The Battle of Groton Heights, September 6, 1781: The Fort Griswold Massacre

Part Three
Click here for parts one and two.

With British soldiers pouring into the fort, Colonel Ledyard ordered a ceasefire, and prepared to surrender Fort Griswold to the victorious British. However, the British disregarded the ceasefire and continuing pouring fire into the American garrison, killing or wounding nearly all of the fort’s defenders. “I believe there was not less than five or six hundred men of the enemy on the parade in the fort,” claimed American soldier Rufus Avery. “They killed and wounded nearly every man in the fort as quick as they could.”

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Maj. Stephen Bromfield, the ranking British officer after Montgomery fell, called out, “Who commands this fort?” Ledyard stepped forward and responded, “I did, sir, but you do now.” Another American, Jonathan Rathbun, watched Bromfield run Ledyard through the heart and lungs with Ledyard’s own sword:

     “…the wretch 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!”

Another African-American soldier, Lambo Latham, avenged Ledyard’s death by killing the British officer responsible for Ledyard’s death.

Ledyard fell, and those nearest to him tried to support the dying colonel. Capt. Peter Richards, seriously wounded, but still on his feet, held Ledyard while others moved forward to try to avenge their fallen commander. The British cut them all down with their bayonets, with some receiving as many as 30 stab wounds.

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Monument to Lieutenant Colonel Ledyard (author collection)

In the meantime, on the southwest side of the fort, some of the Regulars turned one of the fort’s cannons on its defenders and opened fire, killing Capt. Adam Sharpley and another officer.

     “Never was a scene of more brutal wanton carnage witnessed than now took place,”
recalled American Stephen Hempstead. “The enemy were still firing upon us… [until]
they discovered they were in danger of being blown up.” Rufus Avery believed that the a
attack was called off due to the chance that further musket fire might set off the fort’s
powder magazine.”  Hempstead noted, “After the massacre, they plundered us of
everything we had, and left us literally naked.”

Horrified by the carnage around him, a British officer demanded that the butchery end. “Stop! Stop!” yelled the officer. “In the name of heaven I say stop! My soul cannot bear it!” The officers soon regained control of their men, and the slaughter soon ended.

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Monument to Major Montgomery (author collection)

The best explanation for the massacre of the fort’s defenders by the British was an angry reaction to the casualties taken by them after the fort’s colors were shot down, leading the British to believe that the fort had surrendered. Furious at the continued resistance after the supposed surrender, the British punished the American defenders in an atrocity.

American casualties were appalling: 85 killed, 35 wounded and paroled, 28 taken prisoner, 13 escaped, 1 captured and released (12 year old William Latham, Jr.). Total: 162. British losses numbered 48 killed and 145 wounded.

An American named F. M. Calkins reported that American dead were loaded into a cart and were carried away from the fort:

About twenty soldiers wee then employed to drag this wagon down the hill, to a safe
distance from the expected explosion.  From the brow of the ridge on which the fort
stood, to the brink of the river, was a rapid descent of one hundred rods, uninterrupted
except by the roughens of the surface, and by scattered rocks, brushes, and stumps of
trees.  The weight of the wagon after it had begun to move, pressing heavily upon the
soldiers, they let go their hold, and darting aside, left it to its own impetus.  On it went,
with accelerated velocity, surmounting every impediment, till near the foot of the hill,
when it came against the trunk of a large apple-tree, with a force that caused it to recoil
and sway round.  This arrested its course, but gave a sudden access of torture to the
sufferers.  The violence of the shock is said to have caused instant death to some of them;
others fainted, and two or three were thrown out to the ground.  The enemy, after a time,
gathered up the bleeding men, and carried them into a house near by, belonging to
Ensign Avery, who was himself one of the party in the wagon.  The house had been
previously set on fire, but they extinguished the flames, and left the wounded men there
on parole, taking as hostage for them, Ebenezer Ledyard, brother of the commander of
the fort.”

The British lit a trail of gunpowder that they hoped would destroy Fort Griswold’s magazine, but a daring militiaman entered the fort and extinguished the fire, leaving the fort intact. The British then loaded their prisoners onto their ships and withdrew, leaving chaos in their aftermath.

This was the final major battle in the northern theater of the American Revolution. General Clinton praised Arnold’s “spirited conduct”, but also complained about the high casualty rate suffered by Arnold’s forces—about a quarter of the troops sent to attack Fort Griswold became casualties. A British observer likened the fight for Fort Griswold to the debacle at Bunker Hill. Many British soldiers blamed Arnold for the losses at Fort Griswold, even though he was not present on the battlefield. Arnold next proposed a raid on Philadelphia, but Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown the next month ended the active fighting of the American Revolution.

Today, Fort Griswold is a Connecticut state park. The fort’s earthen works are well maintained. There are monuments to both Montgomery and Ledyard within the boundaries of the fort. The site of the barracks located in the fort is marked. Large gates bear the names of all of the American defenders who fell defending Fort Griswold. The Groton Monument, erected in 1830, towers 130 feet over the battlefield in commemoration of the fort’s gallant defenders, and a plaque affixed to the monument provides:

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The Groton Monument (author collection)

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 BRAVE PATRIOTS, WHO FELL IN THE MASSACRE AT FORT GRISWOLD, NEAR THIS SPOT, ON THE 6TH OF SEPT. 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.

There is a small museum that includes a detailed diorama of the British assault on Fort Griswold.

The Battle of Groton Heights is largely overlooked and forgotten today but was nevertheless an important battle, representing the final significant combat in the northern theater of the Revolutionary War. It also represents the only battle where Benedict Arnold faced his fellow Americans. It is well worth a visit if the opportunity presents itself.

 

*For more reading on the Battle of Groton Heights, see:
Eric D. Lehman’s “Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London.”
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015). 

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About Eric J. Wittenberg

Award-winning Civil War historian Eric J. Wittenberg focuses on cavalry operations in the Civil War.
This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, British Leadership, Campaigns, Common Soldier, Continental Leadership, Memory, Militia (Patriot) Leadership, Monuments, Northern Theater, Personalities, Photography, Preservation, Revolutionary War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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