nathaniel Greene's Southern Army and George Washington the planned attack on New London appeared to be an opportunity to accomplish many tasks at once. Undoubltably was Sir Henry Clinton enraged when his personal supply ship the Hannah was taken by the Minerva yet again another prize to the New London privateers. The Hannah was stocked with goods from the Indies and England and would bring a large sum of money to the coiffures of the state of Connecticut so desperate for "good money". However it is not likely that an attack with more than 1600 men would take place to avenge a privateer taking a prize albeit a valuable one. It would have been likely to have a blockage of the Thames River as was done in the War of 1812 by the superior British Navy. Then again Clinton enjoyed a good raid and if he could also divert the attention of Washington to the north again this may allow re-enforcements enough time to meet up with Lord Cornwallis to crush the southern Army and eventually the defeat of the Northern Army. For good reason a test of Arnold to attack his former neighbors of New London and Groton, an area where he spent considerable time is also a possibility but only as an overall "small" part of the plan. All in all the plan was set out and this time the British Navy would not bypass New London as they did when they appeared on the horizon eventually taking Newport, RI earlier in the war.

Sir Henry Clinton

The Burning of New London

On the morning of September 6, 1781, notably a warm morning New London awoke as it did on most mornings. The wharf houses along the Bank were teaming with activity already. Stuffed with the cargo of prizes like those of the Hannah dockworkers and merchants alike began their daily dance. A large british fleet had left New York harbor a little more than a day earlier enroute to New London with the mission to seize goods and destroy the  rebels penchant for privateering. As the british navy sailed up the Long Island Sound Colonel Ledyard, the commander of American Forces in the region was busy making his rounds insuring the forts on both sides were in usuable shape.

The British Fleet headed by Adm.Thomas Graves now anchored off Long Island since the night before waiting for the large flotilla including troop transports to assemble, and not more than 10 miles from New London went un-noticed. With more than 32 sail a fleet of this size would have been hard not to notice, this leads to a suggestion that the various Sea Coast Guards were asleep while on duty or simply enough not present. Warning was given according to New London County's foremost expert on history Frances Manwaring Calkins as it is believed that so many false alarms had sounded in the war that the local militia never took notice.

(Adm.Thomas Graves ca. 1798)

The fleet closed in on the mouth of the Thames River around 9am. By 10am the first of the transport boats landed on the New London side about 3 miles from the center of town. It is said that on the New London side the troops landed dozens of transport boats near the light house about 1/2 mile from Ocean Beach then known as Brown's Gate. From this area of New London which was mostly farmland and a simple road called Town Hill Road dotted with a handful of homes, very reminiscent of "Battle Road" in Concord, MA of which the seasoned veteran troops were very well aware of.


Map of Southeastern Connecticut with Population Centers, Guard Posts and Troop Movements Sept. 6, 1781

At this landing the alarm was sounded from Fort Griswold
it consisted of two regular guns at fixed intervals -- this was the signal to call in assistance from the neighboring country, while three guns was the signal of rejoicing, to give notice of a victory or a prize.  It was evident that these signals had been communicated to the enemy, for when the two distress guns were fired, one of the large ships in the fleet added a third, so as to alter the import.  This stratagem had some influence in delaying or cancelling the arrival of militia. It is also believed that Arnold whom knew the signals ordered a third shot fired to cancel the alarm. There is some belief that Lyme 2nd Society resident Elisha Beckwith a known Tory gave this information as well as the plans of the town and defenses to the british command to help execute their plan.

As the troops comprised of the 38th Regulars, The American Legion, Loyal Americans, Refugees, and about 60 Hessian Yagers (Jågers) all totaled at 800 landed and offloaded cannon (field pieces), supplies commanded by Norwich Native Benedict Arnold who just  one year before turned coat in West Point, NY. Arnold well known in these parts and previously a hero who led these very people into battle against British Gen.John Burgoynes troops at Saratoga now would face his friends. Arnold known for his hunger for fame and credit proudly set forth the plan of the raid.


Benedict Arnold in Continental Army Uniform ca.1775 (Conn.Historical Soc.)

Hessian Yager Uniform  Hessian Field Yager Uniform

 
British Regulars of the Type that Marched on New London





Some local militia, likely local homeowners began to engage the invaders and opened a sporadic fire on the British Troops. However not at the same verocity as at Lexington and Concord it was however well noted by Benedict Arnold himself in his report to Sir. Henry Clinton on September 8, 1781.
Even though the alarm was altered townspeople sprang of their "slumber", men grabbed their muskets and a great chaos was laid on the town. As the sound of musketry filled the quiet morning towns in New London began to hastily pack their personal items and flee for the northern parish (north) and local militia units, homeowners and Continental Soldiers off duty began to rise for a defense.

As Arnold's men moved forward reaching about 700 yards of Ft.Trumbull at 11am they encountered a heavy fire from a small redoubt known as (Fort Nonsense) to their left and on a rise above their positions. Arnold who had sent Yagers to skirmish with the sporadic resistance he met now sent 4 companies of his crack 38th regulars under the command of veteran Captain Millet to "snuff out" the resistance on the rise. This resistance had fired upon Arnold*s men for some time finally dispersing at the approach of Capt.Millet and his 4 companies. At this redoubt 4 cannon mounted and 2 unmounted were seized. Much to the happiness of Arnold this "hot fire" was put out.

Captain Millet was then joined by a company of American Legion commanded by a Captain Frink and they headed toward Fort Trumbull.



Fort Trumbull
Fort Trumbull was a simple blockhouse with cannon facing the river and the sound. Built in honor of the Governor John Trumbull Trumbull was not yet complete and offered no defense of a land attack. At Fort Trumbull was New Londoner Capt. Adam Shapley a well respected military mind in New London and a veteran of many campaigns including White Plains and Long Island. Shapley's home was just off the Bank and was within a brisk walk to the fort. In the fort was Shapley and about 23 militia and off duty continentals. Shapley had met with Colonel Ledyard earlier in the morning and was given orders to fire a respective round in defiance, spike the cannons and flee to Groton to help man the defense there.

Ft.Trumbull Block House Renderring ca.1795



Map of Ft.Trumbull-British Officer


As soon as Captain's Millet and Frink marched up a side road, slightly closer to the river bank and arrived within site of the cannons that were turned to defend they organized in tight rows and received a shot of grape causing about 5 casualties (killed or wounded). The defenders spiked the cannons, fired a round and headed for several row boats that were set up near the eastern side of the fort. As the British fell on the fort and the defenders scurried to their boats Arnold and his men continued to move on to New London's waterfront. Under orders from Arnold one company was left to guard Ft.Trumbull and one at the redoubt taken earlier. The other two moved in double time to meet up with Arnold as he approached the town.

The men of Ft.Trumull hurried across the Thames River to join the men stationed their, possibly unbeknownst to them that another 800 of the enemy had landed on the Groton side near Avery Point. Some of the ships in the Thames of the British Navy were able to fire on the row boats taking some prisoners and killing or wounding some of the other men. Capt. Shapley and his number made it safely to land on the Groton side and hurried up that hill to join Col. Ledyard. The wounded from Ft.Trumbull and from the move across the Thames River were carried up the hill to the fort and numbered about half the men.

As Arnold neared New London town he paused to survey the town that he would soon fall on. He continued to receive sporadic fire from independent militiamen but not enough to slow their movement forward. Arnold then continued on led by the 60 Hessian Yagers and 100 New Jersey Loyalists in addition. Upon arrival at the corner Town Hill Road and The Bank Arnold came under fire from a battery on a hill to their left again. A single field piece manned by 4 independent and resolute citizens, likely a 6 pounder used for celebrations offered the last line of resistance to Arnold. With this "Hot fire" Arnold sent a detachment up Blackhall Street (off The Bank) and the defenders fled. However as this detachment moved onto the former position of the defenders they came under an increasing amount of random fire from local militia hidden behind the stone walls and trees. In this area formerly called Manwaring Hill a single house stood, the Manwaring House. Taking so much random fire the detachment fell onto the house and began to throw out the china, broke the furniture and in a summary... they ransacked this sole house.This house was then given the torch as it was suspected of housing some of those firing upon them.

The detachment likely in fear of being "harassed" like Battle Road left the house and returned to their units. The house now on fire was saved as likely the local militia men entered and poured some soap onto the flames this extinguishing the flames.

According to F.M.Calkins the story goes that when the owner later returned to this house he found a dying young british soldier, wounded and left for dead by his comrades on the side of the road. Calling for water and bleeding profusely he was carried into the house, nursed back enough to give his name and information and a note for his parents now exiled and living in Nova Scotia. He was but 18 years old and was later buried on modern day Williams Street a few yards fro the house along with three other British Soldiers that were killed in action by the militia.

As Arnold moved onto The Bank his units came under some additional resistance. Lt.Col.Upham commander of the New Jersey Loyalists noted in his letter to Governor Franklin( loyalist) in New Jersey; 
"We proceeded to the town of New London, constantly skirmishing with rebels, who fled from hill to hill, and stone-fences which intersected the country at small distances.  Having reached the southerly part of the town, the general requested me to take possession of the hill north of the meeting-house, where the rebels had collected, and which they seemed resolved to hold.  We made a circle to the left, and soon gained the ground in contest. Here we had one man killed and one wounded.  This height being the outpost, was left to us and the yagers.  here we remained exposed to a constant fire from the rebels on the neighboring hills, and from the fort on the Groton side, until the last was carried by the British troops."

Arnold then sent detachments to various parts of the town. One half of the units would follow the Bank and destroy the wharf houses ,supply businesses and burn any ships in range while the other half would head toward the center of the town conducting raids on various known military and patriot "rebel" leaders homes. This second unit would also squash any resistance and would offer a defense to those who were putting the torch to the waterfront in case the militia was to fall in on their positions.

The New Jersey Loyalists under Col.Upham moved far into New London and entered the outskirts of the town center near the Colchester Road
(Vauxhall Street) via Cape Anne Street and Lewis Lane . Here they ransacked houses especially that of Picket Latimer which was filled with possessions of those that left the town and burned the contents when possible. While conducting this business they again came under fire from a group of militia/citizens that arranged on a hill above Vauxhall Street. They were half armed, likely awakened by the sound of the morning's cannon and many were without arms. They kept up a brisk fire on Upham's men from a position above the Olde Burial Ground. Upham ordered the Heesian Yagers to fire on these men and they did dispersing them into the countryside.

From this point Col.Upham established a field piece, taken from Fort Nonsense on the hill and began to fire at the American ships on the River that were attempting to head northward to Norwich as the wind was originally light and against them they had great difficulty in fleeing but about the same time as the field piece was set up on the hill by Upham the wind shifted and allowed the ships to set sail and flee northward to safer waters. 

One note from their firing on the ships is that a cannon ball went through the door of local militia commander Capt.Robert Hallam near the ca. 1650 Grist Mill by the modern day Gold Star Bridge according to F.M.Calkins-New London County 19th century historian.

Col.Upham's detachment provided a lead cover for Arnold's men who slowly moved forward through modern day Hempstead Street. A handful of citizens became eyewitnesses to history as they witnessed Arnold continue forward to a high point of ground with an excellent view of Groton Bank and the fort on that side. This height of land is just above the Ancient Cemetery and this is where it is suggested that Arnold changed his mind in seeing the the fort was well manned and a frontal assault would be reminscent of Bunker Hill in Boston.  From here he gave his orders to stop the attack on Groton Heights but it was too late, he would watch the events on that side before continuing destruction in New London. With spyglass in hand on horseback Arnold and his party moved down Richards Street behind part of the force that split from them earlier providing some degree of security.


Ye Olde Ancient Burial Ground


The detachment that earlier went along the waterfront now entered the North part of the town at Winthrop Cove and eventually Winthrop Neck where several homes were. The cover was where ships were built and docked. The torch was now placed on several craft that was tied up as well as  to the old Grist Mill and some houses that were in this area. The homes of  the Plumbs family and the estate of Gen.Gurdon Saltonstall whose son Dudley would play a vital role in the fight for freedom along with several other fine estates were burned to the ground. In this area it is said only the Merril House escaped the torch. Slightly further afield was the Richards House on  Richards Street spared likely because the daughter of militia Captain Guy Richards was lying ill inside. Marked for the torch it was spared by a considerate act of a British Officer. An act too barbarous that would cause the death of a sick female in it. The troops moved on...

The invaders moved back down along Water Street (The Bank) and began to set the torch to several private homes and the local customs house. Also some storage buildings, merchant shops, a mill, a mechanic shops and eventually the wharehouses that were stuffed with the prizes of their privateering captures.  A long line of destruction from Winthrop Cove down to the heart of New London at the Bank. Arnold pointed his sword and yelled "Soldiers do your duty" and they began to set the torch to the ships and wharehouses yet to be fired and this they did with a fever and wreckless abandon.

Here lay the Hannah, Sir Henry Clinton's prize ship. Taken in the summer by the Minerva of New London at Shaw's Cove & Wharf it is likely they thought to refit her and return her to Sir Henry Clinton however it was decided likely out of utter disgust and fear for rendevouzing militia units that were massing on the outskirts of New London it was best to burn and set her adrift which they did like a viking ship with its hold of an expired viking king. The Hannah engulfed in flames slowly floated toward Winthrop Cove and eventually sank burned to the waterline. The wharfhouse and wharf of the Shaw family was set a fire and all contents destroyed.


                                                        
Oliver Cromwell of Essex, Ct. & HMS Rose similar to the Minerva & HMS Hanna

  
The torch was then set to anything in place... from piles of lumber/firewood to coils of rope and rigging, hogsheads were smashed in and contents trampled and burned if and when possible.  There was little resistance of any kind at this point. Citizens had fled and the men who remained were either too old or too sick to defend even their own homes. It is said that some opted to die in their beds under the torch than be taken away by the marauding invaders of Arnold.

Anrold directed his men to set the torch to the court house and jail, it is not known whether any of the prisoners remained in the jail but it too located near the modern day parade was burned to the ground. The episcapalian church was then torched perhaps by a loyalist with so much disdain for his fellow countrymen who had turned against the king... this in turn led to the neighboring dwellings many here since the founding of the town were now enflamed. The city streets were thick with smoke and the sound of embers hitting their new marks.

As a detachment headed toward Bradley Street off Main the torch was denied as this row of houses held one that was " a friend to the local government" and someone whom had given intelligence to Arnold. This row of homes was spared and was coined "Widows Row". The troops moved on setting fire, destroying belongings and so on... Near Green Street stood a Tavern, well known by locals and it was spared the torch as Hessian Yagers and Loyalists entered drinking rum and ale to their glory. Her table was set for her husband a sergeant in the local militia was in the area harassing the invaders with random fire that began as the militia organized.  As she escaped by the skin of her teeth on horseback. However it was later understood that she set the table for her Tory brother who was with the party that invaded New London. Oddly enough F.M.Calkins wrote that the same Tory captain later in life applied and was given leave as his health was failing... he returned to New London and died in the same house.


An 1868 photograph of Bradley Street "Widows Row". (Far right)

The western side of Main Street was spared, this included the Timothy Green printing shop and several homes and a handful of buildings. It is likely that the torch was meant for known militia member houses and storage facilities and not "all property" however in history it is seen as the latter.


The Timothy Green Print Shop on State Street (Main Street)

Arnold's men continued to do their duty as they torched all in sight including buildings of their friends and sometimes family. As Arnold and his officers decided to enjoy a meal at a home of an acquaintance that home near The Bank also caught fire and Arnold escaped in the nick of time.

Having received intelligence on who the defenders of the fort were Arnold marked out the dwellings and property of those men for complete destruction. Homes and fishing smacks in the south of the town were leveled by the torch. As the torch was being set to fishing craft too small to play any act against the king other than feeding its owner an old man ventured out of his hiding place of a tree and stonewall and asked the soldiers to spare his boat as this was all he had. They apologized but went about their duty and burned his craft to the waterline. In a small house near the Shaw Wharf at Shaw's Neck a small house stood, a woman still inhabiting the house came out with her gackle of children and begged the soldiers to spare her house as her husband had been dead for many years and she had nothing... The officers obliged and spared her house.

(Photograph taken about 1859 of the old Buttonwood Tree and the old home on Buttonwood Corner. Saved by the torch as it was a home to a Tory Sympathizer. Oddly enough the Buttonwood Tree & Corner werer the central meeting spots for the Sons of Liberty and their literature.)


As the soldiers moved up the loop on the Bank they burned everything in site. They arrived at Nathaniel Shaw's Stone house and lit if on several sides as this rare house would be a challenge to torch. Soldiers ran in and looted the property, breaking china and furniture as they moved.  All buildings in the yard were consumed and if not for the acts of a neighbor who hid behind the house the stone mansion of the Shaw family would have been leveled as well. The neighbor approached as the soldiers left, using a pipe he broke open a barrel of vinegar and began to extinguish the flames via a cleaver method of pouring the liquid down the roof until the flames were out. He used the same method to spare other homes below the Shaw house from the same fate.

Shaw Mansion on Blinman Street off The Bank.

The destruction of the The Bank continued. The northern side was filled with fine stately homes of ships captains and merchants, anything that appeared of value were destroyed. Warehouses full of provisions, ships, and more burned to the ground. It is here that a store of gunpowder used by the colonial militia and the Continental Army was set in flames and thus exploded causing additional fires to sweep through the town. Although it is said that Arnold himself played by the rules of war and spared private homes of those who had nothing to do with any harassment of his troops, several obnoxious homeowners remained to protect their property and were either burned to death in their homes or were dragged out to the street to witness the destruction of their property. Now destruction was complete.

Instances of "odd" kindness did occur. Arnold himself it said to have spared the life of several people who could not leave their homes. In one instance he met with a lady who was in the house with her decrepit and dying father. She dragged her father out with walking stick, retreated to rear garden and met with an officer (aide to Arnold).  She begged for his mercy and he stood there protecting her house. Other acts including arresting a culprit (loyalist) who had looted a house of fine clothing. He arrested the culprit and forced him to return the property. That house was also spared.

Other acts of butchery in the likely fever of war occured. After an old man met with some of the soldiers begging to spare his home as he was old and ill. They agreed and moved on. The old man retired to his garden possibly awaiting for the torch anyway... another detachment walked by, spotted the man and fired at him thinking he was militia. The man dropped dead on the spot.

Militia units responding to the several cancelled alarms arrived by the dozens from Norwich and Colchester, Lyme and Saybrook all looking for orders. While no one was there to organize a response several "groups" of militia responded by setting up positions along the outskirts behind trees and stonewalls. These men took positions along Town Hill road, the road that would take Arnold and the raiders back to their transports. Some incident of random fire was noted, and some prisoners were taken as some of the loyalists and Yagers enjoyed the spirits that were taken a little too much. In one instance there were six Yagers drunk and almost passed out. They were taken prisoner and probably did not even realize it. However the majority of the militia, now numbering perhaps 500 too no part in the response. Possibly awaiting orders from a commander or too afraid to respond as they were outnumbered.

Several of the townspeople were taken away with the British as they lurked to near to the marauding troops possibly looking for a days loot or excited to see the action of the day. No true number has been assigned to this. 

Upon their return to the transport boats awaiting near the lighthouse there was some light harassment of the troops but nothing considerable to delay their return.   According to F.M.Calkins..."
A single anecdote will suffice to show the spirit of the inhabitants, male and female.  A farmer, whose residence was a couple of miles from he town-plot, on hearing the alarm-guns in the morning, started from his bed and made instant preparations to hasten to the scene of action.  He secreted his papers, took gun and cartridge-box, bade farewell to his family, and mounted and put spurs to his horse.  When about four or five rods from the doors, his wife called after him -- he turned to receive her last commands-- "John!  John!  " she exclaimed, "don't get shot in the back!""

Those who did assemble took a couple prisoners fired an odd pot shot at the departing regulars but no organized resistance was given to them. Without a commander it was impossible for groups of farmers with some militia to engage a professional army to any degree of success.




1880 Map of New London with "believed" British Troop Movements (Red Lines)
Resistance noted by "spray paint markings" throughout in dark red



Losses

65- Private Dwellings
31- Stores
18- Shops
20- Barns
9- Public & Other Buildings
Unknown- Number of smaller buildings of different kinds too numerous to account for.

Total: 143 Buildings Accounted for as "burned to the ground".

All in all 97 families were left homeless.

12 Ships were burned to the waterline of these 4 were armed.
50 cannon were destroyed on shore and unknown number onboard ships that were  burned.
Complete destruction of the Wharves and wharfhouses



Casualties

While it is not known via recorded data for the number of total casualties civilian and military it is estimated based on reports of the more contemporary sort that less 20 civilians were killed.

Military losses may have been combined with those from the Groton Heights Attack. These numbers for the New London side are best guess estimates.


Militia- 6 killed & 12 Wounded
British- 6 killed & 12 Wounded
8 taken Prisoner (1 Hessian officer & 6 Yagers & 1 American Legion)

Civilians- Unknown number taken away as prisoner
































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