The Battle of Groton Heights
1781 was a critically important year during the Revolutionary War. With French troops now committed to assisting the American war effort, British victory was looking less certain. Around this time, General George Washington and his army was marching towards Yorktown, Virginia. In an attempt to divert Washington’s attention away from Yorktown, British General Sir Henry Clinton ordered an attack on New London, Connecticut. The infamous American traitor, Benedict Arnold, a native of Connecticut, was entrusted with leading this expedition.
On September 6, 1781, General Benedict Arnold’s force of around 1,600 British troops anchored off New London. According to fortgriswold.org, “the British landed 800 men on the Groton side of the Thames River.” Another 800 troops were sent to the New London side of the river.
A map of the area as it appeared on September 6, 1781. Note the position of Fort Trumbull on the New London Side of the Thames River and Fort Griswold on the Groton side.
Fort Trumbull guarded the New London side of the Thames River and was quickly overrun by Arnold’s forces. Stephen Hempstead was stationed at Fort Trumbull at the time of the attack. His account of the battle was communicated to the Missouri Republican in 1826. Hempstead recalled that once overrun, “we spiked our cannon, and commenced a retreat across the river to Fort Griswold in three boats.” Fort Griswold was positioned over on the Groton Heights, overlooking the Thames River towards New London. Hempstead also recounted that the British, “proceeded to New London and burnt the town.” Another account by Rufus Avery, who was serving in Fort Griswold during the engagement supports this claim. Avery also recalled that the British, “plundered and set fire to the shipping and buildings,” of New London. In an article for Connecticuthistory.org, Richard Malley writes, “The British troops set to destroying military and naval supplies and accidently caused a fire that soon spread, burning much of the town.” Whether the burning of New London was intentional or accidental remains a point of dispute.
As chaos could clearly be seen across the Thames River from the Groton side, the defenders of Fort Griswold braced themselves for what was coming. Rufus Avery’s account states, “The army on the New London Side of the river found better and more accommodating land for marching than on the Groton Side.” Avery was absolutely correct. British troops on the Groton side “were slowed down by tangled woods and swamps, and the British artillery could not keep pace with the foot troops,” as written on fortgriswold.org. Despite these obstacles, British troops navigated their way within range of Fort Griswold.
At this time, Fort Griswold was mostly composed of militia and volunteers from around the area. The fort’s garrison included 165 men under the command of Colonel William Ledyard.
Recognizing their superior numbers, British Colonel Edmund Eyre sent forward a flag of truce and demanded the unconditional surrender of Fort Griswold. According to accounts from men like Stephen Hempstead, Colonel Eyre, “threatened to storm the fort instantly if the terms were not accepted.” Ledyard held a council of war in Fort Griswold following the demand and it was determined that the garrison could not win against such a superior force. As recalled by Hempsead, One of the members of the council claimed to have troops in the “immediate vicinity” and said he would “reinforce them with 2 or 300 men in fifteen minutes, if they would hold out.” With the expectation of reinforcements, Colonel Ledyard was determined to defend the fort and sent back a message of defiance. Ledyard said, “we will not give up the fort, let the consequences be what they may.”
Upon receiving the answer to their demand, “the enemy were soon in motion, and marched with great rapidity, in a solid column, to within a short distance of the fort,” as recounted by Hempstead. The artillery of Fort Griswold punished the advancing ranks of the British troops. Despite sustaining heavy fire, these forces continued to aggressively push forward. Colonel Eyre was badly wounded after an attack on the southwest bastion of the fort was repulsed. Fortgriswold.org writes that one group of British soldiers, “dislodged some pickets and, in hand-to hand combat, captured a cannon, turning it against the garrison.”
This model shows how Fort Griswold appeared during the fighting on September 6, 1781. It can be found in The Monument House Museum at Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park.
Major William Montgomery led another group of British soldiers during the assault on Fort Griswold. His men charged with fixed bayonets and clashed with the long spears wielded by the fort’s defenders. Montgomery was killed by one of these weapons while scaling the walls of Fort Griswold.
This plaque marks the spot where British Major Montgomery died while attempting to climb over one of the ramparts of Fort Griswold.
Outnumbered nearly ten to one and facing continued pressure, British soldiers managed to open the main gate to the fort. After the gate had been opened, Rufus Avery said the defenders “were soon overpowered.” With troops now pouring inside, John Hempstead claimed that Colonel Ledyard “gave orders to cease firing, and to throw down our arms, as the fort had surrendered.” Despite this order, some fighting continued on both sides.
The subsequent events of the surrender are highly contested between American and British accounts. The American version claims that Colonel Ledyard was killed after he surrendered his sword and that the wounded defenders were massacred. This is a claim supported by the narratives of Rufus Avery and Stephen Hempstead. Hempstead said that he was stabbed with a bayonet as Ledyard was surrendering his sword. As he fell to the ground, his narrative states, “The first person I saw afterwards was my brave commander, a corpse by my side, having been run through the body with his own sword.”
This is the spot where Colonel Ledyard is said to have died after he handed over his sword to a British officer in the traditional form of surrender.
While uncertainty still remains about the manner in which Ledyard died, his vest and shirt have been preserved. A puncture hole on his linen shirt also matches that in the vest. Additionally, Ledyard’s vest contains a puncture hole on the side. This evidence conveys the possibility that Colonel Ledyard may have been killed by his own sword in the hands of a British officer as legend suggests, or from a bayonet wound.
Fortgriswold.org writes that, “Before the surrender, it is claimed only a handful of Americans had been killed, but when the battle and surrender were over, 85 Americans were dead and five more were dying, and 36 were severely wounded.” Of this massacre, Stephen Hempstead’s narrative declares, “Never was a scene of more brutal wanton carnage witnessed than now took place. The enemy were still firing upon us in platoons, and in the barrack-rooms, which were continued for some minutes.” Historians like Richard Malley believe that Colonel Ledyard’s order to surrender may not have been received by all of the American troops, leading the British to continue firing at them.
It's worth noting that Benedict Arnold’s written report of the battle to General Clinton makes no mention of any massacre or Colonel Ledyard’s death. He reported his loses at 51 dead and 162 wounded. Some of those who were wounded later died aboard their ships on the voyage back to New York.
The prisoners from Fort Griswold who could still walk were placed on British ships as prisoners of war. According to his narrative, Rufus Avery was among them. Richard Malley writes, “Many of the captured militiamen were taken to New York and imprisoned for months.” Stephen Hempstead was badly wounded during the battle and avoided being taken to New York due to the desperation of his injuries.
The battle at Fort Griswold only lasted around 40 minutes, but in that short span of time, the small town of Groton Connecticut was changed forever. Like they had done in New London, British troops are said to have plundered and burned many homes on the Groton Bank. The destruction that took place in New London and in Groton was discussed in The Connecticut Gazette on September 7, 1781. The Paper stated, “By this calamity it is judged that more than one hundred families are deprived of their habitations, and most of them their ALL.” It added further, “This neighborhood feel sensibly the loss of many deserving citizens,”
Fort Griswold is considered the site of the largest battle fought in Connecticut during the Revolutionary War. The fort is currently preserved and is part of Connecticut’s state park system. Between 1826 and 1830, the Groton Monument was built to commemorate the battle.
The Groton Monument at Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park. Standing at 135 feet tall and built between 1826 and 1830, fortgriswold.org writes that it, "is the oldest monument of its type in the country." It also contains a marble plaque with the names of the defenders who fell during the Battle of Groton Heights.